A Havana Stopover

Cuba, Travel

In Viñales we got engaged, in Cienfuegos and Trinidad we explored and learned even more about Cuban culture. Little did we know our adventure was just about to get started…

On our third day in Trinidad we said our goodbyes to Nancy and Jeff as they were going to enjoy their honeymoon alone for a week while we were going to explore the rest of the island. I think Nancy and Jeff were our good luck charms because we were about to embark on quite the journey over the next week!

Everything started out relatively uneventful. We hired a taxi to take us from Trinidad back to Havana, where we stayed on the outskirts of the city next to the airport since we had an early morning flight the next day to take us to Santiago de Cuba. We should have known that things were going to be interesting when our taxi driver didn’t recognize the address in Havana. You see, taxi drivers in Cuba have the uncanny ability to look at an address and know exactly where it is without looking at a map or getting assistance from GPS (and there certainly is no Google Maps). When we stopped at the rest area our taxi driver spent 10 minutes asking other drivers if they knew where the address was… no one did. Jon even had an offline map pulled up but the taxi driver didn’t seem to believe the it…

As we entered Havana and the general vicinity of the address, the taxi driver would roll down his window to ask pedestrians and other cab drivers about the address. Around the third person he asked, he found someone who was able to point us in the right direction, down an old dirt road. Even the taxi driver looked skeptical about the situation, but we kept moving forward and Jon’s Maps.me offline map helped us reach the final destination with me shouting instructions in Spanish to a taxi driver who didn’t quite trust me or the map.

The Casa we arrived at was a lovely little oasis from the hustle and bustle of Havana and the surprisingly busy dirt road we’d been on. Our taxi driver looked relieved for us that we had a nice place to stay (the surrounding area was not so nice). We paid him and he was on his way while we got settled into our Casa. Once again, we had amazing hosts who were very accommodating. It was just past lunchtime and we were starving so we walked down the street to an area with an open market and many little restaurants. It was here that I noticed things were very different than the rest of Cuba that we’d encountered so far.

We were in the heart of a local community that seemed unfrequented by tourists. It was mostly school children getting their lunch at small food stands and locals hanging around during the day. There were women doing their shopping at a local market that had fruits, veggies, and other knick knacks. Loud music was playing, a few people were dancing in the streets, and cats and dogs roamed free. To be clear, we never felt unsafe, just in a part of town that we weren’t entirely welcomed in.  After we exchanged money at the Cadeca, we tried to find lunch but I realized that all of the prices were in local currency (CUP) and not convertible pesos (CUC). We found a place that looked good but were told they didn’t accept CUC. At this point we were so hungry we would have paid a CUP price in CUC (which would be 25x the price), but we could find no one that would take our money.

I was getting hungrier, which led to extreme hangriness (if you know me IRL you know it’s bad when I get hangry), and was beginning to go down the rabbithole of “I’ll never eat again” when Jon stopped in at a restaurant at the end of the row and asked if they accepted CUC. They said yes! We were so thrilled. We each ordered a Hawaiian pizza and a cola and I gave them 20 CUC. They didn’t have enough change to give us all CUC back, so we ended up receiving CUPs as well. For our entire lunch it cost us less than $5. It was insane, and quite delicious!

After lunch, Jon suggested that we walk to the zoo that was nearby. It was really hot out and I wasn’t looking forward to the walk but Jon promised me that it was open and it would be fun. We walked and walked and walked in the direct sunlight for what seemed like 5 miles. My feet were filthy from the road grit and as cars sped past us I pointed out to Jon that no one else was walking along this road, so why were we? But it was “just a bit farther” so we kept going. Finally, we turned down a road that was relatively quiet compared to the busy highway we’d been walking along. It was more shaded, and as we kept walking I pondered: If the zoo is open, why are there no cars coming down this way? It seems too quiet.

Eventually we neared the gates of what we could only assume was the zoo – there were giant lions engraved in the stones flanking either side of the gates. A group of people in a taxi were talking to the guard at the gate as we walked past. A few minutes later the car passed us and we heard some yelling behind us. We turned around to the guards flagging us down. We walked back to them and in Spanish they told us the zoo was closing in five minutes. I’m certain Jon could feel the daggers I was throwing at him as he quickly tried to ask for a taxi… to which they told us “caminar” and made walking motions with their fingers. With a heavy sigh and Jon saying “How much do you hate me now,” we turned around to begin the long journey back.

Just past the gate was a horse-drawn carriage, if you can call it a carriage – I’m not sure. It was more like a wagon with two very dilapidated wood bench seats facing each other. Jon asked how much for a ride back to the main road and they said 10. As I climbed in I muttered under my breath to Jon, did you ask if it was CUC or CUP? There’s no way this is CUC. Sure enough when we ended and Jon handed them 10 CUC they were scrambling to make change because the fare was in CUP not CUC.

From there we walked some more before Jon was able to flag down a taxi that took us the rest of the way back to the Casa. The rest of the evening was considerably uneventful. We enjoyed dinner at the Casa and went to bed early since we had to catch a 6am flight the next morning…

The journey continues in Santiago de Cuba…