I could not wait to sit under a Queen Palm enjoying the hot Caribbean sun! It takes almost a full day to get from northern California to Havana--because there are no direct flights. If you don't have pre-arranged permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which allows you to book a charter flight from Miami, you can fly to Toronto and then take a direct flight from there to La Habana. Or, you can leave CA at 11:00 PM on Saturday and fly to Guadalajara, then to Mexico City, to Cancun, and finally arrive in Havana at 4:00 PM on Sunday. Given that long haul, it makes a lot of sense to pack light enough so that you can carry your suitcase onboard. From the airport it's easy to take a taxi to the hotel. But before that, you have to convert currency.
Front of a Cuban Convertible Peso.
Officially, you can't pay for anything with American dollars, and you can't access American banks through ATMs, and so even if you prepay everything to an educators tour like the one Vicky and I joined, you have to bring cash for incidentals.
Back of a Cuban Convertible Peso
As of November 2004, foreign currencies are no longer accepted in Cuba. Pesos Convertibles, released by the National Cuban Bank, substitute for foreign currency, most intentionally the American dollar. CUCs are not an international currency and Cuban folks don't have easy access to it.
Front of a Cuban peso.
Cubans get paid in Cuban pesos, a different currency; it's what they use to purchase most things. Cuban pesos are of little use to tourists (unless they're visiting very rural areas). One CUC is worth about 24 Cuban pesos.
Back of a Cuban peso.
American dollars can be converted for CUCs at the airport, in hotels and in banks, but it doesn't matter where you do it, because the rate is a flat minus 20 per cent; that includes a 10 per cent extra tax just on the American dollar. That is, right now the American dollar is worth only 80 cents. Other foreign currency is exchanged following the daily currency rate of the international currency market.
In mid 2008 Raul Castro loosened the law and now Cubans are allowed to apply for licenses to drive their own private taxis on specific dates and routes.
Most of those free-market taxi drivers are citizens who own classic Chevys and Packards which are very appealing to tourists, especially. They charge state-established fares.
This new practice is welcome, because despite the government's recent purchase of a fleet of large Chinese buses, the transportation system does not meet the demands of local citizens and tourists.
There are various kinds of other vehicles, among them horse-drawn and bicycle-drawn carriages that are popular with tourists, but the "cutest" of the functional every day taxis for everyone is an open tiny vehicle for two or three passengers.
Free the Cuban Five
"The Cuban Five" are men who are in US prison serving four life sentences and 75 years collectively. In 2001 a Miami federal court accused and convicted them of committing espionage conspiracy against the US. They claim to have been involved in monitoring actions of Miami-based terrorist groups in order to prevent terrorist attacks on Cuba. They affirm that they never harmed anyone or committed any acts against the US. In August 2005 the conviction was overturned, and a new trial was ordered outside of Miami, but that ruling was vacated two months later, in October.
The case is still under appeal. In Cuba, buildings are covered with posters such as these in support of the five men.