Walking into parts of Havana, Cuba is like time traveling in three distinct eras. Aligned along cobblestone streets are neoclassical buildings hinting an old Spain when Moors dominated politics and education. The architecture of ornate eaves and chiseled balconies lend to a baroque style of gaudy and dopeness rolled into puro cigars.
While you take in the majestic aura of Old Havana, a pristine 1950s Chevrolet passes by nodding to the production of long-lasting classic cars from the manufacturing lines of Detroit.
Cuba is an interactive car museum filled with Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Fords and Chevy automobiles that flooded the streets five decades ago indicating the last time the island thrived in international trade.
Once you round a corner, any corner, you are bombarded with the pulse of the island—music. From salsa to Afro-Cuban jazz to Orisha folkloricos, the sounds of the rich musical history thumb through the streets and local clubs day and night.
But Cuba’s dreamy old world is far from magical. Years of economic embargoes have stunted its development. Although a resourceful island that produced a medical industry outperforming American hospitals, the strain of limited commercial trade evidences itself in the everyday barters of living.
Americans often think of Cuba as this taboo, this red light district with decades-long travel restrictions that intrigue the imagination to visit. However, traveling there is far from romantic as travelers must deal with island realities faced by its citizens.
Nonetheless, Cuba is one of the last vestiges of a revolutionary spirit of a people who refused to bend to Western powers that must be understood and experienced.
Tips for the Gringo Tourist
Indeed, Cuba is changing.
With the slow arrival of a private sector and new citizens (you can become a Cuban quick quick), the island shifts, but not as fast as you think.
Often American tourists who are spoiled with overly gracious hosts from other parts of the Caribbean enter into culture shock in Cuba. Nope, Cuba ain’t your Jamaica. Nonetheless, the people are extremely helpful and generous with their time and information on how to navigate the island.
Here are some tips to get you through:
They don’t want your American money. Cuba uses two monetary systems, one for visitors (Cuban convertible peso) and the other for locals (Cuban peso). The Cuban convertible peso or CUC is 25 times more valuable than the American dollar. One of the main reasons is that the dollar is hard to exchange.
Cuba does not have ATM machines or computers to quickly exchange money. It is all done by hand at banks where Cubans must wait in long lines. That is why when you go to Cuba they will look at American money in disgust. Some gringos have lost dollars attempting to trade with locals, but the CUC, the local currency is far weaker than the CUP. It is best to exchange money at the few exchange places on the island.
Cuba shares all its resources, even its food supplies. Because it is a socialist country, the state literally controls everything. The state-run economy employs a food distribution system in which residents receive food rations; therefore, restaurants and café menus change according to daily supplies.
One day, I overheard a gringo complaining that her meal did not have any vegetables, not even salad. I rolled my eyes. What we eat as tourists is a feast for Cubans living in the campesinos, the rural areas.
However, the food is fresh and organic. Tomatoes taste like they were grown in the ground. Fish is caught that morning from the Caribbean sea. Milk comes straight from a cow’s udder that morning. Pigs are cooked on an open pit and chickens are killed and prepared on site. And the food is made with love. Just be grateful when you eat it.
Rum: Have much of it.
The beautiful restored cars in Cuba are usually state-owned cabs leased by locals. They look stunning, but because they have literally been on the road for 50 years, they are rickety. The most informed person is a cab driver, so befriend one, and get great tips.
Safety: Like all human beings, there are incidents of crime; however, cabbies tell you the best parts.
Castro: You will highly likely never hear anyone disparage Fidel Castro. So leave those politics alone and enjoy.
No one can deny the rich musical tradition of Cuba. It is a highlight of the island that you must indulge. It says that throughout all of the year’s struggling to remain an independent nation, they maintained a sophisticated, and respected high art culture.