Photos of Cuba
full country name Republic of Cuba
capital Havana
population 11.2 million (as of 2001)
surface area 110900 sq km
currency Cuban peso ($), Convertible peso (CUC)
exchange rate US$ 1 = CUC 1 = $ 27 (as of December 2004)
language Spanish
main religion 85% Roman Catholic
Internet users restricted (data as of 2004)
Our route through Cuba
Our route...
Vintage paradiseFamily moments in the evening sun
Gazing down on Aguilera streetCapitolio Nacional
Scenes from Havana (t.l.), Baracoa (t.r.), Santiago de Cuba (b.l.), and again Havana (b.r.) / © gM
"Che, we walk with you as revolutionaries!"
Propaganda is everywhere: "Che, we walk with you as revolutionaries!" / © gM
Maguana BeachBaracoa
Beach time is quality time / © gM
A frequent ocean breeze lets the kites fly highInner courtyard of Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del MorroCastillo de San Pedro del Morro
More scenes from Baracoa, Havana, and Santiago de Cuba / © gM
We arrived in Cuba on November 15th, 2004, on a flight from Mexico City. We spent three very relaxing weeks in Cuba before flying to Canada via Cancún.

After clearing Immigration and Customs, we were completely floored to find out that businesses were not allowed to accept US$ anymore. US$ now have to be exchanged against Convertible pesos with a 10% penalty. All other foreign currencies do not carry this penalty. This was not very good news for us, indeed, since we had planned to use up our US$ in Cuba. We even had stocked up our supplies in Mexico City, unaware that new regulations were to come into effect on the day of our arrival in Cuba. Needless to say, we switched from US$ cash to cash advances for which the 10% penalty does not apply even though US$ are charged against our credit card. Of course in order to do so, one needs to find a bank that reliably accepts credit cards which is possible only in the largest cities such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba. We stocked up on money (again) in Santiago de Cuba, enduring a seemingly endless lineup. Cubans use the último system when lining up for anything. If you would like to join a queue, you have to shout out "¿el último?", and the last person in the queue will respond. Remember this person because it is your turn after this person's turn. Obviously, the queue does not resemble a queue at all. It is just a bunch of people spread out over a small area in no particular order. Furthermore, people come and go because why wait for one's turn if it is a couple of hours away? Consequently, people you have never seen before will arrive and will get served before the person ahead of you, making you wonder if the system is working at all.

Still at the airport, we managed to get the last bus tickets for the 16½-hour overnight trip to Santiago de Cuba later that day. A cab brought us straight to the bus terminal where we finalized our tickets and then had to wait around for three hours. The bus terminal had not changed a single bit since gM had been there in 1999. The postcard stand is still at the exact same spot - it also remains the only attraction except for eating overpriced ham and cheese pizza.

We stayed for four days in Santiago de Cuba, thoroughly enjoying our nightly dose of live Cuban music. We were lucky to catch a sold-out performance of Grupo de Compay Segundo, the group of the late Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame. During the day, we visited historical buildings (Balcón de Velázquez, Casa de Diego Velázquez), small museums (Museo del Carnaval with a folkloric dance show, Museo del Ron, Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardí Moreau, Museo de Imagen), and Cuartel Moncada, the barracks where the Cuban revolution started more than half a century ago.

Between filling breakfasts and dinners at our casa particular (small private hostel), we snacked on ice cream at Coppelia and pizza from private businesses. Both cater to the average Cuban and are therefore sold in Cuban pesos. Pizza is sold through windows of private homes. It is almost the same wherever we had it. The dough is about 1cm thick and 20cm in diameter. It is sparsely sprinkled with cheese, and a good dose of oil is poured on top. No other ingredients, although there are the rare cases where some ham or onion find their way onto the pizza. Fresh from the oven, the pizza is placed on a square piece of greyish paper, folded in half, and then given to you. It sounds worse than it is - we liked the pizza actually - and at 3-5 Cuban pesos a piece it is a bargain. At tourist places, pizzas cost at least US$ 2 with no huge difference in taste or ingredients.

Coppelia is a truly Cuban experience. It is a government-owned ice cream parlor with many branches all over the country. The biggest ones are in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Judging from the lineups (think almost always long waiting time!), any private business would have increased seating capacity a long time ago. Not that Coppelia is a small place, there are hundreds of seats. There are even several entrances, each posting their available flavors and servings of the day. Different entrances may have different flavors and servings. Customers cannot just walk in individually but are rather dealt with in groups - 20, 30, 40 persons at a time. A waiter or waitress leads the group from the queuing area at the entrance to the seating area, another one comes around to take the order for the whole group, and a third comes back with the requested servings. Servings have flashy names like jimagua and tres gracias, but they only differ in number of scoops. There is only one kind of serving dish. Thus, if you order one scoop it will come on the same metal plate that can also hold seven scoops! No chocolate coating or any kind of dip, no wafers, no nuts, no fruits, no sauces - just ice cream. A cup of water comes automatically with your order, but any other beverage is out of the question. The ice cream, however, is excellent. Hardly anybody orders one scoop, most go for at least three. If you are thinking about ordering more later on, think again. You will probably get away with it if you are a tourist, but locals order everything up front. For some reason, it is also not possible to mix flavors - even if you are a tourist (we have tried!). Therefore, it is not unusual at all, that a table of four receives eight dishes - a strawberry jimagua and a vanilla tres gracias for the daughter, a coconut jimagua and a chocolate tres gracias for the son, ... Of course that is assuming that all these flavors are available in your section of Coppelia. Most of the time, the grand selection of flavors advertised on the boards near the entrance dwindles down to two or even one by the time you have reached your seat. Considering that 30°C heat melts scoops of ice cream into slush in no time, people tend to eat their ice cream quickly. Coppelia also offers take-out. You just have to go through the same process as explained above, and when the ice cream arrives at your table, you empty the contents of the metal plate into the vintage cup or plastic shopping bag you have brought with you.

Five hours by bus from Santiago de Cuba, Baracoa is a very pleasant seaside town. It was hard to leave as we listened to more live Cuban music, lazed on the beach, and had wonderful conversations with the husband and wife team running our casa particular. We also savored the simple but hearty cooking of our hostess, with maybe the exception of one time. One morning the husband brought home a 10kg fish, just caught by local fishermen. He asked us how we would like to have the fish prepared and we answered, "¡Sorpresa!". We were thinking of nothing fancy, more in the direction of pan-seared fillet with a hint of lime but we got the surprise we asked for: a layer of fish fillet, a layer of cheese, a layer of ham (yes, the kind which may find its way on a pizza), and another layer of fish fillet. The wife then dipped everything in a batter and thoroughly deep fried it. As you can imagine, it was not the best way to prepare the fish. It was not that it was inedible, but it was simply a very filling blend of strongly competing flavors. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences. Just like seeing the husband first slap his belly with his hands and then finish an enormous portion of the dinner.

On our way from Baracoa to Havana, we again stopped in Santiago de Cuba. We visited the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina (about the underground struggle against Batista) and the Castillo de San Pedro del Morro about 10km from the center of the city. In Havana, we stayed close to Plaza Vieja at a casa particular in an old colonial building with high ceilings, balconies, and beautiful tiles in the bathrooms. Besides enjoying Cuban music, pizza, and Coppelia ice cream as usual, we had a guided tour through the Capitolio Nacional, sipped rum at the Museo del Ron, and spent time at the Museo de la Revolución. We wandered through the Museo Nacional de la Música, the Colección de Arte Cubano, and the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, and visited the Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro as well as the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. Even though we anticipated to be annoyed by many hustlers, we are glad to report that this was not the case. All in all, we enjoyed strolling through the streets of Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, taking in the many art galleries, museums, pleasant squares, and restaurants.