Havana, Cuba – First Steps

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Havana was the first city of my backpack trip. It wasn’t in my plans, but I included it after listening and reading more about this country, which has a politic system different from the ones we are used to. Cuba has been changing rapidly in the last years and may change even more the next years, so I decided to put this country in my list, to be able to know this country that was “mysterious” for me. So, if you want to know Cuba, I suggest you not to take too long before visiting it.

I started writing about visa, or “tarjeta de turista”, but the text was going to be very long. I’m going to write about it in the next post, but my nationality is Brazilian, so I’m going to write it only in Portuguese, as I don’t know about the requirements for other nationalities.

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When I arrived in Havana, I was a bit lost. I was nervous, excited, feeling free, happy for a dream come true, and scared, because I didn’t know what I was going to find there and it was the first place I was visiting in this trip.

After arriving at José Marti International Airport, the first thing I did was to exchange my money. I had read in a blog that the best currency to bring to Cuba was euro, because when you exchange American dollars, you have to pay a 10% tax. But at the end I brought dollars, it wasn’t so clever. In Cuba, there are two currencies, CUC and CUP. CUC is the convertible Cuban peso (peso convertible), used in many sectors, especially in tourism. CUP is the national currency (moneda nacional), usually it is the money Cuban people use to buy daily things, so as a tourist, it’s a bit rare to see it.

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What’s the difference between the two currencies? The money on the picture above are the convertible pesos, or CUC. We can notice it is written “pesos convertibles”, and the images are of monuments and statues. On the moneda nacional, or CUP, the images are of national heroes, as Che Guevara, José Martí, Camilo Cienfuegos, etc. I didn’t exchange nor received any CUP, but I heard the Cuban people receive their salaries on CUP and use it to pay bills and to buy food in places like the picture below. CUC has the same price as the American dólar and is about 25 CUP.

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After I exchanged my money, I checked the price of the taxi, to go to city centre. It was 25 CUC (25 dollars). For me it was expensive, so I waited for someone else to share a taxi with. There are many backpackers travelling alone and most of them don’t want to spend much money, like me. Soon came a girl from New Zealand, so each of us paid 15 CUC. She wanted to wait for another person to share, but the guy who organise the taxis told us not to wait. He said that if we were going to share, the price was the same for each person, even with more people. It wasn’t fair, but we couldn’t argue more with him, so we got in the taxi to go to our accommodation.

The girl from New Zealand said she was already travelling around the world for about half na year, and I told her I had just started my trip. She was going to stay in a hostel. I didn’t know there were hostels in Cuba. Someone had told me I had to book a casa particular (like na AirBnB), so I booked and I didn’t research more about it. It was quite expensive for me (30 CUC per night), but it was a good experience, because it was a normal Cuban apartment that they rent to tourists, so I had the opportunity to see how they live. It was interesting to greet people in the elevator, for example. But in order not to have to exchange more money and to save more, I cancelled the last day and stayed in a hostel (10 CUC per night). There I met more backpackers travelling alone.

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The picture above is the living room of the casa particular where I stayed. To book a place, you just have to visit their homepage (www.yourcasaparticular.com) and book it. It’s very simple. In the homepage you can also read a short text about the history of the casas particulares. In the picture below, you can see the view from the place I was staying.

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I arrived in the afternoon and couldn’t find wifi in the apartment. I had already told my family that if I didn’t send any messages, it was because I had no access to the Internet. I didn’t know how to access the Internet in Cuba. When I went out to buy my dinner, I asked the waitress where I could use wifi. She pointed outside and said “there”. There were many people using their smartphones in the park outside. I tried to connect, but I couldn’t, so I went back to the apartment, as I didn’t have an offline map app in my phone and I was afraid of getting lost (I always get lost…). Luckily, the owner of the apartment worked for Etecsa, a telecommunications company. She couldn’t come to the apartment when I arrived, so she told me to come to her office the next day.

So, the next day I got up early and headed to the office. I had the address, but I didn’t know where it was. I was told to go by taxi, but I decided to go walking. It was quite a long walk, from Habana Vieja (Old Havana) to Centro Habana. I asked the way sometimes using my Portuñol (Portuguese mixed with Spanish) and I was very happy for being able to communicate with local people. So when I arrived at the office, the owner received me well and we talked a bit.  She was manager of a department in the company. So she explained to me how to use the Internet. You just have to buy a card like the picture below. I bought a 5 hour card for 5 CUC (there are other cards, for shorter period of use as well). Then, you just need to put the user number and password, in places where you can use wifi. Usually, there are wifi spots in major hotels and public parks.

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In many places I saw Etecsa shops, usually with a lot of customers. I suppose that people who want to use the Internet go to those shops to buy the access card. I heard that there are people selling the cards on the streets, but we should be careful. It is more secure to buy it at Etecsa. It is quite easy to know where to use it. If you see a lot of people using their smartphones, usually it is a wifi spot, like the park in the picture below. In major hotels you can also find wifi, so you can use it there too. And you don’t need to be scared to be stolen, Cuba is a safe country, I’ve never heard anything about people being robbed.

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After buying the Internet card, the first thing I did was download the app Maps.Me, an off-line GPS app. I should’ve downloaded it before the trip, but I had forgotten about it. It was very useful, I got to know the city by walk, without getting lost.

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Another advice the girl from New Zealand gave to me: you can book buses and tours at Hotel Plaza. There are other places and tourism agencies, but it was easier to go to the hotel, which was close to my apartment. Inside the hotel there is the agency Cubanacan, where I booked my one-day trip to Varadero and the bus to Trinidad. You can also exchange money there. I read in a blog that it’s not good to exchange money in hotels, because the rate isn’t good, but the rate at the agency was ok. It was easier as well, rather than looking for a money exchange agency (cadeca) in the city. The buses leave and arrive at the hotel.

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My next step was to look for supermarkets. It was very hard, as the supermarkets were very small and didn’t have many options. Cuban people get basic food and then buy other things to complement. In my first attempt to buy food, I could only buy water, crackers, pasta and sardines with tomato sauce (I didn’t find another sauce type). Another day walking through the city I found a shopping centre, where I bought cereal, milk and another type of sauce. I ate pasta for 3 days and couldn’t eat it any more.

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In usual nice restaurants, you spend at least 20 CUC per meal, but I found some places where you could eat spending only 5 CUC as well.

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This post got longer than I expected. I’m going to write about the places I visited in my next text. Havana has a long history. And the most important: it’s good to experience life in a place with a different system, and learn with local people about what is the real Cuba. It isn’t possible to know how is the country only buy reading books and pages online. I saw a lot of “poverty”, but I didn’t see any homeless people, starving. I wrote the word poverty in quotes, because to define poverty is not so simple. I didn’t see many leisure for the people and wealth, some houses looked like they were abandoned, but everyone there have education, health, food and a place to live. It may be the wealthiest characteristic about this country. I also noticed that the streets are very safe. Many people tried to talk to me and offer taxi services, for example, because they knew I’m a foreigner. But besides that, I didn’t feel any threat.

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Do you want to know how much I spent in this trip? Please check my last post: LATIN AMERICA BACKPACK TRIP! ~SUMMARY~

Next post: What to do in Centro Habana and Habana Vieja.

 

If you have questions, advice, etc., please let me know

You can also email me: backpackandme1@gmail.com

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