Our first contact with Cuba confirmed our initial thoughts – it’s going to be much different than what we’ve experienced thus far.
Customs went pretty smoothly albeit with a little bureaucracy, which involved some unexplainable queues and delays in retrieving luggage that eventually came flying out from numerous carousals.
With entry visas and backpacks in hand we cashed in some Euros (USD isn’t the foreign currency of choice here for obvious reasons) for some CUCS. There are two currencies in Cuba – the convertible Peso (which is known as a CUC) is for the foreigner and the Cuban Peso is for the Cubans. The CUC is about valued at approximately 25 times the local Cuban Peso. A rough guideline is 1CUC equals NZD1.20.
Our taxi was a classic. Loaded to the gills with us, a driver, our meet and greet guy (whom we’d arranged prior to arrival) and all of our stuff. I’d like to describe it as a Lada type vehicle but the model/make was an unknown quantity, as it had no identifying marks on it. It was in desperate need of some TLC along with some seatbelts oh, and door handles, and window winders. In fact, it had little internal fit-out apart from seats and steering wheel. Welcome to Cuba.
The first thing we noticed during the eventful taxi ride from the airport to Old Havana was the cars. There were Fords, Chevys, and Buicks all from the 1950s. We had expected to see some on the roads but not the sheer volume. Some were in excellent condition, some not so good but it made a good talking point for the journey in.
For our time in Cuba we decided to stay at ‘Casa Particulares’ instead of hotels. Casas are government licensed guesthouses or bed and breakfasts. We felt it would be a great opportunity for us all to meet and get to know some locals. I had found Casa Maura on Trip Adviser and she is ranked number one in Havana. Her ranking didn’t disappoint. The house was spotless, breakfast fantastic and she couldn’t have done enough for us. The boys were a real hit and were given free roam of her home. We did get a fright when we first arrived however, as the casa was in an area I’d class as “up and coming”. Right opposite our casa was a few derelict buildings, people milling around and dogs and rubbish everywhere. To see the boys’ eyes was priceless. You could just see them thinking “bloody hell Mum and Dad, we have you dragged us now?” We needn’t have worried. It was a great location right on the cusp of the old town and central Havana and just a short stroll to the Malecon, which is Havana’s famous waterfront.
The beauty of staying in casas is that you get to talk with Cubans. You can hear about their struggles and their hope for the future. Raul Castro has about 2 years remaining as President and his expected successor is a man who is more liberal in his views especially with the West. Having said that, things are changing in Cuba, especially so in the last two years since Raul took over from Fidal, so the people are looking forward to a brighter future. I’m glad we are in Cuba now before it changes too much more.
We spent a lot of time just mooching around the old town. It’s full of charm, character and promise. There are beautiful colonial buildings that are in the process of renovation, some that have been renovated and some that definitely need renovating. The boys were once again a huge attraction with the locals and received attention wherever they ventured. I don’t think many blonde hair and blue-eyed Kiwi kids visit Havana often!
Old Havana does have its fair share of people trying it on. We did get talked into buying a mother some baby formula but baulked at a request to pay for a locals Internet access so he could email a mate in Wellington. A polite “no gracias” soon gets the point across and they move on to the next target. There was never any malice in it and we never felt unsafe in the city even when walking home late at night.
An afternoon mojito at the famous Hotel Nacional was the perfect respite from the heat. The Nacional boasts a fantastic alfresco bar with views over the gulf. It was also a popular hangout for Fidel and prior to that, the mafia in the 50s and 60s’, when they were made welcome in Cuba before Mr. Castro and company came to power. Another big plus of the Nacional is there were plenty of trees for active boys to climb whilst Mum and Dad boozed it up. Kids are welcome everywhere in Havana. Around the corner from the Nacional is the Hotel Havana Libre, which was the Hilton until Fidel made it his office to run the country from in the early years.
A taxi ride in a convertible ’56 Dodge along the Malecon was a real highlight for the boys. It was in excellent condition and was great just to cruise the 8km waterfront.
The Museum of the Revolution was high on my list. Trina kindly agreed to take the boys home while I went to see it. The museum traces Fidel Castro’s progress to power from his initial arrest to his arrival as “savior” of Cuba. It’s a fascinating story. The museum itself was once the Presidential Palace and the scene of a failed assignation attempt of the previous President. The bullet holes remain. Out the back of the museum is the boat that Fidel, Che and comrades left Mexico to start their campaign for power. I’m not a museum person but I really enjoyed this one. The fact that all the displays had an English description certainly added to the experience.
Havana is fantastic. Trina was skeptical when I originally added Cuba to our itinerary but we have all got something out of it. It is changing but you still see the local bread seller walking down the road with a cart full of fresh bread calling out and women who are living on the 3rd floor of an apartment passing pesos down via bucket and rope and the bread-man putting the goods into the bucket. It’s everyday drama of people just getting by. Havana is a people watching paradise. The boys adjusted really easily which I think is due to our casa, it was a home away from home. Brilliant!