Posted by: christine on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 9:45 am
tagged americans in cuba, Cuba and havana
Tourism is a big industry for Cuba. Thousands of Europeans and Canadians visit every year, but US citizens can not. Technically, it’s not illegal for Americans to go to Cuba, they just are not allowed to spend any money in the country. This sounds a bit crazy, but it’s one of the ways the US government tries to keep American dollars out of the hands of the Cuban government. Cubans, however, do not discriminate between tourist dollars. In Cuba there are two systems of money; the Cuban peso (or CUP) is the currency used by Cubans, and the Convertible Cuban peso (or CUC) which is used by tourists and those Cubans in the tourism industry. One CUC = 24 CUP= 1.34 Euros= .80 US Dollars. When traveling to Cuba, bring any currency other than the US dollar, as there is a 10% tax for exchanging dollars. Even though the typical Cuban makes about $20 dollars/month, it’s not cheap to travel in Cuba due to the Convertible Cuban Peso exchange rate. Lodging at hotels are expensive, and the cost of transportation is exorbitant. Bus travel to and from destinations is costly, but even more so are taxis within the city limits.
Maybe 5 or so years ago, the mojito drink made its way into mainstream American bars and restaurants, ushering in a whole new cuisine to go with the drink. We must have talented chefs in the US because Cuban food is delicious in America, but not in Cuba. There is little variation available in Cuba–rice, black beans, cabbage salad, and fried chicken/fish/beef. And no spices–not even salt and pepper. I found Cuban food to be very bland, and after a week of eating the same thing, we had to break up the monotony and eat pizza at El Rapido, Cuba’s fast food chain.
As I mentioned in a previous post it was suffocatingly hot, I was delirious from the heat–making sightseeing and anything related to being outside unpleasant. But we suffered through the heat, and walked around Havana, an ethnically diverse city and the largest city in the Caribbean at 2.5 million people. Regardless of their dire straits, Cubans aren’t bothered by much, they live life to its fullest–dancing and celebrating where-ever and when-ever they can. Grand buildings and colonial homes built during the height of Spanish rule can be seen as a reminder of the grandeur that was once Cuba. These buildings, regardless of missing a ceiling or an exterior wall, are fully occupied. It’s not uncommon for 3 generations of the same family to be living under one roof. The houses crumbling, the vintage cars stalling, and the people really just living in the moment bring feelings of nostalgia for the past, despair for the present and hope for the future.
Posted by: christine on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 at 10:17 pm
tagged colonial buildings, Cuba, trinidad and unesco
From Vinales, we headed back to Havana then onto Trinidad, about six hours southeast of Havana. It’s a small colonial town first settled in the 1500’s. It wasn’t fully until the 19th century when Trinidad was at it’s peak providing sugar to most of Cuba. Unfortunately, Trinidad did not continue to flourish, and the once beautiful colonial buildings have fallen into disrepair. Trinidad is also on the tourist path, and live music and dancing takes center stage every evening in the Plaza Mayor. Here the locals mix with the tourists teaching them how to dance.
Posted by: christine on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 at 8:51 am
tagged cigars, Cuba, unesco, vinales and vinales valley
We side tripped out of Havana to Vinales, a three hour bus ride southwest. It’s a small town with one main road, a main square with a church. There are nearly as many tourists as town people, and most of the Cubans are in the tourist industry. Groups of people meet you at the bus stop selling a room for the night. Almost every house off the main road looks identical, and each has been converted into a casa particulare, a room for rent in a house occupied by a Cuban family. Because there are very few hotels in Cuba, many tourists stay in casas particulares. We stayed at Casa Rosa, complete with air conditioning to battle the heat. During the day the temperature was in the 90’s and humid. Probably the hottest place we’ve been–ever.
The ‘Vinales Tour’ the next day brought us to all the best sights in the area; starting with view point overlooking the valley, a primitive mural of evolution painted on the side of a rock, a visit to a cave, and my favorite, a visit with a local farmer.
The farmer we met ‘owns’ four hectareas of land which has been in the family for four generations. The farmer is completely self-sustaining with his fields of potatoes, taro, corn, sugar cane, rice. He also grows avocados, tangerines, oranges, mangos, and coffee beans (which is left out to dry for months, and is very, very strong coffee). Lastly, each farmer by law is required to grow a minimum amount of tobacco. November to April is the only growing season for tabacco, the government buys the dried tobacco leaves for $600 dollars for 3 tons of tobacco (or something insane like that). Since there is no private industry, the government owns everything, including the tabacco industry which is one of Cuba’s largest money generators. So, it buys the tabacco from the farmers at a favorable price for itself, barely covering the cost of the labor for the farmers, and sells it’s Cuban cigars for huge profits.
Posted by: christine on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 at 7:18 am
tagged american vintage cars, Cuba, havana and old cars
From Puerto Escondido we flew to Mexico City, Cancun, then into Havana. With the layovers, it took the entire day before we finally arrived at around 10pm. After customs and immigration, we got into a taxi, and found the driver had to push us before he could throw the clutch into gear, and we could get going. But just as we were exiting the airport, the police pulled us over. It’s illegal to use your cell phone while driving in Cuba, and our taxi driver was reading my phone for directions to our homestay. After 20 minutes of waiting, the driver returns, but by this time the car has overheated. The driver pours water over the radiator, and finally 10 minutes later we are off! Taxis are mostly old Russian Lada cars probably from the 1960’s–that combined with American cars from the 1950’s make up the majority of cars in Cuba. Most of them need restoration, and although they constantly breakdown most Cubans have found a way to keep them on the road.