Havana, Cuba: Part 2

If you haven't done so already, check out Part I of our time in Havana, and also see the people we met while in Cuba.

While I felt that the time just wandering the back streets around Havana was the best part of the city as far as sightseeing goes, one of the must-sees that I recommend whether you imbibe or not is a trip to the Havana Club Rum Museum.  Housed in an 18th century solar (colonial townhouse) in Havana Vieja, the museum is now a social, cultural, and artistic center celebrating all things Cuban, in particular its sugary, alcoholic nectar.  You can get yourself an orange juice, rum, and sugar cane juice cocktail freshly pressed before ringing the bell and heading on a tour of Havana Club's history and the entire rum making process.  Definitely a fine way to experience one of the many singularities for which Cuba is so well-known.

When we weren't zooming across town in a classic American car taxi (or, in times of indifference, a Russian Lada), we were walking, mesmerized by the buildings and objects of varying degrees of decay and use.  Havana is one city where it isn't easy to become used to the instant time-warp that engulfs you, and every block, turn, and calle provides some new jolt to really let you know that you are in a place like no other.

How can you go wrong with a country whose national beer is Cristal!?

One of the most interesting things about Cuba is its use of a dual currency system.  The original Cuban peso was joined by the Convertible peso as a means to pacify the dire economic situation on the island after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s.  As it stands today, about 24 pesos equal one convertible peso, one of which is equivilent to one US dollar.  Many tourists mistakingly think that tourists are to only use convertible pesos while Cubans use the moneda nacional, or peso.  This is generally true--Cuban salaries are paid in pesos, while tourist-related purchases (hotels, restaurants, tours, soap, beer, etc.) can only be made in convertibles.  Under this system, a few rolls of toilet paper can cost a day's pay for Cuban workers who find it harder to convert their pesos into convertibles.  Confusing?  Yes.

However, as a traveler to Cuba, it's best not to think in terms of who can use what currency, but instead what you can buy with each one.  At the Havana airport, you'll want to exchange most of your money into convertibles (don't bring US dollars to do this or you'll pay an extra 10%), but get a good $5/week in moneda nacional if you really want to experience a little local flavor.  

Unrecognizable to the initial tourist eye are a good handful of little peso tiendas run out of the living rooms of many residences in the barrios.  You can always tell these places by the little hand-written menus propped up by a barred window.  These little tiendas sell everything from 20¢ cigars and cheap rum, to snack foods.  The street food of choice while in Cuba:  peso pizza--a fluffy-crusted concoction covered in pungent sauce and what can only be described as government cheese.  It's not gourmet, but for 20¢, it's one of the cheapest meals you can eat if you're running low on convertibles (Cuba is a lot more expensive than you might think on the convertible system) or want to strike up a conversation or two with some locals.  We ate many of our breakfasts at these little tiendas, spending about 4¢ for little Cuban coffees and 33¢ for a breakfast sandwich of eggs, cheese, and ham on stale bread.  For three of us, our daily breakfast usually cost at around $1.00, a nice change of pace from the $8-$10 it usually cost us for a meal in a paladar, or private home restaurant (like I said, it's more expensive than you think).  You can't beat the price of a little moneda nacional to experience a little sabor de la vida a couple of times a day!

Of course, if you want to get your hands on a Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, or a Cohiba, you're going to have to fork over those convertibles!

Evenings in Havana are lovely.  The sun lets go of its intensity a bit, music skips the hum and heads straight for the blare, neighbors chat outside of their homes in the barrio, little boys play baseball or soccer in the streets, teenagers head to the Malacon to make out and smoke, and there is just a good feeling of enjoying a warm evening with nary a cell phone in sight!

Part III and the wrap-up of our time in Havana coming soon...