Broke and stranded in Cuba

A friend phoned me the other day asking for some travel tips on Cuba. It got me thinking back to our time there, and the ups and downs that come with visiting a place like Cuba. The Caribbean island is a paradise, with its crystal blue waters, palm trees, exotic people and of course incredibly cheap Mojitos! But it also has its difficulties.

What many people neglect to tell you is that travelling in Cuba can be difficult when it comes to withdrawing cash from banks, getting from A to B in a hurry and accessing the internet to work out your travel plans or book flights. We were able to get by without internet and the slow pace of the transport system was actually a nice change to the hectic pace we are used to here in Sydney, but like most places in the world, running out of cash in Cuba isn’t an easy obstacle to overcome!

For some reason, our Australian bank cards wouldn’t work anywhere in Cuba. Stupidly we waited until our cash had almost run out until we attempted to withdraw more from an ATM. “I’m sorry sir, your American bank card won’t work here”, I was told. My attempts to tell them that the card wasn’t American was fruitless as I was repeatedly told that it was and that I must be confused.

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Havana.

After two days of lining up at banks in Trinidad, (foreigners are given las priority in the queue), we finally decided to use our last $50 to get a car to take us the 315km back to the airport in Havana to bring our flight to Mexico forward a few of days. Arriving at the airport, we handed over our last dollar and went in to speak to the airline. After explaining our situation, we were told that flights cannot be changed at the airport and that we’d have to go to the office in Havana. Without a cent to our name, the prospect of sitting in the airport for three days without food or water began to look like our reality.

Looking at each other in disbelief, I realised that this was the first time in my life where I was helpless to get myself out of a situation. With my wife close to tears, we sat there for a couple of hours trying to figure out a solution before it was decided that I would walk the few kilometres up the highway from the airport to a Western Union office (it turned out to be a tin shed) to get my mum to wire me some cash.

“Sorry sir, you cannot legally transfer money from Australia to Cuba. You will need to get someone in Puerto Rico to transfer it to you”… Hmmm, I thought. Having never visited Puerto Rico, or having even met a Puerto Rican, I too found myself close to tears.

After pleading my case, the lady told me that I could get a Mexican or Cuban living abroad to transfer me the money. Upon hearing this, my hopes began to grow…all I had to do was phone my Mexican friend and ask him for a few hundred dollars. I borrowed the lady’s phone (she would later charge me a small fortune for the privilege) and phoned my friend. Luckily for me, Rodolpho and I had grown close in the time that we lived in Spain a few years before so we had the type of relationship where lending money to one another to get out of a sticky situation wasn’t a problem. As much as I hate borrowing money from friends, I couldn’t see another option.

After another hour of back and forth, and having my friend ask me ‘secret questions’ to ensure that I hadn’t been kidnapped, Rodolpho agreed to transfer $500 to a complete stranger in Cuba (Cuban law prohibits money being transferred to non-nationals). As the lady was counting out the cash to hand it over to me, the stress of the last few days had caught up to me and sure enough, I made my way back to the airport in tears. I walked past local families and groups of teenage boys staring at me in wonder, who would more than likely tell their friends about the crazed and hysterical gringo they spotted walking the highway earlier that day.

The lesson in this story for anyone planning a trip to Cuba is to take a lot of cold hard cash with you. Sure, your bank will tell you that you will be able to withdraw money while you’re there but it isn’t always the case. With a pocket full of cash, your time in Cuba will be a happy one.

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Old Havana.
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