Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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The ongoing American embargo has a crippling impact on the Cuban economy. As is the case with most embargos, rather than bring about the overthrow of the government we don’t like, it just bolsters that government’s case that the USA is evil and that defiance is a matter of national sovereignty — deserving whatever tactics are available. (And like most embargoes, it’s more damaging to the daily lives of people than to the government.)
For now, because of our embargo, US credit cards don’t work. So — for the time being — for the American traveler, it’s cash only. (Europeans and Canadians are free to use local ATMs — just not Yankees.) Estimate the cash you’ll need, and then bring more — as there are plenty of temptations, surprise expenses, and locals who know what Americans can really afford. This was my major stress point for this vacation, as I underestimated how much cash I’d need and had to scramble to cover expenses to the end. To keep a little extra hard cash, I ended up paying my guide after getting home via Western Union. (Guides are in the tourist economy and charge far more than the local standards. I paid $100 a day — still a great value.)
Changing money is easy, as government-sanctioned exchange offices are plentiful and rates are strictly regulated. US dollars are nicked for about a 10 percent surcharge, so you’ll save a little money if you bring in Canadian dollars or euros. But I had no problem with the 10 percent loss, as I figured it would help the local economy — as if I were paying a little extra in Cuban taxes. (In fact, Americans who feel personally responsible for the deprivation aggravated by the US embargo can take solace in paying extra expenses — like being nicked at the bank or otherwise overcharged or scammed — which happens a lot.)
Locals use national currency (Cuban pesos, CUP), and things are extremely cheap by rich world standards. But American tourists are not generally permitted to get or use CUP, so anything a typical tourist might want is sold in Cuban convertible pesos (a.k.a. CUC, pronounced “cuke,” worth about $1) — and when paying in CUC, things get pricey quick. While there are much cheaper alternatives, rich world tourists who insist on rich world standards generally pay rich world prices: 200 CUC for a hotel room, 10 CUC for a taxi ride, 20 CUC for a dinner. At a bus stop, a truck with a canopy over long, wooden benches unloads people paying nickels for the ride next to a comfortable (if well-worn) modern bus loading up those paying dollars for the same ride. A local worker earns about $30 a month (plus the basics the government provides to all citizens, such as health care, education, and subsidized utilities, housing, and some food). But knowing that an American can earn as much in an hour as they do in a month makes it appealing for the Cuban on the street to charge foreigners heavily inflated prices.
Photo: The Travelphile
Cuban paper money celebrates heroes and great events of their Revolution.
This little streetside eatery caters to locals and has a menu in the local pesos — 24 to a dollar. A tourist would generally not eat here.
Any rich tourist in Havana seems to spend an evening at the Tropicana, where — for about $100 (a small fortune in local terms) — you’ll enjoy the wildest cabaret show in the Caribbean. With a live orchestra, old-fashioned crooners, acrobats, contortionists, and a razzle-dazzle troupe of outlandishly clad dancers with peacock tails, whirling tassels, and towering hats of fruit and feathers — and a bottle of good rum and local cola at each table — it’s a fun evening.
When traveling in Central America, I like to have the help of guides from Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE), which offers what I call “Reality Tours.” These tours connect travelers with locals in government and non-governmental organizations to sort out confusing issues of the day by hearing both narratives of difficult issues. I’ve been on four CGEE tours — and hired CGEE guides for private tours on two other trips — and it always enriches the experience hugely. On this trip, we had visits set up by CGEE’s Havana partner, the Martin Luther King Center, and we enjoyed the services of guide Reinier Menéndez. Reinier took us to Afro-Cuban Santeria priests, to communal organic farms, and to a local medical clinic to talk to — and learn directly from — the locals.
Simply traveling through a country like Cuba for a week comes with a constant barrage of thought-provoking experiences. The American capitalist notices lots of people just sitting around staring at traffic (but perhaps it’s no greater than the percentage of Americans just sitting around staring at daytime TV). While religion is entirely legal in Cuba, locals in this secular state are thankful that the Church doesn’t have the political clout it enjoys in other Latin American societies. To the average Cuban, the Church means the Roman Catholic Church. They view the Church as being a barrier standing in the way of gay rights and the pro-choice movement. And they think of it as an institution historically friendly to the oppressive government, providing that notorious-in-communist-ideology “opiate of the masses” encouragement not to feel the pain of structural poverty.
As a confirmed believer in capitalism (if not the “savage capitalism” that Pope Francis warned against during his recent visit to Cuba), I am struck by the Cuban “work ethic.” Pay is low…and so is productivity. As locals like to say, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Any foreman knows that if a tree needs trimming on the farm, an incentive of 200 pesos will get no reaction. But a promise that workers can go home early when the job is done works powerfully, as people just want to get back to their families and enjoy a nap. We were told that, for Cubans, the priorities are: #1 party; #2 rest; and then, only if you have energy, #3 work. But things are changing. Older Cubans I met seemed to strive for social goals over personal goals, while younger ones are gaining an appetite for Western materialism and consumption. Everyone sees the siren of capitalism fast approaching — and threatening the laid-back Cuban soul.
Meeting with a community doctor, we learned of the passion to have good health care available to all and the trend toward teaching wellness and prevention to the general populace. Chatting with this doctor, who happily took home a paycheck of $50 a month, we learned that Cuba is proud of its ability to export doctors and help other poor countries. Today there are 50,000 Cuban doctors working outside of Cuba.
As Internet access comes to Cuba, busy squares in Havana are crowded with people hungry to connect online. These are the big-city young generation waiting patiently for their society to break open. When it does…look out!
Traveling through Cuba, you often feel as if you’re hanging out with people still living in the 20th century. But there’s clearly a huge appetite for the Internet. People — young and old, poor and less poor — go to great lengths to get online. The capacity is meager, and surfing freely can be a challenge — but, clearly, the hunger for the Internet will not be stymied. At night, many public zones with Wi-Fi become community living rooms. As few can afford to be online at home, certain corners — where Wi-Fi is available — glow with the screens of smartphones. Government control of Internet access seems not very determined…except for the websites of anti-Castro forces in Florida.
One of the joys of visiting Cuba is meeting the people in this still remarkably closed society. It’s so easy and fun to connect with people on the streets who are curious about the USA and love to talk. I found Cubans joyful, relaxed, and smart — yet isolated and wired differently, as mainstays of our modern outlook (like the Internet and the opportunity to work hard to prosper) are still novel to most people here. I encountered two kinds of people: Rank-and-file Cubans, and those with relatives in America or with jobs in tourism (which means they have more money, a broader perspective, and more opportunities).
These students reminded me that Cuba still categorizes its citizens into three ethnic groups: N (for negro, or black), M (for mestizo, or mixed), and B (for blanco, or white — generally meaning Hispanic, of Spanish decent). It’s like American drivers licenses stipulating what color our eyes are.
Discrimination by race is officially illegal in Cuba. But a complex history has created social stratification. The white Cubans were predominantly the ones who supported Batista. Conversely, it was the black Cubans who felt most oppressed by Batista and American interests, and supported the Revolution most wholeheartedly.
After the Revolution, an estimated 86 percent of the Cubans who fled to the USA describe themselves as white (out of a general Cuban population that’s only about 30 percent Hispanic). That’s why, of the people in Cuba who receive foreign remittances (and are therefore local economic elites today), the vast majority are the white Cubans who chose not to leave the country. Hispanic Cubans have the most power and contact with the outside world. The result: In today’s Cuba, light-skinned people tend to be privileged and dark-skinned people are generally disadvantaged.
Locals kept telling me, “We live in an open society. Wherever there’s an open door, you are welcome to enter.” And I found that to be the case. Some of my favorite hours in Havana were spent simply strolling down the streets, venturing into back lanes, and popping into courtyards, shops, schools, and bakeries…anything that was open.
Photo: The Travelphile
Photo: The Travelphile
Cuba is very proud of its schools. They looked extremely ramshackle compared to American schools. But, unlike in neighboring countries, Cuban children are encouraged to get a solid education (it’s compulsory from ages 6 to 16, and free all the way through a Ph.D.). Families are not impoverished by having to pay for tuition, uniforms, and books. Exploring the city, you find many grade schools tucked into big building blocks in the urban core. They all seemed to be named for Revolutionary heroes, with a bust and memorial to each at the entrance. And the children — with their bright-red kerchiefs — seemed both enthusiastic about learning and excited to meet foreign travelers who drop in.
Photo: The Travelphile
Even at midnight, if we happened into a grade school, the guards would jump at the opportunity to invite us in and show us around.
Beyond the cute tourist zone of Old Havana (Havana Vieja), the rest of the city provides a jarring contrast. The cityscape is three layers of architecture: a melting-sugar-cube world of delightful Art Deco, brutal Soviet functionalism, and current no-frills construction — cinderblock painted in playhouse colors. Exploring it is easy. I found that, unless a door is locked, it’s all public.
Families live in street-level apartments, just steps away from major monuments. When roaming the streets of Havana, you’re treated to intimate peeks into domestic worlds. Tiny family rooms are filled with Grandma-vintage heirloom furniture, as three generations ignore a blaring TV. Just as the cars are in a 1950s time warp, so are the living rooms. It’s often the lighting that catches your eye: backlit, toned, and dark-skinned bodies shiny with sweat and wearing clothes that seem to fit the decrepit walls that corral all that Cuban conviviality.
As a photographer, it’s easy to romanticize poverty. But the daily reality of some of the people I met is miserable. For this reason, I found walking the streets both fun…and troubling.
In this clip, our cocotaxi driver, Emma, zips us (as if in a coconut shell on a motorcycle) over the river with my partner Trish and son Andy. A 15-minute ride with Emma cost about $5 (great for her, I’m sure, and fine for us). Three Americans in a coconut on wheels — that’s about the max.
Havana traffic is a mix of classic American cars (from before the Revolution), Russian Ladas (those infamous tin cans on four wheels, from the Soviet period — the 1960s to the 1980s), bicycle rickshaws, and cocotaxis (motorized tricycles with coconut-shaped carriages for tourists). We took them all.
First impressions and shattered preconceptions are part of the joy of travel in Cuba. As expected, the streets of Cuba — while not congested — were like a Detroit car show, circa 1955. With flamboyant fins, lots of chrome, and gumball-machine colors, these cars provide basic personal transportation and touristy taxi service. The classic American cars date from before the American embargo was established in 1960. After half a century of heavy use and not quite dodging potholes, and with no access to replacement parts, they’ve generally been entirely refitted under the hood and artfully MacGyvered. That 1956 Dodge is likely a “hybrid”…with a 1985 Lada engine.
In Havana, it seems any guy with a classic American car has polished its chrome and painted its fins to take the foreign tourist for a glamorous ride through a decaying city on the cusp of great change.
Basic taxis are often Soviet-era Ladas — a legacy of Cuba’s decades of partnership with the USSR. While tourists love the classic American cars, I found Lada taxis more practical — about half the price, and with less aggressive drivers.
Photo: The Travelphile
For a memorable lift, tourists can hail a bicycle taxi or a “cocotaxi” — which fits three in a pinch and rattles between the traffic in a motorcycle-propelled carriage that feels like a coconut shell.
With a little wind, the surf’s up along Havana’s harborfront — and the main drag (Malecón) is closed for traffic. Owners of those classic cars understand how bad the salt spray is for their complexion.
While Cuba’s classic 1950s-era American cars are fun to see any time of day, by night the glint of 60-year-old chrome gives the scene a time-passed elegance. Havana comes to life in the cool of the evening. Friends gather on curbs and on bannisters to party — pouring from $3 bottles of fine rum and enjoying music. Salsa is the beat of the city. Lovers catch an intimate moment, as public displays of affection are a reminder that living quarters can be cramped, with many generations under one roof.