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Downtown Havana, Cuba.
Downtown Havana, Cuba.

In and Out of Cuba

An Illegal Trip Turns into a Financial Nightmare

When my friend, Ron, and myself first mentioned Cuba as a possible day trip during our stay in Cancun, Mexico, we laughed like it was nothing more than a joke. But the risk had an allure all of its own. The word “Cuba” kept coming up in our conversations and, before we knew it, Ron and I had booked an overnight stay in Havana.

The next morning’s Miami Herald had a headline story about six Cubans who attempted the five-day journey on paddle skiffs to Florida; two made it ashore (after threatening suicide by swimming into the Coast Guard’s boat propellers) and four were intercepted by the authorities. Here we were, trying to make it into a country that had citizens who were willing to kill themselves to escape.

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Havana ocean view.

Our tickets were overnight round-trips, so we had 25 hours to explore Havana. After killing our first few just getting to the Melia Habana (our hotel) due to the taxi booking being lost, and then going to the wrong hotel, we were starved. Our taxi driver informed us that our restaurant of choice was not open yet, and he knew of a different place. This began a trek into one of Havana’s decaying inner neighborhoods, and a three-hour dinner in an old, crumbling European mansion. We nearly flooded our rental car twice on the trek back to our hotel; the roads had no drainage, and many of the storm puddles were two or three feet deep.

After our first hours in Cuba, we decided we needed a drink and a Cuban Cigar. And it was this decision that changed our whole trip. After ringing up room service for some Cuban rum, cigars and beer, our hotel bartender informed us that no credit cards were accepted from Americans. No traveler’s checks, no ATMs, no credit cards… which left us only with the cash we had on hand. Pulling every last dollar from our pockets, we had just enough cash for a taxi to the airport.

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Mark and Ron enjoying Cuban rum, cigars and beer in their hotel before realizing their American credit cards didn’t work in Cuba.

The next morning, as we took a walking tour with an ad hoc tour guide, an icy bolt of shock ran through me. I was making a mental rundown of everything we would need for our exit… Passport, plane tickets, Visas… and I suddenly remembered that in Jamaica we had to pay an export tax. After asking our tour guide about this, he put his hands in his face, knowing our financial situation; it would be $20 each to leave, and we had $15 between us for the cab. This was a lot of money.  In Cuba, $20 was the monthly salary for a doctor. With our plane leaving in a few hours, we had nowhere to turn. The U.S. had a small representation at the Swiss Embassy, but we were not supposed to be over there in the first place! We could not miss our flight to Cancun (rebooking a one-way flight out of Cuba is extremely difficult) and, with the clock ticking, we scanned over all of our possessions for anything of value. The only item was the one in my hand; my Pentax camera. So up for auction it went, and with our flight approaching, I sold the $400 camera for $40, which was just enough to cover our exit. Andrew Jackson never looked so good. 

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One Comment

  1. Hi Marc – Interesting story but not surprising most people are quite naive about what to expect in Cuba I have heard though that there are some ATMs around. There was a wonderful article in the Sunday New York Times Travel Section that expands on your write-up about Cuba. Bottom line is, I don’t recommend Cuba for the unadventurous type, stick to Cancun for now.

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