Latitude Adjustment

Two Wanderers in Panama and Beyond

So, you want to go to Cuba? Here are some pointers.

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The Club Nautico in Cienfuegos

Susan and I have been fascinated by Cuba for a long time, but I think we first got the bug to go there years ago after watching the movie “Havana” starring Robert Redford. Something about that movie captured our imaginations, and we’ve had Cuba on our radar to visit ever since.

If you read our blog you’ll know that we took three years off to travel on our sailboat, Compania, in the early 2000s. We had always planned a stopover in Cuba, but in 2004 things were a lot different. We were headed back to “dirt world,” as we call it, when the Bush administration decreed that all U.S.-flagged boats would be subject to confiscation if caught in Cuban waters. Not keen on jeopardizing our major investment, we reluctantly bypassed Cuba on our final passage from Mexico to Florida. As we sailed by Cuba over the course of a day and a night, we wondered – would we ever get a chance to visit that remarkable place?

What a difference 12 years makes. With relations between the U.S. and Cuba continuing to improve, it’s never been easier for U.S. citizens to go there. Finally, after careful planning, we were able to fulfill our dream to visit this incredible island!

Here’s our advice for folks who want to follow in our footsteps:

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This is the country-wide symbol for a home that’s renting out rooms as a casa particular

START EARLY – CUBA ES MUY POPULAR!
We decided to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Cuba to take advantage of Susan’s holidays and enjoy the cooler temperatures in December. I started planning this trip last July – and it was barely soon enough. We picked the brains of friends who had recently made the trip and also bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba. I also read every online source I could get my hands on to get the most current information possible.

We knew from the start that we wanted to stay in casas particulares (home-stays), but they book up very early in the high season. Even six months ahead, I still had to scramble a bit to find our lodging. I started with the casas listed in the Lonely Planet and eventually found openings through Air B&B and a couple of other websites. I’d venture to say that as the island opens up more to U.S. tourists and begins to accept credit cards, it will get even harder to book casas.

On our first day in Havana we took an awesome bike tour that gave us a real lay of the land.Here’s the outfit we used: http://www.rutabikes.com. And here are another couple of helpful sites: www.cuba-junky.com and http://www.bestcubatravelguide.com.

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Lovely Parque Almendares, one of the stops on the bike tour.

BUT WHAT’S A CASA PARTICULAR?
Travelers to Cuba have many lodging options to choose from, ranging from high-end (and usually government-run) hotels to youth hostels. But one of the best ways to experience the real Cuba, and help real Cubans in the process, is to stay in a casa particular. Since 1997, the Cuban government has allowed private citizens to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. Recent reforms by Raul Castro have greatly expanded this program and these home-stays are now as ubiquitous as rum, cigar smoke, and images of Fidel and Che.

On our recent visit, we stayed in four casas — two in Havana, and one each in Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Prices ranged from $35 a night for our first Havana homestay to $55 in Trinidad, in a fantastic place that was more like a small boutique hotel than a private residence. For booking the casas, try Airbnb, now active in Cuba, and Trip Advisor. We also used http://www.casaparticular.com and http://www.bbinnvinales.com/bedandbreakfastrentweb.

 

MONEY STUFF
The first thing to know here is that Cuba is operating with two separate currencies – Cuban convertible pesos, also known as CUCs, and regular Cuban pesos. You’ll be using CUCs for just about everything but it’s inevitable you’ll end up with a few regular pesos in your pocket, too. Just make sure you can tell the difference, since CUCs are on par with the U.S. dollar and regular pesos are only worth about a nickel.

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Cuban pesos on the top and CUCs on the bottom

If you’re starting out with U.S. dollars, don’t wait until you get to Cuba to change your money or the Cuban government will sock you with a 13-percent service charge. Instead, change your dollars to Euros before you leave your point of origin, since the Cuban fee for exchanging Euros to CUCs is only 3 percent.

When you land at Marti Airport in Havana, you’ll find a mob of people trying to exchange money at the CADECA on the ground floor. By accident, I went upstairs looking for the restroom and found another CADECA, almost completely deserted. Save some time and go upstairs, or better yet, wait until you get to town and go to a CADECA there – you might get a better rate.

One more comment about money: take more cash than you think you’ll possibly need. Since it’s so expensive to exchange dollars in Cuba, and also since it’s not possible to use U.S. credit cards or ATMs there, you will be “cash and carry” for most of your trip. This made us a lot more budget-conscious than usual when we travel, but the good news is that we didn’t have a big credit card bill when we got home!

GROUND TRANSPORTATION TIPS
We paid 30 CUC for the cab ride from Marti Airport to the Vedado district, where we stayed for our first four nights in Havana (our ride back from downtown Havana only cost 25 CUC but it was closer to the airport).
While in Havana, try to avoid the “tourist” taxis (basically anything yellow and shiny). They’ll cost you 6-7 CUC a trip wherever you go. We got lucky when the owner of our casa particular told us about the “collectivo” taxis that ferry locals on fixed routes. Collectivos cram in as many people as possible and only charge one CUC per person. They were a blast to ride and another cool way to connect with the locals. Altogether, we paid about $170 for taxis, bici-taxis (human-powered), collectivos, bus fare to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, and a guided bike tour that was well worth it. 

For our road trip from Havana to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, we took the Viazul bus. Our first casa owner got all of our tickets for us for a 10 CUC fee, well worth it for the time and hassle it saved us, and she explained the skinny on checking in. When you show up at the Viazul station, you need to find the check-in desk and get a seat assignment, which no one pays any attention to (it’s basically open seating on the bus). Viazul has a really helpful website – http://www.viazul com. And here’s another useful writeup about travel on Viazul: www.fivepointfive.org/travelling-by-viazul-bus-in-cubaWe paid Viazul $118 round-trip for both of us to travel from Havana to Cienfuegos, from Cienfuegos to Trinidad, and then from Trinidad back to Havana. 

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Viazul bus station in Havana

TRUST US – THIS IS IMPORTANT
It’s rare to find toilet paper, paper towels, or even toilet seats in public restrooms. Instead, most restrooms have ladies standing outside to hand you a couple of paper napkins for a tip. So trust us on this – stash a couple of rolls of TP and some hand sanitizer in your backpack. And tip the ladies anyway.

The Cuba Conundrum

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Was it Winston Churchill that described something as a “riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma?” I think he was talking about Russia, but the same could be said for Cuba. After spending 10 eye-opening days there, we’re left with a profound sense of wonder, and an abiding respect for the spirit and resilience of the Cubanos.

img_8239The history of the 1959 Cuban revolution is well-documented, and it’s known that the early days of the Castro regime were ruthless, bloody, and authoritarian. But just how oppressive is the regime today, especially now that Fidel is gone? And if this is a truly classless society, how do some people seem to be relatively well-off, approaching middle-class, when so many others are just scraping by? How does this communism thing work (or not work), anyway? And how could this system have been allowed to operate virtually unchanged for as long as I’ve been alive (ahem, 57 years), in a place that’s only 90 miles from U.S. shores?

And here’s the biggest question of all: what’s in store for Cuba in the next few years, assuming that relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to thaw? (With the new POTUS, this is now a shakier assumption and an even bigger question mark.)

In 10 days, we were able to barely scratch at these questions, much less get any answers. But one thing is clear, just as it is in any country, anywhere in the world: the hope of Cuba is in its people, not in its politicians.

Here are a few of our impressions.

The old cars are real. And yes, many are running on a wing and a prayer.
They’re everywhere, and they range from the beautifully restored convertibles that have been tarted up for the tourists, to rattle-trap “frankencars” that operate as collectivo taxis (we rode in a fair number of those).  We couldn’t get enough of them.

The architecture is simultaneously stunning . . . and crumbling. Especially in Havana.
Cuba has spent millions restoring Havana Vieja, the historic city center, and it is fabulous – now listed as a UNESCO heritage site. Just a few blocks away is Havana Centro, the working-class quarter in which the buildings were once just as grand, but are now in danger of falling into oblivion. And people still live in them. How does it work? Do they pay rent? Does the government provide them housing, substandard as it is?

Havana Centro is not for the faint of heart. Sadly, I counted no less than three dead cats (don’t get me started on the plight of dogs and cats in Havana) and it was pretty common to see headless chickens or pig heads left on street corners as Santaria offerings. The smells, sights, and sounds were sometimes overwhelming. But we loved the energy of this neighborhood and the spirit of its people, from the kids playing kickball in the streets to the veggie vendors.

It’s not all about the U.S.

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The high-end Hotel Nacional has a storied history

Because our travel there has been restricted and the U.S. trade embargo has dealt such a blow to Cuba for so many years, it’s easy to forget that Cuba has been hosting visitors from everywhere else for a long time. Tourism is tremendously important to the economy, and Cuba’s tourist infrastructure – from hotels to restaurants to souvenir stands – is pretty similar to that of other Latin American countries we’ve visited.

At the same time, it was odd to not encounter  any U.S. brands, anywhere, not even Coca Cola! But there were a couple of notable and puzzling exceptions. If the embargo’s still in place, how DID that hot sauce from Louisiana, or that Italian sparkling water imported by a U.S. company, get to Cuba?

People are not as afraid to speak out as we expected.
As part of our requirement for people-to-people exchange (one of the 12 categories under which U.S. citizens are now allowed to travel to Cuba) we made an effort to talk to as many people as we could about the experience of being a Cubano.

  • Almost everyone felt hopeful and optimistic, and believe that Cuba is truly on the “cusp of change” (not my phrase but I like it!). Most held President Obama in high regard and tend to be more guarded in their opinions about the new president-elect.img_8071
  • Only one person we talked to – we’ll protect his identity except to say that he is in academia and a person of letters – was very bitter about “the brothers” (Fidel and Raul Castro) and what they’ve done to the country. “We are all slaves here,” he said. Sadly, we weren’t able to press him on this since we were just sharing a cab.
  • Many people are really struggling, especially in Havana. There seems to be a huge
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    The cupboards were almost bare in this market

    dearth of consumer goods, and the cash with which to buy them. The reason for this was not clear to us: five decades of suppressed capitalism? The U.S. trade embargo? A system in which only communist party members have buying power?

  • Most people were NOT effusive about Fidel, even with his very recent death. It was not at all what we expected in a regime based on a true cult of personality. However, several people felt that Raul’s ascendance will lead to more freedoms and greater opportunities. Already, Raul has opened the door to increased capitalism through such programs as the casas particulares, in which people are allowed to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists and keep a percentage of the income. We stayed in four of these, and we’ll describe them in a future blog post.

Our Cuba trip was a life-changer for us. There’s no way to boil it down into a single blog post, so stay tuned for several more entries and lots more photos!

A Very Boquete Christmas

 

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We love sweet Boquete town, especially at Christmastime. Under the current mayor, Boquete citizens have really spruced things up, and their pride is evident everywhere. We haven’t even been here two years, and we’ve noticed a big difference  – from the shiny new garbage trucks to the dazzling Christmas display in Boquete’s main plaza that grows more elaborate every year.

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Our resident piggies

img_7868This hummingbird feeder is BIG – it holds about a quart of sugar water. But lately we’ve had to fill it every day, thanks to the voracious little beasts that have taken over our back terrace.

Pretty much any time of year we can count on an invasion of Rufous-tailed hummingbirds, ubiquitous in Panama. But in the past few days we’ve been enjoying some new visitors, a flock of red-legged honeycreepers. The males are conspicuous by their cobalt blue plumage and a dazzling spot of turquoise right on the crowns of their little heads, and the females are a more camouflage-able yellowish green. Not being much of a birder, I had assumed the honeycreepers were migrating from parts north as the season changes, but my friend Wikipedia assures me they’re native to this area. As are many other types of tanagers.

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The Great Outdoors

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Volcan Baru on a especially gorgeous early-summer morning. The weather is just now changing from rainy to dry, and we’re coming into the time of rainbows, starlight, and fabulous skyscapes.

Heavens to Murgatroyd – where did November go? And December, for that matter. With 2017 staring us in the face, it’s a good time to look back on some of our best moments this year. So many of those moments have been about spending time with friends and our fur kids in the cloud forest paradise known as the western Panama highlands. Every time we get out, it’s like re-discovering our wonderful home all over again.

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It was a dark and stormy night

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Not really. The first time we visited the world-famous La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, it was a beautiful, sunny spring morning (since we were there in late September, right on the cusp of winter into spring for that latitude). My first impression: this is the creepiest place I’ve ever seen. But as we wandered around, gobsmacked by the incredibly ornate mausoleums in every state of repair and disrepair, I began to feel more reflective. It doesn’t really matter how much money your family spends on an elaborate tomb – once you’re gone, you’re gone. And eventually, we all end up in the same state whether we’re in a stunning marble monument created by the best Italian sculptors of the day, or a pine box in the ground.  We’re all just . . . . (sorry) . . . dust in the wind.

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Buenos Aires: “Architectural Disneyland”

buildingsThat’s how one of our tour guides described Buenos Aires’ architectural heritage. The city is a dazzling wonderland of architectural styles, and some of them – the French revival buildings, for instance – are not so much authentic (how could they be, seeing as how they’re not in France) as they are eye-poppingly, over-the-top gaudy — a kick to look at and to walk through.

Buenos Aires retains very little of its colonial heritage (one notable exception is Our Lady of Pilar church next to La Recoleta cemetery, built in the early 1700s). That’s because the city went through a

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Incredible Iguazú Falls

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El Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat)

On our recent trip to Argentina, we took a two-hour flight north to the hamlet of Puerto Iguazú – gateway to one of the most awe-inspiring wonders in South America, if not the world. Iguazú Falls is what happens when the upper Iguazú River plunges almost 300 feet into the lower Iguazú River gorge. Its horizontal span – almost two miles – ranks it the fourth widest waterfall system in the world, behind Khone Phapheng in Laos, Pará in Venezuela, and Kongou in Gabon (note to selves: visit those too!).

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Buenos Aires Stories

Ah, Buenos Aires – I just can’t get my head around you! I’ve been trying to write this post for days but BA is such a complex, colorful, musical, noisy, frenetic, delicious, exhausting city that I just don’t know how to capture it. So here’s a cop-out, a few of the stories that have had the biggest impression on us (so far):

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A few more Montevideo pics

WordPress for the iPad leaves a lot to be desired, especially when working with photos. I finally gave up with yesterday’s post, but today’s a new day. Here are a few more pics from the past four days. The last photo is the interior of the Teatro Solis, since WordPress refuses to publish my caption (grrr).

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