To say we were a little apprehensive about coming to Cuba wouldn't be a lie. We had met enough people in Central America with stories of woe to wonder if we had made a rash choice to come here. And boarding the flight from Cancun did nothing to ease our apprehension.
We knew we had to get a tourist card (basically a visa) before boarding the flight and we also knew we may have to pay a tax to leave Mexico so we were prepared with cash and time (we turned up 3.5 hours before the flight, which is unheard of for us). However, even we were surprised by the disorganisation that we met inside the airport. Firstly, there were the men who sell you the tourist cards. They look official enough, laminated ID’s on lanyards, but after a year and a bit on the road you start to get a feel for when things are not quite right. We knew our guy was trying it on when he said the cost was $25 but when questioned, he suddenly remembered we were right, it was only $20. So his job is only to sell the tourist cards, that's all he does all day every day and he'd accidentally forgotten how much they were... Mmmm, we smelled a rat.
Turned out you can buy a tourist card from the airline office (3 meters from where these aficionados stand) for $12.50. We didn't have the worst of it though, we soon after got chatting to a Danish couple who our man had tried to charge $80. So we went to confront him with the Danish couple and he was so busy making a big deal of crossing out their cards, he appeared to forgot we hadn't paid him or given him back ours. Overcome by aggression? Always the sure sign of the conman trying to rip you off. So the Danish couple were happy, they bought their cards from the airline for $12.50 and we were happy as we got ours completely free!
Next we had to check in. We were allowed to check in and give our bags over, but they wouldn't give us our boarding cards. Why not? First we had to go to immigration to pay an entry tax that we'd not paid when we'd crossed in at the border from Belize??? Once we'd handed over $20 each to another random looking guy, albeit this time sat in an office, we were then sent back to the check in desk to collect our boarding passes, all the while trying to dodge our tourist card guy in case he demanded the money from us. I was far from confident they'd let us on the flight let alone into Cuba. But they did both and from that point it has been great.
We got bumped up the queue entering Cuba passport control, we got bumped up the queue at the customs declaration and more importantly we got bumped to the front of the queue at the money exchange - the queue for which looked at least an hour long - and before we knew it we were whisked into our classic Chevrolet to cruise down the Malecon to our gorgeous Casa Particular in the old town.
Havana is a city in some ways reminiscent of other Mediterranean cities by the sea and in other ways, unlike any other we've ever encountered. Our taxi dropped us off in the middle of some crumbling rundown neighbourhood where groups of characters stood around on street corners and I felt a wee bit nervous again. In fact, had it not been for the assurance of our Casa owners that the area was safe, it would have felt like one of the most intimidating places we've ever set foot in.
Our street and the streets around are dark and crumbling and on every street corner there are groups of people, hanging around, remonstrating loudly, passionately. But it is all friendly and there are groups of kids playing football, chasing bubbles, old women chatting, people calling loudly up to 4th floor balconies. It's more a sad reflection of our closed society that this openness of gathering people feels threatening rather than the social scene that it is. In fact it took me back to the late 80’s/early 90’s when the criminal justice bill was passed and even in our small town, provincial police would often threaten to arrest us for merely hanging out with our friends.
Our Casa is amazing, the doors are fit for a giraffe at 4metres tall and the ceilings tower above even that; wasted on us, obviously but nice nevertheless.
The old city is beautiful, with a strong Spanish feel to the preserved parque central and plaza viejo area. It really is full of all those classic cars from the 1950’s (and even some from the 30’s & 40’s) and the people are warm and friendly. We decided to come to Cuba as everyone had said go before it changes, go to see the real Cuba.
But what is the real Cuba? Vastly overpriced tours and hotels or grinding poverty?
The world of tourism is set against the daily life and they are two worlds apart. I guess we would like to be in between but in Cuba for us it hasn’t quite happened but I love Havana. A city like no other, it challenges the perception of what for a non-native is intimidating, the old town is a beautifully preserved iconic classic a must see architectural wonder, 3 streets east and it's a live a day city, life in the streets for the people. Society lives in the streets and is extremely open, people fix their cars, do their deals and holler for each other, I like it. A wander through the streets is too see everything that in most western cities happens behind closed doors, take 2 plastic chairs and place them outside your door, sit in them and live, interact, fix your car, barter, banter, smoke and drink. We live in the back garden but Cubans live in the street with each other. It looks intimidating but is welcoming, safe and extremely friendly but it does look intimidating no doubt about that.
Havana, at this time, is probably a bit more odd than usual due to the untimely (for us, not for him) death of the enigmatic dictator Fidel Castro. We arrived on day 3 of the 9 day mourning period. What did this mean for us?
Music has been stopped for the mourning period and from all the guide books and articles I'd seen previously, music would normally be a large part of the atmosphere here.
And no alcohol (ditto above)!
Although the no alcohol rule seems limited in its reach. We were welcomed with mojitos last night and a minibar full of beer. Plus we had wine with dinner at Casa Alba, a small place frequented by us, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Nicholson, Castro himself and other equally impressive people. Tonight, however, in Chinatown (which is unique in having next to no people from China visible working or living here) there was no alcohol for sale.
Tomorrow, we leave for Viñales and if it in anyway lives up to what we've so far experienced of Cuba, we're gonna love it!
Viva la revolution!
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Kelly and Mikey (but mostly Kelly). We sold up in the UK to travel with our two littluns for a year or so. If you want to know more click the about us!