The Republic of Cuba: Colorful, Musical, Friendly, Interesting, Frustrating Cuba (Feb 13 to Mar 20, 2017)

On the malecon (waterfront) in La Habana.

During our 5+-month road trip in Mexico (see previous posts), we decided to take a side trip to Cuba. After a fews hours of internet research, we booked two cheap flights, found secure parking for Genevieve (my 4Runner), and off we went. So how did we spend 21 days in Cuba? Exploring the country, meeting new people, marveling at the plethora of gorgeous classic cars and enjoying great music, of course!

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The Republic of Cuba is a communist country based on the “one state – one party” principle. Much of the production is owned and run by the government and most of the labor force is employed by the state. Cuba’s major exports are sugar, nickel, tobacco, fish, medical products, citrus fruits, and coffee and its imports include food, fuel, clothing, and machinery. The average monthly wage in 2016 was 740 Cuban pesos (~$28 USD). However, there is virtually no homelessness and 85% of Cubans own their homes and pay no property taxes. Education in Cuba is free through the university level, contributing to the country’s 99.8 percent literacy rate. In 2015, Cuba became the first country to eradicate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, a milestone hailed by the World Health Organization as “one of the greatest public health achievements possible [1].

After the ~1-hour flight from Cancun, we landed in Havana (La Habana in Spanish). After passing quickly through customs/immigration, we jumped in a taxi for a 25-minute ride to our pre-booked “casa particular” in the city center. Casas particulares, or casas, are private homes registered as businesses allowing Cuban families to rent rooms to foreigners to earn income. Prior to the establishment of casas in 1997, the only accommodations available to foreigners were state-run hotels [2]. We arrived to Casa Marcia, a very nice 3-bedroom home in the historic city center owned by Marcia, who welcomed us with a huge smile. Our room, like most we stayed in throughout Cuba, had a large bed, a bathroom with towels and toiletries (and a comical shower curtain), a mini fridge, a fan and air-conditioning.

We settled into our room then went in search of money. I’d tried to get money from the ATM at the airport but without success. We tried half a dozen ATMs but my card was rejected at them all. We went to a hotel to use the wifi so I could call my bank and find out what the heck was going on. Wifi throughout Cuba is expensive (via a pre-paid wifi card from the state-run telecommunications provider), very slow, and is only available at large hotels and state-established wifi hotspots typically located in plazas. Despite it being a large, fancy hotel, the wifi was poor. It was about this time that I recalled a fellow tourist at the airport saying that American ATM and credit cards didn’t work in Cuba. I’d dismissed her comment because my ATM card had worked in every other country I’d visited. After over an hour trying to get through to my bank, I gave up and decided to exchange the small amount of Mexican pesos on hand to tie me over for the day.

The lines at the first few banks we stopped at were very long, with people, mostly locals, waiting for over 2 hours. Crap. We eventually found a bank a bit further outside the city center with no wait. During the money exchange, the banker confirmed that ATM and credit cards from American banks did not work in Cuba, at all, anywhere in the country. Crap. My research on Americans traveling in Cuba had been so last-minute that it never crossed my mind to ensure I’d  have access to my money. Thankfully, Mathieu’s ATM card (from his French bank) worked so we had money for the trip. Despite this, I panicked a little and also exchanged the $100 USD I always carry for emergencies.

Now with money in our pockets, we explored La Habana, the capital city, major port, leading commercial center, and largest city of Cuba (population ~ 2.1 million). La Habana generally consists of three districts:  Old Havana (the traditional centre of commerce, industry, and entertainment, and older residential areas), Vedado (the uptown area for shopping and nightlife), and the surrounding newer suburban districts (the more affluent residential and industrial areas). We primarily visited Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its narrow streets, overhanging balconies, and diverse architectural styles. The district was an interesting mix of old and new. Many of the old buildings were dilapidated and while it appeared they may come crashing down at any moment, they were inhabited. Many of the new or newly restored buildings housed hotels, nice restaurants, and shops catering to the masses of multinational tourists. We enjoyed walking the streets with no particular destination, passing the massive colonial-style Capitol building, strolling through small residential streets, and visiting some of the numerous plazas where you could buy books about the Cuban revolution and its heros (i.e., Fidel Castro and Che Guevara), have your tarot cards read, or join the locals to socialize and use the wifi.

While exploring La Habana, we stopped at the grocery store, then another, then another, then another. We’d hoped to buy fruit, vegetables, and other snacks to fuel our explorations. However, as we’d find throughout Cuba, the selection on the shelves was sparse and largely the same, generally consisting of a few varieties of dry cereal, cookies, candies, potato chips and other fried snacks, dried pasta, rice, beans, canned goods, and coffee. The shelves contained condensed and powdered milk but no fresh milk, and the refrigerators or freezers often contained only yogurt, large blocks of cheap, processed cheese and meat (i.e., baloney), and ice cream. While the food shelves were often sparse, the beverage aisles were always well stocked with bottled water, soda, juice, beer, and, of course, Cuban rum. Locally-grown fruits and vegetables could be bought from tiny neighborhood food shops or from street carts but the quantity and selection of these fresh foods was often limited. Oddly, it was sometimes difficult to buy bananas even when the town was surrounded by banana farms. Locals bought staples (i.e., flour, sugar, rice, dried beans, potatoes, eggs, etc…) using food vouchers at low-cost, state-run stores. The availability of products in Cuba is of course impacted by US-imposed economic sanctions in place since 1958, but is also a result of the country’s communist ideals. It was unfortunate to see how little choice people had but I got the impression that the variety of available products had been slowly improving.

When we were hungry for more than fruit or cookies, we typically ate simple egg or ham and cheese sandwiches or burgers bought at tiny street-side counters or simple cafeterias. Since the cost of meals at most tourist restaurants was similar to US tourist prices, this was our prefered way to eat throughout Cuba. We paid for our sandwiches, about $0.50 each, in CUC (Convertible pesos) but since we were eating where the locals ate, we typically received our change in CUP (Cuban pesos). Cuba has a dual currency system:  CUC for tourists and CUP for the locals. Most wages, goods and services intended for Cubans are set in CUP. Every Cuban household has a ration book entitling it to a monthly supply of low cost food and other staples paid for in CUP. However, “luxury” goods and services, including most imported goods and anything intended for tourists, are generally paid for in CUC [3]. Since the exchange rate for the CUC, is set at par with the US dollar, it was way cheaper to eat where the locals ate, and while the food wasn’t great, it was a more interesting experience as well.  

While searching for a cafeteria one day, a guy on the street led us up the stairs of one of the dilapidated-looking buildings to a family’s small apartment where a woman offered us lunch of fried pork, rice and beans, and salad. We were joined at the kitchen table by Juan and Elena, a local couple who were meeting there for their lunch break from work. As the four of us chatted and ate, the woman who served our meal continued her daily chores around the house and the kids continued watching cartoons on TV. Ha! In the end, we paid the tourist price of 5 CUC ($5) each for the simple meal but it was well worth it to share a home-cooked meal and stories with our tablemates, and to support our enterprising chef.  

On the busy malecon (waterfront), we visited the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, a fortress constructed in the 1700s to guard the entrance to La Habana bay. During our walks, we enjoyed the constant sound of live music streaming out of the restaurants and watched as groups of street performers played rhythmic West African/Spanish-inspired Cuban salsa and jazz. In the evenings, we joined the tourists and locals on the seawall to watch the sunset while sipping Cuban rum. It was wonderful.

While walking around the city, we constantly marveled at the number of classic American cars on the streets, many of which were immaculately-restored convertibles with distinctive tail fins.  The luxury sedans (i.e., Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths), most of which now served as taxis to shuttle tourists around, were constant flashes of bright colors criss-crossing the busy streets. With Miami just 90 miles away, Cuba had been a popular holiday destination for Americans in the 1950s. However, after Castro’s takeover in 1959, the 125,000 Detroit-made cars that had been imported to Cuba by wealthy Americans had been abandoned [4]. Parts for these old cars are difficult to get in Cuba and difficult to import, so most entered the country in the luggage of visitors. The fact that there are so many restored classic cars is a testament to Cubans’ resourcefulness.

After three days in La Habana, we took a collectivo (shared taxi) to Viñales, on the western end of Cuba. We’d planned to go by tourist bus (cheaper) but after a 2-hour wait at the bus station the day before (there is no online reservation system), we found out that all the buses were full for several days. After picking up the other passengers from around town, the old, smog-billowing green Ford Bel Air wagon was packed with the driver, eight tourists, and a mound of luggage on the roof. We shared stories with our fellow passengers as we left the city and drove along the curvy road through the hills and past small, brightly colored houses surrounded by farmland. After ~2 hours of being crammed in the car with only hot, fume-laden air blowing in from the open windows, we finally arrived.

Viñales is a small town (population ~27,000) located in the Viñales Valley, surrounded by mountains and dotted with massive limestone hills. We were dropped off at a Casa owned by the driver’s friend. The owner was very nice, the room was comfortable, and there was a rooftop terrace overlooking the baseball stadium. And lucky for us, there was a game in progress. It was very cool to sit on the terrace and watch our first Cuban baseball game. In case you don’t already know, baseball is a huge national pastime in Cuba. After being introduced in the 1860s by Cuban students returning from colleges in the US and by American sailors who ported in the country, the sport spread quickly across the nation. The first baseball team was established in 1868. The Cuba National Baseball Team has been described as a baseball powerhouse and currently ranks 5th in the International Baseball Federation world rankings. It has medalled in all five Olympics in which baseball was played [5].

After the game, we walked the few blocks to the central plaza and explored the town. We visited the small cathedral and strolled through a small street market were vendors sold handmade souvenirs (i.e., jewelry, cigar boxes, license plates, carved wood items, etc…). The town was filled with tourists but still charming. I loved that along with the classic cars, much of the street traffic consisted of horse-drawn carts. After watching the sunset from our terrace, we went to a restaurant for a drink and more live music. Unfortunately, we arrived just in time for the band’s last song; fortunately their last song lasted 20 minutes. Ha! It felt great to enjoy the warm evening while sipping a drink and listening to lively, infectious salsa music.

The next day, we walked down the road from our Casa to Parque Nacional Viñales. The entire Viñales Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated for its outstanding karst landscape and cultural significance as an agricultural area where fruit, vegetables, coffee and especially tobacco are grown by traditional methods. We hiked up to the Cueva de la Vaca, a “cave” that went all the way through the small mountain, then hiked down the other side and walked along the large fields of young tobacco plants. I’m not a fan of tobacco products but it was interesting to watch the farmers cultivate the rust-colored soil with wooden plows pulled by giant ox, harvest the mature tobacco leaves by hand then lay the leaves on wooden racks to dry in the sun. Some of these leaves would eventually be rolled to make Cuba’s famous cigars.  

From Viñales, we took a tourist bus southeast, passing through farmlands, forests, and small towns during the 7-hour ride to the coastal city of Cienfuegos (population ~150,000). After getting settled in our Casa, we went to the large central plaza and walked past the colonial-style buildings and visited several gallery/workshops featuring amazing drawings, paintings and sculptures by local artists. While exploring, we stopped to watch a ball game and met Raul. His team, El Veteranos Uno, were playing against La Refineria; both teams were part of an over 45 Cuban softball league. It was great to talk to him and some of his teammates about life in Cuba, and about baseball of course. We continued our walk to the malecon, passing a yacht club,  some very fancy hotels, and a small waterfront park where families were picnicking, listening to music, and swimming in the warm, clear ocean. At sunset, we joined others (tourists and locals) to watch the sun slowly drop into the Caribbean while sipping cold beer and listening to the rhythmic sounds of a salsa band playing nearby. While the city is a popular tourist destination, it had a very relaxed vibe.

After two days in Cienfuegos, we took the tourist bus southeast to the coastal city of Trinidad (population ~73,500). As we got off the bus, we were immediately attacked by the small army of Casa owners. Zenia won us over with her sweet smile and promise of a lovely Casa with an ocean view. We chatted with her as we walked the cobblestone streets through the central plaza and up the hill. As we got further from the center, the condition of the street deteriorated as did the condition of the houses. Hmmm… However, as promised, Zenia lead us to a charming, bright yellow house, the only Casa on the street. It was a one-bedroom house with a nicely furnished living room and kitchen, and a small terrace with a view of the valley below and the ocean in the distance. Best of all, we had the small house to ourselves.

During the day, we joined the masses to visit the immaculately-manicured central plaza and the large cathedral, and walk through the small side streets away from the center. We always enjoyed getting out of the tourist area and exploring the areas where the residents lived and shopped. At night, we walked along the city streets enjoying the music streaming out of nearly every restaurant then returned home to cook dinner and enjoy the sunset from our little terrace while sipping rum. It was lovely.  

While there, we also walked to La Boca, a fishing village about ~ 3 mi (~5 km) from the city. After the 10 minutes it took the explore the tiny, quiet village, we took a very crowded tourist bus about 20 minutes south to Akcon, a well-known tourist beach. Ah, that’s where all the people were. Akcon is a long, narrow  white-sand beach lined with resorts, cabanas, and tons of sunbathers. We substituted our underwear for bathing suits and used our shirts as towels and spent the day playing in the clear, warm water of the Caribbean and chilling in the shade of a large tree. It was a fun, relaxing beach day.

From Trinidad, we took a 5-hour tourist bus south to the inland city of Camagüey. While waiting for the bus, we chatted with a photographer for Vice Magazine who was there taking portraits of Cubans in their workplaces. From his many conversations, he’d surmised that most people wanted more opportunity to prosper, especially those who were entrepreneurs, and more product choices. He confirmed that all Cubans have access to free, high-quality education and healthcare but said the earning structure was upside down since doctors earned the least and people employed in the tourism industry earned the most. Those who earned CUC did the best and the only way to earn CUC was in the tourism industry. It was interesting to hear his second-hand prospective, and it confirmed the guarded statements of the few Cubans who had opened up to us.

Camagüey, the third largest city in Cuba (population ~321,000), is known for its labrinth streets and blind alleys. The city was purposely designed this way to make it easier to defend from raiders. Since there is only one exit from the city, it would be possible for local inhabitants to entrap and kill any raiders that were able to penetrate the maze. However, locals dispute this explanation and say that the city was developed without planning and that the winding streets resulted from everyone wanting to stay close to their local church (the city has 15 of them). It is the only city in Cuba constructed this way [6].

After settling into our Casa, we explored the city, strolling through the maze of narrow streets, peeking through people’s open front doors, smelling the aromas of frying food and hearing the sounds of familiar TV shows. We walked past large cathedrals and through small plazas where locals were hanging out and playing chess. We also stopped for awhile to watch kids and teenagers practice salsa at a local dance school. I was so jealous!

For dinner, we went to Cafeteria Las Cubanitas, a restaurant highlighted in our guidebook as having cheap but tasty local food. We both ordered a local favorite, ropa vieja, spicy shredded beef in tomato sauce served with white rice and fried plantains. It was delicious. As we were digesting, Roger and his brother, Simon, came over to our table asking to see my tattoos. Roger had recently gotten his first tattoo so was happy to show it off. We ended up chatting with the brothers, locals from Camagüey, for a few hours, getting recommendations on places in Cuba to visit, sharing our travel stories, and just laughing and getting to know each other. It turned out Simon was a salsa teacher. As soon as Mathieu heard this, he asked Simon to give me a short lesson. So, there on the patio of the restaurant, Simon taught me the basics. It was awesome to salsa on the warm night with a Cuban with an infectious smile. We finally said farewell to our new friends and slowly walked home through the narrow streets. It had been an especially memorable night thanks to Roger and Simon.  

The next morning, we took a tourist bus 6-hours south to the coastal city of Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba (population ~431,300). The city is widely accepted as the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution where a small group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953. The date of the attack, July 26, was adopted by Castro as the name for his revolutionary movement (Movimiento 26 Julio) which eventually toppled Batista’s dictatorship on January 12, 1959. The city is also the birthplace of some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, including several members of the Buena Vista Social Club [7].

We spent the next day and a half exploring the city, walking along the malecon and visiting the cathedral, Santa Basilica Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral Santiago de Cuba, which took up one side of the large central plaza. As we explored, we were surprised to see many more retail shops, including a Rebook shop, and found that the small grocery stores had a bit more variety. Unlike other cities, there were more motorcycles and newer cars on the streets (and fewer restored classic cars). It also seemed people were more fashionable and hip. So it was the perfect place for Mathieu to finally get a trim. As we walked past Barberia El Figaro, one of the barbers commented on Mathieu’s unkempt appearance and pulled him into his chair. After 30 minutes of being clipped, razored, and shaved, Mathieu no longer looked like a Castro-wannabe (or a shipwrecked sailor). Ha!

While there, we also visited the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina, housed in a beautiful bright-yellow, colonial-style building across the street from where Fidel Castro lived while a student in Santiago. It was interesting to see news articles, letters, photos, uniforms, weapons, etc… used by the revolutionaries (i.e., Fidel and Raul Castro and Che) during the Movimiento 26 Julio. We then walked out of the city center to the Moncada Barracks. Similar to all the other cities we’d visited, many buildings were adorned with huge pictures of Castro and Che with slogans reaffirming the need for Cubans to work together for the common good. At the barracks,now a school and small museum, we were stunned into momentary silence upon seeing the numerous bullet holes still decorating the front of the building; it was a chilling reminder that this was the actual site where the Movimiento 26 Julio began.

From Santiago, we took a collectivo around the southern end of Cuba to the town of Baracoa. Similar to our last collectivo, we were packed with other tourists into a beat-up classic car, this one a Chevy with an airplane hood ornament. Along the way, we stopped at Mirador del Gobernador, a vista overlooking Guantánamo Bay and the infamous American military base/prison. The base was very far away so only a speck on the horizon but it was interesting to see it given its checkered past. We continued along the coast then turned inland, driving north on a narrow, curvy road through the mountains. The vegetation changed dramatically during the drive, changing from agave/palm tree desert to tropical forest of pine, cacao (used to make cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate), and banana. Locals along the side of the road sold chocolate bars wrapped in tin foil, wood pots of cocoa butter, and bananas. Since the region is particularly known for its cacao, we had to try a cucurucho, a mix of shredded coconut, cacao, honey, and mixed fruits wrapped in banana leaf. It was a delicious treat!  

After a hot, smelly 6-hour ride, we arrived to the coastal city of Baracoa (population ~81,800), the site where Christopher Columbus first landed in Cuba on 27th November 1492. We stayed in a lovely little apartment with a view of Bahia de Miel (Honey Bay) on the second floor of a Casa owned by Dora and Juan. Once settled into our new home, we went out to explore. As we zig zagged through the small streets and along the malecon, we could see the damage left by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Some homes and buildings, especially along the malecon, were still piles of rubble.

The city center had been restored and was charming with its small central plaza, small church, and small, brightly-colored restaurants and shops. While strolling through the city center, we visited an art gallery featuring a mix of paintings and sculptures by local artists. Many of the sculptures were carved from a hardwood known in Cuba as “uvilla” (Coccoloba diversifolia), a tree that grows on the coasts and in the mountains of Cuba and other Caribbean islands. One of the sculptors showed us a raw block of uvilla and explained the carving process, all done by hand. The wood was absolutely beautiful, light colored on the outside and almost black on the inside, and deceptively heavy for its size. Seeing the works created by local artists was a great way to get a feel for the area.

For dinner, we went to La Terraza-Casa Nilson, a restaurant Mathieu read about in the guidebook. Besides cacao and chocolate, Baracoa is known for its unique cuisine featuring dishes with coconut, banana, chocolate, and different spices that only grow in the region due to its rainy microclimate and geographic isolation. After the mostly mundane food we’d been eating, we were ready to treat ourselves to a nice meal, especially in Cuba’s “food capital.” We were joined for dinner by Anna and Thomas, a German couple we’d met in the collectivo to Baracoa. For nearly two hours, we shared stories and ate. It was sensory overload as the steaming plates of food arrived:  fish, octopus, and shrimp in a sauce of coconut milk or tomato with garlic and various spices, and sides of vegetable soup, salad, rice, and fried banana. And for dessert, sweet shredded coconut topped with dark chocolate. It was heaven.

The next morning, our Casa hostess Dora made us chorote, hot chocolate made with cocoa, banana powder, sugar, and powdered milk. It was rich and super tasty, the perfect way to start the stormy day. Despite the threat of rain, we rented mountain bikes and rode about 6 mi (10 km) to Monumento Nacional Yunque de Baracoa, home to “El Yunque”, a 1,886-ft (575-m) table mountain visible from town. The reserve is also home to a rich flora and fauna, including a palm tree only found on El Yunque, and a “painted snail” found in subtropical coastal forests of Cuba. Along with Misha (USA) and a father and son duo (Czech Republic), we followed our guide, Fernando, across the shallow Duaba River, through the thick subtropical forest, and up the muddy trail to the top of El Yunque. The sky was filled with dark gray clouds by now but the view from the top of the mountain overlooking the reserve and the bay in the distance was stunning.

After the hike, we rode back to Baracoa and stood on the malecon in the dramatic stormy weather until dark, watching the waves crash over the sea wall. It was nearly 7pm when we returned home and time for dinner. We’d arranged for Dora to cook dinner for us. She beamed with pride as she served vegetable soup followed by a thick fish stew with a coconut-milk sauce and spices, and sides of salad, rice, and fried plantains. For dessert, she’d made chocolate pudding topped with shredded coconut. It was hearty and delicious, and the perfect ending to a day of biking, hiking, and storm watching.  

The next day was gray and stormy again. Perfect for another outdoor adventure! We walked along the malecon, again marveling as the waves crashed over the sea wall and flooded the street. We then walked on Playa de Miel, a black-sand beach dotted with palm trees and a dilapidated baseball stadium. After a while, we intersected with the mouth of the Rio Miel (Honey River) where we paid an old man with a huge smile to ferry us across the wide river in his rowboat. There was a fleet of small wood boats lining the “dock” likely used to take tourists on river tours, but there were no other tourists that day. On the other side, we stopped briefly in the tiny village of Boca de Miel to buy handmade souvenirs and chocolate, then walked along a dirt road leading back to Baracoa, passing farm fields and small, brightly-colored houses with tons of flowering plants in the yards. In the small town of Cabacu, we took a side road hoping to return to Baracoa via a circuitous route through the mountains. Thankfully, we were stopped by a local, likely wondering what the heck two tourists were doing on that steep, muddy road. He informed us the road was impassable due the damage from last year’s hurricane. After chatting with him for a while, we continued up the hill to a viewpoint where we sipped the beers we’d been carrying all day and enjoyed the view of the coast before starting the long walk home along the main road. It was a fun all-day walkabout.

The next morning, we returned to Camagüey. The first part of the journey was via collectivo to the city of Holguin. This time, we and five other tourists were crammed into an old Jeep, apparently necessary to safely transport us on the dirt road out of Baracoa. Once we were back on pavement, we were supposed to be transferred to a taxi but were instead crammed into another old Jeep. Then about an hour later, we were, for unexplained reasons, transferred to yet another old Jeep. It was a long, uncomfortable 6-hour journey but we were in good company and saw some nice scenery along the way. In Holguin, instead of taking the tourist bus, we negotiated a private taxi to take us the last 3 hours to Camagüey. It was heaven to ride in a modern 4-door car with air conditioning and no other passengers.      

In Camagüey, we rented a room at Casa Mirador, a spacious four-bedroom apartment with a large patio overlooking the city center. The owners, Fidel and his wife, lived there with their two young sons. We climbed up the six flights of stairs to the apartment (the elevator was out of order), cranked the air conditioner in our room and collapsed on the bed.

Later as I was showering, Mathieu called out, “Tannika, we have a trouble.” He couldn’t find his ATM card, our only source of cash. Crap. I stayed in the shower a little longer, not ready to deal with this. We looked through all of our things without success. We asked Fidel to call Dora in Baracoa to see if it had been left in our room. Not there. Between us, we had 41 CUC ($41), not even enough for two bus tickets back to La Habana. After much deep breathing and pondering, we went to a nearby hotel to see if they could help. Surely we were not the first tourists to lose an ATM card. The concierge directed us to a Western Union a few blocks away. The clerk there told us we’d have no problem having money sent from a French bank, and that as soon as the money was deposited in a Western Union in France, it would be instantly available for pickup at any Western Union in Cuba. Easy! To celebrate, we bought two beers, ate pizza for dinner, then went home and collapsed in bed. It had been long and somewhat stressful day.

The next morning, we waited in line for over an hour to buy a wifi card so Mathieu could call his mom, Marie, in Paris and ask her to send us money. Fortunately there’s a Western Union only a few blocks away from her apartment and she was able to go immediately. She got there 10 minutes before closing time and was able to complete the transaction. While we waited for the money to fly through cyberspace and arrive in Cuba, we sat in the plaza people-watching and trying to relax.

At 2 pm, Mathieu went to Western Union. At 2:15 pm, he returned with no money. It turned out Cuba required money from outside the country be transferred to a Cuban and that the person sending and the person receiving the money had to be related. WTF!?! Why didn’t they tell us that yesterday!?! We returned to our Casa, explained the situation to Fidel and asked him if he would help us. No problem. However, since it was after 7pm in Paris and Western Union was now closed, we’d have to wait until morning. By now, we had 21 CUC ($21) between us and we needed 20 CUC to pay for the Casa for that night. It felt shitty to have so little money and to be entirely reliant on a money transfer between France and Cuba. At that moment, I realized I’d made a huge mistake exchanging my emergency $100 USD when we arrived in La Habana. It hadn’t been absolutely necessary at that time but would have absolutely helped us now. Crap. Since there was nothing else we could do, we walked through the city for a few hours. Our last visit to the city had been short (one night) so it was nice to have more time to explore. That night, we ate more cheap pizza but did not buy beers.

The next morning, we waited with bated breath as Marie returned to Western Union, canceled the first transaction and started a new one. At 9 am local time, Mathieu and Fidel went to Western Union. I sat in the living room of the Casa trying to relax. When they returned at 9:35 am, Mathieu was smiling. Success!! Now with CUC in our pockets once again, we went to a cafe for breakfast where we laughed and chattered like little kids, recounting our harrowing tale and listing all of the possible outcomes we’d avoided. I hope to never relive the experience of being broke in a foreign country but it made for a good story (and a good learning experience).

After buying a thank you gift for Fidel and his family, we walked to the bus station and bought bus tickets to our final three destinations. Whatever else happened, we would at least be able to get back to La Habana for our flight back to Mexico. We then took a 2-hour tourist bus to Playa Santa Lucia, a small town known for its 13-mi (21-km) strip of white sandy beaches. It’s a resort town but we were the only tourists on the bus. Once settled at our Casa, we walked the short distance to the sea. The beach was indeed beautiful, and it was deserted. We saw no one else as we walked along looking for shells and interesting things in the beach wrack while the sun went down.

The next day, we walked on the beach to a cluster of somewhat outdated, all-inclusive resorts where we rented bikes and spent the day riding on the small road circling Laguna El Real, a huge shallow, mangrove-lined lagoon. Along the way, we saw bright-pink roseate flamingos foraging in the murky waters. It’s always cool to see flamingos! We stopped at the quiet village of La Boca at the tip of the peninsula then had lunch at a beach-side restaurant on Playa Los Cocos and joined a few dozen other tourists swimming in the warm Caribbean Ocean and relaxing in  the shade of a palm tree. It was a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the beach.    

From Playa Santa Lucia, we took a 6-hour tourist bus to Santa Clara (population ~242,400). We’d read in the guidebook that Santa Clara was a city of “new trends and insatiable creativity, where an edgy youth culture has been testing the boundaries of Cuba’s censorship police for years. Unique Santa Clara offerings included Cuba’s only official drag show, a graphic artists’ collective, and the best rock festival in the country: Ciudad Metal.” While there, we visited the Che Guevara mausoleum, a huge plaza with statues and stone engravings commemorating his final battle in Santa Clara during the Cuban revolution. We then walked to the central plaza. The plaza and surrounding streets were bustling with activity:  families stolled together, kids played, and people (old and young) danced and enjoyed the music of street musicians playing salsa, and one band playing covers of American blues and rock. It was a festive Saturday night.

The next morning we took a 5-hour tourist bus back to La Habana. We’d fly back to Cancun the next day so we spent our last day walking through parts of the city we’d missed the first time. It was nice to visit the less touristy parts of La Habana. We ended our walkabout at the malecon where we enjoyed our last sunset in Cuba while sipping rum and watching the never-ending parade of beautiful classic cars cruise the strip.  

After 3 weeks exploring the country, I would describe Cuba as:  colorful, musical, friendly, interesting, and sometimes frustrating. Our visit was a great introduction to the country’s landscapes, culture, and people. If I return, I will rent a car (reserving it months in advance) and get off the tourist track to explore the less popular towns and natural areas of the island. I have the feeling that, like in any country, the real gems of the place are hidden in the off-the-beaten-path areas.   

Here are a few pictures from Cuba. Click the link to see the full album:


[Next post:  Back in the USA! After driving through Mexico, Mathieu and I crossed the border back into the US and continued our road trip through Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. Stay tuned!]

Our route.
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La Habana.


Watching a baseball game from the rooftop terrace of our Casa in Viñales.


Traffic in Viñales.


Tobacco harvest in Viñales Valley.


Old Ford in Cienfuegos.


“Our duty: to produce for the town!” One of many communist slogans throughout Cuba.


Fantastic music on the streets of Trinidad.


With our new friends Roger and Simon (who gave me a salsa lesson) in Camagüey.


Overlooking Santiago.


Bullet holes in the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, a chilling reminder that this site, now a school and museum, was where the Movimiento 26 Julio (Cuban revolution) began.


Overlooking Baracoa, the site where Christopher Columbus first landed in Cuba on the 27th November 1492.


At the top of El Yunque mountain in Monumento Nacional Yunque de Baracoa.


Being rowed across the Rio Miel in Baracoa.


Crammed in another collectivo for the long journey back to Camagüey.


Enjoying the beautiful beaches of Playa Santa Lucia.


Roseate flamingos and black neck stilts near Playa Santa Lucia.


Street art in Santa Clara.


Portable street art in La Habana. Love the classics!

2 thoughts on “The Republic of Cuba: Colorful, Musical, Friendly, Interesting, Frustrating Cuba (Feb 13 to Mar 20, 2017)

  1. Another informative, colorful and adventurous account of your wonderful visit to Cuba. Along with your great photos, this provides a vivid experience for all who read your narrative. Wonderful work!. Tons,Dad


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