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Passport: Going Local in Cuba


Havana, Cuba
Back in the states, the movement of “keeping it local” seems to be catching on big time. Consumers are encouraged to buy from local farmers, support local business and circulate their money in a local economy. Here in Havana, keeping it local has an entire different meaning—literally. The other day I mentioned that I would be visiting a museum and then hanging out in the city while waiting for the much-anticipated World Baseball Classic match between Cuba and Australia to begin. [Post break: They won, it was awesome!!! But can we talk about the Dominican Republic got shut out by the Netherlands? THE NETHERLANDS? Damm.] I’ve visited this museum and navigated these city streets before, only this time would be a bit different because I was planning to keep it local as a Cuban the entire time.

Money Makes The Maquinar Go ‘Round

When it comes to money here, you have to think twice. In Cuba, two recognized currencies exist – Moneda Nacional, aka The Cuban Peso and The Convertible Peso, aka the CUC. If you come here and you exchange money at the airport, you will receive the CUC in exchange for your pounds/dollars/euros, etc. The exchange rate is pretty competitive with the exception of the American Dollar, but we all know the story behind that.
CUCs are excepted only at most “nicer” restaurants, shops, hotels and tourist-related businesses (taxis, resorts, liquor stores, etc). The Peso is everywhere as well, but functions in an economy entirely on its own as well and most tourists will probably never see it. A common hustle here is to actually sell the peso to CUC holding tourists as a souvenir. Imagine paying $20 for a $5 dollar bill just because it has Che on it—right.

In public spaces, venues, concerts, etc one will notice two prices posted: one for Cubans (pesos) and one for non-Cubans (CUC), and in most cases, the price will be the exact same. So what’s the difference? A 24/25-to-1 exchange rate. It can be confusing, but if you think about the monthly income for the average Cuban, it, in essence, make sense. But don’t think the two currencies are exclusive of one another, they mix more than anyone cares to admit.

Just as there are CUC-only establishments, etc, there are also things that you will only get with a peso and a smile. One, for example is a ride in a maquina (see above. translated: machine) aka a peso taxi. Traditionally, maquinas drivers service Cubans only and accept only pesos. Most tourist ask for a ride in one since most maquinas are the classic Ford and Cheverolet models that Cuba is known for via postcards. You may be able to grab a quick photo, but as far as a ride to Vedado, most will politely decline and keep it moving out of fear for being caught by officials. Trust me, you’re not missing that much as they can be quite uncomfortable and drivers will try to squeeze as many people as possible into one trip, but if you can, it is an experience to be remembered. Brooklynites who have ever had a crazy dollar-van ride can probably relate more than most.

Making It At the Museo
So after a quick maquina ride, my friend and I decided to treat ourselves to a lazy afternoon of art and leisure in Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. First stop: the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (shown above), which houses classic and contemporary art from Cubans both here and abroad. It’s also one of my favorite places in the city, complete with a courtyard, theatre and cafe. A perfect way to spend an afternoon. The entry price is the same amount for both currencies/people—$5. Since she is Cuban, we decided to try our luck and see if we could score entry using pesos. Of course she bought them and I conveniently started reading a museum brochure, and well, we got in! I passed, lol. Generally, I don’t try this that much because really, a $5 ticket won’t kill me, but when in Rome…try to be Italian at least once.

Once inside, we hit up the courtyard and discovered some new works. Some of my favorites pieces included pieces by Raul Martinez, Felix Beltran, and Frémez. (above: The courtyard at the Museo).

After the museum, we had some time to kill so we decided to hit up a local, pesos-only bar and waste some time…but first we had to tackle our desire for sweets. If there is one thing that you must do when here it is to hit up a bakery and indulge in some fresh pan, tarteles, pan santo, eclairs, etc. The wait may be long, but it moves at a good pace. Don’t be afraid to ask the person next to you for their recommendation, everyone has an opinion when it comes to postres and they won’t be afraid to declare it-loudly.

Fast forward and we are in front of a television set with friends from here and abroad, watching Havana and Australia prove their weight in the world of baseball. The streets are quieter than normal since it seems the entire nation is glued to the game. I’ve never been the biggest baseball fan, but you can’t deny the excitement felt by the people. After a slow start, runs start to get made and Cuba manages to win against the Aussies, 5-4. This was celebrated by my entire neighborhood screaming from their balconies.

Score one for the local set today. Let’s see what happens tomorrow. I’ve got to explain this massive hangover I have, lol!


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