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REFLECTIONS ON HAVANA, CUBA
BY STEVEN B. STERN THURSDAY DECEMBER 17, 2015 11:32:13 AM  
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REFLECTIONS ON HAVANA

 

(by Steven B. Stern)

 

On my way to join my cruise ship in Cienfuegos, Cuba, I spent two days in Havana. I can remember friends of my parents relaying tales of the charm and excitement of the city during the forties and fifties—the lavish production shows, the glamorous hotels, the sophisticated casinos and beautiful women.

Having traveled to most countries around the world, naturally I was most anxious to visit Cuba as soon as the possibility presented itself. I tracked down a Cuban travel agency in Florida on the Internet  (named Letty Cuba) and had them arrange my air, visa, hotel, tours and ground transportation.  They put me up at a flee-bag hotel, they represented as 4 star; they set me up with a tour agency with drivers that did not speak English, got lost trying to find Cienfuegos, and left me off at the wrong airport on the way home; provided air tickets with the wrong departure time on a airline  that was 5 hours late on the return flight.  

Cuba does not accept U.S. Currency, and therefore I had to convert U.S. dollars in the airport to a type of special Cuban dollar, losing 13% in the exchange.  Credit cards from American banks are also not accepted; however the Euro and European bank credit cards are welcomed.

On my taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, I received my initial impressions of the country—broken sidewalks covered in mud, buildings in disrepair, crowded streets with thousands of cars vintage 1950s and 1960s, and the absence of a McDonalds or Burger King.

Arriving at my hotel, the Presidente, I had to drag my own suitcase across a muddy sidewalk and up the stairs to the dilapidated lobby. Allegedly during the pre-Castro glory days, such movie stars the likes of Marilyn Monroe were said to have graced its halls.  In deference to that era, the hotel apparently has not replaced the plumbing, the bedding, the carpeting, the furnishings or the elevators.

Becoming tired of my numerous complaints, the desk clerk moved me to their best accommodation on the 10th (top) floor. These palatial digs boasted a broken toilet that would not flush without a plunger, bed sheets that did not fit the bed, foam rubber pillows, flimsy towels that were not replaced until late in the day when the laundry was done, and no box of Kleenex.  It did have an envious view overlooking a former pool with broken cement filled with slimy green sewage

During the day, my educated young guide showed me around his city. In spite of his brief visit to the United States, he was still convinced that he enjoyed a better standards of life in Cuba. He lauded the Castro brothers and the fact they provided him with free medical, free college and found him a job, even if it wasn’t the one he wanted. He did show me an area in the old city with some interesting public squares, statues and classical buildings from prior centuries.  However , 95% of the city was falling apart. There were no supermarkets or drug stores, and items we take for granted, such as non-prescription medicines, sundries and cosmetics were not available.

My guide did point out numerous monuments and more upscale hotels such as Hotel  National, Melia Coluba and Saratoga Havana. One evening I attended the lavish production show, La Parisian, featured at the Hotel National.  I have to admit it was the most spectacular entertainment I had ever witnessed.  Otherwise, restaurants and food in general were disappointing. Other Cuban cities were not as run down as Havana and there are some lovely white sand beaches both on the main island and on small cays off the coast.

If and when the embargos against United States  products, companies and citizens are eventually lifted, the country will be ripe for  US entrepreneurial  undertakings. Until then tourism will appeal mostly to those wishing to experience the Cuban culture and not those seeking a luxury vacation.

 

Steven B. Stern

 

 author of Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation, Stern's Guide to European Riverboats        and Hotel Barges and Stern's Guide to the Greatest Resorts of the Worl
 
 
     
 
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