Cuba, one of five existing communist countries, evokes intrigue and curiosity in the American psyche. La Habana (Havana’s proper name in Spanish) is the capital of the dictator led Cuba, an island floating only 90 minutes from the border of the global superpower United States.
Cuba is filled with mystery and the unknown.
With few stories from casual travelers, and no personal stories from friends or family, we (sans kids) decided to go with the utmost open mind. Our pep talk on our flight was to roll with the punches, expect the unexpected, and anticipate the absence of modern luxuries. We landed, took our first stroll through the immensely dense streets of La Habana, and were more than culture shocked – we were shell shocked!
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Arriving in Havana
To rent a car or not rent a car?
Complexities from having a few people drop out of the trip precluded us from making prior hotel arrangements. We decided to book a hotel upon arrival, knowing only a few hotel names and general areas of Havana. With the lack of a hotel reservation, we did not have a destination when we walked out of the airport. We were tempted to rent a car, as we planned to make some road trips. Rental cars, however, were quite scarce and we were unable to procure a car; instead we wasted a few hours at the airport getting the runaround from rental agents. No cars were listed. No prices. No nothing. It was all talking and wheeling and dealing with people outside of the airport. Could this be an isolated incident or a preview of what awaited us in the city of Havana?
In the end, it was wise not to rent a car. Parking spots are rare and our road trips were better suited for hired drivers who knew the roads, ideal stops, and best of all, narration of transformative stories that peek into Cuban life. Many stories that countered everything I had ever learned about Cuba, and its impending evils.
Patience wearing thin from our group, we decided to hop in a taxi and instructt our driver to take us to a hotel we read about in a guide, Iberostar Havana. We knew that it was near Parque Central – a centrally located locale in the heart of Havana. He obliged and as he drove, proceeded to talk to us about Cuba, the revolution and the current state of affairs. It turned out that our greatest lessons about society and its needs came from our drivers. During the 30 minute trip from the airport, he explained how the revolution had brought education, healthcare and safety to the residents of Cuba. “That is the only good the revolution brought – nothing more,” he stated.
We arrived at Parque Central and entered a Westernized lobby into Iberostar only to learn that there was no vacancy. With many hotels within sight, we decided to split up and investigate hotel availability individually and meet back with our findings. Hotel Inglaterra was also out of rooms but the hotel I investigated, Hotel Plaza, had one room left at 121 CUC$, which is roughly pegged to the dollar.
All hotels were centrally located. There are two additional hotels on the high end (read expensive) that we did not try: Hotel Saratoga and Hotel Nacional. The former seems to be the hotel of choice for celebrities and American dignitaries, and understandably so with its stunning views from the rooftop pool deck of the city below. Hotel Nacional is one of the oldest hotels and is off the beaten path a bit, yet offers stunning views from its immense courtyard of the ocean, which roars one block away.
One more to consider is Hotel Sevilla. We knew the least about this hotel but learned that it was ground zero for American mobster activity, housing infamous mafiosos such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meier Lansky. We grew to love this hotel as they had live salsa in the courtyard on the ground level and splendid 360 degree views from the floors atop the high rise. It’s no wonder American gangsters called this home during Prohibition.
There are two official currencies in Cuba: 1) the lowly Cuban Peso, or as some refer to as “moneda nacional,” which means the national peso, and 2) the Convertible Cuban Peso, or commonly referred to as a CUC (pronounced “kewk”, like the “cu” in cuckoo clock). It is perfectly legal to use either monetary unit but very unlikely you will come across the national peso unless you pop into very local establishments, off the beaten path. CUC’s are common and what you will get when you exchange your money. You cannot exchange US dollars to Cuban money before your trip, only when you arrive in Cuba. Also, you should know that US credit cards are not accepted nor will your ATM cards work. You must travel with US dollars and exchange them when you arrive. $200 per day should be sufficient but remember to factor in hotels and airport fees (see “How to Travel to Cuba from the US” for more information).
CUC’s are exchanged at .97 CUC$ to the USD$1. Also, when you change your money, you pay a 10% penalty, so for every $100, you get 87CUC$ (97% exchange rate plus the 10% penalty). Don’t like the rate? Write to Fidel Castro with your concern and maybe you’ll dissuade him.
Note that CUC’s are easy to spot vs. the national money because they are more colorful, with vibrant red hues. National money lacks the brightness, and says “nacional” somewhere on it. Avoid the word “peso” since both currencies contain the word in them and will typically lead to confusion.
Lastly, when tipping, tip in CUC’s. The national money has very little value and exchanges at 24 pesos to 1 CUC. I once tipped 10 national pesos and the guy gave me a funny look but didn’t complain nonetheless – Cubans are grateful for anything you give them but I still felt like a jerk when I learned later what I did.
A Word About Safety
After being consistently told by Cuban ex-pats that we didn’t have to worry about our personal safety, we still proceeded on the streets with trepidation. Throughout our journey, we never felt in danger – even while walking the pitch black streets full of strangers at every turn. Police, and their cameras on the light posts, were ubiquitous and we most definitely felt their presence, especially in the “tourist areas” such as Parque Central. It was when we stepped into the street and neighborhoods at night where it felt creepy. One night, we were out of water so I ventured out to a tiny store a few blocks from our hotel. There was no door to the store – only a man taking bodega-style orders from a window. I got in the line with the locals and placed my order for bottled water (you don’t drink tap water in Cuba). I felt like a local, albeit for a brief moment, until I walked back to the hotel with no lights to shine the way; instead shadowy figures emerging and disappearing into the dark abyss. Alas, I arrived without incident and the hotel staff said there are no issues walking the streets at night but it probably wouldn’t have hurt to have someone with me.
Fool me once…but twice?
There were a few occasions where we felt taken advantage of. First, was the great cigar scandal. A young bicycle taxi gent named Jonathan took us on a full day tour around Havana. He showed us around and waited for us as we sipped drinks in former Ernest Hemingway establishments. Patiently, he waited with his bike while we shopped in the market. Jonathan, helpful as ever, offered to help us buy Cuban cigars. We thought he was going to take us to the official Cuban cigar factory but he stated it was closed for the day since it was past 6pm and instead could take us to the a man’s house who is part of the “cigar cooperativa,” (which means cooperative). The story goes that workers at the cigar factory belong to a coop where they are allowed to sell cigars at a deep discount, as the factory allots them 10%. We bought $150 worth of cigars from this gentleman, and my cousin even traded her shoes for cigars at his wife’s request!! Our first clue should have been that they wouldn’t allow us to take photos. They cited that it was against her religion. The second clue (a major one) was that everyone we told about our experience, from the taxi drivers to security guards in our hotel, said that the cooperativa was a lie, and that most likely we bought fake cigars. At the end of the day, the only cigars you can trust are from the factory or the tobacco plantations. Period. The sting of injustice hurt us, especially in the pocketbook.
The second incident took place just minutes after the cigar scandal. Jonathan originally quoted us 10 CUC for the daily tour. At the end of the tour, when he dropped us off, he pleaded that it was 10 CUC per hour and insisted that we owed him 70 CUC since we spent 7 hours with him. We paid him per his request to avoid trouble but definitely felt the second bite of illegitimacy as he rode away.
My only advice to visitors of Cuba is to stay away from the friendly people coming up to you on the street speaking in English, asking where you’re from. They are not the most genuine people and their goal is to get the money from your pocket into their pocket. Whether they are trying to get you into a concert with a meal, or take you on a bicycle taxi ride or offering you a special deal, avoid them at all costs. Politely say you are good, you are fine and it was a pleasure to meet them. They aren’t rude or aggressive but every time we thought we were getting some special deal or saving money, it cost us.