Cuba: a trip down the time capsule
There’s no mistake. Landing in Havana definitely is like landing in a different country, and a different time era.
Gone are the TSA lines in LAX. There isn’t much signage in HAV. It’s hard even to tell who’s an official and who’s not. Right outside the airport, I asked a man wearing a yellow uniform for direction, thinking he was a security guard, but it turns out he was just a taxi driver.
Before even leaving the airport, we had our first “shady” experience. Right next to the official cambio (currency exchange), there was an ATM, guarded by a tall, built, and intimidating guy wearing a blue button-up and a woman with a badge. They came up to everyone in line, and discretely asked if anyone is exchanging USDs to CUCs. They offered a 90CUC/100USD conversion rate, as compared to the 87CUC/100USD official rate.
Some other tourists in line took him up on his offer. I knew, because they huddled by the ATM, counted money, shook hands, and happily walked away. I was skeptical. What’s even more odd is when we got to the counter, even the official foreign exchange guy said that he’s willing to verify the money is real if we do business with the shady guy. Alright then…
Cautiously, we exchanged 100 USD, and poured over the CUCs to check it looked real. Then another 100, and another. Soon enough, our group exchanged almost 1,000 USD with him. It turned out that we were not scammed, and that these people had ways of using USDs in businesses so they can undercut the government rate. Our first people-to-people experience.
We didn’t stay in Habana Vieja the first night, but rather at a well-reviewed Airbnb in the “suburb”. Well, turns out it’s more of a mansion — a huge colonial house, with two friendly locals taking care of us. High ceilings, ornate decorates, many rooms, and even jacuzzis. One can only imagine the wealth that used to flow through Havana in times past.
A few welcome drinks on the lovely balcony later, we were on our way to see a contemporary, modern side of Cuba and Havana — and perhaps even an inkling of what things will look like in the future.
We had dinner reservations at El Cocinero, a well acclaimed modern restaurant. Located in an old factory wit an iconic chimney, lines of classic-car taxis outside, and posh decor and service, it’s like the 798 of Cuba. At 15 CUCs for a lobster, it’s good knowing that even the more expensive restaurants in Cuba isn’t outrageous. Alas, the food was average. Over the trip, I’ve come to realize the star of Cuban cuisine is still in its traditional flavors, but it’s great to see experimental modern cuisine take place.
After dinner, we went next door to F.A.C. (Fabrica de Arte Cubano), which has got to be one of the coolest modern art galleries in the world! Dark and edgy paintings, thought-provoking sculptures, recorded videos, live orchestral performance, and DJ’ed music intermix to create a sensory experience. All local artists.
You get a punch card when you go in. Throughout the gallery, you can get cheap food and drinks — mojito and rum included, of course — and pay when you exit. It sure added to the experience!
I love modern art. It’s one of the rare mediums that allows people to express their angst, frustration, hopes, and aspiration in a relative safe environment. The art at F.A.C. seems to represent the voice of a generation of young Cuban, broadcasting to the outside world their vision of what the future holds.
A first night in Cuba wouldn’t be complete without without classic car ride, cigars, and rum. We cruised home in style, stopped to acquire some choice poisons, and headed up to the balcony to enjoy the balmy Caribbean night. It’s somewhat ironic — in a country that only recently opened up, I felt so free and carefree.
A true(?) taste of Cuba
Next morning, we woke up to a beautiful and delicious breakfast spread prepared by our host.
Our day is packed with a walking tour of Old Havana, led by a passionate and enigmatic tour guide, Alan. I say enigmatic because his English is pretty much perfect, he wears a shirt from a Dallas Shooting Club, and is so passionate about Cuba’s future that one might mistake him as a revolutionary leader. What’s for certain though is his generosity in sharing personal stories and knowledge about Cuba’s turbulent modern history and culture with us.
Architecturally, Havana is beautiful. Colonial architecture blends in with buildings from its capitalist era. Being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982, Old Havana itself was well protected with an old-world Caribbean charm. Colorful walls and murals. Classic cars. Locals minding their own business intermixed with tourists and the tourism industry.
We also got to try traditional Cuban cuisine. The ropa vieja was an immediate hit, as well as an ubiquitous local blend of rice and beans that was delicious!
It turns out there’s plenty to see in Old Havana. After hours of walking amidst alleyways, plazas, and castles, we were exhausted. We sought for a place to wind down the evening, but the classic establishments of La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita were jam-packed. Instead, we followed our ears. The sound of salsa led us to a strip of restaurant and bars, festive with a live salsa band playing and people dancing. Perfecto!
What a day it was! We learned so much about Cuban history and living under communist rule. There’s striking parallel to what China went through before opening up in the 1980s. A skeptical part of us wanted to hear the other perspective, but I suppose it’s hard to really get a full perspective on such a short trip. One fun tidbit though we learned — if a house has a jacuzzi, it’s likely that the person living there is a secret police. Hmm… our Airbnb “mansion” definitely had more than a few jacuzzis.
Viñales valley and tobacco farming
Our third day was dedicated to Viñales, a different part of Cuba outside the hustle bustle. At the awfully early hour of 7am, we packed up and started the 3 hour drive to Viñales Valley — another UNESCO World Heritage site — known for its maintenance of traditional tobacco agriculture and its natural scenery.
It turns out, the best way to explore Viñales is horseback riding, which allowed us to cover expanses with (relative) ease. Some of the paths were definitely less than hiking friendly! So for the next 5 hours, we befriended our 1-HP horse and trekked amidst the greens.
Whereas if rice paddies blanket the farmland in Southeast Asia, lush green tobacco plants cover the land in this part of Cuba. They look so healthy! We learned that of a typical season’s yields, the farm needs to give 90% of its crop to the government. But nowadays, it also gets to keep 10% of the tobacco for sale and personal use.
We visited a traditional tobacco drying shack. Growing and processing the tobacco is a delicate process. Once the leaves are fully grown, they need to be quickly harvested, and then hang dried. The grades of tobacco emerge after drying, when the leaves turn different colors and darkness; different grades of tobacco go towards different cigars — some smokier, some smoother. At the farm, they are collected and sent to government-owned tobacco factories, which are the made into the branded cigars that command high premiums.
Some — the 10% farmers get to keep themselves — are naturally processed and rolled into cigars right on the spot at the factory. The farmers actually take out the stem of the leaves, where 65% of the nicotine is concentrated, and rolls them into natural cigars. I didn’t know that a cigar is entirely made of just tobacco leaves, literally no other added ingredients! “Farm to table” at its finest. These natural cigars last 4–5 years when properly stored, while the factory cigars with preservatives added can last 10+ years stored.
Heading back to Havana, we decided to spend our last night in Old Havana itself, when the only hiccup of the trip happened. When we arrived at the casa, we were locked out and our host was nowhere to be found. I guess our arrival details got lost in transition (and poor Internet). But this being Cuba, the sense of community is strong.
Just as we were standing around cluelessly, a friendly neighbor told us that our host was 1 hour away and on her way. So we made our way to a nearby restaurant and had some dinner. The situation quickly diffused itself when we realized the apartment had an amazing rooftop to hang out.
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We had a quest for our last day: “peso pizza”. Some backstory first.
You see, Cuba has two currencies, the CUC which is a currency for tourists and what you use to pay for majority of goods and services, and the CUP (aka moneda nacional, pesos, the local currency) for locals to buy everything. 1 CUC = 25 CUP. I heard there are these small hold-in-the-wall cafeterias that serve food for locals, and they only take CUPs. Sounds like a cheap and truly authentic local experience!
On our first day, we spent a good 20 minutes in a bank to exchange some CUC into CUPs. On this last day, we needed to use them. So we walked all over Old Havana, looking for places that take pesos.
Seek, and you shall find. First, we found a sandwich shop that sold ham and cheese sandwiches for 10 CUPs (4o¢ USD). And then another shop that sold them for 5 CUPs (20¢ USD). And then finally, the creme de la crop cafeteria that sold the peso pizza, topped with Cuban “chorizo” for 20 CUPs (8o¢ USD). Mission accomplished!
After we had some lunch and cigar shopping later, we concluded our trip and headed out to the airport.
Our Cuba trip was a huge success. Traveling in a large group of friends (6 people) was so much fun! It’s also a special trip by accident — I left my phone charger so my phone was out of commission. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was just that much easier to focus on the present.
We learned and experienced an incredible amount of Cuban culture, strolled through history, consumed a large amount of rum, and fully disconnected.
Thanks for taking all the pictures here, guys!