Friday, 12th December
We arrived into Panama City Tocumen Airport around 4am and being so early everything was shut, including the Copa Airlines lounge which we were hoping to gain access to. We had to wait around for an hour or so in the air conditioned fridge-like temperatures of the main terminal before they opened up the lounge at around 5am. I didn’t think we would get in this time as our next flight was economy class, not business class like the last flight. I just played dum though and said we had just come off a business class flight which was true and they let us in. We snacked on some breakfast items they had in there and whiled down the time until we had to board for our flight to Havana, Cuba, at around 7am. All in all we didn’t feel too bad from the overnight flight before and this flight was only around two hours so we were hopeful we could arrive in Cuba feeling okay and not like a pair of zombies.
We landed in Havana at around 10:30am to applause from our fellow passengers (we found this a bit odd) after flying in over the turquoise and blue oceans of the carribean. Havana airport is fairly small and as expected looks outdated and smells like cigar smoke. Immigration was relatively simple, although perhaps the most suspicious looking immigration officials we have had so far. We got our entry stamp, collected our luggage and passed through customs without any dramas.
The first thing to do was to change some Euros we had brought with us into the local currency, Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). You get a better rate for Euros here, US Dollars attract an extra 10% tax so we would try and use only the Euros. I had changed enough for our trip whilst in Santiago. With some CUC’s in our pocket we caught a taxi for the 20 minute ride to Havana old town, where our accomodation is located, for 25CUC. On the drive in there were so many 1950’s cars on the roads. I had heard about this but thought it was merely a tourist thing in central Havana and wasn’t expecting to see so many driving around out here. As such the exhaust was choking and black fumes could be seen pumping out of the back of these old cars, some in better condition than others. We had a definite sense of coming back to the carribean, similar to being in Belize in not only the look but also the general attitude of the people. That laid back, it’ll happen, way of life. Our driver arrived at our accomodation, ‘Casa Colonial 1717’, after stopping twice for directions. The roads around here are seemingly in a constant state of repair although no-one is around working on them. It looks like they got started then moved on to start another project before finishing the one they had started in the first place. All the buildings are as expected, pale stone half falling apart and colonial in style. It’s a very picturesque part of the city. Our accomodation is typically colonial with high ceilings and very airy inside. The ‘Casas Particulares’ you stay in, in Cuba, are basically family homes with rooms to let. It is one of the few private enterprises allowed albeit with a hefty tax to the government.
Havana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the continent becoming a stopping point for the treasure laden Spanish Galleons on the crossing between the New World and the Old World. King Philip II of Spain granted Havana the title of City in 1592 and walls as well as forts were built to protect the old city. Contemporary Havana can essentially be described as three cities in one: Old Havana, Vedado, and the newer suburban districts. The city is the centre of the Cuban Government.
After checking in and having a quick shower the security guy from our casa showed us somewhere for lunch which happened to be just over the road, ‘Las Estaciones’. It was a nice lunch, I had half a chicken, fried, and Kirsty had some fish, both coming with casava chips, rice and salad. We took our time, happy to rest for a while with the effect of the overnight flight starting to kick in. Next we had some interneting to do for our next accomodation so we set about trying to find an Internet cafe. This proved more difficult than we had expected, partly because everywhere we had been before had wifi coming out their ears. We found an information centre and asked them. We were told that the hotels are the best places, where you can access a wifi network after buying an access card. Other than that here are state run telecommunication agencies that are cheaper but have lines down the street.
We walked to the fancy ‘Parque Central Hotel’ and found the business centre where we paid 8CUC (around USD10) for one hour of access. Definitely the most we have paid for Internet on the trip so far. The hotel smelled of cigar smoke and was hazy from those indulging in this activity. We managed to connect to the Internet but were unsuccessful in paying for the accomodation so after sending an email to this effect, went on our way.
We walked down the main pedestrian street, ‘Obispo’, which was clearly where all the tourist activity is. There were the banks, souvenir shops and restaurants along this street. We walked all the way down its length to near the water where there is a square from where you can see the castle ‘Castillo De La Real Fuerza De La Habana’. You really get a sense of the history in this place from all old buildings. They use old cannons as bollards everywhere, clearly there is an abundance of colonial ordinance here. We think we are going to try and take some kind of walking tour to get the background on Havana and Cuba in general. We have no guide books and the Internet is not that easy to get onto so our access to knowledge is limited, as is our spanish which doesn’t help matters.
We were both feeling tired by now so we went back to our hotel for a nap for around two hours. Afterwards, feeling very groggy, we got up and went for another wander, this time in the darkness. It is an even more atmospheric place at night with the streetlights and beautiful buildings lit up all around us. We found a large square (Plaza Vieja) and a cafe (Cafe Bohemia) to have a small dinner at. It is actually quite cold here at night, once the sun goes down, so after sitting outside by the square initially, we moved inside for some warmth. It was quite quiet everywhere, before finding this cafe we walked around a fair bit trying to find where everyone was gathering. It seems as though everyone is spread out thinly though. Definitely ready for bed by now and not feeling too bad about it being too early we wandered back to our ‘casa’ and crawled into bed. Melissa and Lauren will be arriving tomorrow afternoon followed by Bec and Doug at night to officially start our Cuban adventure. We were glad to have a day of recovery before they got here.
Saturday, 13th December
Our second day in Cuba began with breakfast in our casa. We had tea, coffee, fruit, eggs and bread. A good way to start the day. Before we headed out to try and access the internet again we had to charge the computer so whilst waiting around we found some rocking chairs and read. The house cat, a ginger Tom who I learned had no name, found a warm spot on my lap and purred away until we got up to leave. We had trouble getting onto the Internet from our computer at the hotel, the simple things we took for granted everywhere else on our trip here are a bit of a challenge. There was a computer lounge though so we sat there sorting out some stuff.
With the emailing out of the way we found the information centre again to ask about bus tickets to Trinidad, our next destination in a couple of days. It turned out that the only way to buy them was directly from the bus station and with travelling two days from now we were advised to buy them today. So, we caught a taxi so the Viazul bus station. The taxi was an old Lada and our driver, Israel, showed us some sights on the way and on the way back. It’s a good way to see parts of the city you wouldn’t otherwise see, just hanging out in the old parts of Havana. We saw the Revolution Square, giant murals of revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, various government buildings, the hospital where Diego Maradona was famously treated for his cocaine addiction, the national library, the University of Havana, a wooded area (unsure of the significance), the massive city cemetery and a statue of Jose Marti. Jose Marti is a Cuban national hero and an important figure in Latin American literature. In his short life, he was a poet, an essayist, a journalist, a revolutionary philosopher, a translator, a professor, a publisher, and a political theorist. Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol for Cuba’s bid for independence against Spain in the 19th century, and is referred to as the ‘Apostle of Cuban Independence’. From adolescence, he dedicated his life to the promotion of liberty, political independence for Cuba, and intellectual independence for all Spanish Americans. His death was used as a cry for Cuban independence from Spain by both the Cuban revolutionaries and those Cubans previously reluctant to start a revolt.
The bus station was small and I get the impression this is where tourists take buses from, there is another much larger bus station for locals. We queued up and bought our tickets from a lady sitting at what looked like a bbc micro computer working off ms-dos and printing on a dot matrix printer. We bought the tickets for everyone, all six of us. Luckily we didn’t need our passports as we sometimes have when buying tickets. We could only buy tickets from Havana here though, we would have to buy our onward tickets from the bus station in Trinidad when we got there. I assume it’s becomes there are few Internet links here and she wouldn’t be able to tell what seats would be available for that journey. Our driver waited for us whilst we bought our tickets and gave us a ride back to the Parque Central area showing us some more sights on the way, stopping for the odd photo here and there.
Once back in the old town we went back to ‘Las Estaciones’ for lunch where we could watch out for Melissa and Lauren arriving at our casa opposite. I ordered the ‘Cuban sandwich’ and had a couple of ‘Cristal’ beers (better than the ‘Bucanero’ I had yesterday which tasted very much like the metal can it came in). Kirsty had the shrimp and some rum.
Having not seen Melissa and Lauren arrive we left the restaurant and waited in the hotel. About five minutes later there was a knock at our door and they were here. After a brief reunion we let them sleep for a couple of hours before dinner. In this time I checked out some places to go in the evening and found a bar called ‘La Bodeguita del Medio’ which was where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out and drink mojitos. For dinner we went to a place called ‘Hanoi’ that served not Vietnamese food as the name suggests but carribean creole food. It was good food, Melissa and Lauren had lobster, I had a creole rice dish not unlike paella and Kirsty the pork chops. We also had a couple of mojitos, this is Cuba after all. We then thought a drink at a bar would be in order so we headed to ‘La Bodeguita del Medio’. This place is tiny inside and they have a salsa band taking up half the space in there so you can only really fit around ten people at a time. We went in and stood awkwardly right next to the band before a space came up next to the bar. We ordered a round of mojitos and paid the exorbitant price for drinking in this famous bar. We would later learn this was about double the price. The band was fantastic, belting out salsa tunes and even covering an Enrique Inglesias tune that has become the unofficial track of our trip due to its ubiquity everywhere. A few couples got up and danced but there was only enough space for one couple at a time. You were so close to the band from anywhere in the bar that it was a little awkward, especially when you made eye contact with someone singing and shaking maracasas. The drinks were good. Everyone here drinks mojitos and the bartender has a steady supply ready with the mint and lime already in the glasses lined up waiting for an order upon which he adds the final ingredients and serves them up. The rum of course is ‘Havana Club’ here. We left after a couple of drinks with Bec and Doug due to arrive shortly so decided to wait up in the lobby of our casa until they got here which they did at around midnight. After another reunion we crashed out ready to explore Havana together tomorrow. Kirsty of course went to bed rather excited.
Sunday, 14th December
We all got up and had our breakfast in the casa around 9am. It was nice to have a big group for breakfast, today would be our first day all together. Before we headed out I had to change some more Euros for Cuban Pesos so I went with Doug to the ‘Cadeca’ on Obispo. This is the state-run bureau de change. There was a line this morning and after waiting my turn I changed a good chunk of cash to keep us going for the next few days. There is a sense of uncertainty here with regards to ready access to cash so it pays to have a stash somewhere. After going back to the casa and leaving the cash in the lockable cupboard in our room we all headed out for a wander about old Havana. We strolled down ‘Obispo’, the main pedestrianised street, and got all the usual hassle along the way from tour guides, restaurantaurs and souvenir shop proprietors. We walked down to the ‘Plaza des Armes’ and after checking out some of the goods at the small flea market there chatted to a horse and carriage tour guide about the possibility of going as a six on one of their tours. We were keen and as it turned out we could go as a six with one of us sitting up front with the driver. We walked on a bit further and had a look at the cathedral sitting beside another plaza (‘Plaza de la Cathedral’) before deciding to take the horse and carriage tour. We walked back to the area with the horses and the guy we had spoken to previously was not there but we found another, Alejandro. We set off on our 1-2 hours tour which would take us around various squares and buildings of old Havana and other areas with markets and more recent buildings. The highlights were getting a round of takeaway mojitos from the Havana Club rum factory, walking through an everyday fruit, vegetable and meat market, visiting a cigar factory and seeing the architecture including ‘El Capitolio’ built to resemble the Capitol building in Washington DC and a very impressive railway station. It’s a very picturesque city and this was a great way to see it. Alejandro was on the ball and didn’t dilly dally as he took us around. It was intetesting also to get the perspective from a Cuban on their government and day to day life in this fascinating country.
We finished up the tour at a restaurant and, being lunch time, Alejandro took us to a place, not that cheap, but somewhere we could try local food, ‘El Guajirito’. It was good but not overwhelmingly so. Cuban cuisine, or what we’ve had so far, isn’t that inspiring to be honest. Very central American in the meat, rice and bean combinations. We had the ‘ropas viejas’ beef dish, translating literally as ‘old clothes’ but basically pulled beef, a mashed plaintain and pork-rind dish to accompany, which was nice and some tamales. To drink we had a local cocktail (we opted for the non-alcoholic version) called ‘guajiro’. We were within a walkable distance of our ‘casa’ here and on the way back went to the ‘Parque Central’ hotel for some more Internet time. After stopping off to change clothes at the ‘casa’, putting on something warmer as it was getting into the evening, we headed out to a rooftop bar, ‘La Moneda Cubana’, for a couple of drinks before heading to another rooftop bar for another drink. The second bar was on the roof of a hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived whilst in Cuba called Hotel Ambos Mundos. They love Hemingway here and he is definitely used a lot in the tourist game as a way to lure you into places. On the way to the hotel a gentleman escorted us into and up the rickety old elevator to the rooftop bar. Initially we thought he was with the hotel but it turned out he was a tout with tours to sell and after ten awkward minutes of him sitting with us at the table he got the message and left us alone to find another target. There’s a lot of people here who pose as helpers but really they want to sell you something or get a free drink. It gets a little tiring after a while.
For dinner we opted for the same place we went to last night (‘Hanoi’) and had various dishes of carribbean creole food. It’s a good place with tasty food for a good price and coming back a second time got us extra portions so it paid off. We hung around there for a couple of hours before deciding to head back to the casa after a busy day of sightseeing and cocktails. On the way back we grabbed a couple of cans of the local brew, ‘Bucanero’, from a hole in the wall convenience store to drink whilst playing a few hands of monopoly deal before bed.