December 26-27th, 2014
Days 1-2 Havana Cuba, Copacabana hotel
So another journey of mine begins, this time to the beautiful island of Cuba. Such a fitting destination for Canadians as it’s a meager five hour flight away. That is nothing compared to what I’ve endured in the past.
Accompanying me is my step mom and dad for the first two weeks of the trip. Our third week we will be sharing our experiences with Orlando and Jen, a couple I’ve learned to dance salsa with back in Edmonton as well as a dozen and a half other salsa dancers from Canada. The third week is going to be jam packed with salsa lessons, local experiences and of course clubbing, Havana style! I’m so excited, I keep imagining Dirty Dancing, Havana nights all coming to life with me as the main character!
We departed from Edmonton on December 26 and arrived at Juan Gualberto Gomez Airport in Varadero at 3 am. This airport is quite small and apart from showing your passport at the customs desk, you simply grab your luggage and leave. I found that odd, the lack of security in a communist country. Perhaps there was a lot of behind the scenes policing.
From Varodaro we took a 2 hour bus ride to Havana were we arrived at our hotel, the Copacabana, at 6:30 am. Yes we are staying at the one and only Copacabana hotel. If you haven’t heard the song about the hotel, click here. The Copacabana hotel is in North Havana about a 15 minute taxi ride from central park (the main square in downtown Havana). The hotel is on the ocean but there is no beach. I don’t think any properties in Havana have beaches, the beaches in Cuba tend to be more around Varadaro. The community we are staying in is “Playa Miramar” which means Miramar Beach.
Obviously we spent the morning sleeping. In the afternoon we walked a few blocks to a nearby hotel to change Canadian dollars for CUP (Cuban currency) which is pronounced as “coock”. In Cuba you can exchange money at hotels but you’re going to get a better exchange rate if you go to money exchange houses (Casas de cambio). If you just ask someone when you’re in Havana where the “Cambio De Moneda” is they will be able to point you in the right direction.
From there we were delighted to find a local super market called a “Supermercado”. In Cuba, from what I’ve heard, everything is controlled by the government, as you would expect from any communist country. Going to this supermarket was our first glimpse into communist life. Before entering the market, you could already see a lineup of people trying to buy diapers from the small, rapidly dwindling supply.
To get into the market all visitors, Cuban and foreign must check in their bags. This seemed really odd to us as we just arrived to a new country and people were trying to separate us from our belongings. In any case it is what it is, no exceptions.
The super market was jammed with people, all speaking Spanish, all in a hurry to grab food and supplies while quantities lasted. There were two types of fruit available, apples or pears, the brands of canned goods ranged from no more than three and the amount of empty shelve space was unbelievable. There were more than enough meat, alcohol and oil to go around which being a whole foods plant based vegan; I was not in my element. I could not get over the lack of choice in the market. While waiting in the checkout line, my dad started talking with some locals with the Spanish he had picked up over the years. They were very impressed with his abilities as was I. He asked them what the general feeling of the Cubans was since the announcement of the United States embargo being removed. Everyone seemed quite happy. I wonder if they know how truly unique they are having being separated from the USA for over half a century and how removing the embargo may negatively impact their country and culture.
As we made our way through the line I noticed that the spices were being sold behind the counter much like gold or jewelry. They were quite expensive, not unaffordable to a tourist but I imagine near impossible to obtain as a local. It took us a good half hour to pay for our goods, not because there were so many people in line but because one customer at the checkout did not have enough money to buy his goods so he had to go to the ATM to get more. Instead of telling the customer to grab money and go to the back of the line, the cashier lady just waited for him to casually go and get more money. Already starting to see how laid back this country is.
On our walk back to the hotel, we bumped into a local fruit and veggie stand that had far more variety than the super market. We bought a fresh papaya and bananas. Heading towards the hotel, we stopped for lunch and had Cuban rice (black rice and beans) and vegetables (squash, cabbage and cucumbers). As in most places I’ve been, we were given a puzzled look by our waiter when my dad said we do not eat meat and dairy. “What are we going to feed you”? I’m so confused…. I thought Cuba was a poor country….. Meat is super expensive to produce…. Why is rice and beans not a staple here??