Around Cuba’s Bay Of Pigs In A 1929 Ford Model T Convertible

Let’s play a quick word association game. I say “Bay of Pigs,” you tell me what comes to mind.

Fidel Castro? Communism? Failed CIA missions?

When I think of the Bay of Pigs, I think of crystal clear water stretching out as far as the eye can see. I think of black sand beaches and snorkel rentals. I think of a beautifully restored 1929 Ford Model T convertible, driven by a young man in a woven straw hat.

When my boyfriend and I traveled to Cuba last summer, we had few plans apart from exploring the cobblestoned streets of Havana. But after a few days in the capital, we felt the urge to escape. I wanted more culture and history; my boyfriend wanted nature and the beach.

We compromised with a trip to the Bahia de Cochinos on the southern coast of Cuba, better known to Americans as the Bay of Pigs. Guidebooks promised great snorkeling and scuba diving; I was more intrigued by the bay’s storied past.

%Gallery-172730%The Bay of Pigs leapt to notoriety after an unsuccessful American CIA mission to invade Cuba in April 1961. Upon landing, the U.S.-trained troops were handily defeated by Fidel Castro’s forces in a matter of days. It was a turning point in the Cold War, proving the fallibility of the United States while reinforcing the strength of the Castro’s Communist regime.

Today, it’s hard to imagine the Bay of Pigs embroiled in anything but epic mosquito swarms. The bay holds the swampy Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata to the west, the black sand Playa Larga in the center and the rocky Playa Giron to the east. We arrived via taxi from nearby Cienfuegos and stayed at the Casa Enrique Rivas Fente in Playa Larga, one of a handful of privately owned casas particulares that dot the sandy strip. The rooms were basic but clean, and meal offerings included fresh grilled lobster and squid. Since we arrived on a Saturday night, we were welcomed by a private chanteur, who played Cuban music for a troupe of Ukrainian salsa dancers staying at the casa next door.

Between mojitos, we asked our host for the best way to explore the peninsula. We had in mind bicycles, or perhaps a CUC$2 motorbike ride from stop to stop. Instead, our host recommended a taxi service run by her son. “This is the best way,” she assured us, a hint of mischief in her eye. We balked at the CUC$35 fee, but given the remote nature of the guesthouse and region, we had little choice.

The next morning, we arose to breakfast and the sight of a perfectly preserved 1929 Ford Model T convertible parked in the driveway. This would be our ride for the day, our host informed us. Budget concerns aside, it was difficult to protest.

We hit the road, bound for the Cueva de los Peces, an inland freshwater swimming hole formed from a flooded cave. The water is refreshing but deep, stretching 230 feet into the ground. Nearby is a stand where you can rent scuba and snorkeling gear, and across the road is a rocky bluff looking out onto pristine white-sand snorkeling ground. Beach chairs are available for hire, but the real draw is the water, with its clear visibility, bright coral and sprightly tropical fish. Our driver staked out a spot by the snorkel stand and traded car tips with his friends while we enjoyed the sea.

After working up an appetite from the ocean air, we continued to Punta de Perdiz, a popular spot on Playa Giron with an on-site restaurant and cabanas. A serving of arroz con pollo and a Cristal beer hit the spot. The cabanas at Punta de Perdiz were slightly more conducive to lounging and reading, so we alternated baking in the sun with more dips in the water.

At one point, I staked out a spot on a bluff and looked out onto the sea. I tried to imagine undercover sea craft entering the bay and helicopters dropping paratroopers into the jungle. I thought about America’s contentious relationship with Cuba, about the outdated judgments many still hold toward Cuba and about our trip thus far. There’s a widespread belief that once foreigners are freely able to visit and invest in Cuba, the island will become a wasteland of gringo tourists and McDonald’s. With travel restrictions continuing to loosen, it will require a serious commitment to sustainable tourism and development to ensure that Cuba can benefit from increased development, without losing what makes it so special.

A few hours later, we hopped into the Model T and headed back to reality, impressions of the bay forever changed.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Conscious Consumption In Cuba: How To Have A More Authentic Trip While Supporting Private Businesses


Flower stand in Old Havana

Until very recently, nearly every entity in Cuba was owned and operated by the government.

But in the past few years, the Cuban government has tried to promote private businesses in hopes that the shift will provide a much-needed boost to the economy. In late 2010, President Raul Castro announced that the government would start making it easier for individuals to open private businesses for the first time since a limited experiment in the 1990s. By July 2012, nearly 250,000 people had opened restaurants, shops and service enterprises, contributing to a total 387,000 Cubans that have chosen to be self-employed, according to the New York Times.

It’s not a complete success story, though. According to the Times, Cuban entrepreneurs regularly run into high taxes, steep customs duties and arbitrary red tape. Cubans that rent out rooms in their homes as casas particulares, for instance, must write down their guests’ full information in log books the moment they check in, lest a surprise inspection lead to heavy fines. License fees for these types of businesses are high, and often prohibitive.

Still, the loosened regulations are a positive sign for the future of private business in Cuba, and travelers can have a positive, and powerful, impact on this growth. One big reason is that most travelers to Cuba use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), rather than the Cuban national peso (CUP). The CUC is most often used by foreigners for tourism-related transactions, like hotels and meals, while the CUP is used by most Cubans for everyday expenses. The difference between the two currencies is vast – 1 CUC is equivalent to about 25 CUP – which means that spending CUCs at privately run businesses can have a large impact on the proprietors’ pocketbooks.

If you are visiting Cuba independently, there are a number of ways to have an authentic travel experience, while supporting private business owners and the local economy. Here are a few.


Terrace at the Bella Perla Marina casa particular in Cienfuegos

Stay in a casa particular

Cuba’s answer to Airbnb, casas particulares, are privately run bed and breakfasts, usually run out of people’s homes. Staying in casas particulares are a great way to interact with locals and get an inside look at how Cubans (or at least those with access to tourist dollars) live.

The government imposes strict regulations on casas particulares, so you can generally expect rooms to be clean and stocked with a fan, air conditioner, mini-fridge and bottled water for sale. Rates are standardized, and usually range from $20-50 per room, per night. For an additional fee, your host will also provide meals. One casa particular in the Bay of Pigs even offered musical entertainment!

Casas particulares are easily booked through international booking websites like hostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com, or through Cuban sites like cubaaccommodation.com or cubaparticular.com. Or, you can just roam the streets on the look-out for a white sign with blue writing that reads “Arrendador Divisa” – they are ubiquitous in most city centers, particularly Havana. If that host doesn’t have a room, he or she will more often than not call upon their network of friends to find you another one.

Dine at a paladar

Paladares are privately owned restaurants, often run by families out of their living rooms. They tend to have much better food and selection than the government-run restaurants, which are pretty uniformly bland.

Like privately run restaurants elsewhere, paladares run the gamut in terms of quality and atmosphere. One of the most renowned is Paladar la Guarida, an elegant spot at the top of a 20th-century tenement in Central Havana, famous as a setting for the film “Fresa y Chocolate.” The menu changes regularly but tends to feature inventive dishes with ingredients not often found in spice-strapped Cuba. My cantaloupe gazpacho with dried shrimp was superb.

Another popular spot in Havana is Paladar San Cristobal, which lives up to its five-star TripAdvisor rating. We felt instantly welcome from the moment we stepped into the colonial Spanish courtyard. Our host and waiters lavished us with free wine refills and shots of ron, then lit our first Cuban cigars to top off the meal. When they heard it was my birthday, they disappeared to the back of the restaurant and reemerged with an antique amethyst brooch, which they presented to me as a remembrance of Cuba. The thoughtful service overshadowed my slightly oversalted ropa vieja.


A private salsa class in Havana

Take a private salsa class

Nobody wants to be that awkward gringo doing the two-step on the dance floor at the salsa club. Brush up on your Latin dance skills with private lessons from one of Cuba’s informal dance schools. The best way to find a private instructor is to inquire at your casa particular, or ask around at popular salsa venues, like the bar at Hotel Florida. Rates are about CUC$10-20 per person per hour, and longer intensive courses are available.

Buy a used book in Havana’s Plaza de Armas

The charming, tree-shadowed Plaza de Armas in Old Havana is a hub for used booksellers, many of which operate independently. Most books are in Spanish, but you can usually find an odd English or French title left behind by an itinerant traveler, as well as bootlegged copies of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” set off the Cuban coast.

Hitch a ride in a classic car

Rumbling along the Malecon in a classic car is a Cuban experience that can’t be missed. Look out for classic cabs with yellow license plates, which indicate that the car is privately owned. Some of the most beautiful and well-kept cars congregate at the Parque National in Centro Habana, but their rates tend to be high. Be sure to negotiate a fare before you start your joyride.

A final note

Traveling in a country with such a complex economic structure can be eye-opening, but also frustrating. If you are a tourist using CUCs, you will often be charged more than the local CUP equivalent. An ice cream shop charging 5 CUP for a cone (US$.20) will probably charge you a full CUC (US$1) instead.

Remember that the difference might be negligible to you, but could mean a lot to the vendor. Exercise patience, and try to avoid being stingy. And when you experience great service, don’t be afraid to tip!

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Stranded In Cuba

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We were ready to leave Cuba. We had toasted our last mojitos, danced our last salsa steps and bid farewell to our home-stay hosts with promises to return.

But Cuba had other plans for us – or rather, Cubana Airlines did.

We arrived at Jose Marti International Airport two hours before departure. One counter was open, with a line at least one hundred deep. Yup, we were ready to leave Cuba.

Thirty minutes passed, and the line didn’t budge. We decided to buy postcards. An hour later, the line had moved forward a few feet. I went for a beer. Two and a half hours later, tensions were high and patience was thin. My boyfriend and I had spent the last twenty minutes trying to head off the Italian girls behind us, who were obviously trying to cut in line. This wasn’t the time nor the place for generosity. It was every man for himself.

We finally reached the counter. I handed off my passport, glaring at the counter agent who was preoccupied in conversation with a co-worker. Five minutes later, she hadn’t given my passport a glance. Finally, she looked over my information, checked my name off a list and handed the passport back to me. “Go outside, the bus will take you to the hotel.”

“Hotel?” I sputtered, torn between the urge to burst into tears and strangle her.

“Yes, the flight has been canceled. You will leave tomorrow,” she said, reaching out her arm for the Italian passports behind us. Nonchalant. Dismissive. I, on the other hand, was about to lose it.

%Gallery-172016%After ten days in Cuba, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier in our vacation, we had encountered some of the frustrations of life here. Internet? That’ll be $6 an hour, and only in hotels. But this hotel’s 24-hour cyber café is closed, the next hotel has computers but no password tarjetas and the next hotel has password tarjetas but no computers. So you volley between three different hotels until finally you reach a PC from the 1990s that, after an excruciatingly long wait, allows you access to the HTML version of Gmail.

Lo siento,” says everyone I encounter along the way. “Es domingo.” I’m sorry, it’s Sunday.

But today isn’t Sunday. It’s Monday, and we have a flight that is supposed to transport us to Mexico. Instead, we are herded onto an air-conditioned bus and shuttled to the Hotel Panorama, a 317-room monstrosity in the affluent Havana suburb of Miramar. It’s an odd place, this Panorama, and as we check in and check out our room, we wonder who would actually pay to stay here. The air is stale, the decorations charmless and the paper on the free soap sticks to the bathroom sink – a sure sign it’s been sitting there for a while.

But today, the hotel is bustling as dozens of harpooned travelers occupy the lobby and common areas. The receptionists are accustomed to dealing with frustrated travelers; it seems that Cubana Airlines has a reputation for delaying and sometimes outright canceling its flights, without rhyme or reason. No one is sure if the delay is due to maintenance or weather. We could depart this evening, or we could depart Thursday. When I ask the receptionist if we can leave the hotel, she smiles apologetically and says that we probably shouldn’t, lest the airline deign to make an official announcement. “We have a swimming pool,” she offers.

And so we head to the swimming pool, and we lie on the pool chairs, stuck in limbo between work mode and vacation mode, anxiety and relaxation, the real world and Cuba. There’s nothing to do but wait, swim and avail ourselves of the plentiful, if mediocre, free buffet. All out of local currency, we opt not to take advantage of the extra night out. We’re in bed by 9 p.m.

The next day, we head to the lobby at 10:30 a.m, the time our bus driver told us we’d be shuttled back to the airport. But that’s not happening. Reception tells us to check back at noon, then 1, then 3. Powerless at the hands of Cuban bureaucracy, the travelers begin camping out in the lobby out of protest, or perhaps just boredom. Friendships are made; alliances are formed. One German guy breaks out his guitar, and an international chorus joins him in Bob Marley songs. I’m too frustrated to join in the camaraderie, so I glare while typing cynical observations on my laptop.

In time, we make it back to the airport, past security, onto the airplane and into the sky. When we finally touch down in Cancun, the plane erupts in cheers. For a while there, we weren’t sure we’d ever make it out.

Cuba is a fascinating country with a rich culture, beautiful scenery and hospitable people. But it is also a country plagued with bureaucracy and inefficiency. My frustration with Cubana Airlines is nothing compared to the frustrations that face many Cubans as they go about their day-to-day business. The 36 hours we spent stranded was a pain. But perhaps it was one of the most authentic looks at the reality of life in Cuba, beyond the mojitos and salsa music.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Cuba Lifts Travel Restrictions

Cuba’s Classic Cars: Catch Them While You Can

cuba classic cars

There are few places in the world where you can find modern Toyotas sharing the streets with Model T’s, and Cuba is one of them. The country’s abundance of classic cars may be the result of historic trade restrictions, but it’s also a key element of Cuba’s romantic, stuck-in-time ambience.

Why does Cuba boast so many classic cars? Until last October, Cuban residents were forbidden from buying and selling vehicles without the government’s permission. Only automobiles purchased before the 1959 Cuban Revolution could be freely traded, forcing car owners to use creativity and craftiness to make their existing vehicles last. By outfitting their old cars with replacement engines, fixtures, lining and paint, many have been able to significantly extend the lives of their vehicles, instead of sending them to the junkyard as we’re so quick to do in the Western world. In fact, most cars you’ll find on the street resemble a mash-up of different parts: a hubcap here, a dashboard there, topped off with a dash of house paint and often a Playboy bunny sticker.

%Gallery-159262%But last October, President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother, for those unversed in Cuban history) announced that Cuban residents would now be able to buy and sell cars “without any prior authorization from any entity,” for the first time in 50 years. According to Reuters, the new law is one of many reforms intended to put a greater emphasis on private initiative, a notion that has largely taken a backseat under Communist rule.

While the new law is a definite step forward for Cuban society, it does mean that owners of classic cars will be less motivated to maintain their vehicles, now that they have the freedom to trade up for new ones. But during a recent trip, the new law hadn’t seemed to have made much of an impact – yet. The streets of central Havana were filled with propped-up hoods and self-taught mechanics, and on the Bay of Pigs was parked a perfectly preserved 1929 Ford Model T, at our service. “Original engine,” our driver boasted, beaming.

Still, change is in the air, and the chance to ogle beautifully preserved classic cars may not exist for much longer.

Cuba Eases Car Sales After 50-Year Ban

Havana In Seven Mojitos

havana mojitos

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in La Floridita,” wrote Ernest Hemingway of his infamous drinking exploits in Havana. “Ernesto,” as the Cubans call him, was a big fan of the rum, lime and mint-based cocktail, as evidenced by the slew of drinking holes throughout Cuba where he was reported to have drunk himself silly.

Indeed, sipping mojitos is a big part of the tourist experience in Cuba. And in a country where a glass of high-quality Havana Club Reserva costs significantly less than a bottle of purified water, there’s no reason not to partake in abundance. Cuba’s capital of Havana is flush with drinking establishments to help facilitate the cultural experience. Here are seven.

La Bodeguita del Medio
For tourists following the “Hemingway” trail, La Bodeguita del Medio is the Holy Grail – an atmospheric wood-paneled watering hole lined with photos and scribbled endorsements from Hemingway, as well as famous patrons like Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende. The place is often crammed with tourists herded in by the busload, who snap photos and clap their hands to a live band. The mojitos, however, are overpriced (CUC$4) and taste watered down.

El Patio
Situated smack in the middle of Havana’s Plaza Cathedral, El Patio certainly beats the competition in terms of location. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) are lightly sweetened and stuffed full with mint leaves, and live music plays long into the night. Stake out a spot on the ground floor for priceless people watching.

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Vinales

We were welcomed to Vinales with big smiles, handshakes and enthusiastic promises of music from Buena Vista Social Club. Our guard immediately went up; it was clear we were being solicited by a jinetero, a ubiquitous breed of Cuban hustler. Despite our protests, he called over the waitress and ordered us a round of mojitos, which were sugary sweet, with too much lime and too little mint. Sure enough, the bill confirmed our suspicions. At CUC$6 each, the mojitos were the most expensive we encountered in Havana, and it was clear our new friend had pocketed a portion of the “tip.”

Café Paris
Located on a busy corner in Old Havana, Café Paris is a popular spot for tourists seeking ceiling fans and a cool drink. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) were unmemorable, but the ambience provided the perfect midday respite from the Cuban heat.

Jazz Cafe
For a taste of Cuba’s most talented musicians, head to Jazz Cafe, a sleek 1950s diner-inspired spot above the Galerias del Paseo shopping mall in the neighborhood of Vedado. The CUC$10 cover includes the equivalent in food and drink, and the mojitos are a steal at CUC$2.50. Let the mind-blowing drum and saxophone solos distract you from the less-than-mind-blowing drinks, which were heavy on the sugar syrup.

Hotel Florida
The ground floor lounge at Hotel Florida is that rare nightlife spot that’s equally popular with locals and gringos. Compared to other music venues, entrance was cheap – CUC$5, including two drinks. The mojitos weren’t stellar, but they were strong – which really, was all we needed to wash away our inhibitions and hit the dance floor.

And the winner is … The Gallery Bar at Hotel Nacional
The mojito (CUC$4) at Havana’s most famous hotel bar strikes the sweet spot without being overpowering. The secret? Angostura bitters and a splash of dark rum. It’s no wonder that the bar’s former patrons include Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Nat King Cole. With the bar’s stash of high-grade Cuban cigars and dominos, you can easily while away an entire afternoon here – that is until it’s time to hit up the next bar.