WiFi-free in Cuba, from the busy streets of Havana to white-sand beaches
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — I almost didn’t make it into Cuba.
Sometime around 4:30 a.m., Steamboat Springs time, in early April, I was jolted awake from my nap on the floor of the Miami International Airport by a loud announcement on the loud speaker.
A gate attendant informed anyone who didn’t have a Cuban visa to come to the podium.
The $60 per night Airbnb across the street from the sea was all booked, and my travel insurance cards were printed. So I was perplexed when the gate agent insisted I still needed a tourist travel visa.
Foggy and still tired from a redeye flight to Miami from Denver, panic started to set in. As the departure time approached, it became apparent I would need to go to the other side of the Miami airport, buy an unplanned $100 travel visa and make it back through security in time for my flight.
Luckily and oddly, there were no lines.
On the quick flight into Havana, I worried about what might happen if there was another piece of paperwork I missed, and what would happen if they wouldn’t let me into Cuba.
I spent the last minutes of internet access I would have for four days finding conflicting news reports about whether it would be wise to proclaim I was a journalist or just say I was a tourist.
Would the 360-camera I had in my bag set off alarms? Was I destined to spend a day, maybe two, waiting at an airport?
This was no ordinary flight and no ordinary vacation.
A time capsule
When the airplane touched down nine miles from downtown Havana, almost everyone on our Frontier Airlines flight started clapping and cheering. They also promptly ignored the pilot’s request to stay seated and buckled until the airplane reached the gate.
It was as if everyone on this flight was part of one big family.
Cubans, as I would quickly learn, are very friendly and social. They are always laughing and socializing. And without the constant distraction of smartphones and tablets, they seem to be more engaged with one another.
When an American steps outside of the Jose Marti Airport in Havana, they instantly step into a different world. The smell of diesel fuel and gas fumes is overpowering.
Soviet-era flatbed trucks rumble down the streets carrying workers and agriculture equipment. Hispanic music fills the air. And the flurry of American classic cars from the 1950s and ’60s make it hard to pin down exactly what year it is in Cuba.
Our friendly cab driver, Ismael, drove an old car that reminded me of my brother’s fixer-upper Volkswagen Scirocco. Ismael’s car had no air conditioning and a frame that rumbled and squeaked on every bump in the road. And, it sometimes took two or three attempts to start the car.
I would quickly learn Cubans are very thrifty and resourceful. Drivers working on their broken-down cars in the middle of busy streets were a common sight.
I first became interested in visiting Cuba when I heard my father talk about his desire to see the old Spanish architecture in Havana. My dad started studying Texas and Spanish history extensively when my family moved to Austin, Texas.
After seeing this country, myself, I’m hoping he’ll get to make the trip sometime soon.
Crumbling pastel buildings dot the landscape. There are no modern, glass skyscrapers.
Walking around Old Havana felt like you were stepping even further back in time than the 1950s cars rumbling down the streets would suggest.
At sunset, hundreds of people sit on the edge of the Malecon, which stretches 5 miles along the coast of Havana, and watch the sunset. Fishermen cast into the violent waves.
During the day, the sea spills over the wall and splashes onto a busy highway. In the afternoon, a salsa class was taught on the sidewalk right below the apartment where I was staying.
Just a few miles east of the smelly, smoggy and busy streets of Havana, Cubans relax on pristine, white sandy beaches. There are no big crowds or towering resort buildings.
On a quarter mile stretch of beach, a Cuban couple can have the beach all to themselves. At shacks, just steps from the beach, you can find a juicy hamburguesa for 1.5 CUC, or about $1.70. A large, ice-cold beer adds another 1.5 CUC.
At one such lunch spot, a group of Cubans trotted up on horseback, the riders smoking large cigars.
Part of the allure of Cuba is that it is still largely unspoiled by large-scale development. You don’t have the sense that anyone owns certain views, and long stretches of beach are unimpeded by exclusive resorts. This might change soon.
There were many old, abandoned buildings in downtown Havana sporting advertisements and renderings of new luxury hotels that are planned. And the English-language newspaper boasted how Cuba has the potential to become the second-largest tourism driver in Latin America, behind Mexico.
But I rather enjoyed the parts of Havana that weren’t touched up.
The gritty, dirty streets flanked by crumbling buildings had a charm to them. Here, children played soccer, wall ball and other games in the streets. Men pushing heavy wooden carts went block to block, selling bananas and other fruits.
Later at night, windows offered a glimpse into other parts of Cuban life. On a quiet street, an older man was asleep on his couch with his cat snuggled in his lap.
I got to step inside an ordinary day in the life of a Cuban and enjoyed every minute of it. And when I stuck my camera in the window of a painter, he promptly took his brush and swatted it at my arm, covering it in purple paint.
It reminded me I was a just a visitor here.
On another international vacation I took to Europe, I stood on a street corner in Prague, waiting for my friends to finish up at the post office.
I felt a little sick when I noticed how many people were craning their necks to check their smartphones. Couples sat on benches not talking to one another, distracted by the internet in their hands. Bus riders didn’t look out the windows to people-watch. They were zoned out, streaming.
For 15 minutes, I kept off my own phone and was still surprised at how consuming our smartphones have become. My travel companions and I were also guilty of chowing down on WiFi any chance we got.
When I touched down in Cuba, there were no WiFi signals. And it was refreshing. For almost four days, I didn’t get any updates on the Trump administration.
The closest thing I got to consuming news was seeing a garbled image of Trump next to a picture of a battleship on a Cuban news station.
Amid tensions involving North Korea, congressional inquiries and health care, my only concern was finding the next cold beer, taking another good picture, lugging jugs of drinkable water back to my apartment.
And poaching the pool at the Hotel Nacional.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @scottfranz10.