I’ve been trying to come up with the best way to introduce this part of our adventures for some time. So much has happened between Marsh Harbour and Cuba. But time is not on my side and I wanted to forge ahead a bit since there’s so much to report.
I will preface a tiny bit with some background info. Jake and I have not experienced much travel outside of the US (not including Canada or Mexico). Obviously we’ve been in the Bahamas now for awhile, but culturally, its not a huge stretch from the US. Cuba, however, is completely different. This less-than 1st-world country and Spanish-speaking populace will make for a VERY different experience. Going into this, there are so many unknowns.
I’m also (obviously) posting this much later than our actual time spent there. The travel ban for Americans has obviously been lifted for some time now. But when we ventured there at the end of April, U.S. travel was still in a “gray area.” We did some research before entering Cuban territory and acquired the appropriate travel documents (visas, passports and paperwork stating our purpose for travel was journalism). We also managed to round up some Euros.
Along our travels, we met some cruising friends. To respect their anonymity, I’ll use a pseudonym; we’ll call them “Don and Sue” aka “Buddy“. We spent some time with these guys in Emerald Bay at Great Exuma and they were very intrigued by the possibility of going to Cuba. Jake and I thought it would be more fun, and easier, to travel with some companions (who have had much more experience in foreign lands, as they’ve been to 34 countries besides the US).
And, so, without further adieu, Bienvenido a La Habana, Cuba, or, Welcome to Havana, Cuba.
Day 1 – Welcome to Cuba
Cutting to the chase, we arrived in Cuba to a very hot, clear sunny sky. It was exhilarating when we first set foot on Cuban soil. We’re actually here! EEK!
The first order of business was getting Buddy and Bosco cleared through customs and settled in our digs while here. As a group we decided that we would rent an apartment smack in the middle of downtown Havana. This should allow us to fully engross ourselves in the people and culture. Plus, it will be easier to tour the city on foot if we are smack in the center of it.
Prior to our arrival, I secured some digs through AirBnb and transportation for when we first arrive. For the price of only 30 US dollars a day (per couple), we would have a private 2-bedroom apartment with kitchen and bathroom, assuming all goes according to plan.
We were initially concerned about checking into customs. Like everything here, it was a unique experience and took awhile to do. Thankfully we had absolutely zero issues along the way. We didn’t even need the documentation about our purpose of traveling here, only passports and visas.
One thing we all noticed is that the women government workers were all wearing the most shocking uniforms; extremely short skirts, black fishnet stockings and ridiculously high heels. They were also gorgeous. Not at all expected. We also saw that they used Springer Spaniels as security dogs, not at all fierce or intimidating, but super adorable happy puppies, so cheerful and playful. It was adorable!
After all of the red tape, we were free. It was a madhouse at this point being completely surrounded by people. I’m sure glad we beefed up on our Spanish before we got here. Plus my Spanish-English dictionary was a supreme help since we had no internet or cellphones for help.
Amongst the chaos, Jake spotted a girl holding a sign with his name on it. We introduced ourselves and she guided us out of the crowd toward the street. Apparently our car/cab/van (whatever) was still on its way, and we had about 15 minutes to wait. In that time, Don and I needed to get our hands on some local currency, so that we could pay our driver.
It was clear that I was the most fluent Spanish speaker of our group, so naturally, I had to do most of the talking initially. But I was definitely rusty. I somehow conveyed our need to exchange currency and the girl guided us back through the crowd over to a little stand where she said we could do just that. None of us was sure exactly what kind of currency we needed, but the teller thankfully spoke a bit of English and gave us each 50 CUC.
Let me explain how the currency works in Cuba. Going in, we knew that there was tourist currency and local currency, and that they are different. As tourists, we can only use the tourist version, also known as CUC. Local pesos are CUP. The value of CUC is 25 times that of CUP. You can acquire CUC just about anywhere government owned and operated, but you can only get CUP at a place called a Cadeca. You can also use Euros, Canadian dollars, even US dollars, but you forfeight the greater value (so if you are charged 30 CUC and only have Euro you have to pay 30 Euro — which is really like 50 or 60 CUC). So its important if you want to save your bucks to exchange right away.
Cash in hand, the cute young girl walked us back out through the crowd, shooing down people left and right who kept trying to get us to give them business (i.e. – get in a cab). She was awesome! And once we got back, our van pulled up. We were hopeful that maybe this driver spoke English, but he knew even less than his assistant – later we learned was his wife (who seemed far too young to be married). I pulled out a sheet with the directions and address to our apartment and off we went.
It was a struggle to talk to these two, but I managed to convey our message with exaggerated hand and arm gestures to get the point across. Then I pulled out my lil book of translation making it far easier to communicate. An hour later, we pulled up into an alley, completely packed with people. And we stopped. I think we’re here? I hope this is the right place.
None of us had a clue what was going on. Our driver honked the horn and called out to the window above on our left. There was no answer so he called the number that we were provided (since none of our phones work here). It took about 5 minutes before someone came out, an older woman. They spoke in rapid Spanish to one another and then turned to us saying that we are here. Don paid our driver (40 CUC – which was 10 more than we were initially told, but whatever).
We grabbed the bags and off we went. The woman smiled and forcefully guided us through the crowd toward the building. I guess this is it? Don had this look like this was questionable and we couldn’t agree more – this definitely felt WEIRD! Are we about to get hustled? Pushing these thoughts aside, we let the lady guide us along. She spoke in such rapid Spanish that I only caught every 3rd or 4th word, but none of it really made sense. I tried to convey that we were looking for this apartment (showing her the paper) and she nodded and continued walking.
Through a large green door we went and all the city noise dropped away. We were in a dark, narrow hallway that didn’t bode a great feeling. It smelled of dank, musty mildew and something else, like farm animals. I spotted some dirt and hay on the ground, but also noticed the smooth intricate pattern beneath. These floors are made of marble!
The narrow hallway ended by a steep, winding staircase. Up we walked, what felt like 200 steps on marble. The intricate wrought-iron bannister was elegant, but the whole place felt old and crumbling. Such an interesting contrast. We reached the 5th landing, panting and out of breath. We stopped at another metal door / gate and passed through. The lady told us that this was our apartment. All of us looked at each other questionably, like what the heck did we get ourselves into? Still unsure that this was the correct place, until we walked through the door and recognized the paintings on the wall. This is it!
I was a little skeptical about the whole AirBnb thing, but this seems okay. The apartment was a lot smaller than the pictures conveyed, but it was perfectly sized for our group. Since we both live on small sailboats, this place feels huge. The brightly colored walls were cheerful and the decor simple and beautiful.
Our hostess, Leydiana jabbered away in rapid Spanish. I was slow to pick up her meaning and eventually figured out she was trying to explain how the keys work. Then she explained that she would come back in the morning to make us breakfast (I think). Don was concerned about cost and if it was included or additional. I tried to explain to her in Spanish, but I didn’t really understand her response. So maybe? That’s okay for now, it will be easier to have her cook for us and way cool.
She bid us farewell. Whew! We made it!
We chose our rooms and started to unpack. Jake and I went for the green room at the end of the hall. Though small and simple it was clean and well kept. Don and Sue took the slightly larger, orange room just kiddy-corner. Both rooms shared the same view through very large windows.
We unpacked quickly and decided our next course of action. One thing we were still unsure of is security in this place. I scouted some decent hiding spots for valuables (like wallets, phones) but also opted that the safest place for cash was on my person. So I wore my money belt. We’ll see how this goes.
Though exhausted, we were all so excited to go out and explore. Such a whirlwind already and the day is still young, and VERY hot; 98 degrees and rising. With our walking gear (and cameras) in hand, we left our apartment and hit the streets of Havana.
Don and I are both way into photography and couldn’t resist the beauty of this amazing city. It felt like every single angle was another masterpiece waiting to be captured. The tall concrete walls surrounded narrow streets making it feel even hotter than it was. But that didn’t stop us from going hog-wild, trying to absorb everything around us. So many people of all ages, colors and sizes, Animals running about, activity at every turn. We definitely stood out like sore thumb! None of us were sure how well we would be received as Americans. Prior to our arrival we agreed that if anyone asks, we would say we were Canadian, just in case. 😉
We didn’t make it far down the street when we stopped at a little mercado (or market). It was hot and we were thirsty. Inside was a very small shop made only smaller by the madhouse of people in there. Looking around, we saw only beer, water and soda for sale. There were a few odds and ends (tiny bottles of soap and such) but otherwise no food here. We bought some sugary beverages and a bottle of water before departing.
The drinks were refreshing and gave us a kick to keep moving. We spied several other shops and tiny food stands nearby. The price for food was listed in tourist currency (around 1-3 CUC per menu item and there were a lot of different things to choose from). We weren’t quite ready for a meal so we made a mental note and kept on moving.
The Capital building was just ahead, drawing us toward it like a beacon. As we neared, we were distracted by a man who came up to us, asking if we were tourists. Not really thinking we said we were from Canada and this was our first visit to Cuba. He spoke very good English, surprisingly and immediately ushered us to the side. He told us that this spot is a very popular spot for locals and there was a big event happening this very evening.
At first this guy seemed genuine. We went along with the guy and somehow were lured to the other side of the street, talking about the club. It was next to a kind of shabby-looking building. Then, out of nowhere, there were 4 mojitos being passed around. I refused my drink and wandered away. The others took theirs and continued chatting, but we all knew it was no good. The guy who brought us there took my drink and then started to tell us about how he needs money to buy milk for his baby and it turned into an uncomfortable situation. This guy was essentially asking us for money. We all felt uncomfortable but Don, being the masterful traveler, used his skills to deal with the situation so that we could just walk away, though our pockets were a bit lighter. We had to pay for each drink and gave the guy a tip for his “baby money”.
And sure enough, within a matter of minutes two more young guys approached us with the same story: Leche (milk) for my baby. We shooed them off AND felt really disheartened about this. Such an unfortunate experience to have right off the bat. But in hindsight, its pretty clear that we look like obvious tourists with our cameras in hand. Its kind of a given being here but its so hard not to take pictures everywhere. We just wanted to keep an open mind and still try to mingle with locals. I guess it is a fine line.
After all of that, we only have 15CUC left to our disposal until we find a bank. So we kept moving with the crowd, all aiming for the iconic Capital building up ahead. Once we reached an opening, we were blown away by the most elaborate and beautiful buildings surrounding a wide-open square donning some large statues and a fountain. This is Central Park.
This place looks amazing! It was also packed with hundreds of people – locals and tourists alike. Its obviously a big hub since there were tons of touristy things such as bus, cab and horse drawn buggy tours. It looked like we went back in time to 1950.
And the architecture holy cow. Palaces with such ornate and elaborate details. It was so grand and lovely. We walked around and into a few buildings, all of which were magnificent in their own way. And such an eclectic mixture of artistic styles and cultures could be seen everywhere. Its as if Havana, Cuba was a city built by and from every style of art and design from around the world. People were surrounding the center of the park, where there was an impromptu salsa dance event out of nowhere. How cool!!!
So much activity for one day it was wearing on us. A cold drink and some food would set us right. But we needed some cash. We found a proper bank, just to one side of Central Park proper. It was HUGE and elegant and amazing. But it was also, sadly, closed for the day (at 4PM). I guess we were slightly too late, so we would have to make due with our meager moneys until tomorrow.
Just across the road we spotted another large mass of people hanging out. And then we spotted the sign for El Floridita. This is a historic restaurant and bar in La Habana Vieja. Its famous for its delicious daiquiris and having been a favorite hangout of Nobel-Prize literature winner, Ernest Hemingway, in Havana. This is pretty obviously a huge tourist spot. We had to fight through the crowds but it was so packed we would have to wait hours for a table. I managed to sneak a peak inside, but wasn’t super impressed. The prices for drinks seemed really high too, so we passed and went to the small bar just around the corner.
We sat and enjoyed our first, most delicious meal in Cuba. I had a jamón y queso emparedado (ham and cheese sandwich) and a sangria. Everyone else had fish or chicken with rice, all of which was delicious. The meal was awesome and everything was super cheap (beers for 1CUC, water & sangria for 2CUC, mojitos were 50 cents).
When the bill came, Don realized he needed a bit more cash and went out in search of an exchange place, but to no avail. Thankfully we had just enough, but we will definitely need to hit the bank tomorrow if we want to do anything else while we’re here!
After our linner (lunch/dinner) the group was feeling tired. Don and I decided that we both wanted to stay out and shoot during the golden hour (As sunset was approaching). We all walked back towards the apartment, dropped off Sue and Jake and then continued in the opposite direction. As we walked through the narrow streets and high walls of our neighborhood the people thinned out. No one approached us here and it felt nice and refreshing for a change. It also allowed for Don and I to capture some great authentic moments of people and places without distractions (or hustlers).
The next hour we walked through as many parts of the city as our legs could carry us. Our neighborhood has so many buildings in contrast – some old and shabby, others grand and luxurious. The contrast was breathtaking. We walked past a set of huge wooden doors with ornate carvings and saw someone enter – it was a Church, though I would have never guessed from the outside. And it was so beautiful. We walked through it quickly and quietly. I was shocked to see the name “Bosco” under one of the murals in the Church. That’s kinda cool!
We continued our journey on passed another huge open square, called Plaza Vieja. This one felt twice as large as Central Park…maybe because there were a lot less people here. But it was just as extravagant.
Don and I could hardly contain ourselves with everything around us to absorb. Plus, it was a very refreshing change of pace from the more crowded Central Park area. This is definitely more of our speed, and feels much less touristy. We continued on through another alley, past people, cars and horses to yet a third square, known as Plaza San Francisco. In the background, we recognized the harbor and up in the sky we could see a huge sails and the largest Mexican flag I’ve ever seen. A galleon just arrived from Mexico! Parked next door was a large cruise ship, also looking like it just arrived.
We walked over to investigate and there were tons of people surrounding the galleon. Lots of folks in military garb were walking around, and we even caught the end of what must have been a welcome ceremony because we could see Cuban and Mexican military generals saluting and talking in front of the crowd. Such a cool thing to witness!
By this point, the light faded and we ventured back to the apartment feeling tired but invigorated. I couldn’t wait to share this with Sue and Jake, and maybe come back the next day to further explore this newfound area.
Back at the ranch, Jake was ready to call it a day. Sue agreed, but Don seemed to have energy for days and wanted to go back out straight away. His wife is super easy going and she decided to join him out on the town. Jake and I are the old farts who were down for the count.
They left around 830PM to hit the streets. I was so excited to take my first hot shower in months and it felt AAAMAAZING! As if it couldn’t get any better, I laid down on the bed. It was like heaven to stretch my legs and be in a non-moving space for a change. Needless to say, we passed out quickly, not hearing our travel companions return from their night on the town.
TO BE CONTINUED…