Cuba turned out to be all those things, but its daily reality was sometimes far from what the idyllic travel DVDs and guide books portrayed. This would rarely always be a 3-week vacation in paradise.
After Barack Obama's visit to Cuba in early 2016, and the resumption of air travel from U.S. destinations, my assumption seemed to be that Cuba was now ready for prime-time-- the onslaught of U.S. visitors to come. Even though Europeans and Canadians had been visiting the island for years, the American media made it sound as if Cuba had been jumping through a number of hoops and infrastructure upgrades to prepare for opening its doors to the U.S.
To best support and interact with the Cuban people directly (and minimize support of any state-owned businesses), we opted to stay at private Cuban homes ("Casas Particulares") rather than big hotels, eat at smaller private-owned restaurants, and take private-owned rather than state-run taxis whenever possible.
Ursula planned out an itinerary that would take us to Havana, the northern village of Viñales, the central/west towns of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, and the northeast beach town of Varadero. We decided to fly via Interjet (the Mexican equivalent to Southwest Airlines), a discount carrier that offered leather seats, free drinks/snacks, and free bags.
On the day after Thanksgiving, we took a cab to Mexico City's airport to await our flight to Havana. The International terminal was crammed full of luxury shops and cafe's (equal to anything seen in the U.S.), and even offered free WiFi.
Our flight to Havana was comfortable and uneventful. We each had been sure to buy bottles of water and extra snacks before boarding...one never knows what delays can occur during air travel, so it's best to always be prepared! Ursula also had wisely pre-booked a private taxi (via the Casa Particular booking website) who would meet us at the Havana airport and take us to our Casa.
The reality of Cuba started to hit fairly soon after we departed the plane into the terminal at Havana. Cuba was not quite the dreamy "Buena Vista Social Club" destination we'd imagined-- it was still very much a third-world Communist nation, with all the challenges to which that entails.
The Havana airport was as welcoming as mid-1970's Moscow-- utilitarian and drab. No shops whatsoever to buy a souvenir or newspaper; no fast food stalls to buy food or water (to be fair, though, no arriving foreigners had any Cuban money yet, so this was understandable I guess). The women's restroom seemed clean and somewhat modern-- auto-flushing toilets in each stall. But I noticed that all the soap & towel dispensers were empty, and had not been filled in quite some time.
The baggage claim area also seemed somewhat modern at first glance-- an automated carousel whisked around in a long oval while passengers waited for bags to start flowing. It was soon apparent, though, that there was only one small baggage vehicle transporting bags from the plane to the carousel, as only a couple dozen bags would spill onto the carousel at one time, followed by a long wait for the next load to arrive.
This was a theme that we'd see over and over again in Cuba-- broken and/or non-existent infrastructure.
Cuba Customs officials were like none I'd ever seen before-- mostly young women wearing tight, short-skirt uniforms and fishnet stockings. I imagined they were hired and supervised by some fat, old man-- surely, a cigar-smoking distant relative of Castro! Despite their risque uniforms, the young women worked efficiently, stamped our visas, and let us proceed without much hassle or delay.
At the airport lobby, there was a crowd of a few dozen taxi drivers holding client name signs. Thankfully, one was ours! He didn't speak much English, but managed to direct us outside to 2 long lines of travelers waiting to exchange money for Cuban currency.
As everything in Cuba requires cash, and there is no option to get this currency in advance outside of Cuba, we had no choice but to stand in line and wait. The Cuban government poses a 10% surcharge on any U.S. currency exchanges, so we wisely had converted our US Dollars to Euros before leaving the U.S. Travel websites mentioned that Mexican Pesos were also subject to the 10% surcharge, but we saw no evidence of that at the counter, so we probably could have been o.k. converting either Pesos or Euros.
As we waiting in the currency exchange line, at least we got to experience our first sunset in Cuba!
Once we were finally flush with cash, our taxi driver went to retrieve his car. We assumed he'd just have some run-of-the-mill kind of vehicle, and were thrilled and delighted when he drove up his lovingly-restored classic 50's car. It had a new custom leatherette interior (including the trunk!), and was illuminated with LED lights.
As we drove into downtown Havana, the driver explained to Hans that most classic American cars have been converted to newer engines and transmissions. His car was rebuilt with a BMW diesel motor.
That sure explained the toxic fumes we smelled along the busier streets of Havana. If one ever wonders why cars in the U.S. require so many filters and emissions systems, just spend a day trying to breathe the air in Havana without gagging. Here, all cars belch out stinky smoke from their exhausts-- Cuba is what a country without an E.P.A. and clean air/water regulations looks (and smells) like...and it's not a tropical paradise!
After about a 30-minute drive, we arrived to the Habana Vieja ("Old Havana") neighborhood, and were welcomed by our hosts Lili and Manolo to their Casa Particular. They were a very friendly couple, probably in their late 60's or early 70's, who unfortunately spoke almost no English. Time to fire up our offline Google Translate app!
Our casa was a private, 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartment with a kitchen, living room and balcony. Lili and Manolo had a similar apartment on the floor above us. While it was clean and comfortable, it was far from U.S. (or even Mexican) standards. This would also be a recurring theme-- while there are thousands of Casas Particulares operating throughout Cuba, it is nearly impossible for owners to find and purchase things like new furniture, mattresses, and linens for their casas, so they must do as best they can with (mostly) pre-Revolution furnishings.
The sagging furniture beneath the throw blankets in our living room was vintage 1950's, as was the apartment building. There had been a lot of prosperity in this city back then...and it'd not been seen since.
By the time we unpacked, it was nearly 8:00pm and we were starved. Manolo gave us the name of a nearby restaurant that would be about an 8-block walk.
While the colorful old, crumbling, colonial buildings are a photographer's dream during daylight, at night, this neighborhood seemed as comforting as bombed out Beirut. The streets were minimally lit, and barely inhabited. We weren't sure if we were walking through a good part of town, or a very, very bad part.
Fortunately, we arrived to the restaurant unharmed, and the food was good and quite filling. As we'd not seen any corner stores (or stores of any kind) along our walk, and we were all almost out of drinking water, we bought a few extra bottles from the restaurant to take home.
We later learned that street crime in Cuba is very rare (one benefit of a communist dictatorship), so there was nothing to be afraid of in walking these city streets at night. Even families with small children would be outdoors walking at night.
We arrived back to our casa, with our basic needs of food, water, and shelter met. We had survived our first night in Havana! Tomorrow, we'd venture out to hunt and gather more food and water, and hopefully start seeing a few sights of the city as well.