A Cuban visa is easy to get, costs $10.00 and is worth it. Mexicana and Cubana Airlines have daily flights from México City. You can get a visa in Mexico City when you buy your ticket. The visa is a little engraved document about the size of a dollar bill, entirely separate from your passport. You surrender half upon arrival in Cuba and the other half on departure.
Currency is no problem. You exchange your cash – euros, pesos, dollars, whatever – for convertible pesos at the CADECA stand in the airport, or in other CADECA branches all over Havana. Convertible pesos are worth slightly more than one U.S. dollar. When you leave, the CADECA stand in the international departure area, and will buy back your Cuban pesos, including coins, for the currency of your choice.
The two biggest surprises are how flat and green the island looks from the air, and the lack of sandy beaches in the Havana area. The coast is pure rocks, so people go to Varadaro to swim. Havana is remarkably clean; I didn’t see a single beggar or homeless person. There is a lot of new construction and even more restoration work on turn-of-the-last-century buildings lining the waterfront drive, the Malecón and Prado Street.
There’s a lot to see in Old Havana. The capitol building, circa 1930, is a massive, domed tropical Cuban version of most U.S. capitols; it has a large faceted diamond (beneath heavy glass) in the center of the rotunda floor. The baroque Teatro Nacional and the air-conditioned 1900-vintage Hotel Inglaterra are right next door. Nearby is the four-story white marble former presidential palace, now a museum to the Cuban Revolution. You can take pictures wherever you like, including inside all the museums, where the guides are friendly and helpful.
The three-story Palacio del Gobierno, dating from 1776, is architecturally like the palaces of México City, but its patio is sunny and filled with palms and tropical plants. The building houses a museum to the colonial period, and has a large collection of original furniture, pictures, china, silver, chandeliers and carriages. The old cathedral sits on another plaza.
Quinta Avenida, running west from old Havana is lined with elegant mansions, mostly occupied today by foreign embassies. Spanish banking giant, Banco Bilbao y Viscaya, is in one. The huge tower housing the Russian Embassy is more spectacular than ugly, but could be described as both.
Cubans have to survive without Burger King, Domino’s, Macdonald’s, KFC, Coca Cola and Budweiser. They do have burgers, plenty of chicken, Nestle’s ice cream, two brands of local beer (Cristal and Bucanero) and imported Czechoslovakian Pilsner.