After less than a day…this place is everything that I had hoped it would be…I love it. You get an idea in your head of what a place will be like and are usually disappointed…but not here.
We arrived late afternoon and had an absolute nightmare at the airport trying to get our money changed over. They have unmanned money changing machines…not ATMs but rather you scan your passport place in euros and retrieve the local equivalents… and there are only 4 of them…this doesn’t work very well when you cannot get the local currency (the CUC) elsewhere and you have 3 plane loads of people trying to get cash…simultaneously.
It is probably timely to mention that Cuba has two currencies that operate in parallel. The one that tourists use is the CUC which is worth the same as a $US. But if you try and swap a $US for it, it will attract a 10% surcharge. Euros and Canadian $ are the currencies of choice and they attract no surcharge. The second currency is the CUP which is used by the locals and is the equivalent of about 4 cents. So one CUC will buy you 26.3 CUP. Obviously, this adds a degree of difficulty to getting change.
So back to the airport, we stood in line and waited…something that we are learning is also a very Cuban thing to do. We got to our accommodation to find that they were full so we would stay 2 doors down at the neighbour’s place…Cuba does not do much in the way of traditional hotels or hostels, it is more like a home stay, where you rent a room in someone’s home…it was all good and we finally met up with our intended host the next morning.
Our accommodation was in the middle of everything but nowhere near anything…we were relatively equidistant between Old Havana, New Havana and Chinatown…but still quite a walk from most things. On night one, after the airport, money and housing debacle, we headed out for a walk and a meal. We got to the water and wandered along the esplanade (Malecon) seemingly not having passed by any restaurants. Either this was wrong, we were unlucky or we just had yet to pick up on the rhythms of the place. Having eventually found a place for dinner and eating well (if expensively by Cuban standards) we called it a night.
For $5 a head the little home stays offer breakfast, and ours was no different. So our first full day in town started with fresh fruit, fruit juice, coffee, fresh rolls, egg, ham, cheese and a great chat with Charlie another houseguest (Canadian). We then got about the rest of our day. This started with a walk towards old town and the checking out of all of the old buildings.
And here the real Cuba kicked in in true style. After bartering a bit (from 80 down to 40) we hopped into our huge 1950’s yank tank for a one hour tour of Havana. While this is incredibly touristy and stereotypical, it was exactly the experience that I had wanted. We sat in the back of our huge red and white convertible (Jill wanted pink but the guy with the pink one wouldn’t barter with me), being chauffeured by a dude wearing a Panama hat, while Cuban music blared through the stereo. I managed to get the dude to let me stage a photo with me in the drivers seat (he even put his Panama hat on me briefly).
So it is probably time to talk about cars in Cuba. For the most part they are all pieces of shit. The most common vehicle that you will see is the Russian made Lada. They are ugly, loud, smoky, smelly and quite frankly it is mid blowing that they are still even running. The next is the classic yank tanks…the majority of these are clapped out, poorly maintained, bashed up, beaten and in sad need of either TLC or scrapping. Then there is the convertible tourist fleet that are shiny and pretty for us tourist types. And finally there is a combination of little taxi (type) options…these range from pedicabs, horse drawn carts, old motorbikes (with or without sidecars) and the freaky bubble looking tuk tuks.
So we cruised the streets (either in our car or just walking about) while we took in the sights, sounds and smells of Cuba. For the most part it was enchanting. The people of Cuba seemingly want for nothing, but at the same time they have very little. Education and healthcare is free. Food ration books ensure that everyone has enough of a broad range of food groups, but very few extras or luxuries. The system works but the wants of consumerism are pervasive.
Some of the buildings around Havana are stunning. But for every beautiful building, there is about 20 in a state of disrepair. Added to this are the hidden gems, a virtual oasis enclosed behind a nondescript door on a dodgy looking street. I have never been in any city in the world where I have felt so safe or secure. Crime is virtually non existent and everyone is smiling, happy and willing to greet you with a grin and an “hola”.
On our last night in Havana we headed down to plaza Vieja where we stopped in to ‘La Vitrola’ and we had some small bar snacks, beverages and live Cuban music. I have entirely fallen in love with the jamon croquettes, while Jill cannot seem to be able to say no to a $3.50 mojito complete with a sugar cane swizzle stick. Add to this some bruschetta, cheese balls and fried chorizo and ice cold cerveza (beer) and life is good.
Oh and guess what… Cuba has a $3 bill.
Varadero is little more than a resort town, so very little in the way of tourist sights. No cool looking buildings, just rows of modern resorts, bars, trinket shops and restaurants. What the resorts do offer are all inclusive packages and many of them offer child free experiences. So for people like us who do not enjoy noisy rugrats messing up your holiday bliss, this could have been for you. But in reality it just a town full of drunk eurotrash.
An interesting note that we learned was that Al Capone had a mansion here right on the ocean front. Of course it has now been turned into a guest house and restaurant.
The fact that most of the resorts offer all inclusive packages means that all of their food and drink is included. As such, there is very little need for them to leave. Which means that competition at the local restaurants is fierce. This we thought would be great news for us as we were not doing the package thing. But it was anything but, the restaurants tended to be more specialist or boutique. The prices were through the roof (by Cuba standards), the food was below par and according to Jill the mojitos were weak.
Don’t get me wrong, the beach was nice (if a little too much seaweed by Australian standards). You could get an ok meal cheaply. And Varadero could be considered a good holiday by some… just not us.
But as with all of Cuba, the classic cars were everywhere. We got a 1957 Plymouth as our standard cab from the bus station. We wandered the street to see gangs of drunken package tourists, clinging to their refillable booze jugs or kegs, being generally loud and obnoxious. And I am sunburnt, here I am an Aussie surrounded by Europeans and I am the one glowing red. I feel like I should hand back my Australian card…poor form.
In short Varadero was hellish, but it was insightful as an example of everything that we would never want to do on a holiday.
After a short 2 hr, chicken free, bus ride we arrived at the hilly town of Trinidad. Cobblestone streets meant that I had to use my bag as an actual backpack for the 4th time since owning it. Usually I can just use the wheelie bag option, but cobblestones make that a no go. So after trying to remember what happens when you unzip the straps, we did the 850 meter walk up and down hills lugging our packs on our backs. We were staying at yet another guest house (casa particular) and despite the $20 a night price tag, it was by far the best one we stayed in the whole time in Cuba.
Trinidad is another of those see it in 2 hrs kind of towns. So after a cold shower, did I mention that it is hot and humid in the tropics, we did the schlep. Once again we hit all of the sights early: the museum (x2), cathedral, church, Plaza Santa Ana. And settled in to some Cuban music and drinks on the steps of plaza Mayor.
That is until a tropical downpour started. And it poured, for about an hour and a half it teemed. So we had cervezas and mojitos with a French couple until it finished.
An interesting sideline that we came across in Havana and now again in Trinidad was the use of old cannons as bollards in the street. I guess with the Spanish and pirate heritage of the region, there were no shortages of cannons either laying about or contained within sunken vessels near the shore. Many of these have been salvaged, repurposed and buried to block traffic into pedestrian areas. It is nothing massively noteworthy but adds to the charm of the place.
Fourteen kilometres down the road from Trinidad is Playa Ancon one of the best beaches in the country. So on day 2 we hopped a cab and spent 4 hours lazing on pristine white sand underneath palm frond umbrellas. I lolled about in the water while Jill worked on her Canberra tan.
You wouldn’t believe it…I got sunburnt…I haven’t been sunburnt in decades. Something about the tropical sun, breeze and water got me. I got red as a beetroot on my chest and a bit on my back. It is a shame it is about a week early otherwise I could have blamed it on the “April Sun in Cuba”.
Another early start for a 6 1/2 hour bus ride to one of the few beaches in the country reportedly better than Playa Ancon.
Cuba an overview
On the whole I loved Cuba and am so glad I got to experience it before the tourist hoards turned it into every other largely homogenous island nation. But it is an island of contradictions. Many of the things that give it its charm are also detractors to its effective operation.
Rubbish collection is a major issue in Cuba with many corners occupied by stinking, messy skip type bins awaiting removal. Dogs infest the streets during the day, rifling through the uncollected rubbish bins. Cats cannot be seen during daylight hours but come out in force at night and (yep you guessed it) raid the uncollected rubbish bins. This means that very little of the rubbish remains inside the original receptacle but rather is scattered in the vicinity. And when it does get collected, only that which remained in the bin gets removed, leaving piles of filth and stink on many corners.
The lack of internet was annoying but less of an issue than I thought it would be. The adoption of the French attitude to smoking (including at meal tables) was more of an issue than I thought it would be. But the people are wonderful. There is virtually no crime, no drugs, no guns just sunshine and sea breezes.
Propaganda (anti US) remains high to this day. Billboards are filled with images of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara and words like viva la revolution are commonplace, especially in the country areas.
And of course there are the cars…