Travel Magazine

Cuba. It’s Close, but No Cigar, Thanks.

By Charlie Mcgrane @CharlieMcGrane

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A classic American car outside the National Hotel, Havana, Cuba.

A classic American car outside the National Hotel, Havana, Cuba.

A fruit market in Havana, Cuba.

A fruit market in Havana, Cuba.

It’s not easy to describe Cuba in a sentence or two. There are so many aspects to the country; many good, some great, and a few not so good. Coffee, cars and cigars; sunshine, salsa and mojitos; amidst poverty and some bad infrastructure. As in almost any country there is rich and poor. Cuba gets a massive number of tourists each year, the majority being from Canada. Europeans add a big percentage to that. Direct flights arrive from numerous countries daily connecting the island with nations as distant as Angola. Tourism provides most of their yearly revenues. For a country with such a low G.D.P., Cuba isn’t a very cheap place to holiday. Many services and products are priced on a par with some European countries. However, because of the dual currency system, some things can be bought at Cuban National peso prices. An espresso can be bought for 1 Cuban peso (Euro 0.04). Pizza is about 50 cents. Local bars of soap are as low as 5 Cuban pesos (Euro 0.20) and toothpaste made in Cuba is only 50 or 60 Euro cents, which leads to a huge desire for foreign, big name products. One of my observations was that some locals walk over to tourists and just ask for soap or pens, as well as money. It seems to be an automatic thing. I believe that tourists who take bus tours, and who bring gifts, always end up stopping at the same places and giving out to the same people who know when the bus will arrive.

A run down cafe in Havana, Cuba.

A run down cafe in Havana.

One of the most unusual things is stepping off an aeroplane and not being faced with McDonalds, 7-11, KFC and Starbucks. Cuba really has no foreign fast-food chains, no major foreign banks and no big international corporations. That doesn’t sit well with foreign banks and big corporations, hence their gentle efforts to move in over the last five decades.

Cubans love their Cuba, despite the drawbacks. They only get five television channels. Internet is limited and relatively expensive, between 4 and 8 Convertible Pesos per hour (Euro 3.50 to Euro 7.00). Newspapers appear to be a modest few domestic offerings. Outside news is hard to get.

Having a leisurely baseball game in Havana.

Having a leisurely baseball game in Havana.

They love boxing and baseball, and football to a lesser extent. Their national baseball team is one of the best in the world, while the Cuban Domadores are ranked number one in the World Series of Boxing. Football comes a modest third and their national league is purely amateur.

Lots of rum for sale at the Havana Club museum.

Lots of rum for sale at the Havana Club museum.

A cigar maker near Vinales, Cuba.

A cigar maker near Vinales, Cuba.

Tobacco drying in a thatched shed. Cuba.

Tobacco drying in a thatched shed.

Cubanos still praise the 1958/59 revolution and are proud of their independence. Having good rum and the top cigars in the world is cherished in Cuba. Good brands of cigars are expensive enough but cheap copies can be found anywhere. Especially around Havana and any other tourist region, many of the men try to sell cigars on the street to foreigners. It’s been reported that instead of making cigars 100% out of tobacco, banana leaves are commonly used as fillers. Amazingly these people will all have a spouse, brother or cousin who works at the genuine factory and gets cigars at a reduced rate. I didn’t buy any cigars, firstly because I don’t smoke, and secondly because I wouldn’t know who to trust.

A classic American convertible in Cuba.

A classic American convertible in Cuba.

Chinese cars, namely Geely, are the new thing in Cuba, taking over from the fleet of 1970s and 1980s Russian Lada cars. The Ladas aren’t actually going away, they are still being patched up and kept on life support as are lots of the old pre-1960 American cars. Many of the old dinosaurs have been refitted with smaller petrol or diesel engines, and the bodies have been screwed and glued together to keep them on the road. However, the old classic American convertibles have been generally maintained very well, and are a good money maker for the owners who drive tourists around for premium rates. Some are absolutely beautiful, even after 55 to 65 years.

A row of classic convertibles for hire in Havana.

A row of classic convertibles for hire in Havana.


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By Epifania Spangler
posted on 14 January at 02:29
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