Traveling to Cuba
Cuba…a place I’ve wanted to go probably because it has been off limits to Americans and from what I have seen on TV, the culture seems interesting. As such, I googled a variety of trips…cruises, dive trips and others. I was somewhat interested in a photography trip, but I didn’t find one and instead stumbled across a vacation offered by Intrepid Travel.
While I had never heard of this travel company, I really liked the activities offered on their “people-to-people” exchange, one of the restricted ways Americans are able to travel to Cuba. It was one of the few itineraries I found that didn’t require us to go to the University to listen to a lecture. In addition, the trip included home stays which intrigued me.
My travels started off on a red-eye from Denver to Miami on Frontier Airlines. I had never flown this budget airline, and had I known the seats didn’t recline, I likely wouldn’t have booked an overnight flight! Otherwise, I found the staff to be extremely kind and helpful, and I think I would appreciate the seats being stuck in the upright position on a daytime flight.
Miami to Havana is a short, 40-minute flight. As we taxied up to the small building on our left, I noticed a much larger building to our right (important to know for later). We deplaned and passed through immigration into baggage claim. In order to get to baggage claim, we had to place our carry-ons through a security scanner.
I picked my backpack up on the other side after I was wanded as the 20 cents in my pocket set off the metal detector. I strolled around a little trying to determine on which of the two carousels my bag would arrive. I had read this could take hours, but hoped differently. While waiting, I walked into the bathroom where an attendant provided my toilet paper, and upon exiting, the security guard met at the door and asked me to come with her by wave of her hand. Asking “why” didn’t get me anywhere.
I followed her back to security so they could look through my bag! I thought to myself, they sure had plenty of time to do this earlier. On no sleep, I was moving quite slowly. She unzipped the bag, but once she realized how stuffed it was, she questioned “La Ta?” as she handed me the bag to remove it. I was allowed to touch my own bag…quite different from the States…as I pulled out my laptop and was sent on my way.
I thought I would try to change money while I waited but couldn’t find a place in the baggage claim area, so I wandered around and found the board to see if Page’s flight on Delta was on time. A Delta flight did not appear. Then I spotted a desk by the carousels and noticed they were collecting one of the two forms I filled out on the plane. I opted to turn it in even though they I’d passed by it several times previously where they didn’t make much of an attempt to retrieve it.
Eventually, I got my bag, it probably took at least thirty minutes, maybe longer, but not hours, so that was a relief. I was beginning to worry about it anyway, as it appeared to be one of the only bags not wrapped in twenty layers of blue cellophane with names inked across them. Apparently, the Cubans were bringing in quite a few items to declare, including eggs! Fortunately, I had nothing to declare and cruised outside into a crowd of people.
Peering around the masses, I found a young man holding a sign, “Elizabeth Bankhead” and “Page Tredennick”. In broken English, he asked, “Where’s Page?” I shrugged, “Otra aerolinea…Delta.” His eyes widened, and he immediately made a phone call as he told me, “Otra terminal.” While he called his company, I went to change money. There is a 10% penalty to change US dollars and ATM machines don’t accept cards from American Banks, so I had to exchange Dollars for Euros before I left the USA and exchange Euros for CUC (the tourist peso and 24 times more valuable than the CUP which is the local, Cuban currency). Had I realized the money exchange was to the left of immigration, I would have stopped here first, given I was going to have to wait for my bag anyway.
I asked my driver if we were going to pick up “mi amiga”, and he said another person would. I couldn’t imagine how that would work well as she had already landed (assuming her flight was on time). It turns out that it didn’t work well!
Home Stay at Casa Obrapía
I was driven to our home stay at Casa Obrapía in an old car which was in immaculate condition on the inside, though needed some wax on its exterior. My driver rolled my bag to a non-descript door on a somewhat run down street, and said, “here”. A man inside, carried my bag up a flight of stairs where I checked in by handing over my passport for scanning. Then a lady waved for me to follow her.
We proceeded back down the steep stairwell, this time I had my bag in tow, we walked a few doors down to an attached building, and she pulled out a set of five keys, each color coded. She pointed at the first key…and I said, “naranja.” She nodded yes as she let me into a stark, dank hallway.
We walked up a set of stairs, then some more, and some more. Four flights later and definitely not handicapped accessible, I finally got to set my bag down. The black key opened the iron door, the green key opened the apartment door, the silver key opened the room door, and the funky key opened the safe! I read in travel books and in the information from the travel company that Cuba was safe, but multiple locks later, made me feel skeptical.
Our apartment that we were sharing with the Deardorffs, who had yet to arrive, seemed like it was still under construction. The living space included a love seat draped in a blanket, a small coffee table and a fan. The walls were stark white with no decorations. The kitchen area included a sink, though no other appliances were installed. Sliding glass doors to a balcony provided a view of the colorful street below.
Hotel Parque Central
I slowly piddled around in my room with two mattresses on the floor, a nice tiled bathroom that wreaked of sewer, and a small refrigerator as I waited on Page who was taking an inordinate amount of time. Sleepless and hungry, I finally wrote her a note that I was going to walk up to the Hotel Parque Central to use the wifi in order to see if I was able to confirm our car tour.
The nice lady who showed me to my room stopped cleaning Erin and Brian’s room to point me in the right direction. I joined mobs of people on Obispo Street which I later discovered was the “main drag” in Old Havana or Habana Vieja as I walked four blocks to an absolutely magnificent hotel. I wondered what I had gotten us into by using Intrepid. The hotel had two business centers and charged non-guests three times as much for an internet card as hotel guests. The first offer was for a card that worked for five hours for $15CUC. I said, I only needed the internet for five minutes and was pointed to another business center where I could get a card for an hour for $4.50CUC. What I didn’t understand, but found out later when I sent Erin and Brian over there for internet is the card works anywhere in Cuba (assuming there is a tower nearby), and the time doesn’t have to be used all at once. Also, I think 5 hours was $10CUC, but the actual price of the card is $1.5CUC per hour which can be found in other places though sometimes there is a long line. Oh well, it was nice to be away from all the online USA politics for a week.
I think I was too tired and hungry to deal with it all, and I didn’t want Page to go off somewhere without me as I forgot to write the current time on my note, so I ditched the effort and walked back. Page had just arrived when I returned. Poor thing! One of her bags had fallen off the baggage carousel so she couldn’t find it for a while. Then of course, there was no one there to pick her up. After waiting an hour and not speaking the language, she finally got shuffled to two different travel agencies that helped her get to our homestay which I had fortunately asked for it name from Intrepid for the previous day. Luckily she is a seasoned traveler, so it was more of a nuisance rather than a terrifying experience it may have been for others.
Lunch on Obispo St
I would have been grouchy by then, but she took it in stride and joined me for some food at a restaurant with a loud band! I’ve forgotten the name of the place, but it was one of many restaurants to choose from on Obispo St between our home stay and the Hotel Parque Central. We ate quickly as I wanted to return to the house for the two-o-clock, unconfirmed scheduled tour. I sent an email at the last minute as the previous car-tour didn’t have availability, so I wasn’t sure what would happen. Given there are old car taxis on every corner, I wasn’t too concerned as we could just walk back to Hotel Parque Central and get a ride. No car was in front of our door at 2pm, so we returned to Hotel Parque Central to negotiate a ride to Finca La Vigía, Hemingway’s House. The negotiation to get to his house was quick, as soon as we arrived at the corner, a rain shower dumped on us. Fortunately, Ricardo pulled up the top, wiped down the seats, and “safely” secured the roof with a string around his rear-view mirror. While I would have liked to ride in a pristine, pink Bel Air, beggars can’t be choosers, and we rode in a pock marked, red, push start Pontiac. I don’t even know the year. In fact, I know so little about cars, it shouldn’t have mattered to me at all. I just liked the pink cars.
Finca La Vigía
After just a few blocks of rain, the skies cleared. Ricardo graciously pulled over, untied the roof, and prepared us for a slow drive out to Finca La Vigía. I’m not sure we got above 15 miles per hour!
Hemingway’s House is located in the small, working class town of San Francisco de Paula, nine miles away from the capital city. Hemingway purchased his house in 1940 for $12,500 after visiting Cuba a few times to fish. He preferred to live among those with whom he spent his time fishing. It was here where Hemingway wrote to of his most famous novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. I can’t say I found Hemingway’s house, cat cemetery and boat to be too exciting, though I suppose for a huge Hemingway fan, seeing the house exactly as he left it before he killed himself would be a treat. Unfortunately, entry into the house was not allowed, so we had to squeeze in between the hordes of visitors to look through the windows.
We found the drive around Havana and the Malecon much more interesting, and if I had to do it over again, I probably would have chosen this option for a much cheaper price. Having said that, I was happy to see another part of Cuba. After our two-hour jaunt with Ricardo, we stopped in at El Floridita a loud and crowded bar that Hemingway used to frequent. We decided it was a little much for us, so we returned to Hotel Parque Central for a quiet drink before we met Erin and Brian back at the apartment just before our six o-clock group orientation meeting.
This meeting is always my least favorite part of guided tours as it always seems to last twice as long as necessary, and there is always someone who has to ask 100 questions that was already answered in the material provided. Fortunately, this one wasn’t too bad, though it was easy to tell who the loud mouths were going to be on our tour. Even so, we ran out of time, and walked at steady clip through a crowded street to NaO.
This was a nice paladar (self-owned not government owned restaurant) near the end of Obispo Street not far from the Malecon where many walk along the water at night. We took up most of the upstairs, along with a loud band, a common theme among restaurants! We ordered some empanadas, ceviche, lobster and paella. The ceviche was out-of this- world good. In fact, it may have been the best I’ve had. Our seafood paella was tasty and while the lobster looked fancy and spectacular, it was a somewhat large and tough. Regardless, it was a nice first evening and by the time 10pm rolled around, I was out cold. ETB
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