Note: This trip was in Oct/Nov 2014, before the ‘thawing’ of US and Cuban relations
Leading up to our two week land/sea trip to Cuba, I must confess I was a little intimidated. Partly because we hadn’t dived (or is it ‘dove’?) for several years, and my last two experiences saw me getting major headaches, tooth pain and minor panic attacks; partly because I envisioned impoverished Cubans swarming around us, trying to sell, beg and scam us for two whole weeks. Well, probably not on the dive boat…but you never know!
The flight on Virgin was fine, though to my mind they seemed a little stingier on the wine than BA on long haul. Who knows, maybe it’s changed everywhere. Having never flown on Virgin, I guess I envisioned it as more of a luxury airline as opposed to the bog-standard cattle class that most other airlines offer. At least I couldn’t complain about the movie selection.
Our first taste of Cuba was the lovely warm evening air when we debarked. The second was arriving to 19 separate long immigration queues. This did not look good. We headed to one on the far end which looked marginally shorter, hoping we’d get lucky and it would be a fast mover. But Lady Luck seemed to side with nobody that night, as none of the queues appeared to move even a fraction for around 20 minutes. And after that we would do the occasional shuffle forward at the speed of fingernail growth. And did I mention it was hot? No A/C here despite the several huge units on the wall. “Welcome to Cuba, now suffer with the rest of us”, they seemed to say. Sue calculated each person was taking two minutes at the desk. That doesn’t seem too bad, but with a bunch of people still in front of us, we knew this would take a while. Nearly an hour and a half later, we were right at the front when a couple with a baby dragged themselves and their collection of nappies, toys, and various other carry-on paraphernalia, up to the front, seemingly convinced that having a baby, even a happily sleeping one, gives one carte blanche to cut the queue. We began to grumble under our breaths, and were considering parent-icide until one of the guards put them at the front of the next queue over. So at least we weren’t going to start the trip in a Cuban prison jailed for murder.
We finally made it through, only to encounter another queue, this time to go through a screener and metal detector. To get OUT of the airport. How bizarre. And then to actually get out of the terminal, we had to hand over forms which they hadn’t given us. A harbinger of Cuban bureaucracy to come, perhaps? But we filled them in and headed out to find a money changer and a ride. There didn’t appear to be any Cambio in the terminal, which was baffling considering foreign currency is next-to-useless here. But it turns out, the office was outside. Of course, where else would you expect it to be? So we changed some squidz for CUCs, got a taxi, and headed into Havana.
A quick note on Cuban currency: The country operates a dual currency system. Locals use Cuban Pesos, whilst the tourist economy is all in Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs. CUCs are pegged to the US Dollar. For more information on how this all works, check out this TripAdvisor post.
By this time, we were fairly knackered from the flight and immigration hell, but I enjoyed the ride as it gave me my first taste of the Cuba car scene: a bizarre melange of 50’s American cars – some dilapidated, some pristine – boxy Ladas (did they ever produce any that looked at all different?) and various ‘chicken bus’ collectivos, pickup trucks, etc.
We were finally deposited outside our hotel on the Malecón, to encounter our second problem: There was no room for us. The manager was very nice, and went through a long-winded, detailed explanation as to why our room wasn’t available, but assured us that we were going to be put up in an even better hotel, a 5-star one. Sue was a little antsy, having read accounts of people being moved to crummy hotels, but this time the Lady showed her face as, we were eventually piled into another taxi and carted to the famous Havana landmark, the Hotel Nacional. In fact, this was the hotel where Sue and Camille used to come for drinks and a taste of faded luxury when she was last in Cuba some 16 or so years before!
We checked in, and wandered the 7th floor for ages trying to locate our room in the Shining-esque corridors before finally finding it and settling in. Nothing amazing inside, but we were still pretty chuffed to be there. First order of business was to check out the grounds a little before tucking in to some sandwiches and drinks on the terrace bar. A band consisting of 4 chicas and one old dude set up next to us and played some tunes, a number from the Buena Vista Social Club, including the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Chan Chan, which we later read had become the second-most played song in Cuba. I assumed the first was Guantanamera.
The seesaw of luck swung against us again, as we discovered that our camera had a mechanical problem, and wouldn’t work. Argh! Fortunately we had our iPhones, but it was evident that we weren’t going to get any stunning photos on this trip. Our camera phones were functional, but needed pretty ideal conditions to take real quality snaps.
The next morning we were up at the crack, thanks to the time difference. In fact, it was still dark when I got out of bed. We explored the hotel grounds, beautifully located on a hill overlooking the Malecón, and then hit the Malecón itself for a pre-breakfast stroll. There were quite a few joggers, which surprised me a little, but then again, per capita, Cuba is one of, if not the best, sporting nations in the world, so I probably shouldn’t have been.
We wandered through the morning rush hour in the streets of Vedado, watching people pile in and out of decrepit buses and equally decrepit 50’s collectivos on their way to work. I started to get a sense of the incredible eclectic architecture style that dominates Havana. Art deco, Art Nouveau, Spanish Colonial, Neoclassical, 50’s American kitsch and Soviet Brutalism were all on display, mostly fairly dilapidated, but with occasional intact examples. And no one bothered us at all! Que sorpresa.
Desayuno at the Nacional was a mammoth buffet of mediocre oddball food. Very little looked particularly appetising (or remotely healthy, for that matter!), so we made due with watery scrambled eggs and coffee. At least the latter was good! After the resident barista fucked off, I found a dispenser labelled ‘cuban coffee’, which turned out to be delicious, and piqued our curiosity as to the secret ingredient, as it almost tasted spiced. We never did find out, but our coffee throughout the trip was pretty consistently excellent.
We spent the rest of the day exploring Vedado, the sprawling neighbourhood which, in its day, was where the mafioso set up shop. Amusingly, when Fidel and the revolución took Havana, they set up shop in suite 2324 of the Hilton Hotel, now monikered Havana Libre for the whole city to see.
We hiked to the grand Plaza de la Revolución, with its huge tower and sculpture of Jose Marti, soon to become easily recognisable due to his prominently receding hairline. Two nearby buildings had huge sculpted murals of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos, who along with Marti, are ubiquitous presences throughout Cuba. Much more than Fidel, as it turned out, because he’s still alive, whilst the others are martyrs. Lord only knows how many images of Fidel will sprout up when he kicks the bucket.
We also visited the Necropolis Cristobal Colon, somewhat similar to the cemetery in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, though perhaps not quite as immense. A local kid ‘guided’ us to the entrance, which turned out to be a back way, and we bought tickets off a security guard. As we walked in, Sue notedthat the tickets appeared used. Clearly, the locals were trying to get a little of the destined-for-the-state tourism CUCs for themselves. To be honest, atypically, we were quite okay with this. The people here have so little, and they aren’t charging any more than we’d pay at the ‘real’ entrance, so why not? The government’s already getting a bunch of our money, and these little bits could make a huge difference to the locals. We wandered around for a while by ourselves, until an old maintenance man started giving us an impromptu tour, pointing out some of the more famous graves including singer Ibrahim Ferrer’s, which we never would have spotted ourselves. We were quite happy to lay a few CUCs on him afterwards.
Heading back towards the Malecon, we managed to find Parque John Lennon, with a statue of the man himself on a park bench. Tourists sit next to it to pose for photos, as we did, but out of nowhere jumped a local who popped some glasses on the statue, and tried to give Sue a piece of cardboard to sit on. This, I felt, was not worth a propina (tip). Perhaps I was being unreasonable.
We tried to have a drink in Meyer Lansky’s Riviera Hotel, which looked exactly like I imagined it did back in the 50’s. All LA/Vegas/Miami style. But the music was too loud and too shit, and we waited ages for a waiter to show up, so when none did, we buggered off for a coffee at a local cafe/bar. The 3D Bar actually appeared to have WiFi, an extreme rarity in Cuba, as we’d come to discover. I couldn’t get it to work for me, but Sue actually managed to send an email…we think.
Meandered back to the hotel, where we decided to take advantage of the luxury and hit the pool for the rest of the afternoon. We figured it was going to be a ‘hard working’ holiday, so good to get in some chill time when we could. A sandwich, daiquiri and mojito passed for lunch, or at least something to tide us over to dinner.
Speaking of, we decided to venture out for our first big night on the town. In actuality, we were expected to be picked up at 4:00am to be bussed down to the port for the dive portion of our trip, so a calm dinner and early bedtime was in order. We went to a nearby paladar, supposedly Antony Worrell Thompson’s fave in Havana. It was good basic fare, the first of many a ropa vieja. Named for old clothes, but actually tasty shredded beef stew, this quickly became my favourite Cuban dish. The meal also contained our first and last avocado of the trip. Despite seeing loads of street vendors selling massive aguacates, we would never come across one on a menu for the duration.
Up at an ungodly hour, and downstairs to wait for the coach. We were still slightly nervous about it arriving at the Nacional rather than our original hotel, despite several voicemails from the manager indicating it would. Eventually it turned up, much to our relief, and we climbed aboard. Unsurprisingly, all the other passengers were completely crashed out. Our ‘guide’ for this portion of the ‘tour’ informed us the trip would be about 6 hours, with 2 or 3 pit stops. Seemed like a long time, but what can you do?
Dawn was just breaking when we arrived at the first rest stop. There we discovered that all of the other passengers were Spanish, with the sole exception being one Frenchman (or so we were told). This surprised me, having rarely, if ever, encountering Spanish divers on previous trips. Ah well, at least we’d be forced to practice our Spanish a lot on the trip. By the second rest stop, we were only about an hour away, and the day was in full swing. Despite that, the roads were still mostly devoid of cars. The horse and carts were slowing us down, though, as our drivers were being surprisingly sane and respectful of them, as well as the cyclists tootling along on their dilapidated devices. We enjoyed fresh pina coladas (sans rum) at the rest stop, the special not-so-secret ingredient being cinnamon. Yum.
We finally arrived in Jucaro, a dusty little port that is the jumping off point for the Jardines de la Reina, purportedly the best diving in Cuba, and our home for the next week. Just before we left for Cuba, the tour company that had arranged the dive trip emailed us that we would be getting upgraded to the floating hotel, the Tortuga. However, when arriving at Jucaro, we were told that we were on Caballones, the boat we had originally booked. Not the end of the world, although we had psyched ourselves up for the ‘luxury’ of the floating hotel. But then they told us we were on La Reina, which was an even smaller boat. At this point I was not happy. A week on a dinky little tub was not what I was hoping for. But, being Cuba, what could you do? So we boarded the boat and hoped for the best. As it turned out, it was probably actually the best of all the options. There were only three other divers, the ‘Frenchman’ from our bus (who turned out to be Quebecois), Francois, and a German/Korean couple, Jochem and Suji, all really nice. Yes, the boat was small and didn’t have a great array of options for lounging, but being with a small dive group of good people was more important. And, as we discovered later, the Tortuga was filled with a huge group of scary Russians. So in the end we did all right!
There was to be no diving that day, as we had a 5 hour trip out to the archipelago that is the Jardines de la Reina, so too late by the time we’d arrive. So we read and chilled on the journey out, had a drink and a decent dinner, and then early to bed. The next day we had our checkout dive, where I relieved to find that I had no issues. On the second dive, I had a brief panicky moment descending, but was then fine for the rest of the dive and the trip. And, importantly, NO HEADACHES! We quickly learned why there were so many curious sharks around on most of the dives. Feeding is commonplace. Pretty much on every dive, in fact. The typical profile was to descend to around 15-20 metres and hang out around a coral head. Joel, the DM (or his trusty assistant) would tie down a metal box and wait a bit as the sharks gathered around checking it out. Then he’d open it, and the sharks (and groupers) would circle about and dive in to try and grab some fish out of the box when they deemed it safe. The problem was the boxes were all quite small, so these big 1.5 – 2 metre Caribbean Reef Sharks had a tough time getting their big heads inside. But eventually the deed would get done, sometimes with the DM having to dump the remaining fish carcases out of the box so the sharks could get them. Or sometimes the grouper would dive in and nab the fish quicker than the sharks. After the box was emptied we’d carry on swimming around the reef for the rest of the dive, usually with a number of sharks hanging about, likely in case more food happened to magically materialise.
The reefs were healthy. Nice coral and fish life, though nothing spectacular on either of those fronts. The sharks were the real draw, and they were plentiful. The other divers were decent, which was good, so most of our dives lasted around an hour. Francois would typically be down towards the bottom, snapping away on his camera. Nobody had any problems, surely a relief to Joel.
We did 3 dives a day for the week, with plenty of lounging and lazing in between. Food was plentiful and pretty good. There was much repeating of ingredients, but mostly that was okay for a week. The running joke, though, was the papaya, which at our first breakfast was deemed to be ‘a little vomity’, and despite none of us touching it for the week, it still arrived on every fruit platter. The saving grace for it was that we were sometimes served it as juice, blended up with ice, and that was pretty good. On the fruit front, we were disappointed not to have any mango. But as it turned out, mango season was over, and therefore we encountered none for the entire trip. Also annoying was the lack of avocados.
One thing we did encounter a lot, though, albeit mostly on our plates not in the sea, was lobster. One day the crew came back with a whole box of lobsters they caught. I assume/hope they’re allowed to fish for them in the park. So we had some yummy langosta for dinner a couple of nights. Sue counted four lobster dinners in a row for her, but that was partly on the boat, partly in Trinidad. We also had some lovely fresh fish. In fact, I think I ate more fish that week than in total the past 6 months in London! Poor Francois is allergic to all fish and shellfish, so had to make do with pork, pork, pork, pork, and some chicken. He didn’t complain about it at all, though. A good natured chap.
The weather was quite windy all week, so we hadn’t been able to sail across the channel to visit the silky sharks, but one day it died down enough for this. Pretty cool out in the blue surrounded by circling silkys. It could’ve been intimidating, but I suppose by this point we were so used to diving with sharks here that there was no nervousness. Not that Sue is ever really nervous about sharks anyway. Towards the end of one dive, Joel actually grabbed a silky by the tail and turned it upside down, putting it into a trance-like state. We were then able to swim up and get a feel of its skin – not nearly as rough as I thought it’d be.
The trip also introduced us to Nino, the local croc, a regular visitor to one of the mooring sites. He was nowhere near as big as the salties we saw in Oz, but still pretty cool. His regular meal from the boat crews was chicken. I wondered if Francois was upset to see his non-fish food option going overboard to feed the little bugger. To be honest, Nino probably enjoyed it more than Francois would have. The last night involved more rum than usual and some attempts at salsa/ swinging that left Sue with a severed right toenail after sliding into the side of the deck. Fortunately the rum anaesthetic made the injury less painful.
The funny thing about liveaboards is that you tend to really start getting into a rhythm as the trips are coming to an end. So I was a bit sad when we were packing up our gear, but at least we wouldn’t be going home just yet. We still had another week on land. But now we would have to seek out our own food, decide when to wake up, choose our own itinerary for the day. Oh, such hardships. When La Reina arrived back in Jucaro, we bid adios to the crew and our dive buddies. We were slightly nervous that the taxi we had ordered weeks ago wouldn’t be there, but after a short wait it arrived, and we were off to Trinidad.
The taxi was comfortable, and offered a chance for a bit more sightseeing, albeit if on the go. Once again, our driver drove very sanely and respectful to the cyclists and horse and carts. So unusual for the developing world! It was a few hours to Trinidad, and when we finally arrived, we were in the middle of a tropical shower. The driver eventually found our casa, though when he rang the bell and no one arrived for some time, we held our breaths just a little bit. Finally, our host Johan answered the door. Whew. He was immediately terribly apologetic for the issues we had experienced trying to sort out the transfer, as we had initially tried to book a cab through him, but been unable to confirm it, with the taxi driver no longer responding to our emails. We tried to convince him that it was no problem, as the 2nd cab company that we had contacted had just got us there fine, but he still seemed to feel a little bad about it.
When we finally got the lowdown from Johan about how Internet access works in Cuba, we totally understood. Apparently, most people don’t have their own Internet access and have to rely on expensive Internet cafes which often have long queues. Some business owners and students are occasionally allowed their own access, and many students make a bit on the side by selling their access to other people less fortunate. Johan was one of the latter, so had to make do with sorting out the casa business in big chunks every few days when he could finally get online. Pretty tricky when you’re trying to set up a business in a competitive space. And competitive it is, with hundreds of casas in Trinidad alone.
But what Johan had on his side was a lovely house with two very nice little rooms on the garden, each en suite and tastefully decorated. We soon met Johan’s wife Cristal and young son, who had a fondness for tromping around in his father’s giant shoes claiming to be Gato en Botas, or Puss in Boots. We also met Sally and Musa, the house dog and cat, who quickly befriended us. The former was a lovable short legged mutt, as most of the canines in Trinidad appeared to be, and the latter, a super skinny, slightly manky-faced puss who was very sweet and would jump on my lap and knead furiously each morning.
Trinidad turned out to be quite a relaxed little city. Very little aggro, just the ubiquitous cigar and taxi touts, easily dismissed with a “no gracias”. The old city centre is still very much of the Spanish colonial style, with it’s pastel coloured low-rise houses and truly wonky cobbled streets, with vaqueros on horseback ambling through the centre. (High heelers beware!) Lots of funky little restaurants and bars, nearly every one containing some form of live music or another. “Chan Chan” and its Bueno Vista Social Club companions again reigned supreme, and I was worried we’d hate it by the end of the trip. Fortunately that hasn’t turned out to be the case.
The main music clubs in the centre were all clustered around a junction at the central Plaza, and in fact La Casa de Musica’s musicians played outside on stairs adjacent to the church so if there was music playing you liked, one could just cop a seat on the stairs and listen – no cover or minimum required. There was even a takeaway mojito and pina colada kiosk to keep stair-sitters sozzled. Guay! Sadly, there never seemed to be any music all that compelling when we were near the plaza, so we didn’t really really enjoy this al fresco entertainment as much as we’d hoped.
Aside from a mediocre ice cream and milkshake (with powdered milk!) when we first arrived, we ate and drank well in Trinidad. Johan recommended a couple of good cheap restaurants, and the others we found on our own were tasty as well. We spent one evening in La Botija, good tapas and live music where they ventured outside the Cuban ouvre to include Amy Winehouse. One night he even cooked us a yummy lobster with pesto. Muy rico! Everything was of course washed down with fine mojitos and beer. Alcohol was pretty much the cheapest thing in Cuba, with a glass of rum costing about 80 cents. Mojitos were slightly dearer at around $US3, but they were always artfully prepared, and never too sweet, a point bartenders in London and New York could take a lesson from!
There weren’t a ton of tourist attractions in Trinidad other than wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. We did arrange, on Johan’s recommendation, a guided tour of the Valle de Ingenios, a UNESCO World Heritage area containing the remains of the big sugarcane plantations that fueled the Spanish slave trade, and led Trinidad to be one of the world’s richest and most important cities during this period.
But first, a visit to the Parque el Cubano, a protected park a few kms out of town. Jochem and Suji had mentioned this was a nice place to get out into nature, do a little hiking and go for a swim. We got there in typical Cuban style, in an old green Chevy, all original, according to the owner. There was a large tour group when we arrived, but we quickly outpaced them, heading into the jungle along the path. It was lovely and peaceful, and the tree cover kept it from getting too hot. We did work up a sweat, though, and when we got to the main swimming hole, there was no doubt that we were going in! Unfortunately we weren’t there early enough to have the pool to ourselves, as Jochem and Suji had, but when we swam out to the waterfall, and then underneath it, we were in a cool cave with nobody else. Nobody human, that is. The cave was filled with bats, and not sleeping during the day, as one might expect. Good thing we’re fond of these freaky creatures.
After a bit of a drying off, we decided to walk up beside the waterfall. Unfortunately the path, which was super steep and a bit slippery, was slowly disappearing into the dense foliage. Despite having previously heard otherwise, we decided that it wasn’t a path anymore, but just a dried stream/waterfall, so turned around to head back. Descending turned out to be even trickier given the slippery incline. I was focusing on Sue, or rather her poor mashed toe, when I slipped and went head over heels sprawling on the ground. The pain was intense, and I froze for a few minutes to let the shock wear off. I had landed hard on my back, but it seemed okay. My left hand seemed to take the brunt of the fall, and it clearly wasn’t. Gingerly, we made it back down to the swimming hole, where we were able to get my wedding ring off – with the aid of some suncream – and switch hands in case my left swelled up. There was no way I was going to have to get it cut off and lose yet another ring!
Note: My original wedding ring was ripped off my finger in a class 5 Ugandan rapid, thus sacrificed to the Nile River gods.
We hiked back to the main entrance, had a drink, and iced my hand before climbing back in our green chauffeured Chevy and heading back into town. At the casa, Sue checked out my hand, and confirmed that nothing was badly out of place. I was torn between sampling the famous Cuban healthcare system and riding it out. In the end, I decided to just let Sue tape it up, as we figured that’s probably all a doctor would have done. It hurt, but we had plenty of Cocodamol and rum to keep the pain at bay.
The next day was to be our guided tour of the Valle de Ingenios. We met our guide, Johan’s friend Francis. He was very nice, and spoke excellent English, but I had this sneaking suspicion that he perhaps used to be a woman. At the end of the day, Sue confided that she thought the same. Regardless, he was a very interesting and knowledgeable person. A political cartoonist by trade (going under the name Ramses), he knew lots of history, both Cuban and international. We drove through the valley stopping at several sites that were formerly sugar cane plantations, and got the lowdown on the sugar cane industry, and in particular, the slave trade that fueled it. Grim, but fascinating stuff, particularly how the slave owners started ‘breeding’ their possessions (or more generously, ‘allowing them to have families’) when slavery was starting to lose favour internationally, and the introduction of the Dutch ships that allowed instant dumping of their ‘cargo’ should they be approached by anti-slavery British vessels.
Francis also gave us lots of insider information about life in Cuba. He loves his country, but also realises the problems facing it. We agreed that doctors earning 15USD$ a month when a tourist taxi driver earns that in an hour was just wrong. He did inform us, though, that doctors often get opportunities to work abroad and make more money. “Two sides to every story”, seemingly the modus operandi of Cuba.
After a chill few days in Trinidad, it was time to head back to Havana. We had previously gone to the bus station to get tickets, but in typical Cuban fashion, one of the ticket sellers suggested we take a taxi instead, as it would be the same price and a lot faster. Why not, we figured. Worth a try and part of the adventure. There was some nervousness in the back of our minds that the taxi driver wouldn’t show up on the day, but lo and behold, he was even early. When there’s money to be made, the Cubans don’t fuck around!
Unfortunately, it turns out we had to share the ride with two other people. And it was not a big car. With some pushing and stuffing and creative space making, the driver managed to get all of the luggage in the boot – no small feat considering our two big suitcases. One other backpack in there belonged to a British girl who was on the first leg of a round the world adventure. Jealous! It turned out that she worked for Deloitte, and Sue and her spent most of the trip talking about her former employer, tax, etc., so that worked out fine. The ride was a little cramped, but not too bad. And much faster than the bus would have been. This was partly due to the driver being a bit of a leadfoot. In stark contrast to all of our previous drivers in Cuba, he drove aggressively and impatiently. Not too insane, but more typical of third world motoring etiquette.
We arrived in Havana in about 4 hours, and managed to find our casa, Yadillis and Joel. In contrast to the chilled out Spanish colonial vibe of the area we stayed in Trinidad, the Centro where the casa was located looked a bit like a war zone. Our hosts were lovely, but they did give us a pretty serious warning about going out with money, passports, etc. Even said Sue shouldn’t carry her shoulder bag, which seemed odd as it would be pretty hard to do a snatch and grab of it. We were hoping that they were over-egging the crime issue a little and being extra cautious because some tourists are just bloody clueless about these sorts of things.
After settling in to our room, we hit the town. Right off the bat we got a lot more aggro than in Trinidad. This was more what I expected. We were hungry, so sat down in the terrace outside the Hotel Ingleterra, as we thought a big grand old place like this should be able to do us a half decent little lunch. But we waited and waited for a waiter even to bring us a menu, and saw another couple who were already there still waiting impatiently as well. This didn’t bode well, so we moved on to Havana Vieja, the old town. Wandering down the jam packed pedestrian main street of the area, passing loads of bars, but no decent looking restaurants, hunger finally took over, and we ducked into an old fashioned state-run restaurant, the Europa. It looked as though it hadn’t changed much in forty or fifty years. The service turned out to be so dire, it was actually pretty funny, so enjoyable in a slightly Fawlty Towers kind’ve way. The food wasn’t very good, either, but at least it was cheap and it sated our hunger. Overall Vieja is very cool, with amazing examples of all architecture from the Spanish colonial onwards. It is all in different states of restoration with currently half the streets being dug up to replace the water mains. Three were far more tourists in this part of town and more hassle. But the interiors of the bars and shops were great mostly directly out of the 30s, 40s & 50s. Overall the vibe was great, much more relaxed than home and really nice to be somewhere that’s not plastered with advertising and branding. It makes you realise how corporations have taken over the public spaces in so much of the world.
We decided that, since we spent our previous stay pretty much in Vedado, we’d focus on Vieja for this leg. That said, there were a few good restaurants in the dingy Centro, so we wound up eating closer to home a couple of nights. One of these cool restaurants was billed as Swedish-Cuban fusion. The decor was super funky, complete with armchairs suspended on the wall. Tasty food, too, though Sue had perhaps the only disappointing Mojito of the trip there. We also had a great dinner at the Basque restaurant on Malecon near the casa.
Most of the days here we spent just wandering around, soaking in the sites and the flavour, not to mention the mojitos. (I mostly stuck to beer, though, as the mojitos went down way too fast for me!) Again, the cars and architecture were highlights. In particular, the Edificio Bacardi, a stunning example of Art Deco design. The exterior and lobby were immaculate examples of the more ornate Deco style. We gave the lobby attendant a couple of CUCs to get the lift up to the tower, but found the interior up there seriously crumbling and not at all in keeping with the rest of the building. But there were great views around the city. Coming down, we found that the lifts had stopped working, so had to walk the nine or so flights. At least it was going down. Some of the locals coming up the stairs seemed pretty worse for wear. Clearly not all Cubans are athletes!
We visited the Museum de la Revolucion, in a grand old building, apparently decorated by Tiffanys, that used to be the Presidential Palace. However, the grand ballroom was under restoration, so the chandeliers and other finery were covered up. Typical for us! The museum was a bit of a mixed bag. Lots of photos; bits and bobs (shoes, etc.) belonging to Che, Fidel and the other revolutionaries; ‘glorious’ propaganda about the revolution and the country’s achievements afterwards; the Granma memorial, containing the actual yacht that the 80 revolutionaries sailed to Cuba on; a number of vehicles used in the revolution and pieces of an American U2 spy plane shot down by Cuba. It was a little overpriced for what it was, but we figured we had to see at least one museum here.
We realised that our money wasn’t going to last the whole trip. It didn’t seem that things were that expensive, but somehow we had blown through most of our cash. However we went to the nearby ATM with our HSBC card and were able to get more CUCs out, no problem. A big relief.
We took the local ferry across the bay to the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana. Walked up the hill past the giant Jesus Christo, amused that, with the positioning of his hands, we thought he really should have been holding a cigar and a mojito. When in Rome, after all. Past by a large military barracks and then the Cuban Missile Crisis Museum. The latter had some examples of the actual missiles placed by the Soviet Union that brought the US and USSR to the brink of war. Plus, more U2 plane pieces. The Castillo is an enormous Spanish Colonial fort, apparently the third largest in the Americas, that was the site the capture of Havana by British forces in 1762. It also saw action in the revolution, as Che used it as headquarters for his post-revolutionary tribunals and executions. There were few other tourists there, so walking through the fort grounds was very peaceful. Hot, though! So after a while, we snagged an old Chevy (of course) to drive us back to the city and a leisurely lunch at the Neruda bar on the Malecon.
On our final day in Cuba, we took an hour to finally take a tour of the city in a classic convertible. We had been debating it, as it was pretty pricey for what it was, but it did seem like the thing to do, so what the hell? We sized up the various cars, the coolest being more expensive, and settled on a ‘52 (I think) cherry red Chevy. Maybe not as cool as the pink Caddy with bar in the back, but cheaper and available, unlike that one. Plus, I would have been compelled to sing Bruce Springsteen the whole way in the Caddy, and Sue would have killed me by the end. The ride was good fun. There’s a pretty standard route taken by all the cars, stopping at key locations for photo ops. The nice thing is that we got to visit some different areas, like a beautiful lushly-vegetated park in a quiet hilly section of town. We also swung through Miramar, a more upmarket part of town. Pity we didn’t have one more day, as it would have been nice to spend a day out here. Next time.
So then it was time to go home. Two weeks had flown by. We taxied to the airport where we spent our remaining CUCs on rum and sleeping pills (breakfast of champions!). We were particularly pleased about the latter as we had heard you could buy Valium over the counter at Cuban pharmacies, but failed each time.
Adios Cuba. Hasta la vista!