(If you’re wondering what happened to day 3, that was race day. See the race report.)
I woke up the day after the race still feeling like a pile of garbage. “I didn’t eat much yesterday,” I reasoned. “A good breakfast will fix me up.” With that happy thought in mind, we headed out to the Parque Central hotel, where our Airbnb host alleged we could get a delicious buffet for 15 CUC.
A digression about money in Cuba. There are two currency systems in the country: “CUC” and “CUP” (formerly known as MN, for moneda naciónal). CUC is for tourists, CUP is for citizens. This is a practical restriction, not really a legal one; citizens are free to use CUC if they get any. The exchange rates for both are fixed; 1 CUC equals USD$1 equals a little more than 24 CUP. There are a few important things to know about Cuban money:
- US-issued debit and credit cards cannot be used. This is thanks to the US economic embargo. Cards issued by banks in other parts of the world work just fine. That means if you want money in Cuba, bring it with you, because you won’t be getting any while you’re there unless you use Western Union.
- As far as I can tell, no one in the US changes CUC. You can’t get it at the Atlanta airport or any of the online currency exchanges I found. There are currency exchanges at the Havana airport but you’re better off finding one in town. Many hotels have them, but Eric took us straight to one inbound from the airport.
- There’s a 10% penalty when changing USD to CUC. In our case, we saved about 1.5% by buying Euros and then changing them to CUC after our arrival. However, when you change CUC back to USD, there’s no penalty.
- Prices for many things are quite low by US standards– you can get an excellent meal with drinks for 15 CUC, for example. However, hotel rooms and taxis are not particularly cheap, nor are cigars.
- I found that I could comfortably get by on about 80 CUC/day for meals, transportation, and incidentals. That doesn’t include lodging. If you eat less, drink more, or do more tourist-y stuff your mileage may vary.
Anyway, back to the buffet. The other guys all loaded up huge plates with omelets, ham, pastries of various sorts, and all kinds of other goodies. I picked at a hard-boiled egg, a couple of pieces of ham, and a roll… I just wasn’t hungry and was still feeling queasy and dizzy. Despite that, the two very strong cups of Cuban coffee I had were quite welcome.
Our next stop was Museo de la Revolución. Napoleon’s aphorism that history is written by the winners was clearly the inspiration for this museum, which is just as propaganda-heavy as you might expect. It’s housed in the former Presidential Palace, and many of the original furnishings and decorations are intact, as are the bullet holes generated by the armed band of students who attacked the palace as part of the Cuban revolution.
As you might expect, the exhibits focus heavily on the revolution and its aftermath. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are extremely prominent; Camilo Cienfuegos, who was really the true military mastermind behind the revolutionary army, gets relatively short shrift. I learned that he died in a mysterious airplane accident in 1958, shortly after the revolution. The exhibits are all labeled in Spanish but only a few have English translations, and those are mostly poor in quality and too brief to accurately capture the detail of the Spanish versions. Sometimes the propaganda quality was just over the top– the “Corner of Cretins” is a good example. The small plaques thank each cretin (Batista is the fourth, off to the left) for various things. The entry for George H.W. Bush says “Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION.” I mean, come on, guys, at least get someone who can conjugate verbs to help you write your insults!
Interestingly, the museum itself contains three small shops selling random tourist crap. Not very revolutionary.
The ground floor has a small and well-hidden cafe where we stopped for a drink. This led to the highlight of my visit: reading the entries in the comment book the museum maintains for its visitors. I wish I’d taken pictures of some of the comments– there were people from eastern Europe writing (in beautiful English) that having the exhibits labeled only in Spanish was dumb; there were Australians and Canadians asking why the museum didn’t make a bigger effort to explain what was so bad about the pre-revolutionary Batista government, and one person (I think from Australia?) who said “Why are you selling Nestlé products in the cafe? They are the definition of imperialist devils!”
After the museum, I skipped lunch and went back to the apartment for a badly needed nap. When I awoke, everyone else had made it back and we all spent time washing our race stuff and hanging it to dry on the terrace. While this was going on, Anita, our housekeeper, and her friend Rita were cooking us a Cuban dinner of slow-cooked chicken stew with pineapple, rice and beans, salad, and fried plantains.
It’s true, I was very hungry at this point, but I have to say that this was the best meal I had while in Cuba, and one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. The chicken was tender and flawlessly seasoned; the pineapple was naturally sweet, slightly caramelized, and a bit spicy from being cooked with the chicken, and the beans were perfectly cooked and seasoned. I had 3 plates worth and then had to quit before I damaged anything.
Our plan for the night was to go to FAC– Fábrica de Arte Cubano, basically a super-powered art gallery and party space. It’s only open Thursday through Sunday from 8p to 3a, so this was our last chance to go. We wanted to have drinks on the rooftop bar at El Cocinero, which is next door. However, when we arrived, we found the bar closed due to plumbing problems. That turned out to be OK; we got in line about 715 but by 730 the line was down the street and around the corner. FAC admits only 800 people each night, so if you don’t get there early, you might not get in.
We stood in line chatting with other visitors, including a couple from Montreal who told a funny story. They were staying at an Airbnb owned by a Canadian and his Cuban boyfriend. Non-citizens can’t legally own real estate in Cuba though, and of course the Cuban government doesn’t permit gay marriage. How was that possible, I asked? “Oh,” laughed the Canadienne. “The Canadian married his boyfriend’s mother, and the apartment is in their names.” Nice workaround!
We paid 2 CUC for admission and got drink cards– to buy a drink, you show your card and the bartender marks it, then you provide your card at the exit to pay your tab. (Lose your card and it’s 30 CUC!) There are six or seven bars inside FAC, along with a large performance space, a video gallery, and wall after wall of art exhibits. The best way I can describe the overall vibe: noisy crowds of tourist hipsters. I’m not really an art person, and I tend to walk through art museums at a pretty brisk clip, so I didn’t really see anything that made a huge impression on me. (There was a nice gallery of small pictures of zebras chasing laser pointers, though.) The big attraction was being able to sit outside on the roof in the warm Cuban air talking with my friends and hipster-watching, but eventually I started getting more and more tired and decided to punch out and head back to the apartment.
I was awake for maybe 15 minutes once I got there– and getting there was an adventure, not because of the taxi we took (which was fine) but because of the stairs! My quads were still trashed from the previous day’s race and so I couldn’t make it up even half a flight of steep Cuban stairs without having to stop to catch my breath. Humbling.