It was a quick 48 hours. We covered the Old Havana highlights, walked dozens of miles and took hundreds of pictures. Reflecting on the weekend, it was a step back in history. The understanding of what was experienced didn’t sink in until the end of our trip, as we were flying over Panama City, otherwise known as the “Miami of Latin America.” With tall, modern buildings and dozens of barges waiting in the bay to pass through the Panama Canal, we were back to reality.
Parts of Havana, Cuba, specifically the touristy areas of Old Havana, have been well-preserved. The fronts of the buildings are richly (and recently) painted, the sidewalks are in good shape, and the old, colorful cars (most of which are taxis today) are in mint condition. Many waterfront buildings facing the malecón are undergoing restorations, and the green areas are well-manicured.
However, once you take a step or two out of the tourist-filled squares, the reality hits that the city is, indeed, in a depressed state. Crumbled cement littered the pole holed streets, the dilapidated exteriors and interiors of the old, Spanish colonial apartments looked like they may collapse at any moment, and the store shelves were hardly stocked. Ration amounts were posted on chalkboards, and Fidel propaganda was still lingering in store windows. And to the locals, this was their normal.
It was a lot to take in. Textbooks and high school history classes didn’t adequately explain the everyday living in Cuba. My friend and I documented as much as we could. This was new to us, and we were trying to absorb as much information and culture as possible.
One evening, upon returning to our B&B, our host parents were sitting on the porch. We joined them and we began to ask our long list of questions that came to mind during our walk throughout the city. They explained to us that, on average, Cubans earn about $25 USD/month. Less than what most of us North Americans spend during a date night to the movies. With housing, food, and health care subsidized, the cost of living a simple life was doable on that salary. But compared to the incoming tourists, their wages are peanuts.
The locals have their own currency, Cuban Pesos (CUP) and the tourists use the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC). The CUC is pegged, one-to-one, to the USD, and is worth 25x the local currency. Prices in stores, whether restaurants, fruit stands or hardware stores, are listed in both CUP and CUC. This difference kept the Cuban’s monthly income livable. To earn a little extra income, those who have the space would rent rooms in their home, or sell extra candies, food or beverages out of their front window.
Our host dad told us that the mansion across the street was on the market for CUC$150,000. That is 6,000 months of the average salary. 500 years’ worth. “Who has that kind of money?”, he asked us. Then he snickered, realizing that to the North Americans he’s talking to, that is a bargain.
Contrasted to the local lifestyle, were the tourists. Not just North Americans, but South Americans, Europeans, Asians, Australians. Smartphones were out capturing the unique sights. Expensive sunglasses and clothes were donned. And within a matter of 30 minutes, one month of a Cuban’s salary was spent enjoying an afternoon happy hour in the square, without even thinking. It’ll be interesting to see how the economy does, and subsequently its people, with the influx of incoming tourism from the United States.
With a rich history, a unique present, and an opportunity-filled future, Cuba is one place worth visiting for your next holiday.
Stay tuned for next week’s article when I uncover the top 4 free things to do while in Havana.