Havana-ing a good time in Cuba

16 May

It’s Saturday 21st May and after almost missing a previous flight to Cartagena we are at Bogota airport in really good time for the short hop to Havana. And it’s just as well, as after lining up to check in, we are turned away as we haven’t yet had our passports stamped to leave the country. So off we trudge through the airport with our belongings on our backs to duly get our stamps and line back up, only to then be turned away again as we don’t have enough Colombian Pesos on us to pay the departure tax. “Departure tax?”, we say in unison, as I’m pointed in the direction of an ATM. Oh yes, departure tax, as in tax to depart, and as in contained in the guide book, under ‘Taxes: Departure’. Excellent pre-trip planning we have done again. Perhaps in Cuba we’ll read the bloody guide book rather than haul it around for exercise!

We board our plane, a Russian Tupulov with enough headroom to accomodate fur hat wearing Cossacks (check), strap ourselves in and then sit, for a while, whilst the pilot waits for a slot to takeoff. The plane is pretty much empty with no more than 20 people on it. Hm, are we going in the off season, will things be open? (should have read the bloody guide book).

A couple of hours later we are descending into Havana’s Jose Marti airport. We touch down and are then flung into the seats in front of us as the pilot applies the brakes, either the Russians only have 2 settings, ‘on’ and ‘off’, or the pilot is trying for a new personal best.

Once the whiplash has worn off, we disembark and are soon inside the terminal. As we stand around for half an hour while the only plane on the tarmac’s bags are unloaded (all 20 of them), first impressions are amusing. Stood in the arrivals hall there are more staff than passengers and none clearly with the authority nor inclination to tell the recent homecomers that they can’t smoke in here, especially not standing under the ‘No Smoking’ sign.

“What a relaxed place,” we think, as we gather our bags. And indeed relaxed they seem to be, that is, unless you want to change a newly acquired 500 Euro note. We’re travelling with enough Euro cash to fund our time in Cuba, and have 3 x 500 Euro notes as part of our Cuban funds. But it soon seems that the nice, friendly, helpful man in Bogota, Colombia  who exchanged our Pesos for Euros may have given us two shonky ones. Slightly surprising given when we exchanged them holograms were analysed, watermarks spotted and paper felt, in line with our online research on ‘How to spot a dodgy note’. Unfortunately though as we are not travelling with a UV light, we discover only one of the notes glows brightly under the Cambio’s light. Two, do not.

We change what we can, then taxi into the city centre. We journey through Havana’s deserted streets (only 3% of the population have a car in Cuba, compared to say 85% of the USA) into Havana Vieja (Old Havana), the only vehicles spotted being 50’s American Classics and Soviet-made motorbikes complete with side cars.

We arrive at our ‘casa particulare’ (a house where the government allows the owner to rent their spare rooms out to tourists) only to have our host, Paolo tell us that due to a small emergency, there is actually, er, no room at the inn. Thus the heavily ladened mules are guided a couple of doors down the street to his mate Regino’s place. The place is spotless, air conditioned, has an en-suite and is 5 dollars a night cheaper. Happy budget backpackers we are. Passports are handed over and a very official registration is completed and signed – all casa visitors must be reported to the State within 24 hours. Finally, we are free to wander the dusty streets of Havana Vieja (where our 500 Euro notes are soon rejected again, and again)…

Crumbling colonial facades peer down on us as we wander towards the Plaza de Armas for dinner, gazing at our surroundings; it is as if time stopped, 50 years ago. I am quietly captivated as Kelly leads the way through the streets reacquainting herself with the city’s sights given this is her second visit to Havana.

“Now did I stay in that hotel? What was it called? No, that’s not it, but I’m sure it was just near here… No that’s not it either, now what was it called…?”. Seems Cuba Libres may have featured fairly prominently on her previous trip’s itinerary.

Next morning, a Sunday, after tucking into a home cooked breakfast at Regino’s we head off for a walking tour of the city, armed with the guide book and a 500 Euro note just in case the gods are smiling. Sure enough we soon spot a Casa de Cambio (‘Cadeca’ for short) and I line up whilst Kelly goes and orders coffee. 20 minutes later I nonchelantly hand over 600 Euros (100 as a smokescreen) and without batting an eyelid 750 Convertible Pesos are liberated. Phew, one down, one to go, maybe they are legit after all.

Bouyed by our success we wander past murals of the most famous non-Cuban (he was Argentine), Che Guevara, to the Museo De La Revolucion. This large tri-level museum cronicles Fidels rise to power, the Moncada barracks attack, Cuba’s struggle against American intervention, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, war in Angola, and the Special Period following the collapse of Cuba’s largest trading partner, the USSR, in 1991. The Museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace, as ornate as it is interesting.

From here we take in the Pavillion Granma (looks a bit like Tracy Island to me). It houses the boat on which Fidel and his band of revolutionaries journeyed from bases in Mexico to Cuba in 1956.

We take in the Capitolio Building (and assembled Americana parked outside), Havana’s grandest building, constructed during the ‘Sugar Boom’ of the 1920’s and modelled on the US Capitol building in Washington, which is unfortunately closed for repairs.

We then stroll along the seafront drive, known as ‘The Malecon’…

Before heading back to Calle Obispo for some Salsa and a cold beer. Tonight, it is Dia del Madre, and we have been invited to join Regino and family for dinner to celebrate Mother’s Day.

We arrive back at our host’s house, heart shaped balloon and synthetic rose in hand, bestowing good wishes on anyone and everyone. We are quickly placed at the kitchen table for a slap up dinner of roast pork and what must have been a kilo of rice each.

Suitably stuffed, and barely able to move, we head outside to the pavement where the family is mingling with friends and neighbours alike. Mojitos are passed around, and then the dining furniture, and in the street we sit as reggaeton music shakes the living room walls. With glasses topped, space is cleared for Kelly and the girls to dance, as the menfolk happily sit outside discussing football and cars.

Day 3 in Havana dawns, and Christ, what was in those bloody drinks? We blearily descend to the scene of last nights shenanigans wondering how on earth we’re going to hold any kind of conversation between ourselves in English, let alone for that matter with our hosts in Spanish. Thankfully Regino is as dusty as we are so we sit in unsaid and mutually beneficial peace as we enjoy our last meal in his house. Today, we are being relocated back to our original casa, feeling a little underwhelmed at the notion.

Breakfast instills us with renewed energy, and we head back to yesterday’s Cadeca to get rid of this last 500 Euro note. Unfortunately I am served by a far more officious woman today and after much tinkering about with it under the UV light, she eventually wrinkles her nose, and passes it back, with a curt “No bien”. I feign surprise and head out, beaten but not yet defeated.

We have one more Cambio on our list… I enter alone (in case Kelly needs to have a go tomorrow) armed with a plan – I’m to change a little Sterling, a couple of other Euro notes and then the offending article in an attempt at distracting the cashier.  It feels tantamount to bank robbery, but it works, and without so much as a second glance the notes are changed over and within 5 minutes I’m stood outside clutching my Cuban bundle. So maybe that note was legit in the end after all… ahem.

With our belongings moved, goodbyes said, and flushed with ill gotten gains, we head out to explore more of the city. We stop for a while in the open air book stalls of Plaza de Armas to stock up on leftist literature, Kelly buys a copy of Che’s Bolivian Diaries whilst I plump for ‘The October (Cuban Missile) Crisis – A Cuban Perspective’ – revolutionaries in the making, we are.

Kelly then continues her guided tour, titled ‘Now where is that hotel I stayed in before?’, through the old town. While it still evades her, her memory seems to have acutely remembered the spot of another favourite haunt and we soon find ourselves in the Museo del Chocolate. A 14 piece selection box was purchased. I had one.

Via the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, we return to the Malecon for a sundowner before (after viewing the pricelist to eat) moving onto the excellent (and much cheaper) Spanish restaurant ‘Los Nardos’ opposite the Capitolio building.

Our last day in Havana is a lazy affair. We check out an art fair and buy a few photos, then mooch through the streets to take some of our own, before settling in for a beer and a little more salsa dancing.

As a fitting send óff to this evocative, charismatic city, Regino brings his car round, a 1950’s Chevrolet for us to have a sit in.  It’s fantastic, white bench seats, chrome everywhere and curves in all the right places.

In a city where old is more common than new, Havana gives you the opportunity to reflect on the onset of time. In Cuba, as a result of the U.S. imposed economic blockade, the clock moves to a much slower beat. And through Cuba’s preserved colonial and art deco architecture, its empty roads, the dancing in the streets, neighbours mingling with neighbours, and classic older cars; you feel much less like a tourist in Havana, and more like a time traveller.

My advice…? Go if you can, and soon, because with Fidel’s more liberal younger brother Raul now in charge, a thawing in relations from the north and the availibilty of cheaper, accessible Chinese goods, times are changing… Havana won’t stay like this for ever.

Cheers for now

Matt x

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