(I found this travel blog entry to be very well written and a great description of the typical tourist vacation in Cuba and from a women’s perspective. So, congratulations on a great trip and I hope those Cuban men didn’t scare you away from a second trip - Publisher)
from Beebs and Laura In Latin America | Trip Date: Sep 01 ‘07
Location: La Habana, Ciudad de la Habana
We left our beloved Playa for the last time and had a hectic last minute check-in at Cancun airport, and after an hour found ourselves in…Represent REPRESENT, CUBA! (these are lyrics from a famous song by Orishas which we couldn’t get out of our heads for the duration of our time in Cuba…that and ‘Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera’). Driving into Habana Vieja, the first of the Cuban clichés was confirmed – old 1950s Chevrolets in pastel colours cruised alongside us and ‘Viva Fidel/Che’ placards lined the streets. We arrived at our casa particular in a crumbling colonial street and chilled out with the air conditioning for a while before going to explore the area.
Casas particulares are one of the few legitimate manifestations of private enterprise in Cuba – they are similar to B&Bs in that people let out rooms in their house to tourists, but they are under strict regulations in terms of how many people can stay, what they can serve, etc. Our room was more of a penthouse apartment – quite luxurious, with a bathroom, AC and kitchen, but 10 times the price of the rest of the continent. This is to do with the dual currency system, introduced a few years ago, and which takes forever to get your head around…and really don’t think it makes sense at all. Tourists must only use the ‘peso convertible’ (referred to as the CUC), whereas Cubans can only use the peso nacional. The CUC is 25 times the value of the peso nacional, yet some things are given a price eg. a peso for a pizza, and the Cuban pays 1 national peso whilst the tourist pays 1 convertible peso (ie. 25 times more). Only Cubans who work with tourists have access to CUCs, and therefore to privileges such as internet use, modern cars or foreign travel (all priced in CUCs). The pricing of restaurants/hotels/taxis etc in CUCs in resort regions such as Varadero effectively excludes Cubans from beaches they’ve visited for years, and creates a weird climate of favourable treatment towards tourists (no queuing if you’re paying with CUCs for example). There are some occasions however when tourists get their hands on national money, as change when buying street food for instance, but outside of Cuba this is useless.
Our first steps in our barrio revealed that it was a bit of a ghetto…a couple of doors down was a shooting range shop with rifle-toting teens taking shots at tin cans. We wandered the area, amazed to find the cigar smoking grandmas from the postcards sitting in doorways, groups of men playing chess on the pavement, little impromptu dances and concerts in front rooms…before hunger overcame us and we stopped for a pizza. Rookie mistake…we were in one of the state-run restaurants (as opposed to a paladar – a home restaurant), and the food was appalling – greasy pizza and soggy pasta with raw uncooked pork, ketchup and fake cheese. Never again! To make up for this we went for mojitos on the roof terrace of Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived for a while, and saw a live band whose dancing rivalled Michael Jackson’s.
The next morning we visited the Capitolio, a huge governmental building resembling the White House, displaying various artworks in opulent halls. Bizarrely, it is one of the very few places in Havana where you can get on the internet. Everywhere signs advertised FREE informative tours on offer – ‘just ask the guides!’ No need – we were literally grabbed by a guide (‘¡ven! ¡ven!’) and pushed speedily into room after room with hardly any explanations (‘What does this fresco show?’ ‘It’s marble’), before being forced to cough up a couple of dollars for the service. Hmm. And all the guides (as would be the case in most museums we visited) were dressed up in über-tight miniskirts, fishnets and skimpy translucent white shirts, seductively made up…why??