I went to Cuba because I was looking for a culturally unique experience. Though every country has its own such experiences, Cuba is significantly different from the other 42 countries in which I've traveled. Just planning to go there was an adventure.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on what is now the island of Cuba and claimed it for the Kingdom of Spain. Cuba remained a colony of Spain until the Spanish–American War of 1898, after which it came briefly under the administration of the United States until gaining formal independence in 1902. By 1965, the country had developed into a single-party state under the revived Communist Party of Cuba, which holds power to date.
There is a 13% penalty on converting US dollars to Cuban convertibles - CUC. I did slightly better by converting to Euros in the Bahamas then to Cuban convertibles in Havana. Pedro, the Taxi driver, had a friend going to Argentina who gave us .93/USD. A teacher at the park said he could us .90/USD from restaurant owner/friend.
Our Travel Factoids:
The US Treasury Department frowns on US citizens traveling to Cuba unless it is for educational, relies, or humanitarian purposes. Even then, every hour of your itinerary must be pre-planned. Such groups usually use chartered flights departing from the US for Cuba. Others, willing to take a chance on being fined $10,000, fly first to Nassau or Cancun or another nearby island nation then fly to Cuba.
Isaac had to carry me on and off this little 4 engine plane that flew between Nassau, Bahamas and Havana, Cuba.
A great way to get lodging in Cuba is a casa particular. They are rooms in someone's house or apt that they rent out. The owners may or may not live there. Some serve breakfast and/or dinner for additional $5/$12. Some provide laundry and other services. I found Lachi and Yeni House. Booked them through RentCubanHouse.Hotelxinternet.com for $25 CUC/room/night. We had 2 separate rooms first 2 nights, stayed an additional 5 nights in one room. Breakfast was always a large bowl of assorted fruits - pineapple, banana, papaya, mango, guava as well as fried eggs and tomatoes and, of course, Cuban coffee. For dinner, we had chicken the first night but fish or lobster all other nights. Staples included rice, black beans, a plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and shredded cabbage. We also had fried vegetable chips - like a potato. Also had fried veggie mix that looked like thick potato pancake. Our casa particular was right on Malecón, the main street that runs right along the coast. We had great sunsets, walking distance to plazas, parks, historic sights. This casa advertised hot/cold running water. Usually it was not hot. Sometimes there was no water. It had AC but the fan was temperamental.
The house was right out of Pier 1. It was decorated with an international, eclectic flair.
The ceilings were perhaps 20 feet high. The whole place was kept spotless.
Our room was too narrow for me to roll through without taking the rear wheels off. The same was true of our bathroom. Isaac first put the chair, without wheels, in the shower, then carried me onto it. Ever since my brother Mike and I designed these "sea legs" for my chair, they've been getting a lot of use. I call them sea legs because I use them a lot when sailing. Even with the wheels on, I put these sea legs on to keep the chair from flipping over backwards in rolling waves.
The shower water was cold but Isaac claimed at one time he actually had hot water. He was tempted to cross out the icon, representing hot water, on the business card of this place. Then one day we had no water. Then the fan became finicky and didn't want to work right. It was still a great experience and I really enjoyed it.
These folks owned and operated the casa particular where we stayed. Our hosts were great. One told us to call her Jenny - she spoke some English. She had a son Hector and a 6 year old. Hector's girlfriend Talia (Ta-lee-a) were also there. Talia's mother is a nurse at a rehab hospital. The man that worked there spoke almost no English. His name sounded like "mawney" . They were all very friendly, Jenny spoke some English. They all cooked. Our dinners alternated between fish and lobster.
Our casa particular was right on Malecón, the main road that runs along the Havana shore. This was our view at sunset. If we took a step out our door and turned to the right, we could see the pointe - the tip of Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro, which was about a 10 minute walk away. If, instead, we had turned to the left, we could see the Hotel Nacional, about 3 kilometers away.
When is the last time you saw a Zephyr? When was the first time? Classic cars were ubiquitous as were these cocoanut taxis. Raynel let Isaac drive his 1935 Ford and Pedro convinced the owner of a 1957 Buick to let Isaac drive that.
Viñales is a popular tourist destination as it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Founded in 1875 this town is known for its tobacco farms. We stopped by just outside Viñales on the road to Los Jazmines to see a fully operating secadero (drying house) in which tobacco leaves are cured from February to May. The staff gives brief explanations and you can buy loose cigars. The gentleman rolling cigars gave me one as a gift.
Cueva del Indio:
Just 5 kilometers north of Viñales an ancient indigenous dwelling of Cueva del Indio. It was rediscovered in 1920. Motor boats now ply the underground river through the electrically lit cave. At first they refused to take me. They said it was impossible. Isaac not only convinced them otherwise but also got them to discount my ticket. We had to take the wheels off my chair to fit it in the boat Once again, my sea legs came it quite handy.
After leaving Viñales we met this farmer on the road. He was selling blocks of fresh cheese. Each block came with package of fresh fruit paste that looks like and taste likes Quince. The 2 were a delightful combination on a cracker.
People on the street tried to sell us cigars. We were forewarned of their questionable authenticity. All genuine Cuban cigars are hand-rolled by trained experts, before being packed in tightly sealed cedar boxes and classified into 42 different types and sizes. We did stop at a cigar shop where Isaac got a free cigar, coffee and they even offered him rum. I was at the other end of the factory and didn't know they were giving away that stuff till Isaac told me later that night. Thanks Isaac. There is a cigar store across from Hotel Nacional that has better prices but a much more limited selection. While in Havana we met Jose (Cueto) Castelar at La Triada at Parque Morro-Cabaña (pictured top left beside me). He is a Guinness record holder for making the longest cigar - it measured 81.80 m (268 ft. 4 in). I was told he used a honey mixture to glue the tobacco. The cigar make in Viñales (picture on right) used a pine sap mixture.
We wandered over to the Plaza de Armas. In the picture on the right you can see our friend, we call teacher, and the secondhand book market in the background. When we first came to the park we met teacher, (sorry I forgot his name). As we talked, one musician approached us and started playing, then another, then a woman joined in and started singing.
Every Ernest Hemingway fan knows he had some favorite haunts. One was Sloppy Joe's in Havana, another was Sloppy Joe's in Key West, Florida. I've been to both of them! Here's a little know fact - Havana has a China Town. There was a significant influx of Chinese into Cuba starting in 1847 to work the sugarcane fields. This China Town, small as it is, is an homage to that immigration.
We thoroughly enjoyed all the Cubans we met. Then there was the politics. In case we forgot, there were reminders everywhere that this country is a socialist state. I couldn't imagine what that was like. My visit there was just the beginning of my education. I found out that, oddly enough, the repressive politics has endeared Cubans to Americans.