Travel Log- Cuba

Travel Log- Cuba 620 505 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Cuba in May of 2016.



I spent last week on a short vacation.  Our primary destination was Cuba, where we spent four days in Havana.  As there are no direct flights for tourists from the USA, we had to catch a flight from Cancun, Mexico.  Since we both love the beach there, we spent some time before and after Havana enjoying Mexico.


We wanted to visit Cuba before it was fully opened up to an invasion of tourists from the USA.  Despite all the talk about dissolving the trade embargo, it is actually still illegal to visit Cuba as a tourist.  The only way you can legally do it is to meet one of 12 travel restriction exemptions.  Fortunately, writing a third world travel safety book gave me enough credence to qualify under the “journalism” exception.  It turned out to be a moot point.  US Customs and Immigration agents didn’t even comment on our destination when we returned home.  No justification necessary (although I had the draft copy of my book just in case).


We had a great time in Havana.  We walked all over the city, visited tons of cool museums, drank mojitos, saw some live music in the legendary jazz clubs, and rode around in some classic American cars.  Travel there isn’t easy.  Due to the trade embargo, none of the Cuban merchants take credit cards drawn on US banks.  That’s a nightmare because it means you can’t pre-book a hotel or rental car.


The ATMs don’t work for American bank cards either.  We had to carry lots of cash and pay for everything that way.  Unfortunately, there is a huge penalty for trading US dollars for Cuban Pesos (20% fee).  We circumvented that by pulling out Mexican Pesos from the ATM in Cancun and then converting them to Cuban Pesos at the airport in Havana when we landed.  We got around the hotel issue by renting an apartment on AirB&B instead.


I had some preconceptions about what I would see in Cuba, but I really wasn’t ready for the reality we faced when we landed.  Here are the things that surprised me the most:


1). The deteriorated infrastructure.  Roads and sidewalks were in horrible disrepair.  Turn of the 20th century buildings have not had any improvements in 60 years.  Swimming pools and city parks were abandoned.  It was almost like being in a war zone.  The people and the government just don’t have enough money to maintain their buildings and infrastructure.


Delapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn't been remodeled since the 1960s

Dilapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn’t been remodeled since the 1960s


2). The high unemployment rate.  I was amazed at the numbers of people aimlessly hanging around in the streets during normal working hours on a weekday.  No one seemed to be working.  We had hired a taxi driver to shuttle us around, so I asked him about it.  He told us that almost all of the jobs are controlled by the government (it is a Communist country, after all).  Most jobs have very low pay.  The average Cuban makes the equivalent of $25 US dollars a month!  Can you imagine trying to live on that?


Our driver told me that he was formerly an engineer.  He said that the most money he ever made in his government engineering job was $70 a month.  It wasn’t enough to feed his family, so he quit.  Now he drives a taxi and makes a lot more money.   Many Cubans have eschewed government employment for piece meal work in the tourist industry.  It pays better and requires less effort.  It doesn’t take much work to make $25 a month in tourist tips.


3) Food shortages.  Since we had an apartment, our plan was to buy breakfast and lunch foods at the grocery store to prepare ourselves.  That didn’t work out so well.  We went to the largest grocery store in the best neighborhood in Havana.  There were no eggs, dairy products, fresh fruits, or fresh meats available for sale.  The supply chains furnishing the government run grocery stores have some serious flaws.  It’s rare that the stores regularly have any of these items.  Thankfully, we brought some protein bars from home that we were able to eat for breakfast each day.


The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.

The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.


Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!

Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!


4) Utility outages.  Power was out in our apartment about 1/3 of the time…and this was in Havana’s ritziest neighborhood.  There were constant rolling blackouts that affected entire city blocks.  We also had no running water for one whole day.  Utility problems have become the norm for this once-great island nation.  It makes living there even more difficult.


Our beutiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night. Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.

Our beautiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night). Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.


5) Internet.  It became legal for non-academic Cuban citizens to have access to the internet only a few years ago.  It still isn’t wide spread.  Very few homes have their own connections.  In order to get on the net, Cubans have to buy prepaid internet access cards.  The cards have a WiFi code.  The large hotels and government buildings have WiFi that can be accessed by using the codes.  Huge numbers of Cubans crowded the sidewalks in front of all the large hotels, using the WiFi to access the web on mobile devices.


6) The cars.  I expected to see some vintage cars, but I was surprised to note that roughly half of the cars on the road dated back to the 1950s.  It was like a time warp.  The taxis we took were a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Aire, a 1957 Oldsmobile, 1953 Buick, and a 1957 Ford  station wagon that looked like the Ghostbusters car.  To balance it out, we also rode in a 1980s Korean Tico and a 1972 Russian Lada.


All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana

All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana



Our ’57 Oldsmobile convertible taxi


Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana

Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana


7) The friendly people.  I expected some anti-American sentiment, but got absolutely none.  The people were all very friendly and amazingly helpful.  That was a pleasant surprise.  The only anti-American ideas we experienced were in the “Museum of the Revolution”, an ode to Fidel Castro’s wonderfully benevolent communist policies.  Lots of the descriptions of the museum items had a distinctly anti-American slant.  Fortunately for us, the official government opinion wasn’t embraced by the citizenry.


A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled "Corner of the Idiots."

A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled “Corner of the Idiots.”


You don't like our presidents, that's fine (I don't either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don't even compare to Che.

You don’t like our presidents, that’s fine (I don’t either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don’t even come close to the barbarity of Che.


Since most of you are reading my page for insights into self defense and firearms, I’ll mention a couple of more things that may be interesting to you….


We had absolutely no fear of crime while we were there.  No one was aggressive.  We didn’t see any drug addicts or violent drunk people.  Everyone smiled and was extremely mellow.  That isn’t common in many Latin American countries.  Another thing you don’t often see in Latin America is a police force that isn’t corrupt.  I spoke to several locals about the police.  The general consensus was that the police officers were often lazy (I might be too if I was making $30 a month), but they didn’t shake citizens down for bribe money.  Not a single person I talked to said anything bad about the national police.


The cops were extremely visible in all the tourist areas.  They carried full duty belts (nylon) like we do here (another rarity in Latin America).  They carried a pistol, two spare mags, handcuffs, pepper spray, and PR-24 batons.  Some of the cops were wearing empty holsters as if they didn’t have enough pistols to fully equip all the officers.


Most of the cops carried Beretta 92 automatics.  Occasionally I would spot an officer who wasn’t packing a Beretta.  Those guys were all carrying Soviet Makarovs!  I certainly didn’t expect that pistol to be carried down there.   It’s an odd choice for a police duty rig.


Not much else to report.  I’m glad we went and had the experience of seeing Cuba before it fully opens to American tourists.  Seeing the friendly local people practicing amazing resiliency in the face of brutal living conditions isn’t something we get to experience every day.  If you have dreams of traveling to Cuba, do your homework.  They don’t make it easy for tourists.  The difficulty is part of the appeal.  It’s cool to experience something new.  If you aren’t looking for a challenge, you can always take the family down to Disneyland instead.



The only gun I got to play with on vacation.

The only gun I got to play with on vacation.


The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn't be my first choice for a lunch table.

The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn’t be my first choice for a lunch table.

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba)

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba) 885 594 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Mexico in May of 2015.


A quick little travel narrative for you today…


I had a few days of vacation planned last week.  Our goal was to get to Cuba, but it’s difficult to arrange a flight.  There aren’t any direct flights out of America for tourists, so we would have to fly through Canada or Mexico.  Further complicating the matter is the fact that US banks won’t accept credit card charges from Cuban companies because of the trade embargo.  We couldn’t just get on Cubana airlines’ website and book tickets; we would have to use an international travel agency to book the flight.


I contacted a few travel agencies out of Canada.  They all told me that the flight that I wanted (from Cancun to Havana) was booked full on the dates we needed.  The only option was to show up at the Cancun airport with cash and hope to catch a standby seat.  We decided to give it a try, with backup reservations at a hotel in Cancun in case we couldn’t get on the plane.  No luck.  Not even a standby ticket available.  We were stuck in Mexico for five days…not really a bad fate to be delivered.


We stayed at a hotel near the northern-most end of the hotel zone far away from the idiot tourists that populate the majority of the island.  We took a sailboat ride, visited the largest Mayan pyramid site in the Yucatan and lounged around every day on the beach.  We took the local “chicken bus” into downtown every night and ate at some fantastic local Mexican restaurants and visited the local carnival nightly for street food and desserts.  It was quite a peaceful and relaxing trip.


We didn’t talk to many Americans on the trip, as most of the guests at our hotel were Mexican or European.  Those Americans we spoke with seemed excessively fearful of being in Mexico.  They wouldn’t leave the relatively American -feeling hotel zone out of safety concerns.  They missed some amazing opportunities to experience another culture by fearfully hiding in the hotel zone.


Despite all of the media attention about Cartel violence, the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan are quite safe.  The Mexican government does everything it can to protect the tourists as they provide a significant boost to the economy.  Beyond that, many of the hotels and restaurants in the hotel zone are at least partially owned by cartel bosses and used to launder money.  If tourists got killed with any frequency, those money laundering opportunities would disappear.  We never saw a hint of violence or any type of threat.


We did see some of the local police at work.  A drunk guy at a downtown festival was getting arrested one night.  The two local cops humanely lifted him into the bed of their pickup truck and handcuffed him to an iron ring welded onto the side of the bed.  Not quite up to American law enforcement standards, but they didn’t mistreat their prisoner.


I spent a lot of time talking to the locals about police corruption and cartel violence while we were there.  There are both local police and Federal police.  According to the residents, the local police are often uneducated and usually quite corrupt.  The Federal police seemed to have a slightly better reputation.


Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk...must be a pretty dangerous spot.

Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk…must be a pretty dangerous spot.


Some of the local cops were armed and some weren’t.  According to one former cop I spoke with, the locals have the choice of being armed or unarmed.  The armed officers have to go through a psychological test that scares away some of the officers from the armed jobs.  The locals carried a bunch of different pistols…mostly Glocks, M&Ps, and Third generation S&W autos.  I didn’t see any spare magazines and all of them carried no-name cheap nylon holsters.  The only other gear they had on their belts was a single pair of handcuffs.


The Federal police manned several of the roadblocks we went through.  They were kitted up with rifle plates, drop leg holsters and full duty belts for their Glocks.  Several carried four spare pistol magazines and about half had a long gun of some sort.  I saw a lot of M-4s (no optics), a few FALs, and one Uzi carbine.  Occasionally we would see military units with M-4s and belt fed machine guns mounted on the back of their pickup trucks.


Fortunately on this trip, we didn’t encounter any cartel hit squads.  On a previous trip down to the area a few years ago, a taxi I was taking was intercepted and passed on the highway by two pickup trucks full of cartel assassins loaded down with M-16 A1 rifles (likely from the American military).  The cab driver explained that they acted as a cartel quick reaction force to attack any of the soldiers or cops who dared to interdict any of the cartel drug shipments.  Fortunately, they didn’t have any interest in a couple of tourists and they drove right past us.


The cartels down in Mexico create a complicated issue.  Like in some American ghettos and in the favelas of Brazil, they drug economy has some benefits for the local communities.  The drug dealing and manufacturing provide jobs for the locals.  Cartel bosses build and staff schools and hospitals that the government can’t afford in order to garner additional favors from the local populace.  Many of the locals are frightened by the cartel violence, but depend on the cartels to improve their standard of living.  It makes it tough for them to be eradicated because they are valued (while being hated at the same time) by the locals for their community contributions.


If you are interested in travel to Mexico and plan on traveling to the Caribbean coast, you likely won’t have any trouble as long as you stay away from the drug dealers and cartels.  Smile a lot.  Be polite.  Try to learn a little Spanish.  Read my book.  You’ll be fine.


View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat

View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat


We’ll try for Cuba again next year.

The Makarov

The Makarov 1136 1280 Greg Ellifritz

Occasionally, I use this page to spotlight a weapon I see in common use when I travel through foreign countries.  Since most of my readers won’t be carrying a gun in their travels, the best chance of acquiring one in an emergency is by “battlefield pickup.”


You don’t get to pick the guns issued to the cops or soldiers in your host country.  You need to know how to operate all of them.  This article is about the Makarov pistol.


Guns of ISG: The Makarov


I still see Makarovs being carried today in police/military holsters in all the former Soviet republics, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba.  They are common guns in that part of the world.  For what it’s worth, .380 acp ammo will usually fire (but may not reliably cycle) in the 9mm Makarov (9x18mm) chamber.


Check out the article and learn how the gun works if you haven’t played with one before.



FIELD STRIP: Makarov Pistol And Licensed Copies

FIELD STRIP: Makarov Pistol And Licensed Copies 660 495 Greg Ellifritz

Do you ever research which  guns are most prevalent in the foreign destination to which you are traveling?

I do and I think it’s very important.  If you need a gun in a foreign country, it may not be the same gun you are used to carrying and shooting at home.  It’s best to have a broad knowledge of how different guns work.


My friends at The Firearms Blog are committed to providing some of the information you may need.  Check out the link below:

TFB FIELD STRIP: Makarov Pistol And Licensed Copies

This is just one installment into TFB’s excellent video series covering the field stripping of uncommon guns.


Why would anyone need to know how to shoot a Makarov?


You should understand it because the Makarov is still commonly carried by cops and soldiers in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, and many of the former Soviet Bloc countries.  If you are visiting one of these areas, taking the time to watch a short video like this is a cheap insurance policy.

And for what it’s worth with regards to the Makarov, they will generally shoot (but not reliably feed).380 acp cartridges.  If you can’t find that oddball military 9 x 18 mm ammunition, keep that little bit of knowledge in the back of your mind.