Back from Cuba!

Yesterday I arrived back from my trip to Cuba (with which this thread dealt). It was an interesting journey; I visited Havana (with a one-day excursion to the Varadero beaches), Viñales in the Western province of Pinar del Río, Santa Clara (with a one-day excursion to Cienfuegos), and Santiago, relying mostly on the public Víazul buses with their impressingly reliable schedule of bus routes across the country.

For accomodation, I used partly hotels and partly casas particulares - accomodation in private houses or apartments rented by Cuban to foreign tourists to get badly needed convertible pesos, a currency pegged to the U.S. dollar with which it is possible for Cubans to buy imported goods which would never be available in exchange for the Cuban peso. The latter is used to pay for the food rations allocated to Cubans by the state, but which are insufficient. As a result, Cuba effectively runs on two parallel economies - the official socialist economy with food rationing, official salaries of 250-500 national pesos (about 10 to 20 U.S. dollars if exchanged at the official rate) a month and shortage of practically everything on the one hand, and a parallel economy where imported goods or domestically produced luxury goods (including the famous rum and cigar brands) are available in exchange for convertible pesos. This does not keep the government from putting up propaganda billboards glorifying the socialist system, the Revolution or simply the personalities of the Castros everywhere.

Accidentally, I was affected by hurricane Gustav during my trip, since I was in a hotel in the hills of Pinar del Río in the night of the hurricane. I tried to get away the day before, but the buses were cancelled, so I had to stay a night longer than planned in that hotel. It was an interesting experience to witness the night of the storm itself, but it had devastating effects to the main building of the hotel and the surrounding villages; luckily, the few remaining tourists in the hotel had been moved to other rooms in adjacent, lower buildings of the hotel - which was a good idea, since the roof of the main building partly collapsed and fell on the rooms below.

So in the end, it was an interesting holiday with excitements I had not planned for. It’s fascinating to see one of the last remaining socialist societies in everday life, but disappointing to see that the Cuban government itself, while maintaining Communist rhetorics, seems to have perverted the ideals it had tried to establish, since, in fact, Cuba has evolved into a society deeply divided between holders of convertible pesos, which can afford the commodities of modern life, and others which are stuck with the national currency for whom things like free health care and education are only small comfort which does not really compensate for the economic hardnesses they’re suffering.

Thanks for this report, I had no idea you were going to visit Cuba. You are correct in your assessment that Cuba’s economy is divided between those with access to CUC and those who don’t, and the gulf between them is very large. Please feel free to tell more, any interesting stories?

I’d no idea about their monetary system. Fascinating. I’d go in a heartbeat if it wasn’t illegal. grrr Did you see evidence of the widespread, government-led evacuation before Gustav (or any hurricane, as mentioned in a thread here?)

What were the beaches and ocean water like? I’ve flown over a few times and they looked gorgeous (err… from 25,000 feet).

Also… the cars, old American classics from the 50s and 60s that have been maintained and patched with everything imaginable. Are they as widespread, as ubiquitous as reported?

yes yes please tell!

i grew up in miami and my parents are cuban (came over in '60) and i would love to get an impartial view of what life in cuba is like now-a-days.

i have often thought of traveling there much to the horror of my family…

Hey another Cuban!

Yes, if your parents are Cuban you yourself are Cuban. Why? Because I say so.

OMG get outta my head!! :smack:

Wow…sounds like a fascinating trip. What was Santa Clara like? My father-in-law grew up there, and I would love to visit some day.

Schnitte, did you visit the University of Havana at all? Did you feel safe? Would you feel safe staying there for an extended period of time? Did the poverty ever bother you substantially (where you were frequently thinking about it and often very guiltily)?

I’m half Cuban…and considering a school-sponsored semester abroad in the spring (some colleges have been granted access). Aside from scaring the bejesus out of my mother and her family, so far the only major problem would be that…

I would need a “different” visa. Without my or my mother’s name being released, I had the director of the semester abroad program at my school check into it. The Fidel’s posse would ask for proof as to who my parents are and where they were born, and my mother’s family was fairly wealthy. (My mother and her family came over on 6 month tourist visas, as did most people who fled in the early 60’s. They overstayed them and got asylum; all were fast-tracked to citizenship.)

But the fact I would need a “different” visa gives me the willies.

Oh, it’s not travel that’s illegal for us USians, it’s paying the fees to the Cuban government for the entry visa and the exit tax without an OFAC license. Or for that matter, paying for anything from any Cuban national or business, anywhere in the world.

There’s no entry fee for US tourists, though there is an exit tax. As to safety, Havana seemed about the safest place in Latin America I’ve ever been to (about 13 countries). There have a bunch of cops just standing around 24/7; probably a job creation thing. I would feel very safe living there, except I’d get sick of the food over the long haul. It’s pretty shitty, for the most part, even in nice places. I met a guy who went to Havana university, a real nice fellow. He was a med student, spoke six languages (said four, but wasn’t counting Spanish and English, those were just a given) and was big into Judo.

The dual economy thing is interesting. We bought some art at a fair, my girl-pal got an awesome giant painting for $40. I’m not an art expert, but something like this would have cost $1000+ here. I think the artists have to kick some or most of the money uphill, but still, you have a situation were painters and barmen are pocketing more than surgeons. I’m amazed they’ve held it together this long.

The night of the hurricane itself was certainly spectacular; as I said, the few remaining tourists were moved to another, lower building of the hotel which was safer. The only thing that happened was that the glass windows broke, which urged me to move to the bathroom as instructed because it had no windows (and thus was safe from being hit by objects tossed in by the wind). Seeing the destructions in the surrounding villages the morning after was somewhat disturbing, but the period of recovery had already begun, with lots of people and army troops being trucked to the highways to clean the roads. It was repeated over and over on Cuban television and in the papers that Cuba, unlike other Caribbean states, did not suffer the loss of human lives, and in general the country seems to be proud of having been prepared well. I did not witness widespread evacuation myself, though - the hotel was in the hills near Viñales, and AFAIK the evacuated regions were the coastal areas which were in danger of floods.

Another story which made me feel a bit uncertain (although only afterwards) was the standard of safety checks at Havana airport ony my flight home, from Havana via Madrid to Munich. They X-rayed my hand luggage, but I had forgotten a Swiss army knife in there, and it went unnoticed. Only in Madrid, when I was screened a second time for my connecting flight, did they notice the knife (of which I myself had been unaware). I checked in the hand luggage, but the Iberia staff in Madrid shook his head when he heard I was carrying this knife with me all the way from Havana.

I went to the University of Havana, but I couldn’t visit the interiors because enrollment for the academic year beginning this september was going on when I was there. So the academic buildings were closed and only administrative buildings were open for enrolling students. The campus, however, is very nice, with well-kept parks and an impressive monumental staircase leading up to the main building.

Regarding safety, I can only second the things I’ve read in many guides (and heard from my Cuban landlords) about Cuba being a very safe tourist destination. Of course there are minor fraudsters on the streets everywhere, trying to get you to a certain restaurant (which, of course, pays a commission to the guy) or selling you fake cigars (the store prices of top-brand Cuban cigars makes it profitable to fake them), but there is virtually no open crime such as robberies. I was feeling safe to walk even shabby parts of the cities, even at dark, being recognizable as a foreigner without the fear of getting robbed - which, incidentally, had happened to me on the streets of Manila, Philippines, two years ago, in broad daylight. Private possession of firearms is prohibited, and the presence of the police on the streets and the monitoring from other official bodies (such as the “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution”, a mass organization present in every village and every neighborhood of the cities) ensure that a Cuban robbing a tourist would almost certainly be detected.

The only beach I went to to swim was Varadero, on a one-day excursion. They’re really marvellous and very much like the postcard pictures, with fine white sand on the beaches and clear warm water. OTOH, one should keep in mind that Varadero is Cuba’s #1 destination for top-class all-inclusive resorts, which are frequented almost entirely by foreigners with Cubans being present only as hotel staff.
On another trip to El Morro, a Spanish colonial fortress built at the entrance to the bay of Santiago, I had spectacular views across the bay, the surrounding mountains and the Caribbean Sea. I could see lovely beaches from there, but I didn’t go there. I see if I can upload some photos to some website and link to them. It all gave the impression of being in one of those pirate movies set in the 17th or 18th century Caribbean.

The city itself, which has a population of about 210,000 according to my guide book, doesn’t look that much different from other Cuban cities, with the exception of Havana because the capital is more developed than the rest of the country. Its layout is much the same as in other cities founded by the Spanish in their colonial empire: There’s a gridiron plan of streets and avenues intersecting at right angles, and in the center of that grid, one or more blocks are set aside to form the central plaza of the city, which, in Santa Clara’s case, is named Parque Vidal. It’s a small park surrounded by the city’s most important public buildings, such as the provincial government, a theater built by a philanthrope in the 19th century, and schools (incidentally, there is no chuch on Parque Vidal, but there are churches in Santa Clara, built mostly in the baroque style the Spanish used in most of their empire). Parts of the streets around this square form a pedestrian area, with CUC shops and bars, but the further you get away from the city center the more crumbling the buildings get. Many buildings look like ruins, but they’re still occupied because Cuba lacks the materials to refurbish them - the few materials available are reserved for touristically relevant areas such as Old Havana. Again and again, you see totally collapsed buildings with only the façade being left, and in many cases even these buildings are used, e.g. to operate a car park behind the façade.
On the streets of Santa Clara, you still see, apart from the omnipresent 1940s and 1950s cars, lots of horse wagons. They’re equipped with two benches in the back to accomodate around ten people and they operate fixed routes, very much like public buses. It’s not a tourist gag, but a widespread means of everyday public transportation for Cubans who pay around one national peso (about four cents U.S.) for the ride, and as far as I understand, they are operated by private individuals. There are also buses run by the state, but the system is deficient because gas has to be imported on much-needed foreign currency.

The most important attractions of Santa Clara, and also the main reasons for me to go there, are two monuments. One is the mausoleum of revolutionary hero Che Guevara, who won the decisive battle of the Revolution in Santa Clara in December 1958. It’s a monumental statue of Che on a huge pedestal, decorated with reliefs depicting battle scenes and citing Che quotations. Inside the pedestal, there’s a museum telling the biography of Guevara and the Revolution, and there’s a crypt with the graves of Che and about 30 other combatants who died in 1967 in the attempt of a revolution in Bolivia. Their bodies were hastily buried in Bolivia and exhumed and moved to Santa Clara in 1997.
The other attraction is the Monumento al Tren Blindado. It’s located at the site where the rebels, in the battle of Santa Clara, derailed an armoured train which was to bring reinforcements to government troups fighting the rebels. The monument consists of a few of the wagons of this train and contain a museum telling the story of the incident and how the weapons captured by the rebels helped to win the battle and the Revolution. It’s practically the same story told over and over in many museums across Cuba, such as the Revolutionary Museum in Havana (which is the former presidential palace of Cuba and features as the governmental building in the Simpsons episode Trouble with Trillions) and the Moncada barracks in Santiago, which were assaulted (without success) by a group of rebels led by Fidel Castro in 1953 in a first attempt to overthrow Batista.

As any other city in Cuba, Santa Clara is also full of propaganda posters and billboards, some containing simple slogans such as “We will never surrender” or “We wuill not renounce socialism,” some featuring a portrait of Fidel, Che or 19th century patriot writer José Martí together with a quotation (incidentally, I’ve seen little propaganda featuring Fidel’s brother and successor Raúl), and some purporting facts about the economic effects of “el Bloqueo,” the American embargo on the island, along the lines of “One week of embargo equals x hospitals.” Another big issue in Cuban propaganda are “los Cinco,” the Cuban five, a group of Cuban government agents involved in clandestine operations against the Miami opposition and who were convicted of conspiracy and other crimes in the U.S. Cuban propaganda celebrates them as antiterrorists and makes a big deal of public support for them.

They are; you see them all the time. Many of them are used as a private cars by those who can afford it, but it seems most of them are privately operated shared taxis who travel fixed routes in the cities and pick up any passer-by who stands along the street and beckons to the driver for a lift.

This is a nitpick, but as far as I understand it, it’s not an exit tax, it’s the usual airport fee you pay at any other airport as well. It’s just that the fee is not added to the price of the ticket and forwarded to the airport authority by the airline; you have to pay the fee at a separate counter at the aiport, who will put a special stamp on your boarding pass without which they will not let you board. It’s a little bit inconvenient, and I don’t understand why they don’t manage to have this fee collected by the airline, but it’s not unique to Havana; I have seen it elsewhere as well. Currently, the fee is 25 CUC, or $27.

Speaking of visas, another interesting thing I noticed was that Cuban authorities will not put a stamp in your passport. They will issue you the visa on a separate sheet of paper and put the entry and exit stamps on that, so your passport will remain free from any evidence of a travel to Cuba. I don’t know if they do so to spare visitors trouble which they might get if they used the same passport later to travel to a country participating in the embargo; if yes, it would be very much the same as the issue with Israeli stamps in a passport used to travel to some Arabian countries.

Thank you so much for all the detailed descriptions of everything! Sounds like a fascinating trip. I’m going to have my husband read what you wrote…we never could get his dad to talk about Cuba & his childhood too much.

We are headed to Cuba in February - hotel still unknown. Hopefully, the Barcelo in Varedero. We are so looking forward to it.

Any recommendations for local restaurants in town? Or handicraft stores?

I’ve been curious about Cuba for quite a while, but I’ve been reluctant to go because, quite frankly, I don’t want to go to one of these all-inclusive resorts and feel like an aristocrat lording it over the peons. This offends my egalitarian democratic-socialist upbringing.

What is the etiquette in these resorts? Do the staff resent the visitors? Can tourists travel independently? Do you have to know Spanish?

On the other hand, in 2010 the World Congress of Esperanto meets in Havana. Maybe I’ll go then. :slight_smile:

Generally, we’ve used this resorts as a base for exploring. It’s useful for some meals and just hanging out for a day.

I do know some people who never go off the resort. I can’t imagine why but they say 'we’ve paid for meals, etc, why pay somewhere else?". We prefer to explore but have a relatively comfortable “base”. Particularly for a country we’ve never been in before.

[quote=“Schnitte, post:11, topic:462820”]

This is a nitpick, but as far as I understand it, it’s not an exit tax, it’s the usual airport fee you pay at any other airport as well. … Currently, the fee is 25 CUC, or $27.

To compare: Departure Tax in the English speaking Caribbean is USD$20.00 for non-Caricom people & ECD$30.00 for Caricom (Caribbean Community). After you check in for your flight you have to queue again to pay this in cash - no credit cards. If you’re on island for less than 48 hours you don’t pay. As far as I know it goes to the government.

Thanks for the fascinating report.