I had the good fortune to be assigned to a short work trip in Havana, Cuba, and am also happy to say that I had a very good time there. Any talk of Cuba usually leads to discussions of politics, but if you ever find the chance to go there, you’ll find that Cubans themselves do not obsess over it as much as we do. Tourism is one of Cuba’s remaining flourishing industries, and so you can expect to be treated reasonably well. Much of Cuba retains a rustic Old World charm, and you can easily find yourself eating up hours just going around old buildings, swimming and sightseeing. I found the locals to be accommodating and surprisingly candid hosts. They are close to their families and enjoy home-cooked food, perhaps in the same way that you yourself might be.
One of the personal highlights of my trip was taking a ride in a coco taxi. These pedicab-sized yellow transports are amusing to look at but hard to describe without pictures. From the front, I would say that they resemble giant motorcycle helmets, where the openings are where the eye goggles would be. These are the taxis that patrol Cuba’s roads day and night, and although they house Italian engines, can be said to be masterpieces of local design.
Taking a taxi in Cuba is itself a common point of contention. Yes, you could find yourself overcharging if you take one of the yellow taxis officially mandated for tourists, and you could spend less if you try to get your own transportation, but if you do the latter you risk hiring a bad automobile. Since public transportation and travel options for travelers have been separated, it’s best to stay safe and take those yellow taxis. Having said that, make sure to set your fare with your taxi driver beforehand to avoid paying a high markup.
I ended up running late for a meetup and could not avoid taking one of these taxis for a ride. On the way back to the hotel, I glanced at a few bronze-skinned beauties on their way to the ice cream parlor. In Cuba, ice cream, like the health care system, is nationalized and has been made affordable and easily accessible to all. All their ice cream parlors will say Coppelia (Cuban for ice cream parlor), but it’s not a brand like Coke or McDonald’s more like a sign. Much like Mickey D’s, lines are long and the food is cheap.
I asked to be dropped off so that I could get a few scoops for myself. I managed to line up just behind the two ladies I saw earlier and admired them a bit too much. One of them looked back, shot a suspicious glance that broke into a smile. I smiled back, they turned their attention to the line and that was the end of that.
It took nearly an hour to get some helados, and truth be told, it doesn’t taste that much different from ice cream at home, but it was still delicious. And, very inexpensive. I pondered further how different life is here and back home as I finished up my nice little dessert.
If you decide to take a Cuban vacation, I recommend you join up in a tour with a small group. You can split the travel and accommodation costs, you won’t have to look around for things to do and you won’t have to worry about transport. If you fancy yourself a good backpacker, you will enjoy going around an entire country in a bicycle, but do prepare acceptable currency, as embargo restrictions do not allow Cubans to accept money from any U.S. bank.
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