Santa Maria Beach
I started the day with breakfast at my casa particular Airbnb. My host charged me 5CUC but served a crazy amount of food and it was delicious! A platter of the freshest fruits I’ve eaten, avocado (also very fresh), a full omelette (delicious), coffee, fresh squeezed juice, water, two orders of toast with homemade mango jam, and a slice of some kind of pie for dessert. I really appreciated the hospitality of my hosts. I am quite certain I would not have enjoyed my visit nearly as much in a hotel. I got to see the real Havana intimately on this trip. Not just walking Vedado but walking three times through most of Habana Viejo.
I got a taxi to change more money and then went to parque central to catch the hop on/hop off bus to playa Santa Maria. I got out at the beach and spent an hour or so laying out and taking in the waves. I assumed (always a mistake) that there would be a place to get towels and water on the beach but that was stupid of me. If you go, make sure to go fully loaded. I’m spoiled with hotel beaches in Mexico and didn’t think. So I didn’t stay long as it wasn’t that comfortable. Also if I’m being honest, it was quite dirty too. I try to look at the positives in every country I visit but I think no one could dispute that the beaches have way too much trash all over the place in that area. I can’t speak to the more remote beaches but the one I visited was closest to Havana.
After the beach I made it to Morro Castle, named after the three biblical Magi. It is a fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay in Havana, Cuba. The view from it’s steps of Havana is expansive and breathtaking. After hanging out enjoying the view for a while, I eventually made my way back to the bus to return to Havana.
Dinner in Habana Viejo
Then I made my way back to Habana Viejo. Without the internet, I did not have a GPS powered map but I knew I wanted to make it to the same hotel I went the day earlier for WIFI. Thus, I literally picked a direction at random and just guessed which way from Parque Central to get there! I wandered around for 30 minutes looking for anything familiar and as it often happens, I found my destination! I was pretty happy with myself on that one!
After catching up on emails and Instagram I set out to find Nao again. The restaurant from the first two days. I think that experimenting at random on restaurants when traveling only is a good idea if you can vet them with trustworthy locals or the net first. Otherwise the odds are always high of disappointment (at least for foodies). I couldn’t find Nao at first but saw another place that was recommended by my food tour guide Ana the day before and went to walk in. The host (or I thought he was the host) ushered me across the street and into a small restaurant in a Cuban house instead. I was a bit taken aback but I was curious to see what would happen. He said he had family in the US (which I doubt). No doubt, he said that to try to make me more at ease. Then sat me down in this restaurant. There were other patrons there and nothing seemed all that out of the ordinary at first. It took a while to get a menu but when I finally got one, I realized the scam. The prices were 2 – 3x more than they should be! Shockingly high for Havana. Entrees in the $30 range would be no big deal in the US but at Nao, I could get a 3-course meal for that and drinks! Thats when I realized this was a menu for tourists to try to charge way more than they should. As soon as he realized I wasn’t Cuban, he ushered me across the street (probably where he’d receive a kickback). In Cuba, I’ve been told that government run restaurants (and all businesses) pay very little. So there’s no real loyalty to the employer. Knowing this, it became obvious that this host was just pushing people somewhere else so he could make more. Assuming he was actually the host. It was a bit bizarre.
Many travelers complain about being scammed. If it happens to you, simply get up and leave. That’s what I did. I don’t mind helping the Cuban people as I’m blessed and what we make in the US is probably 100x what they make in a month. What I DO mind is being scammed. I’ll tip well and be the best customer but don’t try to scam me. As soon as I said the prices were crazy, he immediately offered to lower it by half (seriously) but I didn’t want to eat there at that point and I said good bye and walked right out. Do the same if you feel you’re being scammed. These guys prey on Americans and Europeans who are too polite to speak up and will just accept the scam to save face. Face saving isn’t something I care about.
Anyway I finally found Nao and had an amazing meal of Quimbombo (a type of vegetable stew with okra, corn, carrots, Tocino and chorizo in an amazingly flavorful broth). Then I had pollo a la plancha for my entree. Both were excellent and the ladies treated me very well there. I like places that don’t have a menu for Americans and a menu for everyone else!
My last night in Havana, the skies opened up and thunder and lighting on an epic scale came down on Havana. I managed to get a taxi back to Vedado just before the rain really poured down. At that point, I was wiped after several eventful days and just relaxed in my room for the evening and headed home the next day.
When I arrived back at Jose Martin, I found that it was pretty basic (as I expected) but efficient. The security line was long (so get there early) but the process easy/simple. The terminal itself is very old and run down and when I got to the gate, the only way we realized they’d switched gates is by happenstance when another person waiting for the same flight noticed the change (seriously). So just pay attention when you’re there.
I was very happy to be back in Miami (and back to free flowing and easily accessible WIFI!). When I reached customs, I was a bit nervous as I didn’t know if my trip really qualified as “people to people” exchange but I went through my Global Entry queue and when I reached the Customs and Border Patrol officer, he asked me the purpose of my Cuba trip. I replied “people to people exchange” and he said “ok, have a nice day”. That was that. So all the stress and anxiety about taking this trip came down to four words. It was that simple. After that, I connected through Miami (MIA) on my way back to Vegas.
All in all, I really enjoyed my Cuba trip. There was some definite culture shock and drawbacks but that’s why I travel. It can’t be 5-star accommodations and high luxury all the time. I have to take the good with the not so good and enjoy each country I visit for what it is. The Cuban people and their viewpoints on politics, family, fun, and life is truly unique. Every Cuban seems to be engaged and aware of what’s going on in their country and in the world as it relates to their country. It’s a country of free education, free health care, no rent, and stunning beauty. On the other hand, the average Cuban makes between $20 and $40 a month (depending on who you ask) and only 20% has their own transportation. The cost of cell phone usage, internet, and owning a vehicle are astronomical in comparison to what they make.
I might have said “people to people” exchange at customs because it’s the easiest category to say but in truth, I really DID exchange ideas with the Cuban people and learned so much about their culture and tried to return with good information about our American culture. Whether or not my trip met the literal letter of the intention of US law, it certainly met the spirit of it.