Books are always for sale in La Habana’s Plaza De Armas
A few years ago on my first trip to Cuba I rented a room in a Casa Particular (private house) located in La Habana’s Vedado neighborhood. I reached out to my previous host and secured a room (luckily) at a discounted rate. Dora and her mom, Dora Senior, were there to greet me with open arms and hours (literally) of conversation. It was like catching up with a great aunt.
I shared my financial dilemma with Dora and she gave me the most valuable advice ever. “Pero chica, cambia sus CUCs a pesos.”
Cuba has two currencies: The Cuban convertible (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). Cuban nationals are paid in CUP and use this currency the most. Foreigners and some of the wealthier Cubanos use CUCs. Touristy restaurants, bars, hotels etc., will charge in CUCs while local mercados, cafeterias and colectivos will charge in CUP. Since most Cubanos can’t afford “luxury items” they stay away from places that charge in CUCs and stick to CUP places instead.
Now the exchange rate from one to the other is what makes the difference. For one CUC you get 25 CUPs! That’s a HUGE difference! Dora’s was telling me to stick to the locals and I’ll be able to stretch my dinero!
Still in school uniform, teenage girls walk through La Habana
Where can you find vintage American models rolling down the street decades after they came off the assembly line? Cuba.
As soon as I landed in La Habana I handed over my Mexican pesos to the lady in the CADECA (casa de cambia) and exchanged them for Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). When I got my CUCs I knew I was screwed. 300 CUCs is what she gave me, about 50 less than expected.
Each CUC is worth about one US Dollar. You might think this would be sufficient for a week in Cuba, but no. After calculating my room and airport transfers I had 100 CUCs leftover for food, transportation, admission fees and the occasional beer.
In Cuba, credit and debit cards issued from American companies don’t work. I’ll have no way of getting more money out so I had to make this last. This might come as a shock but Cuba is a relatively expensive country to visit. This small budget meant no mojitos and definitely no rhumba.
Back at a bar in Utila a few of us were discussing where my last stop was going to be before heading back to the U.S.
Me: “I fly out of Cancun.”
Kat: “You’re ending your trip in Cancun?!”
Kat: “That’s just wrong! You’ve been on a journey of a lifetime and your going to end it in CANCUN!”
Me: “Well where do you think I should end it?”
Kat: “FUCKIN’ CUBA!!!!!”
Me: “Your right! You’re absolutely right!!!!”
Leaving Caye Caulker was bittersweet. I knew I would miss my sister Kat, a lot. It was really incredible to share a big part of my trip around the world with her and to see the personal adjustments she’s made for island life in Belize. When we said goodbye neither one of us knew when we’d see eachother again. If pictures could describe how I felt this rasta baby in the split does it the best.
Keeping with the island theme, my next destination is, in a way, the forbidden fruit for Americans. Its forbidenness makes it all the more desirable and it’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Making my way there includes a ferry to Mexico, a bus to Playa Del Carmen, one night in a hostel, another bus, a $17 Visa and an hour plane ride.
They told me to go with the flow and I did. Here’s some footage that adds a bit of movement to the images of Belize and Caye Caulker. It might make you want to catch the next flight out!
I was not having a problem adjusting to island life…At all. What I did have a problem with was knowing I would soon be leaving. With over a year on the road my pockets were growing a bit thin and I still had a little more traveling to do…
On my last day a few of us grabbed a couple seis-packs and some sandwiches and motored by boat heading north. We left the idea of a plan back at the dock and went with our gut. Well, mostly the captain’s gut. The rest of us just drank.
Before we knew it we were near Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Close enough to see great sea life but not enough to have to pay an entrance fee.
Captain Artie spotted something off into the distance. We all put on our snorkel gear, splashed in and followed him. We swam for about ten minutes when Artie stops to tell us to be very quiet. I didn’t know if it was okay to keep swimming but I kept on hoping I wouldn’t be eaten alive.
What we saw was huge, vegetarian and thank fully harmless!
Seeing a Manatee from this point of view made me feel tiny! They weight anywhere from 400 to 550 kilograms (880 to 1,200 lb) and have a mean length of 2.8 to 3.0 meters (9.2 to 9.8 ft). The females tend to be larger and heavier but the good news is they all move as fast as a snail, even with their paddle-shapped tail.
We were lucky to find this one outside and away from the sanctuary which made our visit with it legit. It was an incredible site to see up close and it made my trip to Caye Caulker complete. No words can describe the feeling of sharing the sea with this sweet manatee.