For the oldies that want to reminisce and for the young ‘uns that want a real time history lesson, you could do worse than booking a flight to Cuba. After arriving at Havana airport in the dark, it would appear that there’s no such thing as a taxi rank here. It’s pissing rain, it’s been a long day, and all we want to do is get our heads on a pillow. Taking note that the official looking taxis and the classic car taxis were pretty much taking anyone anywhere whilst trying to extract as much as they can, we lobbed up to the curb and tried the same. Not achieving the desired outcome we finally find out that there are two plain clothed ladies taking bookings in this pandemonium. Meeting up with an English couple, we jumped up the list and saved some ‘CUC’s’ at the same time.
Eventually finding the prebooked ‘casa particular’, cheap because they’d obviously scrimped on the signage, we found that the place was fully booked and we needed to walk a little further around to his sister’s house. ‘Casa particulares’ are a government initiative to allow residents that would otherwise not have any access to the hard currency of the CUC (suppose it keeps crime low too). Kind of glad we did. His sister’s place was loads nicer and they offered to cook us breakfast for 2 CUC (2 USD) each. The ladies that run it (we presumed illegally as they had no official signage) were stupendously accommodating. Immediately following the pleasantries and introductions heads rapidly met the pillows and it was lights out.
Confusingly Cuba is on a dual currency, with the locals mostly using the Cuban Convertible Peso, which at the time we were there had an exchange rate of about 26 -1. The banks won’t give you CUP’s so ask your casa host who will usually change a few for you, or go to a money exchange office. Considering you can buy croquets on the street for 1 CUP (0.02 GBP!) it’s worth having a handful of notes.
Next morning after a great feed of fresh fruit, boiled eggs and toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, all washed down with OJ and top quality Cuban coffee, it was back around to the original casa (the sister warned us that if we stayed another night with her the brother would certainly angrily not approve, demonstrated by her charade of fisty cuffs). Bags dumped we headed for the locals bus station, yeah one of those that you’re warned not to catch. Waiting for too long, we decided to flag down a taxi instead, to take us over to the Viazul bus station to purchase bus ticket to Vinales for the next day (you can do this online, though good luck, it’s a nightmare).
Pulling up to the station Sarah realised that she’s left the cash back in the room, smart one. Scraping just enough to get us the tickets we head back towards the centre of town, Sarah grabbing some cash at the ATM whilst Matt and our driver Julio talk and admire his car. A bright blue renovated 1950’s Chevy, minus door trims and various other internal ‘luxuries’, the beast had a Mercedes engine in it that went like the clappers, without one plume of cough inducing black diesel smoke. Not to mention the banging sound system.
Departing Julio and his sweet ride in the city center, the tourist office on Obispo is a short walk from City Hall, the theater and Parque Central. Passing a number of dudes with boards full of sunglasses, considering loading up on a couple of pairs, as this is one of the best places in Central America we found to buy them. Grabbing a map we headed over to the Chinatown gate which, apparently, no longer has any Chinese living there.
Approached by a young fun looking local couple, they soon invited us to a ‘free music/dance’ festival that was on ‘just around the corner’. The male says to Matt ‘It’s free entry and it’s on all day.’ The female to Sarah ‘The Buena Vista Social Club is playing there.’ Well we’d done our research and knew the various scams that are prevalent in Havana. This such one goes – funky couple entices you and your girl to come see a free concert and they’re only in town for the night (generally the Buena Vista Social Club, all of whom are now dead). They get you in there and get you to buy their drinks, on the pretense that you were lucky to get in (or they’ll tell you later they have no money). Prices are hyper inflated and you end up paying, with them getting a cut of the money. This actually happened twice in our visit and is a common one, but we weren’t stupid enough to go with them.
For the refined cigar smoker, no trip would be complete without a visit to one of Havana’s cigar factories. Choosing Partagas as it was closer than the Romeo y Juieta Cigar Factory, we entered to a dimly lit bar stocked full with brown sticks of tobacconess. You’ll find it pleasantly clear aired in there, due to what would have to be the world’s most efficient extraction system, as first timers, fat old men and aficionados alike puffed away. Not actually seeing the process as we were saving it for a farm tour, it was interesting all the same.
Hearing that there was a Cuban microbrew in town and walking down the pedestianised Obispo, well dug up and in a bit of a state, we wound our way to Plaza Vieja and the La Taberna de La Muralla. Set in a beautiful square, it’s a perfect way to spend the afternoon whilst the resident Cubana band livens up the mood. Well, until the heavens opened up and the outdoor patrons cascade into the bar.
Whilst enjoying a nice cold beer we were presented with a great little sketch of Matt, complete with tattoos, by a local guy sitting just across from us. Asking for only 1 CUC (about $1) we obliged. Pretty good huh? Sticking with the dark Obscura beer (the other being Claro) we soon meet another fellow traveler who’s set herself up in Havana for a few months.
Deciding to move on with lone traveler in tow, we decided to hunt out the birth place of the Mojito. Taking the long way around along the water front, we admired the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana across the Canal de Entrada (real original). Hooking a left on the required street amongst the the street vendors and performers we arrived at La Bodeguita del Medio. Disputably the home of the Mojito is a tourist hotspot, though interesting all the same. Her walls speckled with peoples scrawling’s and adhoc pictures adorning the walls added to the atmosphere, all to a background soaked in live Cubana music. From the balcony window table on the first floor you can watch the street performers and audience, and this has to be the best location to do so.
After finishing our not-so-cheap mojitos we took a short walk to another bar which we’d been handed a flyer for earlier. With happy hour cocktails at dirt cheap prices and a small plant adorned courtyard out back, the Art Pub on Brasil (between Aguacate and Compostela) is a great evening choice. Another drink later, we called it a night and headed back to the casa to read books.
Get your Cuba photo fix on our Flickr site here.
Also if you’re planning a trip to Cuba, check out these guys website at Cuba Junky, really useful information from travel to money to food, it’s all here for you!