In part one I discussed The Good and my top three favorite cities in Cuba. To read Part 1, click here.
In Part 2, I will continue with my top three favorite cities. If you have a lot of time in Cuba and are the type to go off the beaten track, check out these towns, otherwise, stay in Havana and make a day trip to Playa del Este.
2. Santiago – A Historical Place
Coming in second is Santiago. Beware because the taxi hustlers were more aggressive here than anywhere else. Santiago is on the very east side of the island. It is there where Fidel hid behind the Sierra Madre mountains in 1959 and shortly thereafter, won the revolution.
Santiago is a historical town. We saw the Moncada Barracks and even stood on the very same balcony where Fidel once stood on the eve of January 1 announcing the end of the Cuban Revolution.
Even if you’re not a history buff, have some idea of what the Cuban Revolution is about, brush up on Che and watch Cuban movies before venturing out to this this country. A movie starring Diego Luna called, “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” is what spiked my curiosity about Cuba, it’s about a romance between a gringa and a Cubano that took place during the revolution – the plot is loosely based on an actual event that happened to the producer.
Santiago is also where I got my salsa on. They dance casino rueda style and I kept up.
Side story here: We met a salsa instructor from Australia who mus have been in her late 50s but her energy was that of an exuberant 20 some year old; her body was also in great shape. She was there hanging out with her very young Cuban boyfriend. They were both into each other. We saw a similar couple (older expat woman with a young Cuban male) again in Baracoa. Just saying ladies, if you’re looking, there is a market.
1. Havana – “Havana is Cuba, but Cuba is not Havana.”
I am a city girl okay, born and bred in LA. My top favorite place in Cuba is Havana. I love Havana! It is one of the most exciting cities in the world to me. Aesthetically, it’s gorgeous even though its buildings seem abandoned, forgotten and left to rot after the revolution, it’s a type of old beauty that makes it unique. Havana is also lively with people going about their business, always jay walking, playing chess or dominoes on the streets, waiting in a long line at the Coppelia creamery to gorge on mountains of ice-cream for 20 cents a bowl or selling shots of syrupy-sweet, strong coffee for 4 cents from their windows.
To this day the Coppelia creamery holds a warm spot in my heart, it’s also some of the best damn ice-cream I’ve ever had! Vanilla never tasted so good. It’s quite an experience for an outsider. Our waiter sat us on a table which we shared with a local Cuban with a ravenous sweet tooth. She goes out of her way to get her Coppelia once a month and she doesn’t mind going by herself. Fortunately, we were there to keep her company that day.
Havana is the capital of Cuba and it is there where you will find the capitolio. According to my history buff friend, Mr. Wrobel: “That building was actually modeled after the U.S. Capital Building in Washington D.C., not the White House. Also, it used to be the seat of government prior to the Revolution, not the residence of the Executive like the White House. Since the Revolution it has been the home of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. This was the only place in Havana, when I was there in 1999, where I could access the Internet. There was a tiny room in the base of the building that sold shit-slow bandwidth for extortionate prices.”
A walk around the Malecon (waterfront) in Havana is a pastime that I enjoy doing day and night. Sometimes the caribbean waves become too rambunctious, often splashing over pedestrians and even cars. It’s a fantastic sight!
The first time I traveled Cuba, I had wanted to spend my 10 days there but then a local told me that “Havana is Cuba, but Cuba is not Havana.” So I moved on after a couple of nights and wondered if I would ever return to this city and get to know it intimately, perhaps for a week, perhaps with a friend.
The food in Cuba lacks flavor and variety. For breakfast: sweet shots of strong coffee and bread stuffed with eggs, cheese or a slice of sweet and savory guayaba. For lunch, there is rice and beans with pork or pulled pork sandwiches called lechon. For dinner… dinner is
the same as lunch with the exception of fish but I abhor seafood so you’ll have to ask James about that.
Rice and beans. Beans and rice. There is also beans mixed with rice with a slab of fried plantain on the side. This is a staple in the Caribbean. Yes, it’s delicious and if you leave Cuba in a few days then you might have fond memories of it but it becomes tedious after a week. Did I mention I was there for almost a month?
When James had ordered me not to describe food in my emails while we were apart, I thought he was exaggerating but now I remember how I almost hurt myself stuffing my face with tacos – for two days straight – in Playa del Carmen, Mexico after leaving Cuba. The only upshot of the food in Cuba is that it is so cheap that, at the expense of numbing your taste buds, it’s practically free.
A breakfast egg sandwich with coffee for two costs .20 cents. A pulled pork sandwich (bigger than a slider at TGIF’s) cost .5 cents. If you happen to be in Havana for a while you might find out where fancier local restaurants are and have a huge dinner for two, for $3 bucks. Since James got to know Havana really well, he knew where most of these places were hidden. Talk about a cheap date!
Now listen, don’t let what I just told you deter you from traveling Cuba. If you have the dough, you can eat at fancy Paladares which are private restaurants. James and I treated ourselves to one of these once a week. In Trinidad, a waiter hustled us to his establishment by enticing us with welcome cocktails on the house. Our meal included two delcious entrees and an appetizer. The bill with tip came out to $30 and that’s usually what we paid whenever we ate at a Paladar. Paladares serve great food and it’s probably where you’ll eat if you book a packaged tour, however, it’s not how Cubans eat. They just work there.
The Bad – Spanish Potoi and No Internet Access
When I arrived to Havana the second time, I was excited to see my boyfriend. We had been dating for over a year and the most time that we’ve ever spent apart was two weeks when he flew to Cleveland to visit family for the holidays. Whenever we were apart, we emailed and texted each other throughout the day, everyday.
I feel that in the states, people take the internet for granted and why not? It’s practically a public domain now, free if you go to the public library when it’s open or park near a Starbucks and mooch off their wifi. That is NOT the case in Cuba.
To access the internet, one must go to a ritzy hotel like the Habana Libre and pay $10 an hour. Other places will charge between $6 and that. To access the internet, James had to make a long hour journey from his homestay in Guanabacoa to Havana. He emailed me twice a week then.
Eventually, he figured out a way to download all his emails, save them to a Word file and type up his responses offline so we communicated more often but it wasn’t the same. Phone calls to the states cost about $1 a minute and James called several times. Only when we met did he learn that I never received any of his calls. Bad connection I guess.
As a result, I went two months without hearing James’s voice.
Let me rephrase that. I did not hear my boyfriend’s live voice for two whole months, not on Christmas and not New Year’s day. After that experience, we made a deal never to go two weeks without seeing eachother.
Before James took off for Cuba, I suggested that he spend two months in Mexico instead; the Yucatan Peninsula is a great place to backpack (and internet access is available and cheap). But James didn’t want to backpack, he wanted to stay in one place and focus on his Spanish.
I told him, Cubans speak a different type of Spanish! They eat up half their words and have a plethora of slangs for basic objects.
But James had his heart set on Cuba. James doesn’t give himself enough credit when it comes to Spanish, he can hold a conversation with my parents and understands a lot. But then he went to Cuba and was hit with a different creature. He described Cuban Spanish best by saying, “These people speak a patoi of Spanish.”
Even I have trouble understanding Cubans half the time – because they eat up their words, use a lot of slang and speak really fast – so it takes me a moment to process their sentences. With that said, I will admit that I relish the challenge.
After two months, James got the hang of Cuban Spanish and understood it more than I did, sometimes. If you don’t speak a word of Spanish, I recommend that you hire a guide, hire James and I to show you around, or go on one of those packaged tours. If that’s not in your budget, then start learning basic Spanish now and tuck a Spanish dictionary in your back pocket.
And to that friend will ask me if Cubans speak any English… Cubans say they speak English, but they just butcher it.We frequented this Paladar a few times. It’s a hidden gem for those on a budget. El Potaje serves a great bowl of beans with a side salad and meat for a couple of bucks.
The Ugly – Deprivation
We’re back in Mexico at last! And we are ravenous for tacos. But first, we must search for a hotel to abandon our heavy backpacks. So we walk into several different hotels near the beach. The first one was out of our budget so we sheepishly asked the receptionist if she knew of any more economical hotels and she did. To look for that particular hotel, it’s not that far but we get a little lost anyway so we ask a local for help. We’re cautious to ask for help but then that local, helps us!
In fact, he not only pointed the way, saying that it’s past the school, on the main drag and across from a Banco Azteca, but a minute later, he ran back to us to let us know that so and so hotel was actually in front of the HBC Bank. James and I are floored by his act of kindness.
One thing that got old and ugly really fast was that in Cuba, it was nearly impossible to receive these random acts of kindness without feeling like you owe them something in return. It took us a few days to adapt in Mexico and as a result, we kept our guard up at first whenever we entered a new country (Belize, Guatemala, followed by El Salvador and then Honduras…). As it turned out, even though most of the countries are impoverished, we always felt like people went out of their way to be kind to us.
In Cuba, I felt like a walking dollar sign. I was in Cienfuegos my first time around, a festival was going on and a few Cuban girls befriended me. A few minutes into our “friendship” they began saying things like, “Hmm, I could really use a drink” several times. I felt uncomfortable because while it seemed like I had the money – I was and still am a backpacker – I didn’t care for alcohol back then (I’m a late bloomer) so I didn’t have the budget for it. I felt pathetic and like a poor Americana because I should’ve had the money, but I didn’t.
A word about money to Americans. Thanks to the stupid embargo, you had to take out your money from an ATM before entering Cuba. You could take American dollars and exchange them in Havana but they tack on a 12% transaction, exchange rate fee. So you would be better off taking Mexican pesos. The real ugly part is that no establishment in Cuba will take your credit or debit card so on top of budgeting your daily expenses for your time in that country, you’d also have to have that money on you at all times. Cubans know this and while the country is one of the safest places I’ve ever been to, muggings are not uncommon. This contributed to me feeling like a walking dollar sign and as a result, I’d often tell Cubans that I was Canadian or somebody who has access to an ATM machine.
One final thought about this subject: There is an exit airport fee which I didn’t budget for my first time around. I was about ready to stand on the side and beg spare change. This happened to an American friend of mine, too. The only difference was that, he begged.
Going back to The Ugly, there were obnoxious street hustlers in Cuba. If I ever looked lost, a man would summon me and demand by yelling in my face, “What are you looking for?” Because apparently that was his way of offering his help.
If you go to Cuba, do NOT wear a watch because people will try to break the ice by asking you for the time and finding a way to pump you for money.
The Motto in Cuba is, “Always Minimizing Profits”
James and I often joked that if Cuba had a motto, it would be this: Always minimizing profits. It’s interesting to see how socialism affects people’s attitudes towards customer service. Inefficiency is a soft word to describe it. Terrible and laxy daisicale are more like it. Since everyone gets paid the same wages and they’re hired by the government, this entity which the people seem fed up with, people just don’t care.
Lets say that a few people ran a restaurant owned by the government. The restaurant ran out of food but they showed up to work anyway. There is no more food (or is there?) so when you knock on the door, someone will motion you to, “Go away, we’re closed!” and you’ll wonder why they’re hanging out there in their uniforms anyway.
We’ve seen this case a bunch of times. During that 5-hour ride from Santiago to Baracoa, naturally, we got thirsty. We stopped at three gas stations. All we wanted was water and maybe a bag of salty, chips – to make us even thirstier under the hot sweltering sun. Perhaps we’ll even wash it down with a bottle of Havana Club rum.
However, every time I looked through the window of the convenience store of the gas station, there would be three people – in uniform – hanging out. Yes, the refrigerator is stocked, some lights are on, can’t imagine why the cash register wouldn’t work and yet, the store is closed. The three people in uniform shooed us to go away.
This happened three times during that journey. It was incredible.
Our experience with the Cubans who ran the guesthouses we stayed at was not always great. If we told the host that we would stay for two nights, and someone else came in and wanted to stay for three nights and those nights overlapped with ours, our host would kick us out with some paltry excuse, “We’ll, what do you know? I forgot that they had made the reservation over a month ago”.
In preparing for my arrival from the states, hours before my plane landed, James’s host tried to kick him out of the room and made up excuses with what James describes, “Crocodile tears.” But James had had it by then. He had spent a month at that guesthouse and this is how the host showed her appreciation?
James and I have a dynamic, it’s called good cop, bad cop. He says that I’m usually the bad cop and James, with his calm nature, is the good cop. But when I experienced this treatment first hand, as the host was spewing her bullshit “We’ll, what do you know? I forgot that they had made the reser -“. James sided with me. I think it was the only time when he played bad cop (with me that is).
Now if you’re Cuban and you’re reading this, you might be offended. “How dare I make that judgement based off my short time in Cuba?”
I agree, 20 days plus the extra 10 from nine years ago is not enough time in Cuba to make me a spokesperson of this country. I’ve met Hernan and the two guys who rescued me during my biggest hangover (of my life, mind you I was trying to bloom) at the Havana airport – a story for later. These are great Cuban people who wanted nothing more than to actually help and have a good time. They’re the exception.
Folks! This is just my experience and it just so happens that whenever I share this experience with someone who has also experienced Cuba, they express this same frustration. So there has to be some truth to it.
I’ll never forget Mario in Panama.
“You’ve been to Cuba, too?”
“It’s an interesting country.”
“They’ll be your friend for a dollar.”
Please note that while getting hustled by Cubans at every turn was frustrating, it doesn’t make me dislike Cuba, too much. The average wage for a Cubano is $20 a month and the trade embargo has deprived Cubans of the most basic commodities that we take for granted, like the internet, traveling and toilet paper.
I have a friend in San Diego who has lived and traveled to Cuba several times. When I told her about James’s situation, she told me that she too has stayed with friends in Cuba and had a large chunk of money disappear from her bag. Unlike in Mexico where you can leave your personal items at a friend’s home and have a peace of mind that your stuff will be secure, it’s not quite like that in Cuba.
She said, “The thing about Cuba is, you don’t want to give anyone an opportunity to disappoint you.”
After Cuba, I realized that the majority of Cubans whom I spoke to did not care to hear about my travels, where I will travel to next and what my life is like in San Diego. Why listen to someone talk about a life that is unattainable to them? In that regard, I empathize with the people and hate the trade embargo for it.
To learn more about the deprivation in Cuba, read James’s blog. He has lived in Cuba for three months, he can probably walk around Havana blindfolded and know where he is. He also has a lot more years of creative writing under his belt – writing is his passion! You’ll like his style 😉 Since he’s still editing I am unable to provide the link here so send me a message and I will notify you when it’s ready.
What did I miss? A lot! I mentioned the double currency. Does Cuba have a double currency? Yes they do but they’re getting rid of it. Going on the moneda nacional is how we ate for a dollar a day. The CUC is the other currency which is carried by tourists, you use it to check into guesthouses and purchase food at Paladares.
Quick insider tip: When you say CUC, spell it out in Spanish because it’s the way the Cubans say it. You might make the mistake (as I did) by calling it a “kook” which will make you sound like a silly Yuma – Cuban term for foreigner.
If you would like me to delve more into any subject, please leave your comments below.
I do apologize for not writing part 2 sooner. I’ve flown back to the states due to a family emergency but I will return to Latin America come January 2016. Where to? Colombia of course, we’ve only been there for over two months and we loved the people so much there that we’re not done with it.