Cristo de la Habana, Havana, Casablanca, Cuba

The Cuba Diaries: Arrival in Havana

Thank you for clicking on my blog. The Cuba Diaries are a summary of the highlights of my travels around Cuba with my friend. Each blog post – there are six in total – covers a couple of days of travel. When not doing the things that I wrote about in this blog, we were mainly sipping rum-based cocktails, getting lost in the blazing heat, and trying our hardest to top up our tans (which seemed to fade as soon as we boarded the plane back to London). If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, I hope this blog makes you excited for your holiday and gives you tips I wish I had known before I left the UK.

So here it is, the first post is all about Havana:

Jumping out of the taxi in Central Havana, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. All the more so when we were directed down an alleyway towards our casa particular, the Cuban version of a homestay. We were advised to go to this one from the old man who sat next to us on the plane. Granted you need a name and address – and in theory a booking –  for your visa, but we didn’t get the best impression from the email exchanges with the casa we’d booked, so were quite happy to hear recommendations from a seasoned Havana traveller. He turned out to be a retired airline pilot with a wife back home and a Cuban girlfriend half his age, but I digress…

Casa particular symbol
Casa particular symbol

We didn’t actually reach said casa, plumping instead for the first one we saw. Look out for the blue anchor-like symbol hanging above or attached to people’s doors when searching for a casa. Although websites usually list prices as CUC 30-35*, we found that most casas only charge CUC 20-25.

Enter Leonil (Casa Paula Montero Montero, San Rafael no.313 e/ Rayo y San Nicolás, Havana): the Cuban man who set us up for our trip around Cuba. Find a good casa owner and that’ll be half of your trip staying in casas sorted. We explained our plans in broken Spanish: Havana, Viñales, Santa Clara, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos. Immediately he told us to switch our plans around, that we wouldn’t need so many days in one place, it’s better to spend them here and not there. He dished out business cards for casas in each location and he told us not to get the Viazul bus out of Havana as the station is far away, but to hire a private driver. He went through the maths of it all with us and at the time it made sense. In retrospect, though, hiring a private driver isn’t the most economical option. It’s actually better to go to a taxi office, e.g. Cuba Taxi, and see if they do deals on carshared taxis to your next destination.

Embarking on our first outing in Havana was an adventure. As women, expect to be bombarded with catcalls like “hey pretty lady” or “hola linda” from the locals. Pay no attention to them, they mean no harm. Most of the time they’re trying to sell you something, get you into a bar/restaurant or into their taxi/bicitaxi/cocotaxi, etc. They’re persistent, so don’t talk to them and try not to make eye contact. Also, if you decide to buy street food, note that they accept CUP rather than CUC, so divide the prices by 12 (the CUC:CUP exchange rate was 1:12 when we travelled) or get ripped off. We knowingly overpaid but didn’t even get a smile in return, although Leonil told us afterwards that we should have carried on down the street and around the corner to a nicer street food seller.

We were doing Havana in two parts as we had return flights from José Martí airport, so the first part ended up just being two whole days. One of them was rainy so we were limited in our options, but the main item on our agenda for the other day was the hop-on hop-off tour bus. This tour was meant to give us a sense of direction, but actually just made us feel more lost. The bus weaved from street to street, along the Malecón pier, through Vedado, and back to Central Havana.

José Martí monument, as seen on the bus tour
José Martí monument, as seen on the bus tour

The loudspeaker system was shoddy when we departed but the person talking seemed to give up half way through. Having said this, it’s only CUC 5 and you can get on and off at will, so you can use it as your transport for the day if you so wish.

After the tour we headed down to the Malecón in roasting heat, and traipsed around for ages trying to find the Museo de la Revolución. For me, this museum was a disappointment. It’s a building full of cabinets with artefacts from pre-Castro Cuba and the Revolution with heavily biased captions describing the enclosed objects. But perhaps this is the naïve Western tourist in me talking… Right next to the Museum of the Revolution is the Granma yacht which Castro used in 1956 to transport his men to Cuba to start the revolution. It is encased in a metal and glass building and is guarded at all times, so good luck getting a good picture of it! Surrounding this structure are vehicles used in the Revolution, most, if not all, of which contain bullet holes. Worth a look if you’re interested in the Revolution and it’s history, but if you’re not then give it a miss.

One moment that will forever be etched in my memory is our trip on a rickety ferry over to Casablanca (not that Casablanca) to see Cuba’s answer to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. The Cristo de La Habana towers over the bay and our plan was to pop up and see it, then get the ferry back.

The Cristo de la Habana statue
The Cristo de la Habana statue

This is not quite what happened as we met Raphael, one of the security guards who allegedly works at the statue but was inexplicably milling about as we sat to look at our Lonely Planet guide in the shade for a moment or two. This man saw us coming the moment he set eyes on us, but equally we knew if he was offering to show us around, it most probably wouldn’t be for free (even if he did say he was doing it out of the kindness of his heart). This resulted in a detour around Casablanca, being told to take pictures of random things we weren’t particularly interested in, e.g. a religious figurine on the side of someone’s house, and a very tired, frustrated, and thirsty Hannah. This even before we’d climbed the hill to the statue. By the time we got there, rather than having a “wow” moment, my instant reaction was more along the lines of “oh great, can we head back now, please?”

At the bottom of the hill our new-found friend took us for a drink in his mate’s closed bar. He told us both differing sob stories about his family and after we paid for his cuba libre, he also asked us for money. Needless to say on our second leg in Havana when we happened to spot him, we ducked around the corner and ran rather than sticking around to say hello!

*At the time of writing, 1 CUC was roughly equal to 65p

Click here for the second leg: Viñales

Travelled between: late November and early December 2014

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