A cruise (Norwegian) took us to Havana for 28 whole hours. Not much at all, but at least there was an overnight in Cuba instead of just a few hours of one afternoon. There’s so much I didn’t see, haven’t figured out, and want to learn more about. And that’s just in Havana – not the rest of the country.
Because I walked everywhere I could (except a short bit on a group tour bus after our walking tour), I only saw Old Havana and a little farther into the Centro area of the city. Next time I want to see things further; take a colectivo taxi to the Vedado area, see the university and the cemetery, take the ferry to Reina or Casablanca across the bay…so much more to see and do. And I also need to learn some Spanish, because being able to say hello and thank you is NOT enough. I mean, I knew this before the trip but I could only pack so many Duolingo lessons into my life (and now I know how to say “he eats apples” but that didn’t come in handy). The successful conversations I had with Cubans were few and involved much miming, sadly. But I tried and I want to do better next time.
This post is not a review of anything in particular or a place to air my opinions on politics and history (I have to educate myself much more – I don’t claim to understand all the sides of the Cuba Conundrum), but more of a list of things I learned/confirmed that I thought other first time travelers to Havana might find useful. I DO think it is worth a trip to learn the culture and history and interact with the Cuban people, even with all the hoops U.S. citizens have to go through to be a legal visitor. I won’t go into all that either, because I’m no authority – I just did what I was told was required of me. You can also fly there from the U.S. but there are definitely benefits to cruising (although the drawback is a short time there).
- The Money Situation: Yes, you really can’t get Cuban currency anywhere ahead of time. Yes, there really is a 10% penalty when you exchange U.S. Dollars. Whether it makes financial sense to exchange U.S. dollars for Canadian or Euros before the trip really depends on how much you’ll get charged for that exchange and what the exchange rate currently is, as well as how much money we’re talking about. For example, I exchanged 40 U.S. to 36 CUC (the currency visitors are supposed to use) in the cruise ship terminal after going through customs, knowing if I wanted more I could exchange more later. Losing those couple of dollars in the exchange was way worth it compared to the hassle of changing money at my bank (which charged a $15 fee) for the amount of money I was using. I did ask to exchange some CUC to CUP (the currency Cubas are supposed to use) but I was told I would have to go to an exchange elsewhere for that. Didn’t say I couldn’t have it, but I couldn’t get it there. I didn’t really need it anyway, although prices were sometimes confusing to me if something didn’t specifically state CUC or CUP. Plus, if I were given coins as change, I had no idea if they were CUC or CUP. I tried to not be a dumb American, but sometimes I am.
Our guide mentioned that really, some people would be willing to take foreign currency but that was not our experience. Especially my dad, who had brought Canadian dollars with him and didn’t have time to exchange before our tour. I actually swapped a $5 for 5CUC with a woman because she said she had no way to exchange it. At least, that’s what our poor mimed/Spanglish conversation made it out to be. She pointed to her uniform saying “when they see this, no.” So I don’t know if Cubans are not allowed to have American currency or if it’s just not worth all the penalties to exchange.
- The Bathroom Situation: If you’re THAT kind of person, this is not going to make you happy. You know what I mean – the ones who cringe at the thought of using a port-o-potty and would never squat in the woods. The bathrooms are as clean as they can be and usually have running water in the toilet but not necessarily the sink. Bring hand sanitizer. Bring toilet paper or Kleenex and you will NOT put it in the toilet but in the trash can. I know that freaks people out but don’t clog up Cuba’s plumbing, they have enough problems. Bring peso coins because I didn’t see one bathroom during this trip that didn’t have a little old lady manning the door and they deserve your pesos. One bathroom I used, the lady had to go in after every person and stick her hand in the tank to lift up the flapper to make it flush. Every. Time. I saw a guy offer a pen instead of a peso and I was like, really dude? I handed her a pack of tampons for the guy because I heard they were hard (or impossible) to come by. Not useful for her but maybe a family member or to sell. She and her friend looked confused and another round of What Are We Saying ensued as she mimed placing one under her arm and I pointed out the correct area and we all laughed. I left a box in every bathroom I visited. I’m the Tampon Queen of Havana now I think. Often, the ladies have a small portion of toilet paper to give out so you may get lucky if you forget the Kleenex. I also don’t think I saw one toilet with a toilet seat so practice your hover technique. If you go shopping in the market a few blocks from the cruise ship terminal, those are the best I saw and even had small bars of soap next to the sink. But always remember to bring the pesos, please.
- Check Out the Grafitti: There is some amazing street art out there. This is relatively new to have graffiti touching on social issues and for the most part, it is being tolerated by authorities. Google “Cuban graffiti” for very interesting articles on some artists and their work. Street art is one of the things I’m always taking pictures of when I travel and Havana has some of the best.
- Water: Don’t do it. This was the biggest topic of conflicting information I read about before the trip. So we asked our guide if the water was safe to drink. NO, he said, not until you boil it and add a little chlorine bleach. Especially in the summer. Buy a bottled/canned drink; don’t ruin your trip with giardia or some other beastie.
- Politics: I said I wouldn’t talk about politics, but I guess I meant I wouldn’t give you my opinion on political issues. Cuba got a new president last Thursday! He wasn’t elected by the people exactly – the people get to vote in provincial elections. The new president was not a surprise; they’ve known this was happening for some time. Two different people, I asked about how they felt getting a new president. Both grimaced and said things would be no different. I found out Cubans dislike Trump and overall love Obama, except for his ending of the “wet foot dry foot” policy. In my self-centered American mind, I didn’t even realize that was the name of the policy that allowed Cubans resident status if they made it to American soil, and that it had ended. One of the many reasons I want to learn more about Cuba and the history it has, with and without the United States.
- Safety: I thought I was done 2 bullet points ago but I keep thinking of things to add. I was reading an update on a new favorite blog, Here is Havana and it touched on a misconception we have about violence. Americans are getting extremely used to random acts of violence and I think that does not help how we see the rest of the world. I would never tell you not to be wary wherever you travel and to use common sense, but gun violence? Not in Havana. Crimes of opportunity like getting a pocket picked? Sure. But some civilian asshole walking into a school or store and gunning down people? Nope.