Cuban tobacco farmer

3 Things You Don’t Know About Cuba

So close, yet a world away.  Cuba becomes less mysterious every day for its nearby neighbors in the US. Travel to Cuba is still not easy despite the US government opening commercial flights in September, 2016.  I’m sharing three things many don’t know about the country, government and resourceful people of Cuba.

Sadly, these things made Cuba such a unique place to visit when we were there last Spring.  My guess…future visitors will not find the same, humble, proud, preserved culture on American-influenced commercial travel to the island.

Tail of Two Currencies

The Cuban people are paid by their government in Cuban Pesos.  Their rations are valued in Pesos.  However, the government created a second currency for commerce back with the fall of the Soviet Union.  All tourism, commercial retail, and sundries must be paid for in CUCs or Cuban Convertible Peso.  Cuban, or tourist, you pay the same price for some of life’s basics – toilet paper, toothpaste, a sandwich at a road-side convenience store all must be paid for in CUCs at 24x the value of the official Cuban Peso.

The government will gladly exchange your US dollars to CUCs for spending money, at a rate of 87/100.  You give the government owned hotel front desk $100US, they will give you $87CUC.  Heck of a deal.  And, since everything is government (or people of Cuba) owned, they can set the exchange rate however they like.  It is one of the first things you’ll encounter in Cuba that doesn’t make logical sense.  It doesn’t have to; the Cuban government makes the rules.

And, because of the embargo, you cannot convert your US dollars to CUCs before you arrive in Cuba.  All exchanges must be done on the island.  So remember that before you head home too.

Keep your eye open for a Cuban peso.  It’s a unique souvenir because it is not used in day-to-day commerce.  My husband found a $5 peso note in a tip basket at Ernest Hemingway’s house.  He asked the bathroom attended if he could exchange it for a $5 CUC (24x more valuable).  She gladly obliged.

Cuban Pride
Cuban pride on display in Havana

International Pop-Culture Thrives Despite Limited Access to the Internet

Pirated International pop-culture thrives in Cuba.  American music, movies and television are widely viewed, and semi-secretly distributed using flash drives.  We rode the Habana Malecon in a pristine, white Mercury convertible listening to Megan Trainor and Bruno Mars.  Our beat up, rusted out, Russian-made taxi to the Tropicana played Drake and Pitbull from the little flash drive plugged into the radio.  You name it, they know, and love it.

Cuban’s refer to media sharing via flash drives as El Paquete Semanal.  Its their version of the internet.  All things new can be had via this Cuban version of a social network.  Watch the latest TV, listen to music or even shop the classifieds.

Overheating Vintage
This thing runs on what ever is cheapest. Certainly not petro. “Just add water”

Truly Organic Farming

Imagine a place without Monsanto.  Now imagine how amazing the produce raised without pesticides tastes.  That’s what it is like to eat in Cuba.  I’d say this is one of the few long-r benefits of the cold relations between the US and Cuba. Cuba’s farming is archaic, at best.  Just like owning a fishing boat is too expensive, so are tractors and other farming equipment.  Driving West of Havana to the Río del Pinar province you’ll see lush farm land, including tobacco fields, being worked by oxen.  Tucked into the Sierra de los Órganos mountains, this valley is where the sugar cane industry once thrived.

Vinales, is a beautiful village, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that most accurately shares the culture and life of rural, farming Cuba.  If you travel on a cultural exchange, as we did, you’ll get an opportunity to see this part of the country.

My hope for Cuba is that the government and their people preserve this part of their culture and heritage.  Eco-tourism could be something that Cuba owns in its own unique way.  I’d like to see it preserved and shared, so more of the world could experience the simplicity and earthiness of Pinar del Rio.

Finca agroecologica
Finca agroecologica in Rio del Pinar region of Cuba

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