Category Archives: Caribbean

American models from the 50s are truly omnipresent in Havana's streets.

11 Surprising Things About Traveling Cuba

Last week I shared my favorite highlights from my trip to Cuba and this week I’ll share some of the most surprising parts of my travels through the country.

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1) Rum in tetra-briks – Ah, Ron Planchao. It’s dirt-cheap rum sold in what looks like a juice box. For some reason vendors give you this look of respect when you buy these boxes, like, “Ha, he/she is the real deal”. When you’re walking in the Malecon, you see all the ladies with their cans of Cristal, and all the dudes drinking straight rum from these little cartons. It’s not too bad – we had some with Coke, I believe, once we were back home in the Dominican. It’s just funny because all these tough dudes just look like they’re drinking from a juice box.

Sample of Planchao.

Sample of Planchao.

2) The Granma yacht is completely sealed away – you can’t get a good look at it – That was the most disappointing part of all the sightseeing we did. For those of you unfamiliar with Cuban history, the Granma is the yacht in which Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and the other expedition members arrived in Cuba to begin the Revolution. The yacht itself is a permanent exhibit at the Revolution Museum…but it’s kept on a metal structure, which is heavily guarded at all times. There is what looks like a metal ramp around it, so I naturally assumed we would be allowed in (since we paid for access to it) to walk around it and take pictures. Nope, you pay for the right to see it, apparently. We had to exercise our camera’s zoom to get some shots.

3) The exorbitant prices at the Museo de la Revolucion – first you have to pay your entrance fee (which of course is more expensive if you’re a foreigner). Then, if you want to take pictures, you have to pay extra for that. Was it worth it? In my own humble opinion, no. The exterior is much more interesting than the interior. Two people’s entrance fees plus a picture fee put us back $16CUC.

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4) Havana is surprisingly clean (there is always someone cleaning up on the streets, sweeping, picking up garbage), and there are more people showing signs of obesity than you would think – I don’t know what was I expecting – maybe my mind image of Cuba was stuck in the early 90s, when, after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba went through a serious crisis of goods and people were going seriously hungry. But there was a lot more pizza and burger eating than what I would have ever expected, and well, let’s just say that there was a lot of people on the streets of Havana who should never wear spandex.

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Paseo del Prado, Old Havana. Very tourist heavy. Still very clean.

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5) There are also more Americans visiting Havana than you’d think! – One afternoon while chilling at the lobby of the gorgeous Hotel Parque Central, we ran into a group on English-speaking people…that didn’t sound British or anything like that. Upon asking them, turned out they were alumni from an Ivy League school on a class reunion trip. These days, it’s easier than ever for Americans to get licenses to go to Cuba – bear in mind, however, that these licenses come with a hefty price tag and you will be subject to a schedule. If you thought you could get a license to go hang out at the beach, think again.

6) Morning drinking in coffee shops – It was always funny to see people drinking Cristal (the Cuban beer of choice) at 9 am at the coffee shop. Maybe it’s because it’s hot the majority of the year, but apparently drinking in the early morning is perfectly acceptable. To be honest, though, we did not see anyone drunk stupid at any hour of the day, so be respectful and take the necessary measures to not make an ass of yourself.

7) Cinnamon rolls are called coffee cakes – “Coffee cakes” became our favorite snack after walking all day. Our two favorite pastry spots became Café Santo Domingo (no relation to the Dominican coffee brand but they also made very good coffee) and Café Zana, a small coffee shop on the bottom floor of the Sociedad Asturiana building (see Best Decisions)

8) Best mojitos of the trip: Bilbao Sports Bar – I won’t even go into the first mojitos we had while in Cuba. It was like drinking straight NyQuil. Yuck. We made Bar Bilbao (at Calle O’Reilly in Old Havana) our afternoon spot to cool off and hide from the crowds, as well as our post-dinner hangout. The bartenders are very nice and will take their time in making a perfect mojito. Not too sweet, minty enough, and packing a good Havana Club punch. Bask in the cheapness of Havana Club. Enjoy it. It’s superb quality rum. O’Reilly is parallel to Calle Obispo, which is the main commercial street of Old Havana, so impossible to miss. Calle Obispo is also an important one to remember because it has a CADECA that opens late. CADECAS are where you exchange money – please do not run out of cash in Havana, as ATMs are not very common and many foreign cards do not work there. American cards won’t work at all.

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9) The tipping culture is quite strong – depending on how much or how little you tip, people can be either super friendly or super jerks, quite frankly. In a country where income-generating opportunities are scarce, one can easily understand why Cubans have high expectations about the money tourists should spend, but I could never shake off the feeling that a lot of people would not be nice to you unless there would be a tip involved. My husband was actually yelled at by a guy who had two spectacular 1963 (or so) Ford Thunderbirds parked outside the Capitol. The cars were in immaculate condition, so of course we had to take pictures. The guy yelled, “you think my cars are here for you to take pictures?” and was starting to come at us, so we just decided to turn around and walk away. We got plenty of shots anyway.

10) Coppelia Ice Cream was sweet and a little sour – Coppelia Ice Cream is THE Cuban ice cream shop and almost the center of Vedado’s universe. I had read rave reviews about it so I decided that since at this point, Coppelia is a much a Havana landmark as Hotel Nacional, we should go. One day we decided to follow the crowd to do some people watching and see what the locals’ side looked like. Not allowed – we were asked by the guards to please go to “our section”. Tourists are not allowed where the locals are, just as locals are not allowed in 5-star hotels. That was possibly the most uncomfortable fact about Cuba for us. The ice cream, however, is quite good, even if they don’t have a lot of flavors anymore. We only had vanilla and chocolate. The LA Times published a story many years ago explaining the significance of Coppelia to Cubans (and the Cuban government).

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11) Factoria Plaza Vieja – Should be on the Favorite Things part but it was such a pleasant surprise! It was a little baffling to me how is it that in Santo Domingo, a completely service-oriented economy where essentially every American trend is eventually adopted there are no microbreweries yet. Havana, with its lack of resources and dependency on tourism, had that little gem called Factoria Plaza Vieja up and running, inviting you to take a break from all the walking and sip the sunset away while Plaza Vieja and its characters pass you by. Prices were pretty decent: $2CUC for a house brew, with choices between lager, amber or dark. While I love me some cold Presidente and Bohemia (the quintessential Dominican pils beers, both owned by the same company), variety never hurt anybody so many of our afternoons in Havana ended with a pint at Factoria before heading home or moving on to dinner plans.

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Plaza Vieja from our late afternoon seats at Factoria.

Last but not least, my best piece of advice if you’re going to Cuba is: keep your answers short but sweet at Immigration. When I get nervous, I ramble. And to make up for the fact that I’m rambling and probably not making any sense, I ramble some more. Follow the universal principle and do not offer any information you are not being asked for. And for the love of whatever God you believe in, do not say you work at an NGO – you will not hear the end of it. This was my one big rookie traveler mistake (our other mistake was getting ripped off by a tuk tuk driver in the rain). Cuban immigration is by far the most nerve-wrecking immigration experience I have ever had! After collecting our bags, I was interrogated 3 times over an approximately 90 minute period. Guards kept saying they had to check with “the boss”, who was a short dude in a t-shirt and jeans that did not look official in any way – he was taking notes on a scrap of paper and chased us down after “clearing us” twice. I’m pretty sure they were trying to get me to put my foot in my mouth in some sort of incriminating way, but how on Earth do you explain what direct peer-to-peer lending is to Cuban military youth? Won’t be trying that again.

Nevertheless, while looking back at our thousands of pictures when trying to pick a few to share on this post, I couldn’t help agreeing with a friend of mine who went to Havana a few weeks before I did: “Havana is a dream”. It truly is.

Havana skyline at sunset, dominated by Hotel Nacional. Havana waterfront.

Havana skyline at sunset, dominated by Hotel Nacional. Havana waterfront.

Analin Saturria

Dominican Republic born. Adopted by the Pacific Northwest. A microfinance enthusiast, now training and managing volunteers for Zidisha Inc., and taking my first steps into teaching. Located in Shanghai, China.

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The view from our balcony at Magda's casa.

10 Highlights from my First Trip to Cuba!

The view from our balcony at Magda's casa.

The view from our balcony at Magda’s casa.

Hi everyone! I’m Analin Saturria McGregor am very excited to contribute to Oh Hey World as a guest writer. I discovered a new way of traveling 6 years ago when a friend invited me to the beautiful Samaná peninsula in my native Dominican Republic. Growing up during the expansion of the all-inclusive vacation tourism model, I had never dreamed that there could be a more meaningful, engaging and fun way to travel. I’m now an independent traveling convert and have relocated to Shanghai, China with my husband after two years in the Dominican Republic. This first post is about our first big travel adventure together: Cuba!

If you want to go to Cuba, make it happen! Go now, while that charm that has made Cuba famous is still there. The Dominican Republic is an easy place to do it from since travel between the two islands is fairly easy to figure out. If you have the time and the money you can also plan some time in the Dominican and some time in Cuba –two birds with one stone.

10 of my favorite things about Havana:

1) Staying at a casa particular – After seeing how Havana has so many tourist trap places, I have to say staying at a Casa Particular gave us a freedom we would have probably not enjoyed staying at a hotel. Hotels in Havana are, in my opinion, quite overwhelming – you get bombarded with multiple offers from guides, vendors, etc., to do things their way, which usually involves some sort of prepackaged fashion of what they assume is what every tourist should see. We also got to help a Cuban family directly (remember, in Cuba, all hotels are operated by the government through a number of companies established for this purpose. Even the ones who may be operated by foreign chains, such as Melia or Iberostar, are still under a government concession). In our case, Magda has just started with her Casa business and we were one of her first guests. If you want her Casa’s contact info you can message me. We made our own itinerary, took whatever risks we were okay with taking, and were pretty much undisturbed for the whole week. Magda made us breakfast herself every day (even placing the fruit in a happy face shape every morning – adorable), which was an interesting assessment of the food issues most Cubans face. For example, one day there was no bread on our breakfast because bakeries had no flour yet so no one had been able to bake any fresh bread. Also, casas are significantly cheaper than hotels – about half the price than a budget hotel, which allows for spending a little more on attraction fees or nicer dining.

2) Going to local places to eat – In most local places, prices are quoted in Moneda Nacional, which is a lot cheaper than the more widely used in tourist areas, Cuban Convertible Peso. In many places, you can pay with either (1 US$= 24 Cuban Peso/Moneda Nacional, vs. 1 US$=1CUC). Portions are HUGE. First day out we went to this Chinese restaurant in Centro Habana’s Chinatown. We had to go up some stairs and it kind of looked like a place where small-scale mobsters would eat (at least movie mobsters), but the food was great (just like any American Chinese takeout restaurant) and we had enough leftovers for dinner and a bit of a midnight snack post-drinks. Total bill=something like US$5, including drinks). Another day we decided to go to this cafeteria that we had passed by a different day. The important thing here was that the place was PACKED. My husband, a more experienced traveler than me, always tells me: “pay attention to where the locals go. If there are a lot of locals there, it’s got to be good, and probably cheap”. They had no sitting, just tables you stood around, so it really was packed. It was basically as large as 6 feet of sidewalk. Portions? Huge. Finishing my sandwich was a tough task. My husband was nowhere near finishing his plate of rice, beans, pork and salad. If my memory serves me right we paid about $4.50 CUC for that meal. I might have not looked very happy while we were eating (it was hot and eating while standing up is not the best thing after walking all morning) but it was a cool experience. Couple of things: in Cuba you have to pay for any takeout containers – imported Styrofoam (cringe). Also, since you can’t drink the tap water, you should always keep bottled water with you – but buy it in stores away from the tourist areas if you can. Price of a 1.5 liter bottle of water at the local store: about 70 CUC cents. At the touristy area shops, the same 70 cents will just get you a 10-ounce bottle.

View of Havana from the lighthouse binoculars. El Castillo del Morro, Havana.

View of Havana from the lighthouse binoculars. El Castillo del Morro, Havana.

3) Taking our time with Havana and not overexerting ourselves – Initially we were keeping the option of traveling to other cities in Cuba in the back burner, but the city that we were truly interested in visiting was Santiago (second largest city in Cuba anyway) but decided against it due to distance. Domestic flights in Cuba are not exactly reliable (planes are outdated and often flights are delayed due to missing parts) and my husband has already done his fair share of scary domestic flights in Russia. The other option was the bus, but it’s an 11-hour drive. Didn’t really feel like losing two days to Santiago and back since we just had a week. After I came back I remember talking to a friend who had gone to Cuba not long before with a student group, and her comment about how much she deeply regretted not being able to stay put for longer, and just explore. For a weeklong trip, I would probably limit my trip to one or two locations, tops, due to the potential transport delays you could encounter.

4) Visiting El Castillo del Morro – In my opinion, the best attraction in Havana. My absolute favorite. First of all, you have to take a taxi to go there, so great opportunity to take a classic car. We rode in a ’49 Chevy. You can negotiate on price with them and if you ask, they will wait for you until you’re done and take you back. El Castillo del Morro was built to defend Havana and was an important defense point in the 1700s. It’s kept in wonderful shape and has very good exhibits. No need to hire a guide, you’re pretty much free to roam around the fort as much as you want. Save your guide money to pay for lighthouse access (it does cost extra to go up the lighthouse but it is a wonderful, wonderful point to get bird’s eye views of Havana. Getting the whole view of the skyline lets you see the striking difference between Old Havana and the newest districts in the city (most specifically Vedado). You can also get a pretty good idea of what inner city Havana (or Centro Habana) looks like. Get up here with a camera that allows for taking panoramic pictures – you will not regret it.

El Castillo del Morro - view from the Havana waterfront.

El Castillo del Morro – view from the Havana waterfront.

5) The cafeteria at Sociedad Asturiana – the Sociedad Asturiana is located at Paseo del Prado, the gateway to Old Havana coming from the Malecón. It’s a Spanish-founded cultural venue which holds live music, dance classes, etc. We saw a flamenco rehearsal one day. It was so elegant!). I believe we saw their ground floor cafeteria, Zana, on the way home one particularly hot evening. They sell in Moneda Nacional (Cuban peso), so we could get coffee and a “coffee cake” for about $2 CUC in the end). Those rolls were heaven. Not too cakey and not too bready, sweet, delicious and big. They also made great steak sandwiches (or pan con bistec – I’d call this the Cuban equivalent of a Philly Cheese Steak without the cheese and with thicker steak) and burgers.

6) Multiple transportation options, yet very walkable – Havana is a fairly flat city, so walking is not exactly challenging, and the city is laid out on a pattern that makes it quite easy to find your way. Also, if you’re walking, you’re free to take your precious time and look closely to what YOU think it’s important. The Malecón is a fabulous reference point. When you get tired of walking, hop on a Coco-Taxi. Coco-taxis are the clever and heat-proof way to take a motorcycle taxi: it’s a motorcycle with an circular sort of attachment on the back that seats three. They are open on the sides, so if it rains, you might get sprinkled on the legs, but who cares? These transport tourists and locals alike.

Vintage taxi and coco-taxi strolling down Havana's waterfront.

Vintage taxi and coco-taxi strolling down Havana’s waterfront.

7) The photography opportunities! – Even the tattered buildings have indescribable beauty to them, you will get glimpses into the lives of Cubans you will not get or hear from any tour guide in Old Havana. Our waterfront location granted fantastic picture opportunities all day long. During our first three days in Havana, we took close to 3000 pictures. A building that might seem run-down and not worth a picture might change completely under a different sunlight, or once you bother to discover it.

8) Detouring through side streets in Centro Habana – We had read mixed reviews about Centro Habana’s safety, so we didn’t really walk through side streets at nighttime. During the day, however, it was fun to get glimpses of what Cubans’ lives are like: people cooking, hanging clothes, people-watching on their balconies, drinking and chatting, playing dominoes or music, repairing their vehicles with makeshift parts, playing baseball, watching baseball, coming to and from school. We also walked by some smaller businesses and witnessed long lines while people waited for their rations. Go to Old Havana, and all you see is white people.

9) Smoking cigars at the fancy hotels – Talk about a way to feel glamorous Old-Hollywood style. Sipping daiquiris and smoking our Romeo y Julietas while sitting on the Hotel Nacional’s gorgeous terrace overlooking the ocean…wow…straight out of any 60s TV show episode, regardless of your outfit. The fancy hotels will have either a store (at the basement in Hotel Nacional) or a cart (at the lobby at Hotel Parque Central), all run by very knowledgeable ladies that can recommend the Cuban that better suits the type of smoke you want to have.

10) The bomb shelter/tunnel at Hotel Nacional – This hotel, a National Monument in its own right, is possibly one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Havana. You can walk through their halls filled with pictures of celebrities during their visits to Cuba and world leaders visiting with Fidel Castro. Upon walking on their cliff-side gardens, we stumbled upon a shelter built during the Cuban missile crisis. The shelter includes illustrations of how the Cuban army used this secret point to spy on the American ships stationed facing Havana. We got a walk-through by its friendly guide, who will vividly explain the importance of this shelter over and over during the walking tours of Hotel Nacional – worth doing and better yet, it’s free. Make sure to take some change with you to tip guides.

Check back next week for the 11 most surprising part of my travels through Cuba, as well as tips for planning your own trip!

Analin Saturria

Dominican Republic born. Adopted by the Pacific Northwest. A microfinance enthusiast, now training and managing volunteers for Zidisha Inc., and taking my first steps into teaching. Located in Shanghai, China.

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