Cuba was one of those countries that had been on my “must see” list for a long time. The whole mystery of a country that had been stopped dead in time to some degree and which transported you back to the 1950s or there about was intriguing. A country to which you knew a little about atrocities such as the Bay of Pigs, heroes or villains depending on which side of the fence you stood such as Che and the socialist governing of old time leaders heading towards his deathbed such as Fidel Castro. The iconic crumbling but insanely beautiful Spanish built city of Havana filled with cigar smoking leathery old faces, pastel coloured Chevrolets belching through the narrow streets dancing in time to sounds of the rumba and all swallowed with a minty mojito. Was this really a fair reflection of what to expect or was it just what all those glossy brochures wanted to portray? We were about to find out.
We were both eager to leave the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico with its condos, concrete boulevards and tourist tackiness. Before we bordered the AeroMexico flight to Havana, opting for the Mexican run airline over AirCubanas history as “the worst airline for fatal crashes in the world”, we went back through our checklist. All our money for the next 2.5 weeks in Canadian and USA dollars? Check. Copy and proof of medical insurance? Check. A registered Casa Particular in Havana? Check. A Cuban visa? Check. And proof of a flight out of the country? To the idyllic Cayman Islands next – Check. We were ready. As quickly as we ascended, ate a small packet of nuts and drank our last Coke for a while, we descended through the clouds to catch a mere glimpse of the Straights of Florida before flying directly over pastures and palm-trees and touching down at Jose Marti International airport. The next step was customs.
We sat on the tarmac awaiting a free gate. The airport was a typical communist looking monstrosity. But peeking out of the small window to the highway, I caught a glimpse of those amazing old Buicks and Chevrolets making their way to and from the airport and this kept my interest for the next 20 minutes before a gate was found for our plane. Progressing through to immigration we waited in line feeling a little nervous after reading an email from our hosts that immigration officials could be tough with their questioning and not hesitant in sending you packing. So we armed ourselves with all the documentation required. Murray was called up to the counter and started the process while I was called to a separate booth. An older man with a stern face started the formalities. “Buenos Tardes” I said with a smile passing my Visa and Passport over efficiently and gearing myself more questioning. “Where from?” he said. ”Australiano” I smiled. ”Ahhh Australiano. Look at the camera..don’t smile” he followed by “how many days?”. ”Qince” I said without hesitation. He looked up from his papers and took of his glasses, handed over my passport and with a wink and a smile said “Welcome to Cuba my girl” and waved me through the gates. I was in!
The sound of deathly silence in the immigration department quickly turned to boisterous laughter and a bit of chaos. Our taxi driver that our hosts prearranged was waiting with our names on a sign dressed smartly with shirt and tie. After shaking his hand he directed us to the “Cadeca”. This is where we had to change our foreign money into local currency or Cuban Convertible Pesos. We knew we would lose out on any foreign currency you brought in but as we knew and as the sign on the window specified “You will be punished with an additional 10% fee for US Dollars”. They really didn’t like their neighbors and probably for fair reason. We had about $1500 in US that we were hoping we wouldn’t need to dig into but had little choice bringing the currency in from Mexico. To complicate matters a little more, their were two circulating currencies in Cuba, the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC and Cuban Pesos or CUP which were predominately used by the locals and to which 25 equaled a 1 CUC. So standing in line we were directed by an official up to the Cadeca counter. As I approached with Murray I was ushered back as the scary security man exclaimed “Solo una persona!”. Gathering up our cash we quickly worked out that the government took about 5% commission so exchanging our US would fetch 15% commission before you could blink.
We followed our man through the exit doors where those gorgeous cars were awaiting for some while we hauled our gear into a little Hyundai. The air was noticeably drier and the sun shined through in the late afternoon. Apparently the country received an extraordinary amount of clear sunny days and after the grey skies of Mexico for the last few days, it was appreciated. Driving along the highway we looked out to few farms, little concrete colorful houses, horse and carts and socialist propaganda on billboards remarking “revolucion” and “Muchos gracious Che”. Passing a few manufacturing plants with their grey smoke stacks and fenced off areas I was reminded of Eastern Europe or even parts of Germany. Approaching park land we turned a corner and pulled up right outside a blue and white apartment block that looked more like a commission flat positioned in the suburb of Vedado. Turns out this is where our hosts Victor and Zoe lived and right across the road from Havanas baseball stadium.
Our taxi driver opened the door to the building and directed us to our Casa Particular which was the first unit on the ground floor. Ringing the doorbell a portly older lady with curly golden hair and reddish brown skin greeted us with a jovial “Hola” and big grin. This was Zoe. She ushered us in while Victor shuffled over with his white hair, shaking our hands and trying to pull the packs of our backs. They were an older couple in their late 60s who had opened their house as a Casa Particular and rented out two small rooms on the second floor of their little unit. As soon as you stepped inside it was like being transported back in time to the 50s. Fake stone walls, old grandfather clocks, tini-tiny nick-naks of bears, pretty ladies and bicycles presented on dark wooden tables. It was dark and cramped but impeccably spotless and we immediately felt right at home…kinda like we were visiting Grandma and Grampa for the weekend. Zoe and Victor turned out to be incredible hosts. They planed our entire stay phoning their network of Casa Particulars to book a room in each of our planned locations which was a great help due to the lack of internet provision in the country. They provided incredible insight to where to go and how to do it in Havana, cleaned our room and made us breakfast daily. Turns our Victor was a Doctor of Science that had studied in France so both his English and French were very good.
It was approaching night and we were hungry so after spending an hour with Victor and Zoe viewing a large map of where we were and what to see and do, it was time for dinner and a recommended restaurant down town. Apparently we had to flag down one of the olden cars from the 50s that roared and belched up and down the main roads. These were called “Almendrons” and were the cheapest way of getting about. Victor provided us with some Cuban Pesos to which 20 for the two of us was the fare to pretty much anywhere in town (less then 80c). Zoe and Victor proceed to walk us down and around the corner to Infanta Calle. The main road that led to down town Vedado where the Mafia once ruled and filled with restaurants, nightlife and hotels. The next thing we new, Victor was on the road with his arm out flagging down an approaching Almendrons. Roaring up right it front of us it was filled with three big Cubanos up front and two women and a child in the back. Victor pushed us in, slammed the rusty door shut and yelled..”give him the Cuban Pesos immediately and enjoy La Habana!”. And with that we were of
f into the smokey night with a hint of where to go and a tad of Spanish to get us through. The streets looked as dodgy as they could get with their decrepit buildings and shadows in the backstreets but as we bumped up and down on the black leather spring seats in this old beats as samba played on the car stereo and our driver puffed sweet smoke from his cigar out the window. All those images of that tourist brochure came to life and one thing was clear, Cuba was not going to disappoint!
We were dropped outside the Hotel Havana Libre which turned out to be where Castro and his rebels made their HQ in the 50s and to which also became our centre of direction each night. The main road was filled with young people being a Friday night. As we passed an old Nuveo style cinema with a huge line, a couple walked in front of us to which the man in his mid thirties started a conversation. “Welcome to Cuba! Where are you going? I am an history teacher. We want to talk to you as we don’t know much about the outside world, we have no Internet.” He told us something about a really great restaurant down the end of the street and following him for a little bit it soon became clear that we were heading out of the restaurant zone and into the residential. “Where is this restaurant?” I asked. “On the top of level 15 as he pointed to some run down building. This was getting weird. “Not tonight but maybe another night.” I said, grabbing Murray and walking the other way. “Oh so you don’t like our company or want to talk to us?” he yelled out at us. We walked back around the corner to La Roca restaurant where Victor had told us to go. It was the darkest restaurant we had ever sat in, with pick walls and black and white photos of mobsters and cigar smoking actors. But chomping down on a pollo asado and mojito for an insane $11 for two, it was a delicious and cheap meal. Who said Cuban food was ****? This became the norm for the subsequent four nights as we choose a slightly different eatery each time and ordered one mojito after the next and taking in a sneak peek at one of the most infamous jazz clubs in the city, “The Vixen and the Crow” where the likes of George Benson and more had played.
Habana Veija is the claimed masterpiece of the city housing over 900 buildings of historical importance and presenting beautiful architecture from baroque to art deco. The surrounding districts comprising of Centro Havana and Vedado (where our Casa was located) gave us a good look at modern day life while the old town took you back in time. Capitolio Nacional was a beautiful building constructed in the 1920 and apparently modeled on Washington DC. Opposite was Park Central filled with lawns and palm trees. A nice haven from the belching fumes of the old cars where we took in the centre statue of Jose Marti and listened to the crew of middle aged men aggressively debate the state of the national baseball league and who the top players were. Apparently the banter continued 24/7! A walk down Calle Obispo took you through a beautiful old street filled with small book stores, Cuban coffee houses, tourist restaurants and markets. Touts lined the streets trying to sell you the cheapest Cuban cigars or rum (mostly of poor quality and expensive). A few pensioners had caught on to the fact that most tourists carrying around huge SLR cameras with telescopic lenses were looking for that classic shot of an old leathery face perched in a crumbling doorway with a fat Cuban cigar hanging out their mouth, and they did not disappoint for a tip. Funny enough, right outside the restored area was neighborhood after neighborhood layered with this real beauty. We spent hours walking the outskirts watching women with curlers in their hair hang washing outside their balcony windows, kids playing handball against the dusty pink walls, old men ferociously playing checkers and young men tinkering with the old cars to continue their running. The street life was another world, a completely incredible scene like out of a nostalgic movie that we had magically wandered into.
Back into the restored area, a walk down Calle Mercaderes took us past the Mueseo del Chocolate and to Plaza Vieja, the most heavily restored square in the city with an old marble fountain in the centre. The plaza was beautiful with every unique building taking on a different pastel colour, kinda like a handful of acid drops. Restaurants promoted alfresco style dinning while local street bands preformed every song from Buena Visa Social Club you could dream of. It was common to see a couple of Germans or French retirees really get into the spirit by shaking a pair of maracas and swaying completely out of time to the beat. Further afield was San Francisco square housing a beautiful old church built in the 1739. Heading towards the edge of the old town you ended up at the start of the Malecon, a scenic 8km stretch of esplanade edging the sea. On our first day in town we walked most of the way, dodging the big waves that crashed against the stone walls and left a spray of salt over you, but we rehydrated with yet another mojito from a local bar looking out over the bay. A great way of getting around was the “hope on and off bus”, the classic red double-decker with its 16 or so points of interest that you could catch from 9 to 4 every day for only 5 CUC. On our last day we took the bus over to Miramar, a leafy neighborhood of broad avenues and now where the wealthiest had moved. Avenue Quinta or 5th Avenue was lined with mansions to which most embassies took hold while the most hideous eyesore was that of the Russian Embassy, a rotten obelisk that dominated the skyline.
Four days past in a puff of sweet cigar smoke and it was time to move to the more relaxed scene of Valle de Vinales. Spending half a day trying to locate the Viazul bus station and purchase our 12 CUC tickets, we finally had them in hand and were ready to go. We would spend our last night with Zoe and Victor in the beautiful city before flying out to the Caymans and were excited to return to this buena vista one last time.