Landing at Jose Marti International airport, it already felt like we were somewhere very different from home.
And I was excited to see if Cuba was just as different as the rumours I’d heard.
The first obvious difference was the distinct lack of technology in the airport. Even the visas (Cuban Tourist Cards) are paper, whilst most other countries are opting towards e-visas.
The next is the wait in the immigration queue whilst these are manually checked, stamped, and then a gate is manually opened for you to get to the (very redundant) last security check before you enter the country. What you could be smuggling in that gets found by the security that aren’t even checking their very basic screens I have no idea.
Step three of the very arduous airport-leaving process was getting our money exchanged. The Cuban Peso is a closed currency (well actually two closed currencies- although I never came across any ‘local’ pesos), and so you have to bring your money with you in GBP or Euros (not USD unless you fancy short changing yourself), and get it converted. Although they are well aware that 100% of people will be needing to do this, they still only have about eight Casa de Cambio windows in total, of which two were open. Be prepared to queue, and definitely check the money you are given is correct whilst you are still at the window!
At least this long queue was outside, and the hot air hit as soon as we left the building. That, and the palm trees and brightly coloured vintage cars really made us feel like we were in Cuba: and at first impression, it was exactly as we had expected and hoped.
We got chatting to the guy in front of us: a Swede who was on a semester abroad to learn Spanish. The airline had lost his luggage and they couldn’t track it (lack of technology again), so he was about to embark on a three-month trip… with absolutely no stuff (and no idea if it was in Sweden, Moscow where he connected, or any else in the world). To top it off, he bought Swedish Krona to exchange for his Pesos… and learnt the hard way that they are not accepted.
If only he knew the complete lack of shops to buy new clothes, and the lack of WiFi to even ask anyone to send him money, and he would’ve probably got back on the next plane home.
Instead, he shared a taxi with us into Old Havana, to save us all some money. I hope you’re still okay Rasmus!
On the drive to Old Havana, which is around 40 minutes from the airport, everything we saw was just exactly as I expected Cuba to be: colourful, vibrant, and slow paced. There were donkeys and carts alongside the cars and rail tracks that don’t have barriers, leaving you to hope you’re not unlucky and cross the track the once a day a train comes past.
Bidding good-bye (and a huge good luck) to Rasmus, we arrived at vaguely where our Air B’n’B was. However Old Havana is a grid of small cobbled streets, and cars cannot access all of them, so we had to get out and walk to it. When we got there, and up all five flights of stairs, the Air B’n’B message was to ring the doorbell and Barbara would come to greet us.
In reality, we rung it. And rung it again. But no one answered. The door was open anyway and we went in. There were two rooms with open doors, and we recognised them immediately from the website; but just had no idea which was ours. Luckily, going around the corner of the terrace, we found a man, and then Barb herself appeared.
And then disappeared just as quickly.
She didn’t even acknowledge us, and left us with another man, Juan-Jose, who showed us to our room, and showed us where his own room was if we needed anything (something he was about to regret in approximately 20 minutes).
The room itself was very basic. So basic in fact that the bathroom didn’t even have a door. However it had a bed, air con, and a WiFi connection: and what more did we need?
Juan-Jose explained to us that WiFi in Cuba works in a very novel way. You have to buy a WiFi card for 1 Peso, which has it’s own password that you must scratch to uncover, and allows one hour access to the internet (cumulatively, not in one go thank God).
This panicked us at first, but actually we only used four cards over the week and learnt to limit ourselves. And learnt that a detox was actually great and we could survive without checking Instagram every five minutes.
This was a blessing in disguise, and we were able to take in our surroundings a lot more and really get involved. The only negative was we couldn’t just check the weather willy-nilly, or get Google maps up when we were out.
Obviously, we hadn’t learnt that yet though, and task one was to go in search of the shop to buy one of these. Etecsa, the company that have total control of the WiFi in Cuba, had a shop just around the corner, but when we got there, it was shut for maintenance. Luckily, a very legitimate man was hanging around selling WiFi cards outside on the street. We hastily declined and went back to ask Juan if there were any other shops we could get one.
We went knocking on his door (sorry Juan, bet you didn’t expect to see us so soon!!), and he asked why we didn’t buy the one from the man on the street (!!), but as we were preparing ourselves for a walk of shame back to see him, remembered there was another option.
After buying our four WiFi cards (we obviously didn’t want one to run out and be left without a new one), we headed back to the room. And not five minutes after we had last harassed the poor guy, we were calling for Juan again. This time we were locked out. When I had shut the room door it had felt a bit jammed, but I thought we would cross that bridge when we got to it. And now we had got to it, it was really bad. It was literally wedged shut, and I was trying to barge it open, but I didn’t have any strength because I was laughing so much at what a stupid situation we had already found ourselves in.
Juan also struggled to open it, but eventually we were in! And we never shut it properly from the inside for fear of getting locked in.
Despite, this we actually loved the room by the time we left (and became pros at opening the door).
What’s one of the best things about a holiday? Usually you can have a lie in, without the normal worry about what time you wake up. NOT THIS TIME. We had one of the worst wake up calls I’ve ever experienced (one of six of the worst, as we were about to find out for the rest of the week).
It turns out that building work starts early in Havana. 7.45am to be precise. On the dot. Every. Single. Day (except Sunday, don’t be absurd). And said building work is EVERYWHERE. You cannot escape it (I got the impression it was just something to do, because nothing ever seemed to have any progress made). But we particularly couldn’t escape it. Due to the fact it was taking place on our stairwell and on our ROOF TERRACE. Right outside our door. If the builders were there, we were up.
(Side note: the lack of health and safety is actually really worrying. At one point we were walking down the stairs and up came a bucket filled with bricks, just being pulled up through the middle, swaying as it went. I honestly thought there was a chance we could die due to one falling on us).
After pretending we could ignore the building work, we got up to explore. On the way to finding breakfast, a tour guide called Fernando stopped us and was trying to get us on his guided horse and cart tour of the city. Usually wary of these people, I was a bit suspicious of his spiel, however when he explained to us that the price was only 40 pesos each (and is usually about triple the price), we were on board. He even recommended somewhere for breakfast. It was a great breakfast to be fair to him: Cubans go TO TOWN. A juice, a coffee, a plate of fruit, a whole plate of eggs, a cheese and ham selection, bread and pastries! WAY too much and I felt awful when I couldn’t finish it.
We then started the tour. First stop (at about 11am) was the ‘best and most popular bar’ in Havana. Ah, a salsa bar of sorts you might be thinking. Nope. A Beatles themed bar named John Lennon Bar. Who knew Cubans were such fans.
After forcing down the worlds strongest mojitos (again, it was ELEVEN AM), and taking a few pictures whilst enjoying the music, we headed to stop number two- the flea market (Almacenes San Jose). We got out to explore the 60 or so stalls, and I’m going to be honest: there may as well have been five stalls. Each of them were selling the same thing (and all of it was pointless). All I’m saying is, if there was a stall selling white crochet ponchos and wooden key-rings, I wouldn’t set up a stall next door selling white crochet ponchos and wooden key-rings.
We then moved on to the old fort, which had really good views of the whole city.
Followed by a forced lunch stop at what was supposedly Havana’s best restaurant. The food was delicious to be fair, but wasn’t required.
Once we got back to the starting point of the tour, Fernando then told us it would be 80 pesos… each. Let’s rewind to the part when we only agreed to the tour when we thought it was the very discounted 40 pesos each…
Fernando then said that it was 40 per hour (there was no prior mention of this). He was lucky that we had enough money on us, however that experience wisenned us up to what was potentially in store.
After a quick stop in a cathedral (I don’t remember the last time I went on holiday without having to borrow a skirt to cover up for a religious site), we strolled around taking in the atmosphere. One of the great things about Havana is the pure culture everywhere. You can’t turn a corner without a salsa band playing, and it is fantastic.
In the evening, we headed to a rooftop bar for some cocktails (when in Havana. Or anywhere in the world who am I kidding). The standard cocktail size throughout Havana seems to be set at: huge. You get so much for your money, and they are not expensive!
On Saturday, we decided to do the most touristically iconic activity: the Vintage Car tour. After our mishap the day before, we double and triple checked that the price was what we thought it was going to be, and got into the most perfect pink convertible with white leather seats. And this tour was fab! If you do literally one thing when in Cuba it has to be this, just the pure novelty of it alone was incredible. We saw John Lennon Park (one of the best parks in Havana; what is this obsession they have?), Revolution Square and the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and obviously got our monies worth in pictures alone.
It started to rain just as we were leaving the car, and so lunch seemed the perfect plan. Selecting a place in San Fransisco Square that looked nice enough, we went in. Red flag number one should’ve been the lack of people in there; but it was only about 12pm, so you can forgive us for looking past that. Number 2 however was when Becca had a fly crawl out from under her plate and the waitress said ‘sorry, we have just been fumigated‘. I understood what she said, but I don’t know why it didn’t click with me to GET OUT OF THERE. Instead I went ‘oh okay!’ like the idiot that I am. It only fully clicked we saw massive cockroach squirming about on the floor in the toilets, half dead. VOM.
We had heard that the food in Cuba could be quite bland and tasteless, however we hadn’t experienced this yet. Until this restaurant. Becca’s plate looked like it was full of something that had been caught up in the fumigation, and she said it was the first time she had been unable to eat something presented to her in a restaurant, that’s how bad it was. And I believed her as I watched her gag her way through it (only stopping to tell the waitress that it was ‘lovely, thank you’, because again, we are TOO POLITE). My own food was not much better, a plain plate of a spaghetti carbonara type thing. I loudly announced ‘YUM THIS IS DELICIOUS, YOU SHOULD TRY SOME!’, and swapped my plate so that Becca could at least have something to eat. We couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
It continued raining in the afternoon, so we thought it a perfect opportunity to go to the Old Square (Plaza Vieja). We settled in a cafe overlooking the square, and people watched. There is a statue in the corner, of a woman with a fork in her hand riding a chicken, and it seemed to be very popular with tour groups. We made a mental note to Google this chicken when we were able to, thinking it must be a prominent historic monument. It turns out it’s called Viaje Fantastico, but that no one knows the meaning behind it.
As we watched tourists flock towards this statue, the rain got worse. We were soon caught up in a fully fledged storm. It rained so much that the square became flooded in parts, and when it stopped, restaurants were taking drain covers off and literally sweeping the water down the drain in an attempt to clear the roads.
The next day was Sunday, and that meant no builders!
After a fantastic lie in, we had yet another fantastic breakfast (again with the multiple courses), before heading to the rooftop pool at the Iberostar Parque Hotel.
Feeling a bit awkward at the fact we weren’t actually staying there, we walked with purpose and got the the roof without anyone questioning us, or the need to use a room key to activate the lift. The views this rooftop offered over the city were incredible.
We settled into loungers and had such a chilled afternoon sipping Sangrias and reading trashy magazines.
The Iberostar is definitely worth a visit (it looked like a very good hotel option to stay in too). Not only is the pool ideal for a hot afternoon, but the food in the restaurant is some of the best we saw in Havana!
Monday took us to Playa Del Este, a strip of beach around half an hour from Havana.
It was 2 pesos per sunbed, and 2 per umbrella, which was very good value. We were led to two beds right at the front of the beach, closest to the sea, and introduced to Raul, the man who would essentially be our beach waiter.
If I said to you, close your eyes and imagine the perfect beach, then this is what you would have thought up. The sand was pure white, the sea clear blue, and not a cloud in the sky. There were various people coming round to sell things of course, but there were also bands coming round to play to you. There is nothing more relaxing than lying on the beach, listening to live salsa.
This was the perfect day, spoilt only by the fact that no other beach attendants would talk to us, it had to be Raul, and to get his attention, we had to pretend to struggle to put down the umbrella. We made ourselves look completely thick, and then made things more awkward when he told us there were no toilets, we had to do it ‘Cuban style, in the sea or a bush’. No thank you. So off we went on a mission, and got caught in the act by Raul himself, who so clearly knew what we were up to. We found toilets though, and they weren’t even that far away. Thanks for your help Raul.
That evening we found a salsa bar with a very lively atmosphere. The live band were great, and we even salsa-d ourselves- it was so much fun!
On our penultimate day, we walked through Central Havana, and into the neighbourhood of Vedado. Central Havana is certainly where all the real locals are, and as we walked down the main street, I really got a feel for ‘real Havana’- people queuing at the kiosks that pass as shops, people sitting outside houses just people watching, and of course, building work. It felt a completely different place from Old Havana, and we couldn’t walk three steps without men staring, or shouting ‘beautiful’ or ‘girlfriend?’ at us. The men in Cuba (particularly of the older generations) are very ‘romantic’ as Fernando put it on day one, so we were used to this already, but it just felt creepier in Central. Be prepared to be ogled and harassed ladies, it almost becomes an insult if you walk past a man and he doesn’t say anything.
It only took about an hour and we had walked the full length of Old, Central Havana, and into Vedado. Our destination was the Hotel Nacional De Cuba, infamous throughout the country for its Mafia roots. It is stunning, both on the inside and outside, and the grounds are incredible.
We took in the gardens, and then returned in the evening for the Cabaret.
Getting tickets for this was one of the best decisions we had made all week. Dinner was included, and we were sat very close to the stage.
The show itself was about two hours long, but didn’t get boring at any point; in fact one part was very very tense and I thought we might witness a death. If you do anything in the evening in Havana, I recommend this.
Suddenly, it was our last day, and we were determined to make the most of it.
For breakfast, we aimed to find our favourite café from Sunday, however for some reason we just couldn’t find it, and when we did, it was shut.
We ventured down the road to the only place that did seem to be open, and had what turned out to be an equally huge and equally delicious breakfast. We noticed a man who looked like some sort of scout leader lurking and approaching tables to show them his badge and then some sort of paperwork. Assuming he was trying to flog a tour, we were very happy that he hadn’t come up to us… until Becca noticed him lurking around us. After a few minutes, he approached us, and explained that he was a local artist and had just drawn us. Showing us the drawing, I was expecting to be insulted, but was pleasantly surprised- he didn’t even expect money- just did it out of the kindness of his heart and of his boredom. Of course we gave him some pesos.
Next stop, the Iberostar rooftop pool for one last day of relaxation. Not long after we got there though, it started raining, but we were Brits on our last day and we were not going to be beaten.
The pool emptied apart from us and two Canadian ladies, and although we felt a bit stupid, it certainly paid off, as the sun came out and we were rewarded with a beautiful afternoon.
Obviously we went back to our favourite salsa bar from Monday night for our last night. The staff remembered us, and we enjoyed one final dance.
The taxi back to the airport had holes in the floor… we could see the actual road. This was the perfect way to sum up Havana.
Arriving at the airport, the first thing that became apparent was the amount of time we were again going to have to spend queuing at the Casa De Cambio to get our pesos changed back to pounds. There appeared again to be only one place you could do it, and only two of 6 counters open. Checking in, we then joined the queue: thank God we were fairly early.
Unbelievably there was actually a man there that was able to get you queue jump if you paid him: and the official airport workers let this happen!! A couple of people took this opportunity and we were being pushed further back in the queue- and were making zero progress anyway. Eventually, we got to the front (allow yourself an hour for this at least, and don’t bother if you’ve got less than about 50 pesos), and I asked for my conversion to be GBP (obviously). The lady informed me that she didn’t have pounds, and when I asked if any of her colleagues did, found out that they don’t actually stock pounds. I had to select another currency, so I went for Euros (it had the best rate and obviously one of the best to return to pounds).
What I don’t understand is: flight loads of people come into the country carrying pounds to exchange just one floor below- WHAT happens to all of these pounds and why can’t we use those??
Walking away without the will to live, but with plenty of Euros, we headed for security.
This wasn’t my first rodeo at an airport security, but certainly the weirdest. Once you’ve taken your shoes off and tipped everything into trays, you then have to manually push your own tray along the table and into the machine. With the surprise of this, I didn’t even take my liquids out (oops) (but no one even picked up on it).
Now, I have spent time in some very basic airports in my time, but never have I ever been in one where I can’t even buy anything because they do not accept the currency that they provided me with land-side. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that GBP was never stocked in the airport, as Duty Free had signs up to tell you the price conversion of each item should you wish to use Pesos, Euros, US Dollars, and even Yen. What they didn’t have was GBP.
Never mind, we had Euros now, and some leftover Pesos that didn’t match the nice round Euro conversion, so nothing was stopping us from buying a bottle of water and a snack for the plane.
What they neglect to inform you is that these price signs are actually redundant and they will only accept US Dollars (which no one would have selected for their exchange because there was an extra 10% commission charge attached), and not even Pesos, WHICH IS THEIR OWN CURRENCY???!!
Nowhere would take our currency, and they are still a predominantly cash society, so not card either. I was thirsty for two hours and the worst part was- if I didn’t take out my liquids at security they probably wouldn’t have noticed a water bottle.
Despite this, I was sad to be leaving.
Cuba is like nowhere I’ve ever been before, it’s got its own character and charm. Literally everyone is friendly and I felt so safe; everyone comes together as a community, and there is a real community feel. It’s so refreshing to see a way of life pretty much undisturbed by modern luxuries.
The only thing I would do differently is see more of the country, which I would have loved to do had transport not been so infrequent or hard to come by. But, that’s just a reason to go back.