Let me start by saying I did like the buildings.
A few months ago after reading a few blogs and a lonely planet magazine which had included a helpful list of countries that it deemed a mistake not to visit this year, Cuba appeared on our radars. It was actually Steph who first brought up the idea.
“Its a good time to hit it.” She told me, and rightly so, as the trusty guidebooks and travel behemoths so sagely preached in their various publications. Cuba took over 4 million tourists in 2016, a mind-blowing figure, double what is had ten years ago. Now the country was open to the USA for the first time in decades and it was expected to bring in 1.4 million new American tourists this year alone. With upscale hotel rooms increasing prices by 120% over the last two years alone, things are undeniably changing in Cuba. Though we couldn’t fly direct from Chicago, a layover at Miami seemed straightforward enough, then a one hour jaunt to the island would get us there to see it first hand.
So the research began, and what an exciting prospect! Stupidly cheap mojitos with strong cuban rum, delicious Cuban cuisine, French and Spanish architecture to marvel at, with the added spectacle of a city falling into ruin after half a century of economic exile. 1950’s cars miraculously still purring, salsa dancing in the bars all night long and some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. I started to wonder why Cuba hadn’t been on my hit list already, after all, being British meant I could have visited anytime. I began to get so excited I contemplated quitting my job and just going the following day.
That urge was dutifully curtailed however by our first facial slap of the Cuba experience.
Though no real visa is required for Cuba travel, the country have invented what they term a ‘travel card’ to gain entry. This useless paper exercise goes as follows; you pay $50 per application, this money (I naively persuaded myself) must go towards the country’s improving infrastructure, perhaps healthcare or schools. Perhaps my hard earned cash would prevent some young Cubano from a life of Mojito and Cigar addiction. Fine I thought, you then have to pay $25 per card for the privilege of applying. Mildly perturbed I began to wonder how a company can tell you you must have something, then when you try to get it, be charged for your interest in the subject. This fee was clearly going to the airline who organize it. When they followed this by adding a huge delivery fee I almost cancelled the trip. In the end it cost $200 for the cards, which officially only cost $50 each. Math has never been a strength of mine, but even I could see things didn’t add up here.
We flew early on a cold Chicago morning in April. I couldn’t believe how much I wanted sun on my skin. The flight to Miami and then on to Cuba was uneventful and swift. After we landed and hopped off the airplane, the first job would be currency exchange. Cuba has a curious dual currency system. Locals use the Pesos, termed CUP. Meanwhile if a tourist attempts to pay, they are charged in CUC and customarily ripped off. The purpose is essentially to allow tourists to access upscale goods with the CUC being 1:1 with the US Dollar, whilst the government can pay locals in CUP, worth 25 times less. It actually has real repercussions for the nation, for example, many well educated Cubans, doctors, lawyers etc. are leaving their jobs to work as tour reps, or to open Casas as it means they get paid by tourists in this far more lucrative currency. The biggest issue to us is that neither currency is used off the island and american bank cards don’t function over there. The end result, you bring in money in Euros or Canadian Dollars, convert once you’re there and if you run out of cash, you starve!
We headed to the first currency exchange window we could see. With nobody in line we bounded up.
“Hola! Could I convert this please?” I presented my conservative cash wad.
“Down” he said, waving me off.
Steph and I turned in confusion, baffled by the curt reposes and lack of direction. We haplessly wandered downstairs and eventually out of the airport to see the currency exchange out front. My eyes slowly widened as I noted a line of perhaps a hundred people, all waiting for a counter with a single man on the till. It dawned on me immediately that the country was seriously ill prepared for its 5 million expected visitors, though with two other windows turning people away, it seemed more like they just didn’t care.
We somehow organized a cab to drive us to Havana and take some euros instead of CUC. We knew we should be able to find a bank in town and make the rest of the currency conversion that evening. The drive was short, and though our cab driver had to stop twice to ask locals where to go, we eventually arrived in a Havana back street blocking about eight cars, two bikes and a man pulling a cart of curious looking foods.
To experience ‘real Cuba’ and save money, the blogs and guides we’d read suggested staying in an Air BnB or what the Cuban’s call Casas. Mostly they seem to be families who rent out a room and shower. They work out at around $30 a night or close to it and certainly play a part in lowering your trip costs, plus the premise is you get to mix with real local people. Cuba is changing rapidly and the rules regarding personal freedoms are beginning to alter with it. Cuban’s were only given the right to run these privately owned Casas in the last few years so this could be the most acute insight into cuban life that you’re likely to get.
Our host, Ivis wandered into the dark front room of her casa to meet us. As she hustled toward us she reeled off a lengthy string of sentences in Spanish (which sent me back to my middle school language lessons with Frau Kallow) and I felt the panic rise. Steph jumped in and showed a lot more ingenuity than I, miraculously deciphering the odd word here and there, turning the ghost of Kallow’s flailing hand gestures into rough translations. I couldn’t believe how she was gaining any understanding! Steph nodded, responded with similar gestures and the odd words, again somehow getting the message across as I stood trying to decipher if they were debating the quantum mechanics of black holes or where to by a ham sandwich.
Ivis was lovely, she actually exchanged our money from american dollars into the local currency right on the spot, pulling out a wad of hundreds of dollars to do so, business was clearly booming. Over 4,000 new rooms were added to Airbnb in 2016, who knows how many more will open in the coming years. The accommodation was simple, a room with a double bed, a shower and a fridge, however we did have the ability to wander onto their communal balcony and look out onto a classic cuban street scene.
We got a quick but desperately needed shower and hit the streets. Havana is, at least superficially, what you think it will be. As we walked out of our building and headed north toward the malecon, where we’d heard the locals gather in the evening to watch the sunset, I marveled at the architecture and the sumptuous gritty decay all around us. As we walked I began to wonder about why this dilapidation is such a draw, and if Cuba would get anywhere near as many tourists without it. For my part, the image of Cuba that I took in with me was the old colonial buildings and classic cars. I suppose i’d never really thought about why, but that was the only image I had of Cuba, that and cigars. I settled on the notion that it was simply unique. Sure there are places in the world with older buildings, but they aren’t crumbling down so consciously. There are old classic cars elsewhere in the world, but they don’t line streets with such density, and of course there are cities in the world which have crumbled to the ground, but they don’t still have a population living in them. The best way I can describe it is to say that it feels like you’re walking through a densely populated ghost town.
When we hit the oceanfront we were halted in our tracks by a road that appeared to have been designed with mass tourist execution in mind. Cars were flying past in both directions over multiple lanes and as we scanned east and west we saw no semblance of a crossing in either direction. Without warning a couple of a similar age to ourselves motioned out into traffic to our right. They didn’t hurry or hustle, they just casually walked. My mouth dropped open, they were smoothly gliding between vehicles as if the cars were merely a holographic training exercise. They made it to the other side without incident, and my attention fell back to our own attempt. No crossings, no traffic lights, no breaks in which to hastily maneuver across, I still believe the Avenida de Maceo to be a method of population control.
The malecon is nice; its a long stretch of sea front bordered by a hefty sea wall on which you can situate yourself with a beer in hand whilst observing the sunset. Bright oranges will light up the decrepit remains of the once great waterside mansions and people will mingle in a scene that seems to feel oddly melancholy and romantic. You could spend an evening right here on a nice night.
We did not. After twenty minutes or so a curious looking fellow with a air of mischief about him walked right up to us, he uttered something in spanish then went to grab Steph’s beer right from her hand. “No!” we shouted as if telling off a bad dog. In complete shock we simply stared at the man for a few moments, he then made a second attempt for the semi consumed bottle. We swatted our assailant away once more and off he trotted to the next couple he could see. “Well I’m good to move on if you are?” I said sarcastically.
We headed to Chacon street, to a bar restaurant called Chacon 162, a pleasant enough establishment in a cute alleyway with a cobbled street and nice feel. The food was mediocre but at this point we were still far too excited to let it bother us. Mojitos were cheap, though we waited about half an hour for a server to acknowledge our presence each time we ordered, to the extent that I believe my blood alcohol level was lower upon leaving than upon arriving.
We ended the night by heading to one of Cuba’s most famous bars; (home of the daiquiri according to our guide book) La Floridita. Opened in 1817 with the name “La Piña de Plata” (The Silver Pineapple) it changed its name after the owner was persuaded by north american tourists. Writer Ernest Hemingway frequented the bar and this helped make its name. I enjoyed the drinks while a couple of dancers entertained the guests ate the doorway, before coming around for cash moments later. It was a lively hang out, full of tourists but somehow kept a friendly and relaxing atmosphere. We left a little later feeling fairly inebriated and made our way back to the room for the night.
The next two days we spent exploring the city. We walked everywhere, ignoring the constant ‘taxi!’ shouts from men semi-demanding we quit seeing their lovely streets and instead pay an extortionate amount of money to miss it all. We strolled from cafe to street market to museum to cathedral to rum tour. I smoked cuban cigars and drank coffee whenever possible and felt completely and totally… disappointed.
Havana isn’t an inherently awful place, it has quaint squares, warm weather and plentiful access to alcohol. But here’s the thing, non of the things are unique to Cuba, and non are that good or substantially less expensive when compared to just about anywhere else. The squares feel like something from Spain or Italy only not as nice, old or friendly. The buildings are interesting but the same applies. Drinks are okay but not great and the food is flavorless and made us both sick within three days.
When it comes to the food, lower your expectations, it’s really not a trip highlight. We’d read about delicious cuban cuisine and I’d enjoyed great cuban food here in the states. No no no. One of our daily grinds was finding a place to eat which served something more than rice and beans with either plain fish or shredded beef (ropa vieja). A standing joke in Cuba is “what are the three biggest failures of the Revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” You are not going to put on weight. Cuba has been using the ‘ration book’ for the last 50 years, with every citizen being supplied the appropriate amount of food to remain healthy, one of its major issues is that its 50 years out of date and notable missing items include green vegetables and spices, thus the modern food is l