Thanks for coming. First, a disclaimer: The photos and words that follow don’t really, fully, truly, madly, deeply describe what Cuba is – and not for lack of trying. It is without a doubt the most beautifully bizarre place we’ve been to, full of contradiction and home to some of the most genuine people around. For those who have set foot on these lands before us, you’ll surely agree, we too departed with more questions than which we arrived. For those who haven’t yet dabbled – now is the time to go to this dreammareish land before the West takes hold.
We’ll whizz past the fact that we spent a couple of pre-Cuba nights in Cancun out of necessity for admin completion and airport closeness – no resort ridden beaches or 2 for 1 tequilas for us. The Americano influence was a strong one, get ya fix at La Casa Del Whopper & Pizza Hut (the dine in PH restaurants still exist here – sigh, why did NZ ditch them?) and whip ya Benjamins outta your fanny pack cause you’ll be paying Western prices to match. That said, don’t assume that you might be able to buy an English Lonely Planet for Cuba in Cancun… such is the day and age of now that the e-copy turned out to be a blessing (you’ll get more spiderwebs than interwebs in Cuba, so pre-travel research is mandatory)
La Habana. From the short flight over and the first humid steps get go we knew we were someplace… special. Down into the concrete and red Soviet looking basement we lay eyes on the Cuban customs brigade: overwhelmingly female and full of sass. Clad in tan uniforms with skirts you wouldn’t get away with in high school, we were betting their fishnet stockings probably weren’t for warmth. Button up shirts bursting at the seams, their large hoop earrings flung from side to side as they looked their newest influx of touristas up and down. Jim even got a beckon, and dropped a sort of high pitch whimper. If looks could kill! Freshly manicured talons waved the metally-detectee wand about. We can only imagine what the work Christmas do is like.
Out the airport doors we made for a quick stop at the currency exchange to get our MXP into Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC). An hour and a half later we were still in line, our sanity saved only by the company of newfound Brit friends we’d met at our hostel in Cancun. This was the first of many situations that would frustratingly unfold without any real explanation or reason. Why were we waiting so darn long? Who is that old man who parked his walking stick in the rubbish bin while jumping the queue? And what did he trick us with in Spanish? In Cuba we were to learn that things just are the way they are, logical or downright ludicrous.
The currency system, for instance, a common cause of confusion: a dual system consisting of two currencies, the CUC, on par dollar for dollar with the $USD, mainly for use by tourists for hotels and meals at state-run restaurants, and the National peso, the system frequented by the locals. One CUC is worth about 25 National Pesos, enough to get a local 25 bus rides or 25 cups of refrescas. We’d heard it best to keep your wits about you on the transaction front…a sneaky tactic to be given your change in the wrong currency (and be careful for those with obviously less Spanish, the wrong change in the right currency). Oh yes, and don’t go thinking you can take our money outta the country thanks. What’s that? You want to convert what you have left back into Mexican peso before you go? I see you’ve waited in the line 45 minutes and probably have a plane to catch soon, but you know what, we’re out of pesos! … Euros? Nope! Oh here ya go, here’s some British pounds, but I don’t have enough for all your cash so you’ll just have to spend the remainder CUC in duty free. Bye! Thank the heavens for $4 duty free bottles of Havana Club!
A 40 minute, fast-paced taxi into the city with our heads out the window, craning at the buildings, the cars, the people, the hustling and bustling of a different world. Our driver screaming also out the window at victims who dared to cross the road in front of our taxi. For whatever reason (possibly legal?) tattoos are rare in Cuba, yet we did see many a sleeve – as in actual sleeve of fabric, tattoo design printed on it – worn by drivers, naturally sleeve always on the driver’s arm to get em some street cred. No match for our new English pal’s real sleeves and inked artwork which ended up getting him ten-fold “where are you from?” from street corner Joe Jinetiro.
For accommodation in Cuba ‘Casas Particulares’ are the way to go – staying in a Cuban family’s home with a bed and breakfast type setup, paying extras for brekkie, dins or a beverage of your choice. We’d been highly recommended a place to stay by a fellow traveller, but it was booked up. No drama, cause the lady had a cousin with a room going next door. In Cuba there seemed to always be a person that knew a person who was mates with someone at the ready to sort you out.
Our hosts, Yanet and Faustino, were nothing short of fantastic. Plus, their cosy apartment had a sweet balcony overlooking the infamous Prado, and don’t ya know it, Chanel were in the midst of setting up for an A-list fashion show literally just below. With dinner plans fixed with our UK pals and a US couple we had met, we had just enough time to spot the hoards of classic cars ferrying your rich and famous to the show, but didn’t see the main event. Kim was quite distraught to miss the Kardashians, and Jim guttered on a glimpse of Vin Diesel. Yip, the big V was in town shooting the next instalment (#47?) of The Fast and the Furious (they lost me at Tokyo Drift). The city was put to a standstill for the sake of the fashion show, the main streets blocked off with crazy counts of hired and undercover security keeping the locals out of their own stomping ground. Amazing though it was, there was something not quite right about it, and we can only guess the CUC$ that changed hands between Coco Chanel and the city, and can only hope that the locals get to see a bit of it in their community.
The city of Havana is beautiful, but not your average beautiful. The buildings look like they were grand and dazzling in their day (circa 1950s, when the sugar industry and economy was still booming). It’s as if the clock stopped and nothing has been built since, still plenty of charm but marvellous marble floors now dusty and disheveled. There was a window in our room at Casa Yanet y Faustino’s that opened into an old rusty lift shaft, lacking the lift itself, but full of kitchen smells, washing and baby cries. Yum! The streets are not for the lofty head-in-the-clouds walker. Keep your eye on that footpath or you will be straight down a pothole, into a dog turd or puddle of whiz or many a various roadside obstacle.
A top deck bus tour was a good way to get a feel for the city and its surrounds, our favourite bit being when we encountered a low hanging tree branch and us bus riders had to pull together and literally pass the branch back row by row, ensuring no poor sod got walloped in the schnoz.
The streets continued to reveal the full extent of its interesting people, many of them curious about you and helpful as anything, some of them curious about you and what they can get outta your wallet. Highlights included; the old weathered, leathery lady sitting on the steps smoking a cigar fatter than her own arm; a dude with the dogs dressed in denim that snarl at the mention of one D. Trump; the big dude that high-fived Kim on her ninja hat catch in mid air after it blew straight off her head; an experimental art gallery of locals that took us in and gave us their fresh perspective on Cuba’s complicated history over jars of rum; the salsa-dancing locals getting jiggy with it todos los dias in Parque Central; the mystery of walking down the street and having no idea whether you’re peering into a business or a family’s lounge (advertising was heavily restricted for ages); the bucket on a string dangled from the 5th floor balcony followed by a whistle and a figure in black filling it with goods below before being promptly jerked back up; all the suave young men dressed in Rolexs + Yeezys + D &G shirts riding their rickshaws and beckoning you over for a ride.
The Cuban history is so full on and complicated and we don’t pretend to have a good grasp on it, (especially as it seems to change depending on who you talk to, e.g. a visit to the Museo de la Revolucion vs. a chat with a young local). Even without a deep understanding of the history it’s clear the people have been through some turbulent times of having plenty and having not much (Wikipedia gave us a good rundown too) and Fidel and Che’s faces on walls around every corner are testament to the lingering impact of the revolution. Much of the colourful history is also reflected in the oddities of today’s Cuba. The car situation a great example. Beautiful American classics fill the streets, left over from the days when America’s presence was a strong and more friendly one. They’re simply the means of getting from A to B over here, and they seem to keep on going! The friendship with the ol’ Soviet is too reflected in the many Ladas.
You also won’t be facing or booking or gramming or tweeting, cause Cuba’s about as well connected as you were when you’d finally got the dial-up going and logged into MSN Messenger, but Dad needed the phone and you had to get off, but you knew it would take ages to get back on and life wasn’t fair. Internet is hard to come by and tightly restricted, and for a while there it was illegal in private homes. Farmville crops are at an all time low. You can buy a card to access wifi at the big hotels, but see ya later $7CUC! The slowly increasing amount of public wifi zones can be found by following the cluster of locals sitting in the parks at night, intently staring at their devices.
Cuban cuisine is bizarre to say the least. The close proximity to Mexico was reflected in nothing but distance, with not a Corona or taco de pollo in sight (ok, we did see churros). We’d heard not to get our hopes up, but the reality was a strange assortment of food on offer. Our $5 breakfasts at our casas were by far the best part of the day: a smorgasbord of tropical fruits (many we’d never heard of), top notch Cuban coffee, eggs, bread, oh and usually a ham and cheese tosammie – the latter seem to be on offer everywhere, only it’s not so much ham as it is that luncheon dog roll-esque stuff. Our national peso got us $1 pizzas served atop a piece of A4 paper from hole-in-the-wall cafeterias, very simple but we did sus a couple of good ones (and one whose cheese tasted more blue vein than it should have). There was the odd tasty treat from the street vendors – deep fried churros and creamy coconut icecream, yus please!
Restaurants were another story. Only since the 1990s have private (versus state run) restaurants, or ‘Paladares‘ been legal! In general they were more expensive, but more edible, and a bit more authentic. Lured into one on our first evening from a waiter outside, we followed him up some stairs and… erm… into a lounge where an old dude was sitting on a rocking chair watching TV. We’d literally wandered into someone’s house. We thought we’d been tricked, but then hombre led us out onto his balcony where a couple of plastic tables and chairs sat overlooking the waterfront. A chicken set meal was placed in front of us, which included some hummus on crispy (stale) bread, a broth soup (chicken noods), some deep fried chicken, rice, and a platter of sliced root veges. It was a decent feed, a great portion, but there’s a certain simplicity (blandness?) to the Cuban food, they’re certainly not a fan of their seasonings/herbs/spices nor really combining foods together. Our balcony meal was absolutely 100% worthwhile when we paid the old guy our 10CUC. He was so stoked he shook both our hands, our custom obviously appreciated. A stark contrast to the next night in which we ate at a state-run restaurant. The chicken supreme sounded, well, surpreme, and while it wasn’t shite, there wasn’t much to it! A sliver of chicken, a sprinkle of rice and a handful of veges (boiled spud, sliced). It was just a bit odd. Other meals included more fried chicken, spaghetti, lobster (!) and at one point, even a burger. All in all though, our expectations on the food front pleasantly surpassed. And yes we eat a lot of chicken.
Any lacking in cuisine was more than compensated for by our old mate Ron. Ron’s a humble guy but he packs a punch and he’ll make your coco loco. The Havana Club ron was exquisite and the Mojitos were off the scale. Much like your aged sirloin, they’ll ask you how you like it (strong, naturally) and occasionally would just upturn the bottle and tell you to say ‘when.’ The native cervezas, Bucanero and Cristal, not so shabby either! The status of rum as a staple in the Cuban’s diets was well reflected in the fact that it was often much easier to find than water, which took a bit of hunting for, not ideal in the blistering heat.
After three nights in La Habana, we headed a few hours west in the back of a big red bomber to explore somewhere slightly màs tranquilo, the small farming village of Viñales. Of course our casa hosts knew a guy in the building that would give us a ride to the bus station next morning, and as soon as we arrived we were snapped up by a colectivo ready to roll with two more peeps. It was a bumpy two hours in that 55 Chevvy, and old mate had the Biebs cranking (the spanish version of ‘Sorry’ to Kim’s delight), the magnetic lobster on the dash legs flailing the whole journey.
The crumbly buildings were traded in for rich red soil and green countryside. Just before we arrived at our destination, our driver pulled into a comedor in the middle of nowhere and asked if we wanted to get some food or check out the tobacco hut (as you do). Quite likely he gets a cut from the restaurant to bring unsuspecting tourists to the door, but honestly we couldn’t care less because it turned out to be a bloody amazing experience. Forgoing the food we were straight to the tobacco hut where Alfredo, 78 years young, talked us through the process from ground to big fat cigar. Surrounded by hundreds of rum soaked leaves hung to dry, he then grabbed a handful of leaves and began to roll a big ol’ cigar right in front of us. We could tell it wasn’t his first rodeo. Of course after we’d lit her up we bought ten puros.
Viñales, our home for the next 3 nights, complimented the contrasting Havana. Small, colourful houses on quiet rural streets. If you don’t have a rocking chair on your porch then you don’t belong. If you’re not getting round in a classic car or a bicycle, then you’re rocking round the ‘hood in your horse (or cows) and cart, puffing one of Alredo’s finest as you go. The pace of life was not a quick one, and we made ourselves quite at home with our casa hosts Omar y Gladys. Omar, the Dad, was great at correcting our Spanglish.
The next few days we spent exploring the countryside, hiring some bikes and checking out the local attractions, including a sweet garden and the giant Mural de la Prehistoria – or basically a interesting waste of colours on the side of a cliff (way more hideous than it sounds). Of course we were very pleased to find the peso pizza joint in full swing also. Our hosts’son, Yoandy, took us on a walking tour through the beautiful Valle del Silencio, a peaceful stroll checking out a lake, a cave, wandering through the farmland and a coffee farm (more of a drink store with a single coffee plant outside, but whatevs).
We had just enough time the next day to head up to the coast in a 1970s Lada (standard taxi) and check out the white sands of Cayo Jutias… oh wait, save for a two hour hot and sweaty wait in the back of the taxi before we left while the driver tried to rustle more peeps on the street to come with us to make it more worth his while. Eventually he managed to get one more sucker and we were off. More than ready for a coco loco (strong) upon arrival, it was a well spent afternoon drinking rum, sunning, paddling and siestaing under thatched umbrellas while dodging scuttling crabs.
The next day we were back to La Habana, traveling in style in an old classic 1950s Chevrolet converted panel van with literally a dozen other touristas. Yus! We’ll forgive Vin D. for blocking all the streets again for our extended walk thru closed streets. We spent our last night out for dins with the Brits and Americans (chicken spaghetti, simple but pretty alright!) getting in a final Mojito fix. One last tip for the fellow fried chicken lovers – If you want your fix of crisp goodness never take no for an answer when ordering. Every waiter will convince you with every excuse in the book, and every time it will be delivered to your table without any issue whatsoever. A “45 min wait” will be the first plate out in 10 mins. Never, ever take no for an answer on ya pollo frita. Just another unsolved mystery…
Our resident taxi driver was on hand to ferry us back to the airport next morning after another good ham sammie and fruit fix. Save for the aforementioned money changing back (or lack thereof) we were off, Havana Club bottles tinkling merrily in our backpacks, it was back to Cancun, trying to figure out if all of that had just happened.