9 – 11 February 2013
I got up 6.30 and had a quick shower, breakfast and internet-check – allegedly internet in Cuba is rare and expensive (USD 10 per hour) and where it exists, it's slow or not working at all. A short walk to the bus saving USD 27 for a taxi to the airport. I took the chance flying Bahamasair despite the worrying internet reviews – severe delays, no information, rude staff, crappy planes, lost luggage, etc. And yes we were 45 minutes late but otherwise it was fine – no problem when saving USD 350. Immigration was easy and I took the chance of asking for a Cuban stamp in my passport being convinced that only Americans get in trouble visiting the country. A bit strange we had to go through security as if we were departing but I guess it's a way of controlling what come into the country. While waiting for take-off in Bahamas I talked to a Norwegian guy who had booked a package in Havana, so I got ride into town with him instead of paying the fixed taxi price of USD 20.
Hotels are fully or majority owned by the government and fairly expensive compared to the quality and living standard in Cuba – the alternative is staying in private homes, so-called casas which are usually between USD 15-25 per room. In Havana I had booked a room the day before arrival but when I got there, the room was not available because the girl in the room had her bag with all valuables including her passport stolen and therefore had to stay until things were sorted out. The woman suggested a friend's place around the corner which turned out to be okay though a bit ecxpensive but it included breakfast and I could use the kitchen to cook my own meals which was a big plus.
Havana is in many ways built with the west as a model e.g. the Capitolio as a replica of the Capitol in Washinton DC and wide streets like Paris - though there is very little traffic except for the city centre. Despite the limited traffic Havana is extremely polluted (smoke and noise) from old Eastern European and American cars/trucks which reduced the joy of walking around – in the West we often forget what a difference the exhaust filtres make.... this was a good reminder. Another source of pollution is of course the cigars (and cigarettes) – if you can't stand smoke don't go to Cuba! People smoke everywhere – nobody seems to know or care about passive smoking. But otherwise people were friendly and Havana is (as expected) not close to being as dangerous as some people make it. I walked everywhere – including some very poor neighbourhoods – without experiencing anything but greetings, smiles and occational curious looks. Actually the non-touristic areas were great because no-one hassled me – and even the touts (jinteros) in the tourist areas were far from as agressive as I had been told/read beforehand. Walking around town a whole day less than 10 vendors addressed me and they all gave up after 1-2 “no gracias”. Most of them selling cigars (or other “tobacco”), guided trips or trips around the city in old American convertibles.
The first afternoon I spent walking around getting acquainted with the neighbourhood and shopping food and a few other necessities - supermarkets (not really “super” - only a few things to buy like in the Soviet Union years ago) are expensive as in Europe and paid in convertible pesos called CUC (1 CUC equals 1 USD except for a 3% government exchange tax). Local food, fruit and vegetables, etc. bought from street vendors and small shops however are paid in local pesos (moneda national) and very cheap.
The next day I went sightseeing in the centre seeing the Capitolio, plazas and parks many with statues of famous Cubans and of course the Museo de la Revolucion. The latter turned out to be a weird experience – a beautiful building but the museum itself was a lot of random artifacts and photos without a storyline (I later realised that all Cuban museums are like this). Afterwards I walked along the Malecon (the main road along the ocean) to the old town where I admired the many beautiful old churches and buildings, enjoyed the bustling life at the plazas and got lost in countless cosy, small alleys away from the main tourist areas – Havana is a big city but walking around it feels very provincial. Somehow I also got into Museo de la Ciudad without knowing or paying – I jumped a rope to take some pictures in a beautiful courtyard and when nobody said anything I explored the premises.... nice old building, furniture, etc. and a bit of city history.
The next day I walked west to Vedado - a less visited part of Havana (especially by foot). On my 20k walk I saw the University area located in several beautiful old buildings, Plaza de la Revolucion and the Memorial Jose Marti, the huge cemetary with a Columbus memorial (though only from the outside since it was 5 CUC to enter) and then back to the centre along the Malecon with its many monuments and worn down apartment buildings.
23 February 2013 and assessment of Cuba
The bus left Camaguey 45 minutes late at 11.30pm - fortunately only half full so I got two seats which meant a bit more room for the night. Again it was really cold despite fleece and a woolen sheet! I usually don't sleep well in any kind of transportation but here it was impossible. One of the driver's decided to give a ride to a young girl (no ticket of course) and so the first 3-4 hours they kept talking loudly. When they changed drivers he put her in the seat in front of me and was hanging over her, whispering, groping etc..... Anyway, I got a nap the last hours before we arrived in Havana at 7.30am. I shared a taxi to the centre with a Swedish couple and quickly found the casa from last I was in Havana – and there an available room. I had seen most things already and only considered visiting the Capitolio, however it was closed due to maintenance and so I had nothing particular to do except clarifying my accommodation-situation when arriving in Cayman Islands. The cheapest guesthouse I could find was around USD 100 and had poor recommendations, but one of the couchsurfer's – who couldn't host me – accepted storing some stuff so I could rent a bicycle and camp out. Otherwise the day was spent walking around town, buying groceries, doing laundry, relaxing and talking to a Sharon and Stefan – two other guests at the casa. With little sleep the night before ands still struggling with a sore throat I went to bed early.
To sum up Cuba it really wasn't as fantastic as everybody had told me and what I had expected. I don't have the feeling of having seen the real Cuba and meeting the local Cubans. The reason being that I had to take the tourist buses leaving me in tourist cities with Cubans very used to foreigners. Should I visit Cuba another time the solution would be to rent a car and visit more remote areas of the country – I'm sure they still exist many places. Staying at the casas was also disappointing – yes I got to meet some local families, and though most of them were really nice I was always treated as a customer more than a guest e.g. staying in a dedicated part of the their house, eating by myself and not with the family, etc. - if allowed it could have been interesting staying in the casas hosting only Cubans. I did taste different kinds of rum of varying quality, but as I don't like smoking I decided not to try a Cuban cigar (rolled between the thighs of a Cuban girl – or is that just a saying?).