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Cuba: A forbidden gem

Despite the US embargo against Cuba and their vilification of the its government over the years, I satisfied my curiosity of the communist nation by visiting Havana in December.




For decades, the U.S. embargo against Cuba together with the vilification of the their government made Cuba a forbidden gem. Despite the preponderance of negative news coverage of the communist nation, it did not quell my curiosity about the country nor my determination to visit it one day.

With the initiation of moves to normalize relations between Cuba and the U.S., my sense of urgency to visit the largest island in the Caribbean became acute. I wanted to set foot there before the flood gates are opened and the U.S. influence is brought to bear.

Arrival in Cuba

My watch said it was 6.06 p.m. Cuba Standard Time when I touched down in Havana on a mid-December evening. Peering out the window of the Embraer Brasilia as the aircraft taxied to the apron in the twilight, I saw a myriad of airliners with their distinctive livery proudly displaying their operators’ brand.

Old Soviet era airliners displayed the Cubana livery, some no longer in service, and other contemporary ones displayed KLM, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, InterJet, EasySky and Copa Airlines to name a few. It was a busy evening at Jose Marti International Airport, and our aircraft paid the price by having to wait for an available parking spot on the tarmac.

Jose Marti International Airport

Once parking became available, the wait was not over. We remained seated on board for the arrival of the shuttle to take us to the terminal. The bus showed up and it was a 2 minute ride to the arrival hall. The immigration area was dimly lit but very spacious. The immigration processing was slow as officers in their booths attended to one passenger at a time, regardless if some were traveling as a family unit. I watched as a wife or husband or child or a combination thereof being sent back in the line to wait their turn. Babies seem not to suffer the same fate.

After the mandatory mug shot and entry stamp, a mechanically operated gate swung open to usher the passenger on to the next step of processing – incoming security check. Carry-on luggage and contents of your pockets goes through the x-ray machine while you walk through the metal detector. I thought I was about to catch another flight, but instead the flow of passengers led to the port health checkpoint, then on to the baggage carousel.

The baggage hall was clearly above the capacity of passengers it was designed for. In fact, the chaos was bordering on a stampede. Saran-wrapped bundles resembling overgrown watermelon interrupted by a few suitcases were everywhere – on the carousel, and the area adjacent to it.

The floor of the baggage hall was rumored to be made of terrazzo. People and bundles competed for every available square inch of it. Moving around in the baggage hall was more like a shuffle. Nothing in this area moved in a hurry.

Checked luggage from my flight showed up at least an hour after I made my way through the maze. My suspicion is that each suitcase or bundle had to be x-rayed after they were off-loaded from the plane. My belief was that the authorities were very concerned about the importation of satellite communications equipment. A question on the carriage of such equipment appearing on the customs form raised my suspicion.

This was a cue, which I failed to take note of at the time, that communication with the outside world is limited. I later discovered that my cell phone received no signal, and ultimately that internet access was a luxury costing as much as US$10 per hour.

With checked luggage in hand, it was time to head out the door and experience Cuba.

The first task was to purchase the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). This currency which is pegged 1:1 with the US dollar was introduced in 1994 with the aim of removing the US dollar from circulation in Cuba. When US banknotes are exchanged for CUC, a 10% tax is applied. This 10% is not applied when you exchange other currencies such as Canadian dollars or Euros.

Nothing seems to be processed swiftly in Cuba, so I had to endure yet another long wait in line to get spending money. As I neared the front of the line, I discovered that there was an ATM in the cambio booth. Since everyone seemed skeptical to use it, I refrained myself. There was no queue for the ATM and I later discovered that there was no 10% tax applied if you choose to use it. However, that did not remove my skepticism.

I had a modest budget of $100 a day for food, mojitos, transportation and tours. Not necessarily in that order. I had three full days plus what was left of my first evening.

Foray into Havana

The taxi from the airport to the casa particular was an uneventful ride with the exception of a cat loosing it’s life after running into the path of the car. Although it was a compact car, the cat’s fate was sealed, and the driver seemed unfazed.

My eyes were trained on the infrastructure – roads, street lighting, buildings – and the other vehicles to get some insight into the Cuban life. I was very impressed with the scene – well paved roads some of which are lined with trees, LED street lights, traffic lights with count-downs, wide open spaces and lots of monuments. There was a healthy mix of modern and classic cars.

Havana at night

After 25 minutes of darting through the streets of Havana, I arrived at my casa particular which did not look familiar at the time, based on the photograph I saw before departing for Cuba. I later discovered that I entered the house from the back which is on a parallel street.

My room was on the third level of the building at the end of a tightly packed staircase. The room had a high ceiling and was flanked by the bathroom facility and kitchenette on opposite sides. This was the perfect place to rest my bag while I roam the Havana streets.

I wasted no time dropping my bag and heading out to find food and beer. That was just a one-minute walk away to the nearest Paladar (a small family-run restaurant), Locos por Cuba.

Bucanero, one of the Cuban beers, is what I sipped while waiting for my first meal on Cuban soil. I was seated on a balcony overlooking the street when I was served a lavish meal – cream soup, grilled fish, black beans and rice, fried plantain and green salad – all for under CUC$10.

With energy level elevated, it was time for me to find the famous malecón. After a 15-minute walk, I arrived at what is referred to in Cuba as the “big sofa” or the “living room”. The malecón is a 5 mile stretch of seawall and esplanade in Havana stretching from the mouth of the Havana harbor to the Vedado neighborhood.

I joined the handful of people there absorbing the cool trade-winds and listening to the waves crashing against the shore. I did not see anyone drinking rum, singing and dancing as I was led to believe from the videos that I watched on YouTube. I enjoyed the experience nonetheless, then headed home to recharge my batteries for the next day.

Intending to make full use of my day, I was up at the crack of dawn and ready to go. My plan called for a trip to the malecón for my morning walk, followed by breakfast. On the way to the malecón, I passed by Hotel Capri where the lure of a breakfast buffet got the better of me.

After several trips to the buffet table, I sampled almost everything that was palatable. From the looks of it, I was not the only one enjoying the CUC$12 feast. Listening to the conversations around me suggested that all the diners were visitors to the island.

The hunt for internet access

With breakfast behind me, I ascended to the hotel lobby one floor above in search of internet access. The concierge at the front desk directed me to help desk where I was told that I can gain access to the internet. The little measure of excitement I had was quickly dashed when I was told that internet access was reserved for guests of the hotel.

I was not really expecting free access to the internet which may have been available to their guests. I was prepared to pay for access which I assumed was a modern convenience available at any international hotel. After receiving several conflicting directions to places where I can gain internet access, I chose the one that was in sight and it had a grandeur appearance – Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

Hotel Nacional, Cuba

I climbed the stairs to the lobby of Hotel Nacional. I felt like I was in a museum and almost forgot why I was there. After browsing around for a few minutes, I found the business center which wasn’t yet open for business.

In the meantime, other people started congregating at the door waiting for 9.00 a.m., the advertised opening time. With the time ticking pass 9, people became restless as anxiety or perhaps panic stepped in. Through the glass door, the receptionist was seen applying makeup, making for all manner of comments by the congregation outside the door. You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression was my thought.

The door finally opened and an orderly line was formed. Just when you were beginning to feel relieved that access to the outside world was soon forthcoming, the receptionist had trouble operating her computer and had to call in the IT guy. The wait ensued.

A few more hoops had to be jumped through before access to the internet was gained. It came at a whooping price of CUC$10 per hour. This was a sordid reminder that the things we take for granted can be luxury just a short hop away. I survived 15 hours in Cuba without knowing what was happening in the world around me. I therewith realigned my expectation for the remainder of the trip.

City Tour

The grounds of Hotel Nacional offered much to see – 305mm cannons and bunkers – from a bygone era. The site which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean has on display relics of the Spanish-Cuban-American war and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Coco taxis are a novelty in Cuba and no visit is complete without a ride in one. I paid CUC$10 for a 10 minute ride to El Capitolio, the National Capital Building which resembles the U.S. Capital. Today the building houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences, but prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, it was the home of the Cuban Congress.

The area surrounding the Capital Building was bustling with people. A professional photoshoot was in progress on the sidewalk opposite El Capitolio. A group of women all dressed in lily white attire seemed to be either on their way to or from a performance.

After pacing the street for a bit, I sat down to eat a sandwich and enjoyed a sugarcane juice infused mojito (listed as Mojiguara on the menu card) in the process. It was then time for a ride in a classic car.

The car I hired for a tour was a 1950s era Buick convertible in mint condition. If nothing else impressed me, it was the way the Cuban people, with no access to the American market, improvises to keep these classic American cars in roadworthy condition. These cars are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the Cuban life as much a smartphone is to a person nowadays.

Classic car in Havana, Cuba

The driver, Jose, drove through Chinatown where my darting eyes were on the lookout for any semblance of Chinese. I found none amid the hustle and bustle of the tightly packed streets. There was no daylight between the buildings, each of which had clothes dangling from lines strung over the balconies.

Once we escaped the congestion of the inner-city, Jose set course to Plaza de la Revolución. The Revolution Square is perhaps the most sacred ground in Cuba. It measures 72,000 square meters and millions of Cubans have been addressed on this square by Fidel Castro and other political figures.

Surrounding the square is the José Martí Memorial, the National Library, many government ministries, and  the Palace of the Revolution (seat of the Cuban government and Communist Party). On the facades of two of the ministerial buildings are memorials of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuego, heroes of the Cuban Revolution.

I was so enthralled by the stop at the Revolution Square that the rest of the tour seemed like a blur until the malecón came into view. I have some unexplainable attraction to this area. Perhaps it is reminiscent of the seawalls that is in close proximity to where I grew up as a child in Guyana.

Along the tour route were numerous monuments and buildings of significance including the 25-floor Habana Libre Hotel which was Fidel Castro’s headquarters immediately following the revolution. Before nationalization, it was the Hilton Hotel.

Varadero

I wanted to experience what life was like in the tourist district, so Varadero being only 2 hours away by road was the choice. My stay was at Melia Varadero, one of many large all-inclusive resorts on the 20-kilometer long peninsula. Arriving after sunset, I freshened up and headed for dinner.

Wanting to experience as much as I can on such a compact trip, I dined twice – first at La Habana buffet restaurant, and then at Fuerteventura, an international gourmet restaurant. Although I enjoyed all my meals and the service, it was the piano player that blew me away with her rendition of timeless classics at Fuerteventura. I opted for fish in the buffet line, then veal while being serenaded.

Anxious to see the cultural presentation which was on for the night, I made my way to the pool side where the show had already started. I am not sure what I missed, but the singing and dancing although impressive, was not what I expected. I was looking forward to some skits. My expectation was skewed based on my experience at Melia Caribe Tropical in Punta Cana, Dominican Rebublic a year prior.

My first morning in Varadero began with a walk along the beach at sunrise.

Melia Varadero

Running along the beach has become an integral part of my life, but my mission that morning to wander slowly absorbing nature and taking pictures for posterity – the sand, the birds, the trees, the rugged coastline, and everything within shooting distance.

Following the walk and breakfast, the nearby Plaza America mall is where I spent a lot of time wandering around – admiring the local art, listening to live music and drinking mojito. I caught myself rocking to Guantanamera, probably the most patriotic song in Cuba, as the sextet revved up their performance.

At some point I attempted to purchase a card at the mall that would give you access to the internet, but I was not in possession of my passport at that time so the sale was denied. By the time I got my passport and returned, the office was closed.

As late afternoon approached, I binged on a pizza then retired to my room for a nap. I arose the following morning after a sound sleep. Maybe it was the mojitos or maybe I was just plain tired, but I woke up fresh to start the new day. You probably figured by now that I am not a night person.

The clock was counting down as the return to Havana was impending, but not before getting a tour of the local area. The hop-on-hop-off tour bus was the best way to venture around Varadero without paying a fortune. The ticket costed CUC$5 and was valid for the entire day. I eventually used the ticket later in the day after I returned to Havana.

As the tour of Varadero begun, it seemed as though that city was a world away from Havana. Everything was relatively new – resorts, golf course, marina – and more construction was on the way. The development of the area was well planned with lots of open spaces and a defined wildlife sanctuary Varahicacos Ecological Reserve.

Varadero

When the bus pulled up at the Gaviota Marina, I had to get off. It was Grand. Certainly the largest that I have ever seen. Although I did not know at the time, it is the largest marina in the Caribbean. It was like an airport for boats, complete with a control tower that looks more sophisticated than many I have seen at airports that I landed at.

There was a long row of catamarans moored at the pier, all appearing to have just come off the production line. A myriad of stores and restaurants line the marina’s promenade. The 423-room Melia Marina Varadero resort stood sentry in the background with all its splendor.

It was a Sunday morning and things were slowly coming to life as I snapped a few photos and hustled to catch the next bus. Indulging in the grandeur of the Caribbean’s largest marina will have to wait for another trip.

Varadero Marina

In the end

I experienced the old and the modern Cuba. Havana and Varadero, two cities separated by a mere two-hours drive displayed characteristics that were polar opposites.

With buildings dating back to the 16th century, Old Havana has been called the “finest urban ensemble in the Americas.” Havana was developed as a fortress town by the Spanish Crown to counteract pirates and exert more control over commerce with the West Indies.

Many of the old buildings, which are crumbling, are of historic importance and are now being restored after many decades of neglect.

The sight of old cars running along side modern ones provided a contrast like I’ve seen nowhere else. I marvel at the ingenuity of the Cuban people who have made the impossible possible – substituting and improvising without the luxury of being able to import spare parts.

Motor cycles with sidecars, tricycle taxis and coco taxis were all competing for usage of the well developed thoroughfares. Havana was bustling like any other metropolis.

Transportation in Cuba

Varadero is the tourism mecca and life seems to slow down there. Quite a contrast from the capital city, it was considered an elite resort with tourists visiting from as early as the 1870s. In the 1990s a hotel building campaign begun with mostly 4-star and 5-star mega resorts going up.

Melia Varadero begun welcoming tourists in 1991 and boasts all the trappings of modern recreational facilities like anywhere else in the world. I was particularly drawn to the Melia brand based on my Punta Cana experience, and I was not disappointed.

An added incentive to vacation in Varadero is the fact that hotel accommodation is cheaper than in Havana. In any event, I would recommend that you experience the Cuban way of life by staying in a casa particular in Havana.

With four nights evenly split between two cities in Cuba, I was able to discover the forbidden gem that was out of reach for so many Americans. With Cuba being the birthplace of the mojito, my consumption of it was the only constant on my trip.

If you have visited Cuba, what was your experience? If you haven’t, start making plans.


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About Wayne Farley

Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, an aviation safety evangelist who once made my living working in the control tower. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from the aviation world. After writing "13 Characteristics of an air traffic controller" in 2010, it went viral and established me as an unofficial ambassador for ATC.

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