Cuba… The adventure that is Cuba begins at the airport. We arrived to Miami International to take part of a “Cultural Exchange” tour with Mountain Travel Sobek. The terminal for Havana Air is packed with Cubans and these Cubans are attempting singlehandedly to reverse the embargo. They are bringing on the flight with them: car tires, big screen televisions, portable toilets (yes, I saw one) and everything is wrapped tightly with plastic to protect and dissuade stealing. I have no idea how the plane took off with the extra ballast from these items and this is reason number one to travel with carry on.
The second reason to travel with only carry on is that there seems to be only one baggage handler at The Jose Marti Airport in Cuba and I believe he takes frequents breaks. When Carrie, Erin and I departed the plane and walked through the baggage claim to see 1000’s of folks awaiting their goods, we realized that the rest of our group (all who checked bags) would be delayed. We didn’t know it would be for three hours and that during that time the three of us would be getting a front row seat to the best Cuban fashion show ever.
We also changed our money at the airport for probably the best rate of exchange (better than the hotel and more reliable). Every tourist is forced to use the “tourist” currency known as the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) which is always 1:1 with the dollar. Even with the inflated exchange, Cuba is cheap.
The time that we spent waiting for our group (we weren’t allowed to leave the airport) was an education in Cuban Culture. We learned from a Cuban who befriended us that Cuba’s primary export was skilled medical workers and that the Rolling Stones Concert the night before had gone on until the wee hours. We learned that the embargo is SERIOUS. The Cuban people really have only the barest of necessities. While the government is relaxing on earning extra income, the majority of Cubans survive on $20.00 a month. Tourism is a game changer for The Cubans and with the miles of unspoiled beaches (even in Havana), I know that the major hotel chains can also see Cuba as the next “it” destination. In March, however, we saw how isolated and restricted Cuba is and how the embargo has kept Cuba locked in a bygone time.