23.03.2014 - 31.03.2014 28 °C
Travelling by land across Central America, changes in landscape and culture happen relatively gradually - each country feels noticeably different, and even within countries there are often very distinct regional traditions and landscapes, but the transitions are rarely a shock to the system. However when we flew from Mexico (via Panama, for complicated reasons) and landed in Cuba, it was immediately, startlingly different. And our week in Havana turned out to be without doubt one of the major highlights of the trip.
We had just passed through the international airports in Cancun and Panama City, huge and glittering monuments to capitalism where branding clamours for attention in everywhere you look in a way that, eventually, you stop noticing - in short, they are much like home. The arrivals hall in the Cuban capital's Jose Marti airport has nothing but a state-run currency exchange booth, our first chance to change any of our Mexican pesos into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) since you can't buy Cuban currency outside the country. It really jumped out at us that there was no commercial advertising or branding. The only international brands we spotted at all in Havana were Adidas (who sponsor the Cuban Olympic team) and Nestle, which supplies all the icecream, coffee sweeteners, etc (no idea - seems quite inexplicable that this famously obnoxious capitalist giant has earned a favoured position in a supposedly Communist country). Of course, no American individuals or companies are allowed to do business here, by order of their own government (let's see if that will change soon).
But back at the arrivals gate, we jumped in a taxi (just a regular modern people-carrier type, this time) and headed into town, past Plaza de la Revolution with its eight-storey image of Che Guevara and his slogan "Hasta la victoria, siempre!" A Fidel banner proclaimed "patria o muerte" ("homeland or death").
We got our first glimpses of retro cars, more and more of them as we got closer to the city. Let's get that out of the way right now - the cars are stunning! Every other car in Havana is a classic. Some of them are beautifully preserved, while others are in need of a bit of attention.
The taxi ranks are like vintage car shows. I predict that even now as U.S. restrictions are relaxed and Cuba begins to import more foreign cars, the classic taxis will remain a feature of Havana, too popular to simply disappear. But Cuba is changing fast.
We settled into a casa particular, which are B&Bs run by Cuban families - many get much better reviews than the large hotels, they are available for a fraction of the cost, commonly air-conditioned, en-suite and very comfortable. The hosts will make you breakfast for a little extra - usually lovely and packed full of fruit, some we'd never laid eyes on before (including one squishy, hard-seeded fruit that we wished we'd stayed ignorant of - it was like eating gloopy sugary sweetcorn, with buttons). We loved staying in casas as it provides a fantastic opportunity to meet local people, and I think this enjoyable and affordable system is one of Cuba's very best features for the traveller. We stayed in several and our hosts were fantastic, without exception.
Most hotels are state-owned, and so are most shops and restaurants. The government tries to find jobs for everyone, which can have some strange side-effects, for example one beer-hall we went to had around 40 waiters standing around the perimeter, trying their best to look busy and delivering a pretty confusing service while they were at it. We tried for ages to get someone's attention, then a procession of waiters came to take our order, not knowing that it had already been done. I ordered pasta from the "childish and vegetarian menu" and got salty semolina soup with some rubbery mushrooms floating in it. I had to fetch my own spoon.
Havana is really beautiful, in its way. The whole city is slowly crumbling, despite some attempts to restore the architectural highlights. But it is colourful and alive with activity, and this gives it the feel of a place worn down by living, not simply abandoned to the elements.
We discovered that there are only a few TV channels, which are censored. Some of them cull approved garbage from international TV channels, and this is such fatuous crap it may well convince Cubans that the rest of the world is beyond hope. Access to the internet is expensive, and rare. State-run internet cafes are reportedly in bad shape, and it takes forever to queue for an internet card for those. To get wifi we had to go to the lobby of one of the swankiest hotels in town, and it cost $8 an hour. Logistical difficulties seemed to be widely accepted as the reason, rather than political control - but it was easier to get online in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle than here.
The flipside of a shortage of consumer entertainment is that there is an incredible, thriving arts scene. We visited the gallery at Palacio de las Bellas Artes, which was great, but art is everywhere you look and listen.
We went to one of the city's most famous jazz clubs, La Zorra y El Cuervo. "Its just old gringos in there!", someone told us when we said where we were headed. When we walked in, we could see what he meant - it looked like a coach from a village social club had got lost on its way to the garden centre, but they all went home to bed within about half an hour! La Zorra is a great value night out, at $10 entry including two beautifully-mixed cocktails, so we got elegantly tipsy while watching some of the country's most talented musicians, and had such a good time we went back again another night.
One Sunday afternoon, we headed to a party in a courtyard hidden away near our casa - more great live music and dancing followed by a happy, shabby parade through the neighbourhood, which everyone could join - a little piece of Rio.
Of course we needed a spot for afternoon mojitos too! And we found a fantastic cosy little place that I've completely forgotten the name of,, lost in the backstreets of Havana Vieja - but if you stumble across it, it'll have a sign saying that happy hour is from 5-6 every day, and every cocktail is half price (no small print, and a great bargain)!
On our second to last day, we were wandering along a small calle in the centre when we met a bicycle taxi driver holding a tiny kitten. It had been spotted emerging from a ruined house which had become a rubbish tip, with no mother in sight. The neighbours were concerned because the kitten was probably too tiny to survive and could be attacked by stray dogs, but no-one was really in a position to take him in. We stuck around for a while, and bought a fish from a passing fisherman - the kitten devoured it! By this point we were getting a bit attached, and trying to formulate a plan. Thinking back, it wasn't the most foolproof plan ever...
We popped the kitten in a cardboard box and jumped in a bicycle taxi, an experience which he didn't enjoy one bit and probably still hasn't forgiven us for. We figured that our best hope was to talk to the acquaintances we had made by staying in a few different casa particulares in the same neighbourhood, so we took him back to the place we were staying. It took some explaining - we were very fortunate that the landlady was so remarkably understanding (or rather, so willing to tolerate the incomprehensible behaviour of a couple of very weird Brits!) We had less than 48 hours before our flight back to Mexico, and a mewling kitten in our bedroom who wouldn't go to sleep unless it was right next to us. We had to take shifts at sleeping ourselves, and eventually we all began to smell of fish.
But in the morning, we started knocking on doors of people we'd previously chatted to, and one contact led to another, and another, until we found the most amazing people in all of Cuba - who happened to own a B&B right round the corner. Animal-lovers through and through, Cary and Nilo were not only willing to take us and our kitten in for the night, but would go on to say that they would not ever let him go back on the streets, and promised to find a home for him. We called him Bucanero because he reminded us of a tiny pirate, and it is also the name of one of Cuba's national beers. Last we heard he has a new home with the couple's cleaning lady, who has a lot of other cats for him to socialise with. An unlikely win, that was all down to the kindness of one amazing couple and their neighbours.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Havana, please check out Cary and Nilo's place. It is the most comfortable we stayed in, with beautiful colonial architecture and furniture, and they are just the kindest people, they are sure to make you very welcome! The location is great too - you can easily walk to Old Havana, the Malecon, and Vedado, and the neighbourhood is friendly and free of hassle. There is also a great rumba party in Callejon de Hamel just around the corner every Sunday afternoon!
And finally, I got my vintage taxi ride! In the dark, on the way to the airport (what better way to see the stars!)
===A few tips for travellers===
We couldn't find a whole lot of detailed info online before we went to Cuba, so we thought we should share a few tips and interesting details we picked up.
Money - this is quite difficult to get your head round, at first. Most sit-down restaurants are priced in CUC, while kiosks selling streetfood - pizza, icecream etc - are priced in CUP. It is perfectly fine to change some of your CUC to CUP, at one of the official 'CADECA' exchance offices, and you can make your money go a lot, lot further by grabbing your lunch at these places (whole pizzas and plates of pasta which aren't always especially tasty but do come in under $1). Consumer goods are always priced in CUC, so apparently most Cuban families try to ensure that someone in the household works in the CUC economy, for example by running a casa particular or working in a bar. Although some basic food like rice and milk is provided by the state as rations, its not enough, and cornershops price extras (e.g. pasta, biscuits) in CUC. Don't let anyone tell you that Cuba is expensive for travellers - with comfortable double rooms in casa particulares available for $20-25 a night in the capital, less elsewhere, it offers better value than much of Central America, and its apparently the cheapest island in the Caribbean. There are lots of cheap bars, and lots of cheap eateries, even when you pay in CUC. But you will get stung on the exchange rate - don't take dollars, and avoid Mexican pesos too, but pounds sterling are a good bet.
The shops do look pretty much how you'd expect, and sometimes have large queues. On the left, a ration dispensing store, and on the right a department store display window of edible treats.
Scams - It is probably worth adding a word of warning to potential visitors about the sophistication of the street scams in Havana's most touristy areas, for example Paseo de Marti, above. Most Cubans are horrified by this, and you will probably be warned many times to be suspicious of anyone on the street who tries to sell you something. We were used to this level of caution by this point (see our Playa del Carmen post), and didn't expect to struggle. But in Havana, you also need to watch out for those who don't appear to be selling anything. An example is the "cigar co-operative" scam. On our first day (and we must have looked like it!), we were approached by a guy who engaged us in pleasant conversation about our visit and the city, various things that might be going on. He wasn't at all pushy or particularly suspicious - people do talk to you like this in Central America, and usually its fine. He mentioned at the end of the chat that there was a "cigar co-operative" in town, selling cut-price cigars, the only day in a month that they were allowed to. 'It helps Cuban people, you know, to buy from them instead of the Havana Club store'. Sure, we said, maybe later. Further down the street, another guy started chatting to us - "hey, I'm Federico's neighbour, I saw you arrive at his casa last night. I remember because you have the same name as my mother!" If we hadn't been warned by Federico himself not to trust people who claimed to know him, we might have gone for it. We slowly realised that our names, when we arrived and the first name of our host at the B&B were all things that had come up in conversation with the first guy we met, and been passed on to the second, probably by phone. Of course this guy also told us about the cigar co-operative. Maybe later, we said, and made a quick exit. By the time a third guy appeared on our route to escort us to the "co-operative", he was pushier, and we noted that he had followed us down the street from where we first noticed him. Finally we dared to be rude, told him to leave us alone and struck out firmly in the opposite direction. Of course we later found out that the reason that the cigars are cheap is that they're mostly stuffed full of banana leaves. So if you're wandering the tourist areas, definitely keep your wits about you. We preferred the friendly chaos of the backstreets anyway!