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. 6 min read

As soon as I landed at the airport, I was getting hustled by taxi drivers for rides to Havana. Everywhere I heard Spanglish yelling that I could hardly understand. Internet was also extremely expensive and inaccessible in Cuba so I couldn't turn to Google for help. You would need to connect to wifi hotspots and pay 1 dollar and hour for internet. Thankfully, I met an American student visiting for a school trip who was also fluent in Spanish. I ended up heading into Havana with her and her friends for the day since I had plenty of time to kill until my family's arrived.

Beautiful colonial buildings in pastel colors. If you look into the distance, you'll see that many of these buildings are quite run down and broken.

Havana is a stunning city, I've never seen anything similar in my travels. It's by no means beautiful according to the traditional standards. The city center was mainly composed of hundred-year-old colonial buildings populating every corner of the street. These buildings featuring pastel-colored walls and many of them being quite run down. It felt beautifully apocalyptic - sometimes I couldn't tell which buildings were operational and which buildings were abandoned.

After we arrived, we walked around searching for food and eventually got recommended a place nearby to eat by a local. When I looked at the menu, I was shocked - a standard main is around 14 USD! In a country where the average monthly wage is less than 30 USD, how the hell do they have the audacity to charge 14 USD for a meal? We got ordered some stuff recommended by the staff and I was disappointed by the quality of the food. I could've gone anywhere in San Francisco and got better food for 14 USD. It felt like robbery.

These was taken at a more "local" area that was far from city center. Houses here looked less maintained and it was hard to tell which buildings are operational.

Tourism is interesting in Cuba. Since Cuba is a communist country, to operate privately in the tourism industry, one needs government approval for a special license. On top of that, Cuba has a special currency just for tourists called the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) which is pegged to the US dollar. Although the CUC is pegged to the dollar, when you try to exchange USD to CUC the exchanges take a 3% exchange fee plus a mandatory 10% tax required by law. If you find a local to exchange, you can get slightly better rates. The best rate I ended up getting was 1 USD to 0.9 CUC (compared to 1USD to 0.86 at exchanges). This creates a very interesting dynamic - people who operate privately in the tour industry can charge tourists absurd amounts due to tourists having limited options of spending with the CUC.

After chilling in Havana for the entire day, I decided to head back to the airport to wait for my family's arrival so we could head towards Varadero together. Once I reached the airport, I noticed my family's flight times were not listed on the arrival screen. I asked around and finally had a terrible realization - my mom told me they were arriving at the wrong airport. The airport my family was actually arriving in was the Varadero airport, over 90 mins drive away... I asked numerous taxi drivers for prices and the consensus was that it would cost a whopping 90 CUC (100 USD) to get there. At this point, it was getting late at night and I really didn't have a choice. I had to take a taxi to Varadero.

Old American classic cars are everywhere in Cuba. Many of these cars were left behind by the wealthier people when they were trying to escape from the Cuban Revolution. Most people anticipated the revolution to be a fad that would only last a few weeks, but boy were they wrong. These cars were then passed onto the family members and future generations which are often repurposed as taxis. During the same time, Fidel Castro also placed a ban on foreign car imports so these cars were all Cubans had. Nowadays, they're a symbol of Cuba and many tourists pay a premium to ride these cars. Thus, people who own these cars are generally a lot wealthier. Kind of ironic even after the revolution the rich stays rich (a little less though).

During my taxi ride to the resort, I was talking to my taxi driver about life in Cuba. He told me operating a taxi requires one of those private licenses. Many taxi drivers were originally in higher education fields, but they quit their salaried positions so they could earn much more as a taxi driver. It's quite sad the smartest minds decide to become taxi drivers because of how the system works. That being said, Cuba has some of the best healthcare in the world. It's the world leader in doctor-to-citizen ratio and boosts an average life expectancy higher than that of the US.

After a long taxi ride, I finally arrived at my hotel. The worst part of this entire situation was that I told my mom that I'd be waiting for them at the airport. Since that neither of us has internet, they're going to arrive, find that I'm not at the airport, and decide whether they should head to the resort or keep waiting. Thankfully, my mom realizes something must've happened and they came to the resort shortly after I arrived.

That concluded my first day at Cuba! It was long, eventful, expensive, and very educational. I later visited Havana again with my family, and I've compiled more pictures that represent the City.

Havana looks similar to an European city, doesn't it?
Close up of the same building. Beautiful geometry.
Old Havana is beautifully maintained. In contrast, when you start taking side streets, you'll start seeing super interesting renovations like this. If I had to guess, this is a garage.
I love this scene - three dogs, three colors, same sleeping position. The tag around their necks are their dog tags which include the dogs name some contact info in case the dog gets lost.
The cutest kitten ever. Someone tried to charge me money for taking a picture of this cat. It's crazy how it felt like almost everyone tried to milk money out of the tourists.
Apparently the La Bodeguita del Medio is the birthplace of the Mojito. Also, Ernest Hemmingway was regular here. I was just there to use the wifi.
Pianist at a hotel.
Bike parking near a local market. Most of these bikes didn't have locks. We saw a bunch of people hitchhiking on the road on our way to Havana so we asked our tour guide regarding the safety of it. Our tour guide responded "no one is going to kidnap people because everyone knows everyone is poor".
Taken at the Revolution Plaza. The plaza is a stark contrast to the rest of Havana with it's communist monuments and brutalist style in architecture. Originally, I was trying to take a photo of the scene, but my grandpa wanted a picture with the car and walked into the frame unexpectedly. It turned out way better than the one without my grandpa in it.
Gritty side streets of Havana. As you can probably tell, the city is packed with people and buildings.