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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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.
Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is polished, nicely cobbled, and touristy. Rather than beggars, you find jaunty old men with giant cigars eager to pose for a dollar. Rather than begging, panhandlers find an excuse to make business. The old center is built around five Colonial Age plazas. The most historic square, Plaza de Armas, celebrates the founding of the city in 1519. These squares are decorated with modern art and ringed by inviting bars with tables spilling out onto the cobbles. Signs and furniture feel like everything just opened up last year (which is often the case). This is the tourist-friendly zone — appealing and fun, but not giving an honest look at the character and economic metabolism of Havana.
As is the case in many developing countries, Western tourists gather in the most Western-friendly hotel, where they can get online, arrange tours, enjoy food that feels safe to eat, and interact with well-dressed, English-speaking locals. The Hotel Inglaterra, across the street from the iconic capitol building, is the favorite — constantly filled with tourists struggling to catch a little of the fleeting local Wi-Fi.
Our guide walked us to the obvious tourist attractions, which included colorful Afro-Cuban culture expressed by joyful dancing and religious sects that mix Christianity with African religions that came over with the slaves.
Tourism is ramping up in Havana, and in a few major stops in Cuba beyond the capital city. This hop-on, hop-off bus tour ($5 for a two-hour loop with a live guide, runs three per hour) is like any you’d find in Europe — but at a fifth the price.
As a TV producer and host, I love it when I stumble into our show — and its fans — as I travel around our own country.
Flying American Airlines to Chicago last week, my partner Trish found this extremely entertaining in-flight programming.
Image: The Travelphile
At the travel show the next day, two of the cutest little girls I’ve even seen dropped by our booth with their parents and invited me home for popcorn and to watch my show (as they do each weekend).
And while I was getting my colonoscopy, the doctor couldn’t stop raving about my show. After he administered my anesthesia, I was lying in the hospital bed cloaked only in a skimpy robe. He asked me to roll over, and all I remember was him saying, “So, my wife and I are going to Paris next month. We’re staying on the Left…” I woke up with a clean bill of colon health.
During my time in Cuba, I encountered no animosity toward Americans. There are plenty of pro-Revolution billboards, but no anti-USA or anti-Imperialism messages. A few posters were anti-US embargo, and one person said, after learning that I was American, “Oh, you start the wars.” But mostly I heard one predictable refrain: We Cubans love the American people. (Another added, “And if we don’t get our American movie at the theater each week, we complain loudly.”)
Photo: The Travelphile
Bureaucracy in Cuba is maddening — especially without computers. It takes half an hour (with fancy papers to fill out in duplicate and passports to photocopy) to buy a simple SIM card for your phone. At the bank, a policeman lets people in a few at a time as customers leave. Then, at the counter, the teller holds each $20 bill up to the window to check for tears and watermarks.
A tenet of the Revolution has always been that everyone should own their own home. But to protect workers from tycoons who might amass lots of real estate, there has been no sale of property. The notion of real estate sales is just starting, and mortgages remain a foreign concept. As getting wealthy is discouraged, if you have lots of money, you’re wise to stow it safely at home rather than in the bank.
Regular Cubans shop at street markets, at carts in the street, and at places where food rations are distributed. Grocery stores are for those with more money — as the prices here are not that much different from in the USA. Still, a stroll through a grocery store gives a fascinating insight into a society without a free market, where advertising is discouraged, and where supply and demand are often ignored.
The store reminded me of similar stores in the USSR 30 years ago: almost no variety…just long rows of very basic products with labels seemingly produced by some tasteless government bureaucrat. Milk was milk — there wasn’t a hint of any varieties of milk.
The meat section consisted of long, empty shelves, with just a few baloney sausages at the end.
The cereal lane had four different brands, each more sugary than Lucky Charms.
The only impressive selection was in the liquor corner, where rum was plentiful, varied, and cheap (at $5 for a top-end bottle).
Two of the most striking buildings in Havana are the embassies of Russia and the USA. Immediately after Castro’s victory in 1960, there was hope of a friendly relationship between Cuba and the United States. But after a battle of wills over issues of Cuban independence, neither party blinked, and Cuba saw little choice but to jump into the USSR’s sphere of influence.
Soviet aid came with pressure to become more communist, and Cuba became both radicalized and addicted to Moscow’s support. When the USSR fell apart, Cuba was abandoned economically.
In the 1990s, with no help from Russia and the USA hell-bent on Cuba’s economic ruin, Cuba entered an era of extreme austerity called the “Special Period.” A lack of fuel made many forms of farming impossible. Locals survived mostly on basic produce — with almost no access to protein or sugar (some people resorted to eating cats). Today people recall how there was no traffic in the streets of Havana…just starving people walking like aimless skeletons down empty, unlit lanes.
While the Cuban people have little money, I sensed no angry edge to the poverty and felt safe on the streets. While Havana is as poor as other Latin American capitals, after dark I’d much rather be walking there than in Guatemala City, Managua, or San Salvador (where I felt very unsafe).
There was something strikingly proud and dignified about the Cuban people I met. They earn about $30 a month beyond all of their government entitlements (subsidized housing, utilities, food, education, and health care), and they seem to accept that. Communism has trained them to look to the state for handouts…and has demoralized any interest in working hard to get ahead. As I’ve noted, rather than compare their lot to workers in the USA, it seems fair to compare Cuba to other Central American countries where workers are just as poor (but in dangerous worlds without health care or education). The situation depressed me (as all of Latin America does in this regard), but it was clearly different. It was confusing and perplexing…and maddening.
Hugo Chávez is a hero to the Cuban people. The late leader of oil-rich Venezuela kept the Cuban economy afloat with cheap oil and financial aid. Cuba would return the favor as best it could with its most valuable resource: well-trained doctors and nurses. To this day, you see lots of billboards expressing gratitude for Venezuelan aid.
Photo: The Travelphile
Strolling along Havana’s harborfront promenade, the Malecón, you reach the new US Embassy (formerly known as the US Interests Section). It opened in 2015 with President Obama’s softening of relations. The finest (and seemingly most fortified) building in town flies the Stars and Stripes and faces a plaza of flagpoles. When I was there, of the dozens of poles, only one sported a flag: Cuba’s, with the same red, white, and blue…but just one big star. The symbolism is clear: Cuba stands alone. (Depending on your view, they’ve either opted out of the global rat race, or have been excluded by the American embargo.) It’s as if the two flags just don’t know what to do: Is this a showdown at the OK Corral? Or perhaps two awkward potential partners on a dance floor?
On the plaza facing the US embassy, the wall read Patria o Muerte (“Fatherland or Death”) and Venceremos (“We will overcome”). As in other Latin American countries, the shiny new embassy is designed to instill fear and respect among locals. (My local guide waited with our taxi four blocks away while I went up to chat with the embassy guard.)
Although it’s a huge city, Havana feels like a collection of neighborhoods — each with its own small-town character and vibrant market. And a delightful experience is to simply wander through a neighborhood farmers market. Taxis are so inexpensive, we’d just hire one and hand the driver a list of places we wanted to visit (gleaned from our guidebook and advice from our B&B hosts), then enjoy a stop-and-go morning.
(By the way, I’m just starting a two-week series of posts from Cuba. This promises to be a great adventure through a mysterious-to-most-Americans island that’s just now opening up to regular tourism. I hope to post twice a day for the next two weeks here on my blog and on Facebook. Please share this with any traveling friends interested in venturing to Cuba.)