The route from the airport to downtown La Habana is fully operated by the government. The tourist are first forced to exchange their pocket money for Cuban Convertibles (CUC) for rates dictated by everything else but free currency markets. I was exchanging from British Pounds and received 1.8CUC for 1GBP (if I went for dollars, I’d have to pay 10% commission for showing up with this unfriendly currency). The first attack at our wallets happened right at the taxi pick ups where agents squeeze foreigners into government taxis charging 20CUC for a ride to the centre. We insisted that there must be a cheaper way of doing this, but were proven wrong shortly after. At least we found this Russian Lada car from the 80s and paid 15CUC (5CUC less = each one of us saved 1.6CUC = less than 1GBP after some 20mins of hassle).
Cuba is also famous from friend-to-friend business relations, so the taxi driver was quick to recommend a friend’s Casa Particular, which is a Cuban version of hostels. In fact these are houses run by families appointed to this business by the government. One can always tell which ones they are ‘cause they present themselves with a blue mark on their door. From outside they look like an ordinary Cuban house (= worn down), but inside they are fully equipped and quite comfortable. Of course everything is owned and overseen by the government and in Habana one doesn’t need to worry about the prices as all Casas Particulares charge the same fee of 25CUC per room. Another rule, which no Cuban will break, is that only 2 people max. can stay in one room, so Andre (our Norwegian friend) had to stay in a different house from the one where we stayed.
I read a lot about Cuba in the Lonely Planet guide we bought for this trip, but still, Habana turned out to be a bigger surprise than expected anyway. One can probably never prepare for something so different. So yes, I took plenty of pictures of the 1950’s American cars. And yes, they are still running, as well as the Russian cars from 1980’s (including Lada and Moskwich). La Habana center offers plenty of beautiful historic sights ranging from huge palaces, cathedrals to forts and alongside that one can find a few tanks, land-to-land rockets and lots of propaganda at display. The first day we only did the Habana center tour including the view of the forts, stroll alongside the coastal area, Museum of Revolution and the Museum of Art, Plaza de 13 Marzo, El Capitolio, etc. People somehow figured we must have been millionaires (with backpacks) and kept on asking us for money and food. Unfortunately we couldn’t really feed everyone, so we decided conversely to feed no one instead.
We originally thought that it would have been a great idea to somehow obtain local Cuban Pesos, which the ordinary people use for purchases of ordinary goods (apart from meat for instance, which simply isn’t offered in stores). This idea soon turned slightly unrealistic as we were actually expected up front to pay with the hard currency – that is CUC – everywhere we went anyway.
Our family from Casa Particular also happened to be very entrepreneurial. I sometimes felt they would sell their daughter if they only could. Their scope of business included absolutely everything – i.e. booking a hotel in Varadero or Trinidad, car rentals, shopping, buses – just everything where one could make a buck. I developed a slight mistrust towards these people up front, so their info was since then taken with little credit.
Something very welcoming about La Habana are the women, who happen to be very fit and quite often also very beautiful. Guys definitely don’t get easily bored out there. Of course expectations were essentially raised in a matter of minutes and all three of us were suddenly ready to go clubbing, even happy to skip a few sights at its expense. Also the dinner had to be sorted quickly, which was an issue of its own again. It took us time to find a restaurant with sensible prices. Cuba is known for menus many pages long, but only a few items from it available. In our case only two or three meals were actually available, so we quickly made a choice – it wasn’t very hard – and ordered food ;o)) … The portions were miniature, but the environment built up by a live salsa band was highly appreciated, so we easily forget about leaving the place just a little less hungry than what we were upon arrival and left for our Casas Particulares.
It seemed to be a great deal of a problem to choose a club to go for, but Andre’s host-mom recommended a governmental chain of discos called Casa de la Musica. First I expected some kind of boring folk music being played there, but surprisingly the place was quite modern and music they played was very good. I specifically appreciated the Latino music called Reggaeton, which originates somewhere in Puerto Rico I guess.
The girls addressed us right on the way there. They had three reasons to speak to us, but none of them was simply friendship. They either asked us straight for money or for presents (beer, ticket to disco, etc.) or they wanted us to merry them. The last one is probably the most interesting reason. It is well known that many Cuban families live on money transferred to them by their relatives from abroad, and so the youths are encouraged to move out of Cuba and the only way to do it is to marry a foreigner. Maybe it’s also that they themselves don’t want to be there, but it’s still very remarkable. As none of my friends weren’t ready to either pay anyone, give presents or marry anyone, we arrived at the disco alone, and should we have decided to change our minds, plenty of opportunities to revert back to one of the three points listed above were present everywhere.
The Casa de la Musica was really fun. We danced and had a lot of fun. At one point, the entertainers went around the place and asked people which countries they were visiting from. I publicly admitted to be a foreigner and was promptly called onto the stage to perform in a dance contest. That was apparently a lost battle. As I also managed to drag my friend Andre on the dance floor too, the embarrassment could be shared. As we were then well established as extranjeros (foreigners), the girls’ attention intensified and all three of us got lured into buying drinks for the hope of building some friendships around the place. This was soon to be learnt as fault and we decided to never be stupid again …
Four o’clock in the morning seemed to be right time to go back to our casas. We also managed to meet two girls on the way out of whom one was good looking, smart and didn’t seem to expect gifts, money or marriage. We quickly got onto a friendly note and bought the girl a mango juice. This time it was not because she asked for it, but because we offered! Her friend was a bit annoying, so we decided to move on while Andre stayed behind. Before we left, we managed to get a promise out of her that she would show us some Habana in the afternoon.
Our first night sleep in Cuba was among the short ones. Since there was still plenty to discover in Habana, we only did some 5hrs of sleeping and met up at Andre’s place ready for further discoveries. Meanwhile our hosts set themselves a goal of finding us a rental car for the week. The whole plan blew into pieces some 2hrs later and cut out even more of our precious time that we wanted to spend touring the Cuban capital. Also our friend from early morning showed up to provide us with a guided tour, so we took her for lunch and then had her show us a few sights. I had to translate everything from Spanish to English, I was knackered as much as she was and my friends could probably hardly focus on what I was saying anywhere, so we decided to send her home with some money from us given as a gift intended to increase her standards of living (at least slightly).
The rest of Habana was a challenge. We were pretty much tired to do any walking, so the Habana Vieja (Old Habana) was suddenly finished in a matter of minutes, pictures were obtained and we returned back to our casas. The next stop was supposed to be Santa Clara, which is a town dedicated to the memorial of Ernesto Che Guevara. Che has a huge statue out there, which we wanted to see. Fortunately enough everyone decided to talk us out of it and said that it made much more sense to spend some 2hrs in Santa Clara and rather go straight to Trinidad, which we originally planned to be our next stop after Santa Clara. Good thing in Cuba, as we learnt shortly after, is that one can take so called Colectivos, which are normal taxis heading back to their original destination. These taxis stand around particular places and charge one the same rate as what we would have paid for the buses – 25CUC each (for about a 5hr ride). We thought for a while to be a great idea to take this fancy American open roof convertible all the way to Trinidad, but that would cost us about 3 times the amount we ended up paying, so the thought was quickly dismissed on the ground of insufficient funds. Our taxi instead was some kind of a Daewoo with a great built in fan screwed into the cockpit and a CD ROM providing the CD player capabilities sitting right below the fan. In Cuba, everything seemed to be possible then ;o)) …
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