Cuba Road Trip

By Noah Graff

Center of Havana, Cuba. 2012

Now that United States has begun normalizing relations with Cuba, I get irritated at times when Americans who have never been there give me their predictions about the country’s future.

I’ve been to Cuba twice, both unbelievable experiences, and I will flat out say, you can’t understand what Cuba is like from watching the news. You can only get a good idea of the place by going there and talking to its people.

Both times I traveled to Cuba (illegally) I wanted to blog about my experiences, but we made a judgement at the time that it was best to keep it quiet, as it was breaking the law after all.

But now Cuba is becoming the good guy, so it’s time to give you the scoop.

As of today, Americans can still only go to Cuba legally if they travel with a chartered group, for instance a trip to tour the country’s art work or music, or a humanitarian mission. I traveled to Cuba in April 2012 and January 2014, and did it the cool, fun way. A friend and I flew to Cancun where we then connected to Havana on Cubana Aviación. When we arrived in Cancun we went to an office right next to the Cubana Aviación counter and in 2 minutes bought Cuban visas for $20. When we entered Cuba, customs stamped the visas instead of our passports—so Uncle Sam wouldn’t know. Of course, I’m sure the U.S. government has a record of our flight’s manifest, and I am definitely on a list of perpetrators that would materialize if I were nominated for the Supreme Court.

For my 10 days in Cuba, I brought a money belt with around $2,000 in cash. In Cuba they don’t take American credit cards or ATM cards. You pay for everything in cash, so you better bring more than enough, although if I needed cash there are many Western Unions over there. Once in Cuba a tourist must exchange their currency for CUCs, the Cuban currency for tourists. One CUC approximately equals a dollar. Cuban citizens use a second currency, the Cuban peso, also called a CUP. One CUP converts to around .25 CUCs. For this reason, some goods and services cost a quarter of the price for Cubans than for foreigners.

For tourist accommodations in Cuba there are two choices, staying in hotels run by the Cuban government, some that appear as though they haven’t been updated for decades, or renting a room in a casa particular, a house run by one of the luckier Cubans who inherited large digs following the revolution. I, of course, chose to stay in the warmer but more humble casa particulares, great places to meet Cuban people because the owners have nothing to do but sit around and guard the fort all day. One of the few legal private enterprises in Cuba, casa particulares cost approximately between $15 and $25 per night to rent a room. The owners cook great breakfasts or dinners for lodgers for around $5 a person. Our breakfasts usually consisted of an omelet, amazing fresh pineapple or guava juice, and café con leche. I was told that the casa particular owners have to pay a huge portion of their earnings to the government and have a limit of around $25 that they can charge lodgers. Most sources say that on average Cubans make $20 a month, in addition to some food staples and subsidies from the government. After all the money is taken from the casa particulares for taxes and maintenance, I’m guessing that many owners make only slightly more than the country’s average pay.

So how does it feel to actually be in Cuba? As I walked the streets of Havana, beautiful live latin music bombarded me, talented modern artists pedaled original paintings for a pittance from their studios, and tourists from around the world roamed next to me. I would walk past buildings falling apart surrounded by garbage that may have been abandoned for decades, and then I run into immaculate beautiful plazas that reminded me of those in European cities. But then I was reminded that I was indeed not in a European city when my Cuban private guide I had hired off the street (for $20 per day) was interrogated by the police who demanded to know why he was walking around with American tourists. The hated Cuban policemen roam everywhere, from the streets, to the parks to the beaches, there to make sure the Cuban people know their place, and to protect tourists like myself—one of the most important resources of the Cuban economy. The Cuban government tries to do all it can to please tourists, which is probably why it allows the casa particulares and paladars, family restaurants in people’s homes, the one other common legal private enterprise in Cuba.

I was pleasantly surprised at the calmness of my Dad, ever the worrier, when I told him I was going to Cuba. But as a culturally literate person, he knew that Cuba was one of the safest countries in the world. The safety is a result of Cuba’s ban on all elicit drugs and guns, and the fear of Cuban criminal punishment—I don’t know what it entails, but I’m sure it’s bad.

One of Noah’s hitchhikers in Cuba.

Enjoying our safe surroundings, my friend Al and I picked up a variety of hitchhikers on our 550 mile, 10 hour road trip from Havana to Santiago, the original Cuban city, which I personally preferred to Havana. We picked up all sorts of people along the way, including a lawyer, teenage school girls, and a Guajiro (farmer), who saved our butts when we had driven two hours in the wrong direction. We generally only offered rides to women, thinking that they would be safer, but several times when we asked men for directions, they would proclaim, “I’m going there!” Before we could say no they would literally jump into the backseat.

Cubans are some of the most outgoing people I have ever encountered, they are friendly and always willing to talk. Being from the United States people looked at us like exotic fruit. The U.S. is only 90 miles away, yet its people are banned from visiting. The Cubans wanted to know what the United States was like, women would half jokingly ask us to marry them, and every guy always had a beautiful cousin, or sister, or even fiancé they would offer to call at that moment to introduce us to. Sometimes I found it annoying, perhaps I disliked it because the desperation was so overt.

Some Cubans are outspoken and want to discuss politics, while many are content with talking about very little interesting. They have a talent for sitting around and doing virtually nothing for hours. Not one Cuban I spoke with said they liked their government or communism. They hate that they do not have the rights and freedoms found in Western countries. They hate that no matter how hard they work, they will not receive better pay. People told me that the Cuban newspapers blame the United States for the country’s problems, but they know it’s BS. Information about the outside world is impossible to block today. Tourists from all over the world tell Cubans what it is like elsewhere. Cubans buy bootlegged DVDs and listen to current music from around the world. Internet use there is extremely expensive and slow, but it exists.

People in Cuba told me that there will be a revolution there one day but nothing will change until Fidel is dead, wherever he is. One day soon I think the beauty and simplicity I found on my trips will be diminished. I don’t think the Cuban government is going to sell off the country to developers in the United States tomorrow. Right now a person must be Cuban to own property in Cuba. But things will change, and I hope in the end the Cuban people’s lives are improved. I loved going to a place with relatively few Americans, where I “wasn’t supposed to go.” In addition to enjoying Cuba’s beauty, history and energy, I loved visiting a place where Internet is scarce, 25 percent of cars are antiques, and where some women look at you like a rockstar just because you are from the United States.

But so what. That’s just my own selfish feelings. If the Cuban people will be better off with the United States lifting sanctions and allowing tourists to go to Cuba, then I feel good about it. I just hope that in the end, when the next revolution occurs, the Cuban people end up better off than they are now. To me that is far from certain.

Questions: Would you like to visit Cuba?

Are you happy the United States is renewing its relationship with Cuba?

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10 thoughts on “Cuba Road Trip

  1. AvatarPaul E.

    Very informative for the average American that has no clue about the Cuban situation.
    The money exchange rate is a bit off… 1 US Dollar = .82 CUC or Chavitos as they’re called in Cuba.
    The Cuban peso is worth basically nothing as it cannot be used even by Cuban to buy food, gas or to pay for hotels as they have all been converted to CUC currency to accommodate for the tourism industry and the exchange rate for CUC and Dollars to Cuban pesos is about 1 Dollar = 25 to 30 Cuban pesos
    One thing I assume you chose to leave out of your piece for whatever reason is high level or poverty, lack of infrastructure and a lot of other unsavory things like how you get stop ever so often by the police for a shakedown because you broke some traffic law it does not even exist, sure if you walk around the Malecon area ( the boardwalk ) of Havana, that has been somewhat cleaned off to make it attractive enough for tourist to walk by but the sad reality is that if you truly walk around Havana, by far you see more buildings in shambles and falling apart than anything else.
    I could go on and on about it but let’s leave it at that.
    Ps: I am Cuban, blessed and proud to be an American citizen ( The only reason I go to Cuba every 2 years is to visit family but I feel no pride for a country that chooses to repress and abuse its people )

    1. AvatarNoah Graff

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for you thoughts. I know the exchange rate is a bit off and some of the details are vague.

      Hard to fit it all in. So many interesting stories I could tell! A girl I met, stories of people trying to get off the island, a friend of a friend who has built a beautiful vacation house in Guanabo.

      One fascinating experience after another.

      And lots of poverty. Maybe I should have touched on that more. I could go so much deeper.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. AvatarKarl

    I would go to Cuba in a heart beat.
    Fidel had the right idea, the US tried and failed to stop him from showing us all a better way. It’s time for the US to distribute the wealth, as my president said, you didn’t build that, we paid for it.
    Viva La Revolucion, Viva Che !!

  3. AvatarSteve Adams

    As a Canadian, I always found the American views of Cuba as curious. Canada has never had an embargo or travel restrictions against Cuba although everyone understands the situation. to most of us it is just another vacation travel option. I personally have never been, but most people I know have been and the experience is mixed.

  4. AvatarSeth Emerson

    Interesting article, Noah (still wondering what those banned “elicit drugs” are). The car guy in me would like to see the 50s cars, some with Soviet LADA parts underneath. Cuba definitely has the “curiosity” factor for now. Much of Central America is similar in climate and accommodations, excluding the political climate! Cuba seems like a safe place, as long as you toe the tourist line, and keep “Your Papers!” in order.

  5. AvatarMartin

    loved the place and its people, though as tourists we tend to take advantage of a good cheap thing.
    reality is there is a lot of poverty, a blind man can see it, it’s not hidden away in a corner, the many people i spoke with and listened to also said Communism was not for them, seems like a lot of them had capitalistic skills anyway and were doing OK.
    would i go again… absolutely, i just hope the new found friendship with the US does not ruin the place, general view from Canada is that it might, time will tell.
    ballsy cab drivers also, had one experience where the driver started an argument with a cop wanting a free ride to the next province…… not on his shift ……thought he was going to run him down…

  6. AvatarPaul E.

    As I said in the beginning, it was a very informative article and you’re right, a book could be written about Cuba and not even touch on a 1/10th of the issues that happen on that island.
    I do encourage people to travel as much as they can, specially for us Americans. You begin to appreciate and understand that freedom is not free, someone fought for the right that I now have to be able to express these feeling and thoughts freely without fear of repression.
    All that aside, Cuba has some awesome beaches, beautiful caves and of course that wow factor that sort of feels as if you traveled into the past. As Noah mentioned as a tourist you are for the most part revered if not taken advantage off. So be prepared, carry the money on yourself always!!!! Last thing and probably the most important, get a guide, usually you can get one of the guys in private cars in the airport (cars are called maquinas = machine… don’t ask) to serve as your private taxi/guide. You could rent a car on your own and they cost around $100 dollars per day but the problem with that is not only they roads are a mess, you also have to contend with check points and a host of other things that come along the way.
    Thank you Noah for taking the time to read and reply to my post.
    Cheers to everyone and happy Friday ^_^


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