Have I mentioned yet how excited I am to be heading to Cuba? It’s only been on my bucket list for ages. AGES. And let me tell you, it does not disappoint. In fact, it exceeds my expectations. I know, I talk a big game. But I’ll get to that in good time.
I fly out of Seattle Christmas night on a red-eye to Charlotte. After some much needed coffee and breakfast, I meet Maggie at our gate. The only thing different about this flight (as opposed to non-Cuba flights) is that you have to check in at the kiosk next to the gate before you board to show your Cuba travel card (you can read more about how I prepped for my trip to Cuba here).
Once we land, our first priority is exchanging money. I brought Canadian dollars since US dollars have a 10% fee charged when you exchange them in Cuba (though apparently not when you change pesos back to US dollars, which you have to do once you are through security in the airport on your way home) (found that out after waiting in multiple lines). In the end though, it probably didn’t matter. After exchanging $2000 US to Canadian, and Canadian to Cuban convertible pesos, I lost nearly $200, or 10% anyway. That’s kind of insane.
The line to exchange currency at the airport is 45 minutes long. I heard some people say they waited even longer. So we don’t have to worry about doing this again, we exchange all our currency at once.
We arranged with our casa host before arriving to have a taxi sent to pick us up. It should only cost $25 to get from the airport to downtown, but for $5 more, we get a chance to ride in this beauty. It also seemed easier to pay a flat rate instead of haggling the price while jet lagged. Soooo excited for our first ride in an old Cuban car!
These first pictures could be titled “The Many Faces of Miglena”. In fact, maybe one day I’ll have to do an entire post on just that! I’ve accumulated quite the collection over the years. In return, she’ll probably share every photo of me sleeping she’s ever taken. Especially the extra flattering ones of me with my mouth open. There are quite a few. I’m so glamorous.
We’re staying in an old communist block apartment building on the 20th floor. Our host Lindiana is amazing! Not only is she incredibly warm and welcoming, she makes reservations for us to see Buena Vista Social Club, books us rooms with people she knows in all the towns we’re visiting, and even works with a taxi driver to get a coat I left in his car back for me. Her and her husband have a band; she’s the lead singer while he plays saxophone. They have a few records out, and I absolutely adore her music. She graciously loads her albums on to my computer to enjoy, and I return the favor by giving her Melody Gardot’s latest. It’s the least I can do to thank her for everything she’s done for us.
To top it off, these are the views from our room. I’m not even mad right now.
After flying all night, I’m exhausted, but even more hungry. Lindiana recommends a place up the street for lunch, so we head out to wander the colorful streets of Havana. As tired as I am, I can’t wait to start photographing every single step I take.
We’re heading to a place called Biky in Old Havana, about 5 blocks from where we’re staying. The food is fairly Americanized – sandwiches, burgers, even pizza and fried chicken, though on the bland side. We’ll return here on our last day for breakfast because it’s close, and that ends up being a bit better. But none of the food on our entire trip is really worth getting excited about.
Since you probably think I’m crazy right now, I’ll expand on the bland food comment. Last year, I went to see Rick Steves talk about his recent trip to Cuba. On the topic of food he commented “If you’re looking for the best Cuban food, go to Miami.” I was surprised by that, considering the Cuban food I’ve had has been AMAZING. But after more research, I found other travelers saying the same. If you think about it, Cuba is a communist country that rations it’s food. I doubt spices are part of these rations, so the food ends up having little flavor. If you stay in a casa paticulare, your host may offer to cook for you. It will often be better than what you can get in a restaurant. I highly recommend you go this route. Anyway, I went in to this trip expecting to be underwhelmed by the food, so I wasn’t disappointed by Biky at all. I just don’t want to set false expectations.
After lunch, we walk towards the waterfront and the Malecón. I am so excited to be here!
Oh look. Just another classic car, creating the perfect photo op.
Still tired from flying but slightly energized by lunch, we walk along the Malecón for awhile, soaking in the atmosphere, dodging waves crashing over the walls.
In the afternoons and evenings, the Malecón is a popular place for locals to hang out and go for a stroll.
Does it get any more picturesque?
Many people say they feel like they stepped back in time when they come to Havana, but I feel more like I stepped into a photograph. It’s exactly what I expected and hoped for, I just can’t quite believe it’s real.
With the sun sinking lower, we head back to our apartment. Maggie is meeting a friend for a night out, while I plan to start in on my photos right away, then pass out.
A note about the internet in Cuba – it virtually doesn’t exist. But where it does exist is in local parks. You find them by stumbling across them and seeing everyone on their phones. You have to buy a card from ETECSA in order to log in. They are roughly $3/hour, though we paid as little as $1.50 in Vinales at an ETECSA office, with a 45 minute wait in line, to $5 at a hotel in Havana, no wait at all. The Lonely Planet guide book lists the hotels where the cards are available for purchase, but does’t show on the map where the ETECSA offices are.
There’s also a black market system that is much cheaper, but the internet is even slower. If you find yourself in one of these parks and are approached by a kid or two offering to enter a password into your phone for you to use the internet, this is the black market. We struggled with the connection of every option though, so I say do whatever you want. It really is easier though, if you can just forgo the internet for awhile. Otherwise you get consumed with buying cards, finding an internet park and stressing out when the connection is slow or drops completely.
This particular park is right below our apartment. We’re staying on the top floor of the building on the right, facing this direction.
A view of the park from our room.
I’ve only been in Cuba for 12 hours and I’ve already ticked a number of things I wanted to experience off my list. Expectations are high and I can’t wait to see what the rest of this country has to offer!