Walking in the baking sun under blue Caribbean skies, a sooty smell fills the air. Children play football on the street, teens are without phones and the elderly smoke cigars watching the world from doorways. A dilapidated building sits to the right of me and a wide road stretches out to the left; a neon green Cadillac, an old black cab and a Barbie pink Chevrolet whizz past, a rainbow of colour and a disorientating sight; have we stumbled sixty years back in time?
Cuba has been on my wanderlust wishlist for years. It felt like there was an urgency to see the place, before improved relations with the U.S.A meant that new cars were imported and floods of American tourists arrived. A good pace of travel in Central America meant that we had some time to spare and while in Costa Rica we'd found flights under £200 each online which were too good to pass up. As we wouldn't have this opportunity again we decided we'd go and see Havana, Cuba's capital city for five nights. We arrived with trepidation, the country has a huge history for its small size and a reputation to live up to. Every single person we had encountered who had visited had absolutely loved the place and everything about it (well, except for the food). There was a lot of expectation. Upon landing we waited at the baggage carousel for an hour and a half, hundreds of boxes and duffle bags wrapped in clear plastic were piled high on the belt, locals blaring music from tiny speakers hauled their belongings onto trollies.
We got in line for currency as we were unable to prepare ourselves by getting some in advance and then jumped in a taxi to go to our casa particulares (a room owned by a local, rented out to travellers). Hostels are not common in Cuba and a hotel would be too expensive so we hoped that a casa in Vedado a residential area would be a cheaper and perhaps more authentic arrangement. Judith, her husband and her son met us outside the casa which we could get to via stairs in an underground parking lot. We walked to the top floor and entered, I was expecting a room in their own home but this was a stand alone studio apartment with a tiny kitchen. We were instantly impressed with the two huge double beds and lovely windows with shutters. Judith spoke English very well and explained that as she was going to be admitted to hospital soon for surgery, she'd brought her husband and son along to learn the ropes while she was out of action. We signed some forms, paid for our apartment in cash and had a chat, Judith promised to bring us breakfast each morning. After our lovely welcome we settled into our own little slice of Havana before heading out for some food. We were a little unsure of the local cuisine as we'd heard some bad things about it. As soon as we told people that we were vegetarian and going to Cuba they had a confused look on their face with a 'good luck trying to eat' type comment. With a meat heavy diet and shortage of fruit and vegetables due to a lack of agriculture infrastructure we knew we might struggle and so expected the worst. With that in mind we walked a few minutes from our apartment and found a place slightly on the pricier side to have pesto pasta which turned out to be delicious. Seeing the 1950's and 1960's American cars speeding along was a novelty that I hoped wouldn't wear off. When it came time to buy some bottled water we struggled, there were no supermarkets or even corner shops to speak of, just small stands and government owned stores with one counter selling staples like rice, oil and flour. We found a tiny sandwich shop which had bottled water in the window, at the equivilant of a couple of US dollars it wasn't cheap.
The next morning Judith brought a simple breakfast of bread and two boiled eggs to our apartment and we ventured out for a day of exploring. We walked down the street towards Old Havana, the buildings that lined the road on each side were in a sorry state and were a murky grey colour. The air smelled like coal smoke from an old fashioned steam train and it truly felt like we had wandered into an open air museum like the sort you'd find at Beaulieu in England's New Forest. We crossed some roads to the Malecon; a long promenade by the coast and watched the waves crash into the stone sea walls as we walked. The sea breeze cut through the stifling hot air and the city skyline was spread before us, leading our eye to a lighthouse. We walked to a point and sat dangling our legs over the wall, a friendly local came over to remind us to be careful. There was a fort just behind us so we paid the small fee to have a look inside. The view from the canons was lovely so we sat and watched the cars, a myriad of colours whizz by before leaving to cross the wide road to find the Revolución Museum dedicated to the life and work of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara among others. The white building beamed in the sun, a true brilliance of architecture. Inside was a very unflattering caricature of George W Bush with "thank you cretin for helping with our independence" written under it, it made me laugh. We flitted from room to room, reading plaques accompanying pieces of interest like items belonging to revolutionists, blood soaked clothes and propaganda. The silence was broken by a dance class taking place in the buildings central open air courtyard which was fun to watch though looked exhausting. Upon leaving the museum Craig bought a CUP coin with Che Guevara on it as a souvenir from a local as he'd seen someone with one in Mexico. The local currency of CUP and the tourist currency of CUC made life confusing. It also felt a little like a swizz as CUC was equal to the US dollar and worth 25 times more than the local CUP, every time we bought anything we were paying much more than a local which pained us as budget conscious travellers. We walked down what seemed to be Havana's busiest street which was in stark contrast to the part of town that we were staying in, we realised that we were now definitely in the touristic part of Old Havana. The buildings were in much better shape, painted in hues of bright and pastel colours and restored to their former glory. Café's had placed tables out in the street, one of which we sat at for lunch. Performers in neon coloured costumes danced past while we ate, waving at Craig's GoPro and filling the air with a joyous carnival-like atmosphere. We wandered some more and visited a load of second-hand bookshops, I flicked through old postcards and posters, dusty books and memorabilia wishing that I had room in my backpack to take some pieces away with me.
The next morning I woke up with a poorly tummy, the first time on the trip that I'd felt so dreadful with a stomach upset. It appeared that I'd eaten something that hadn't agreed with me, I'd been careful not to drink the local tap water as advised by the guidebook. We took it easy and walked to the National Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is split between two buildings, one contains Cuban art and the other international art. We decided to pay 8 CUC to have access to both (5 CUC individually). The Cuban galleries were full of mostly modern painting and some sculptures too, I did enjoy the abstract expressionist works. My cramping stomach made concentrating on the work a little difficult but after a restful sit down in the gallery and lots of water I was feeling well enough to go to the second museum a couple of blocks away. There were artefacts from Ancient Rome and Egypt, Dutch and Flemish painting as well as decorative arts. The building itself was fascinating to see though it was under some restoration work inside. We left the museum in search of a place for lunch although I wasn't up to eating. We sat at a table on the patio of a quaint café serving local Cuban cuisine, while I sipped water Craig had a plate of rice and vegetables with a bean soup which looked delicious.
We left to explore more of the old town and came across a square with a church and bell tower, I was given a piece of shimmering purple fabric to cover my legs and we paid to climb to the top where the views over the terracotta rooftops were lovely. Once back to ground level we sat on a shady curb in the square and watched dancers perform, a man next to me was painting but packed his tools away to lay down on the concrete for a little afternoon nap. We found a fancy hotel and walked in to book a day trip to Viñales which is a part of the Cuban countryside just to the west of Havana. As we were staying in a private casa we researched online in advance and found that the best way to book a tour is to go to a hotel's tour desk as we had no access to the internet. Our tour was booked for the following day and I just hoped that I'd wake up feeling ok.
We were up nice and early for our tour and thankfully I was feeling better. The coach picked us up from a nearby hotel and we were on our way. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside and what Cuban life was like outside the city. Our first stop was to a factory making traditional rum and brandy which we tasted before driving on to a viewpoint over the vibrant green landscape. A band was playing just behind us as we looked out over the palm trees, blue skies and unusual lumpy hills. We went to a cigar plantation and watched the farmer roll a cigar from scratch surrounded by drying tobacco leaves. Craig had a smoke while I photographed the barn, tobacco hanging from rafters and piled on the floor covered by giant palm leaves. We went for lunch with the tour group and got chatting to a lovely lady originally from El Salvador who has been living in California for 45 years since she was a teen. She explained that she was recently retired and loved to travel, she's been going from place to place for the last couple of years solo and is looking forward to her husbands retirement so that they can take trips together too.
While we chatted we ate from platters and Craig sampled a piña colada with Club Havana rum, they put a whole bottle on the table so you could top up your cocktail as you wished. As I wasn't fully recovered from feeling poorly the day before I just had a sip, the cocktail was pure coconut creamy deliciousness. Before driving back to the city we stopped at a cave and went on a boat ride through the dark cavern, the driver pointed out rocks that looked like animals and afterwards we browsed some local handmade crafts and paintings. One of the highlights of the day for me was seeing the colourful wooden houses in the countryside surrounded by palms, I wished we could have stopped to take photographs and go for a wander to see the area at a slower pace. In the evening we ate at a paladar which is a small restaurant run by a local sometimes in the front room of their home. The paladar was extremely cosy, we ate bean soup with rice which was really tasty and cheap. My initial worries about the food situation felt a little unfounded, so long as we ate simple local food like rice and beans then we were fine, our bellies were full and our budget intact.
The next morning we took a walk to the university which was just a few blocks from our apartment. We were approached by a guy who talked to us about his class, how he's finishing this semester and then moving to Miami where his family now live. He gave us an impromptu tour of the grounds and explained some of the history before mentioning at the end how expensive books are in Cuba and could we spare a bit of cash to help him out. We gave him $5USD worth of CUC before walking away, the penny then dropped that he obviously wasn't a student and that this was a great way of earning some money from bewildered tourists like us. Craig was fine with it but I felt annoyed at being made a fool of, a donation to a local for showing us around would be no problem, but I begrudged the dishonesty. We wandered to the old town and treated ourselves to chocolates at the chocolate museum and explored the area on foot. We'd have liked to have taken one of the old convertible cars for a spin but unfortunately our budget wouldn't allow. Still, we saw lots of picture perfect squares, buildings in varying states of repair, pretty tiles, washing hanging from lines and locals going about their business. A horse and cart pulled up alongside a car from sixties America and I hoped that with recent relations with the U.S.A that Cuba would retain its old world charm. After a drink at a café it was Craig's turn to feel a bit unwell so we walked the long walk back to the apartment to rest for the afternoon before heading out for a cocktail at the famous Hotel National which looks out over the sea. As we sipped our expensive piña coladas we mused over how different Cuba would be to travel to with a healthy budget, we'd enjoyed our few days in Havana but it didn't feel to us like a holiday destination as we weren't able to splash out on fancy dinners and rides in a convertible. We walked to a restaurant for dinner and the less said about that the better, it ended with a disgusting meal, a shockingly overpriced bill and a huge argument with the wait staff. Our last day in Havana hadn't really gone to plan so we consoled ourselves with a strong mojito at the lovely and friendly bar opposite our apartment.
Our last morning allowed just enough time for breakfast at Riley's up the road before Judith and her husband arrived to take us to the airport. We had a conversation in the car about what life is really like for Cubans, how strict rules make life hard for Judith and her business, how fuel is in scarce supply at the moment and her apprehension at the surgery that she was going in for in a couple of weeks. We wished her well and she hugged us goodbye, hoping that we'd send any friends visiting Cuba her way. We left Cuba with mixed feelings, our stay had been fraught with illness and a couple of bad experiences. We'd had some lovely moments with friendly locals, but also some downright rude service from wait staff. The currency situation was annoying and the lack of shops to buy water an inconvenience but I left feeling intrigued. The total lack of wifi was liberating, seeing children and teenagers play in parks without technology felt like a wonderful novelty that we don't see in England anymore. We're used to seeing people rushing around in a constant hurry glued to their smartphone but here friends gossiped on benches, elderly ladies leaned off of balconies and smartly dressed men cruised by in a Cadillac, people took their time.
Only since leaving Cuba have I realised how hard life can be there. I looked into why fruit and vegetables can be hard to come by and why there are no supermarkets, I found that due to a lack of agricultural infrastructure crops just aren't grown in the volume that they need to be to feed the country. Locals are struggling to eat as the food that is grown is sold on the black market to private hotels and restaurants to feed the growing number of tourists. Locals working in government jobs are paid a measly set wage meaning that they can barely afford to eat food other than rice and beans, fresh vegetables and meat (mostly pork) is a luxury. I felt a pang of guilt writing this post, so much of Cuba I loved but other things annoyed me and only now am I realising how petty those things that annoyed me were. I'm glad we visited and saw a little piece of the country but we will most definitely have to visit again, maybe next time we'll know to approach travel in Cuba like the locals approach life. With plenty of time to stop and dance, to chat and laugh over a bottle of rum. Despite the struggles Cuban people without a shadow of doubt have retained their passion and zest for life.
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