We flew into Cuba from Cancun in Mexico. Jose Marti airport is named after the man who unified Cubans against the Spanish. He is the equivalent of a Mahatma Gandhi in India. Interestingly Fidel Castro the man who would be considered the creator of modern (or classical) Cuba, has passed an edict under which no statues or monuments of him are allowed in Cuba. wish our leaders did that too!
Now as soon as you land in Cuba, you realise that the country is in some sort of suspended animation. The colour, the decor, the styling is definitely from the 70-80s. We stood in a long immigration line. For some reason our passports were scrutinised and we were made to continue waiting near the line (Happened to another Indian colleague so be prepared).
Immigration lines forever give me stress, even after being in roles in countries which had me travelling to a new country almost monthly. I am always worried that we may have missed some small little document. Apparently we were stopped because we had effectively just asked for a 4 day tourist Visa. When questioned by an officer (in plain clothes), I told him that was because that was all the leave we got and smiled apologetically. He took all our passports new and old (suggest you carry all of them) and scanned through them near the window. After 10 minutes we were called to the window, shown our passport. The lady dressed in uniform looked at us and said, ‘Welcome to Cuba’. Sigh of relief.
Havana airport departure area is a big mess. It is also one of the last points in Cuba where you have access to an ATM. Since we had run through our dollars and had carried some Euros for conversion in Cuba, we needed to get hold of CUCs. Cuba has 2 currencies, CUPs (Cuban Pesos) for the locals to buy essentials and CUCs (Cuba convertible currency) for tourists. As tourists we carry limited cash, preferring to use the card to pay for our transactions. It feels safer too. In Cuba though we carried cash in Euros as conversion from Euros to CUCs causes less loss (lower transaction charges) than from dollars. The CUC though is pegged to the USD which defies why there is an extra cost on converting USDs.
Travel and communication
Cuba is a Spanish speaking country, like most of the American continent. With my limited Spanish skills which was generally misunderstood, we were more than happy to find our B&B owner was fluent in English. He was most helpful in also getting us a cab to pick us up from the airport. This is something I would suggest as cabs are expensive otherwise and difficult to coordinate with courtesy the language barrier and more importantly the lack of mobile connectivity or wifi. While we have heard of Etecsa services (Cuba’s AT&T or BSNL) being available to foreigners since we came back to India, when we visited Cuba in April 2018, no Etecsa booths were at the airport. Also no Wifi signal, which is uncanny for an international airport.
Cab ride cost: 30 CUC (std fare from airport to Havana city)
We were greeted by our cab pickup service, A cuban couple Marie and John who held up a a board . What followed was a deluge of Spanish from Marie responded to by a deluge of english from my wife. Both did not understand each other but looked happy. We were escorted across a car park full of cars manufactured from the 50’s till 2018.
Expecting a classic car, we were taken to a Russian car which had very little space but a lot of heart, grunting on each gear change. Cuba due to the embargo from the US, its closest neighbour has had one tough time getting new cars. Russia stepped in as an industrial partner but their cars were really nothing to write home about. Therefore the Cubans have developed the art of Jugad (innovation), they kept cars from the 60’s running sheerly due to necessity and now they have become an integral part of the experience