Cuba – synonymous with Revolution, Che Guevara, sought after cigars, cheap rum, defiant Socialism or draconian Communism depending on your viewpoint, Scarface, beach holidays, delicious coffee and the Castros. But beyond the stereotypes what is there to discover? In January we set off to find out…
We started and ended our trip in Havana, two quite different experiences not least because of the weather. Arriving around midnight at our Casa on the sea front promenade during a storm, the wind ferociously whipped the sea in to waves tumbling over the wall flooding the road. It meant that we had the closed off Malecon almost to ourselves the next morning for an eerily quiet walk. This is usually the area where Cubans come to go fishing, hang out, drink a few beers, skateboard, engage in heavy petting – a great people watch when busy, probably what life used to be like in Europe before smartphones!
On that note don’t expect much internet in Cuba, you can get WiFi cards from the local ETECSA shops for about $2 a pop, the queues are the same length as airport immigration but for many Cubans this is the only means of communicating with family and friends who have left the country. Alternatively you can relax at the more upmarket hotels with a pina colada and use slightly pricier WiFi, Hotel Nacional was my favourite for its view over the bay and resident peacock.
Though Habana Viejo (which is covered extensively in every guide book) is the major tourist draw I would recommend a wander through the Centro district. It is run down and not geared towards attracting foreigners but if you’re keen to see a more accurate reality of life in Havana then this is the place to do it. Crumbling colonial and art deco architecture. Queues snaking around the block for the government provisions of bread, cheese and ham. Hole in the wall butchers that have never seen a refrigerator. Taxis traversing the narrow streets alongside horse and carts. Tarpaulin covered fruit and veg markets. Women perched on doorsteps selling flowers and santeria candles.
At the northern end of Centro is the Callejon de Hamel, a graffiti adorned alleyway turned in to a Sunday showcase for artists and rumba school. Jam packed with people, music and sculptures, this was a fun way to spend an hour or so – just don’t expect to be the only tourists there. More relaxed was the Museo del Bella Arte, which helped us while away a rainy afternoon and was far more captivating than expected. Socialism and revolution has apparently produced some inspired works of modern art.
My top culture tip for Cuba is to read up on the history before you go, not only is it fascinating but it gives context to the complexities of daily life and the national pride you may often encounter. Sure everyone has heard of Fidel and Che, but what about Jose Marti or Major General Antonio Maceo? Make sure to complement your newly acquired knowledge with a trip to the Museum of the Revolution housed in the Presidential Palace.
So last but not least, what about the food? Sadly as I found with parts of Colombia the cuisine is nothing to shout about, as one Havanian man put it, “here you have a choice of rice and beans, or beans and rice”. Though that has as much to do with the embargo as anything else. There were a couple of nice eateries near where we stayed – Paladar La California and Restaurant Castropol, both around the Malecon. Crucially, please listen to the recommendations from your Casa owners, we ended up getting horrendous food poisoning on our last day in Havana from a tourist trap restaurant which will remain unnamed. The bus journey to our next destination Vinales that day was interesting, onward to the countryside we went immodium in hand…
Getting around Havana
Havana is small and you can get explore much of it by foot with the help of a good map from your Casa. The Lonely Planet guide also has well detailed neighbourhood maps.
There are modern taxis which tend to be cheaper than the 1950s cars and run on a meter, these were quite reasonably priced. By all means have the vintage car experience but be prepared to splash out a bit more.
The tourist bus is probably the best way to get around the city if you are planning to go to places like Plaza de la Revolucion which is a bit further out. You can get a one day ticket, hop on and hop off.
Leaving the city completely you can either take the bus using Viazul / Transtur, or take a long distance taxi. We did both and although the taxi was faster it was far more expensive. The buses usually have air con and a toilet, and one rest stop. For an idea of prices and distance: http://www.viazul.com/
Alain and Lety at Casa Malecon were the most welcoming and helpful hosts we met during our trip and I could not recommend this place highly enough. We found most Casas charged between 20 – 35 CUCs a night.
There are upmarket hotels in Havana but the prices are inflated, and you won’t have as much contact with the locals. Casas are the way to go in my opinion, check Tripadvisor for top rated.
Havana (and Cuba in general) was without exception the safest I have ever felt abroad. There is very little petty or violent crime, drug use or overt poverty. There is also a robust police presence (make of that what you will), the state seems keen to maintain the steady flow of tourist dollars. I was perfectly happy to walk alone at night, more so than in Paris or even at home in London.
There are obvious scams to be wary of; do not buy cigars from anybody on the street as they will be counterfeit, if someone asks for milk for their baby don’t buy it for them as they return it for money, being ripped off by taxis, given back change in the local CUP instead of CUC (yes there are two different currencies) etc. These scams are covered extensively on Tripadvisor and you would do well to read them.
Edit : A friend has just pointed out to me a Spanish phrasebook is essential. I speak intermediate Spanish so managed to get by just fine. Some Casa owners will be able to converse relatively well in English but do not expect this to be the status quo, learn some basic phrases and it will make your life easier.