Having previously written off Cuba, purely because the flights were too expensive and the internet too limited to cope with our work demands… on staying with Daphne in Mexico City, she managed to twist our arm, saying, you’ve got to go sooner, rather than later, as the place is changing – especially since the US is opening an embassy and outsiders are talking of fast change within Cuba. With this, we booked flights to allow a flying visit, and here we are now, and I write this on a plane back from Cuba having spent five glorious days there.
We spent what felt like forever on transfers – leaving Oaxaca, flying back to Mexico City, to pick up a connecting flight to Cancun, an overnight stop in Cancun, which involved us hiring a car, as it worked out cheaper than a taxi from the airport, then an early flight the next day from Cancun to Cuba, we eventually arrived in the Caribbean Island.
From the air we got a better view of Cuba and first impressions were that it’s a big Island, approximately the same size as England. We therefore decided to focus our trip around the capital of Havana, rather than rushing around… as it turns out, rushing around isn’t really possible in Cuba anyway, unless you can afford a hire car at a whopping $90 a day. Upon landing our first task was to change up some of our currency into CuC’s, one of two Cuban currencies in circulation (Peso being the other, USD is now worthless even on the black market). There to help us with this first task was a happy chappy going by the name of Charlie, well that was his English name. Charlie also happened to own a 1957 Opel, made in Germany, and he offered to taxi us to Old Havana where we had booked a stay through Daphne’s friend, in a traditional Casa.
The old cars are obviously one of the most recognisable icons of Cuba and we were pleased to find out that most of the cars on the roads still date back to the 1950’s, with a few newer Lada’s driving about, courtesy of the USSR. Photography wise, the crumbling buildings in Havana along with the hordes of vibrantly painted 1950’s Cadillac’s, are a sight like no where else.
Casa’s are traditional Cuban housing, which in the last few years have become legally available places to stay for foreigners. This is Cuba’s version of Airbnb, however booking one prior to arrival will give you your first taste of how far behind Cuba is on this kind of thing, it’s tough and even when you think you have one booked, upon arrival they are often fully booked. ‘Ah, Cuba’ is a common expression here. Thankfully, we’d been promised a luxury Casa by Daphne’s friend Rocia and when we got there it didn’t disappoint; the interior looked like it hadn’t changed in a 100 years in a shabby chic kind of way and the only downside was the showers. The showers weren’t just cold like most showers in Central America, the water barely trickled out. We later realised that a lot of other Casa’s that surrounded ours don’t actually have there own water supply at all. Some less fortunate Cuban’s have to haul buckets of water from street pumps into their homes.
Once we had moved in and met our welcoming host, Mercy, we headed out to one of the restaurants in Old Havana, which Rocia had recommended. On the way, as we walked the streets of Havana we were asking ourselves why there weren’t many restaurants. Having booked our flights last minute and without doing a whole lot of research on the current state of play in Cuba, we quickly realised that private business ownership is still heavily regulated and this does make finding a place to eat a tough task! This is changing quickly and not so long ago, the tourist option would have been eating at your hotel.
We got settled into a Tapas bar which Earnest Hemingway had frequented and almost immediately became acquainted with three Cuban’s; Alex (1), Alex (2) and the one that didn’t speak much as he was too hung over from the night before, they had just graduated from University. Several daiquiris, mojitos – of course made with Havana Club rum, and national beers later, we’d been questioned by Alex about the Royal’s, British Wars and the internet, plus a whole lot more. In exchange, we managed to get an insight into a few Cuban opinions on politics, their way of life and how their socialist system works. It turns out government owned hotels and restaurants profits go into a fund for building restoration, however judging by the state of a lot of buildings which are quite literally falling down, this is not enough to keep Havana standing.
Alex (1) told us that he understands why there are changes coming and that slow change is good, because for socialism to succeed, it has to work, while the more intoxicated Alex (2) summarised his opinion by yelling “F@CK CASTRO!”… leaving Alex (1) looking worried and looking over his shoulder. To finish the night off, we were taken to Floridita, which is the famous haunt Cuban’s go, to cut some serious Salsa shapes. We got a crash course from Alex (2) on how to do the basics and woke up with sore heads ready for our tour the next day at 9:30.
Our tour with Rocia was excellent. She walked us around all the significant old areas of Havana, from market squares, colonial rulers accommodation (which had wooden roads to dampen the noise of horse drawn carts outside so they could get a good night’s sleep), to the most significant buildings and hotels that were occupied and used during the revolution. We got a feel for Cuban day to day living by riding in Cuban taxi’s, which only run one way down a single street and are shared by about 6 other Cuban’s, visiting bodegas where Cuban’s pick up their rations and we took a look around a mall of foreign imports. A combination of taxation and import costs, makes it literally impossible for any normal Cuban to pick up the most basic of white goods (basic microwaves are $200+). We also discussed politics and the outside world with Rocia, a topic all Cuban’s are understandably keen to talk with foreigners about, and her stance was that while Cuba has big problems and there system has not worked as intended (the US did shoulder some of the blame for this!), the sense of togetherness and caring for everyone is what makes the place special. There was a contradiction in that a lot people we spoke to who told us they were pro Castro, however there was a black market for pretty much everything and even those who believed strongly in the socialist model, operated within this black market to subsidise what they received from the state. Understandable though considering the poor living conditions a lot of Cuban’s endure! We got a taste of the black market as we went on our cigar tour of one of the government factories. As we finished the tour our guide, a 40 year old woman who smoked a cigar all the while, locked the door to the cloakroom and sold us a few cigars at a knock-down price!
We had planned to get a hire car with Rocia and her boyfriend and head in-land to ride on one of the trains that goes through a sugar plantation, however because of the price, we had to postpone! So instead we headed to the nearest beach on the public bus. Upon arrival we weren’t disappointed. The water was as aqua and the sand as white, as any beach you see on a picture postcard. As the day wore on more and more Cuban’s arrived on the beach to the point where there must have been 1’000’s of people and almost every man and woman and were drinking rum. To top it off, as we headed back to the bus stop on our way home, we spotted a young Cuban man washing the sand off his feet with a bottle of Havana Club rum, before getting into his 1950’s car. Sadly we couldn’t grab the camera quickly enough!
As we left Cuba after just 5 days we had a lot of unanswered questions and we’d certainly love to return for a longer trip. We both agreed this is one of the most interesting but also beautiful and friendly countries in the world.