I spent a weekend in Havana in December 2016. It was just after Fidel Castro’s death and the country was still in mourning. Now that the country is opening up to cruise ships, tourism and imports, it will inevitably cause it to lose some of its charm.
Already, there are souvenir shops filled with generic key rings, tee shirts and ash-trays. It surely won’t be long until Starbucks pops up on every street corner as it has in Dublin.
I traveled to Havana with a good friend of mine. Cuba is a short flight from Grand Cayman and previously, when an American citizen received special permission to visit Cuba, they often traveled via Grand Cayman. It is a popular place to visit among locals here in Cayman and in fact, many Cubans live here in the Cayman Islands.
The week before we were due to depart, we heard about Fidel Castro’s death. We were worried it would affect our plans but thought that it would be an interesting time to visit Cuba. When we arrived in Havana, the airport was a time machine back to the 1960s. It was a large shed basically but we managed to find out bags and take a taxi through to streets of Havana to our Casa Particular in the city center.
Cuba is busy, dirty and noisy. The pollution from the old cars hangs in the air and after a few days, I could feel the smog hanging in my lungs. This is probably because I am used to the clean ocean air of Grand Cayman, so don’t let this put you off. It is a unique city, on the brink of huge changes. The old mixes with the new and although it will be a shame to see it change, it desperately needs some development and hopefully, the tourism boom will help the economy.
Our casa was run by a glamorous lady wrapped in shawls and jewelry. The house was beautiful and we were delighted to be served a hearty breakfast of eggs, bread and the best fruit that I have ever tasted. Beautiful pink guava, dripping with sweet juice. I have since found them in Grand Cayman, not quite as delicious as the first one that I tried. A Casa particular is like a B&B in Havana and it is great to support a family in their enterprise in a country where it is difficult to make money.
It was eerily quiet the first few days as a week of National Mourning had been declared. We visited the museums, browsed the markets and took a classic car tour around the city. There is an incredible art market where you can buy fantastic paintings and art work at reasonable prices.
When the mourning period was over, the city was transformed. There was salsa music on every street corner and dancing everywhere. We had really missed out on the first 2 days, the city seemed a little glum to be honest. Now it was full of dancing, music and singing. Did I mention that we couldn’t even purchase a drink during the National Mourning Period other than in Hotels?
We visited the musuems and walked around for hours on end. One thing that you miss in Grand Cayman is walking and exploring. Believe it or not, it is easy to run out of ground in such a small place. I suppose that is why every vacation I took whilst living in Grand Cayman was a city break.
The Daquiris and mojitos were in free flow for our last night and we really had some fun. I can’t dance but I try. We took a salsa lesson but an hour later, the teacher was still saying uno, dos, tres, quatro but my feet were not in sync with my brain, perhaps the rum was to blame.
Nursing a slight hangover at the airport, it was time to travel back to the present day. I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and noticed the lady making it behind the counter was smoking a cigarette. In a kitchen. In an airport. Smoking. Its definately one of the few airports in the world that would happen but I ate it anyway, desperate for something to soak up the rum before my flight.
Havana in Brief
Accommodation: Casa particulars start from just $55 per night for a room. Check AirBnb and http://www.casaparticular.com. There are some upmarket hotels including the Hotel National which overlooks the entire city and will cost you $300 per night.
Currency: Cuba has two different currencies, so ensure that you are always getting the CUC (convertables).The CUC is used by tourists and the Peso is used by locals but it is virtually worthless. Make sure to arrange cash beforehand. There is a 10% commission exchange on US dollars so make sure to have enough money for your trip before leaving and bring euros just in case. 1 CUC = 1 USD.
Food: Almost everyone that has been in Cuba will tell you that the food is awful. I was being cautious my first night and ordered pasta with tomato sauce. What I got was a tin of Heinz Spaghetti warmed up. I had some average meals, but Cuba is not famed for its cuisine, most locals seem to survive on a diet of coffee, bread, and smoking.
Nightlife: The live salsa music is incredible, whether you chose to stay on the streets, in one of the old squares or in a bar. El Floradita and La Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s favorite hangouts are always busy and you can witness daquiris being made at a phenomenal pace. There are several live dance shows such as the famous Carbert Tropicana. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit due to the mourning period but instead sipped drinks the beautiful rooftop bar at the Hotel Inglettera, as it was one of the few places open.
Opera House: Make sure to check the calendar and book a ballet or opera show during your stay.
Car Tours: Pay no more than 35CUC for the hour. Many will try to charge more but if you bargain, they will usually give you a better deal.
The Irish Connection: I was surprised to see the cúpla focal (meaning “a few words”) on a plaque in the street in Havana. The Plaque says “Two Island Peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope. Cuba and Ireland”. O’Reilly Street was named after Alejandro O’Reilly, second in command in the Spanish Army, who managed to defeat British forces when they tried to put Havana under siege in the 1700s.
Ernesto Che Guevra’s father was Irish and he was quoted as saying that the blood of the Irish Rebels flows through Ernesto’s veins. Ireland released a commemorative stamp on the 50th anniversary of Che’s death last year, which was controversial especially amongst Cubans in exile and whose families were murdered in the Revolution.
Personal Safety: Cuba is one of the safest places I’ve ever visited. There is a heavy police presence and little threat of robbery or violence. However, it is a very poor country and scams are common. I somehow fell for a sad story about a baby that was starving for milk and gave someone enough money to buy at least 6 packs of baby formula as I figured out later. You live and you learn, sometimes you have to let your guard down when traveling or you would never have any authentic experiences. That said, lesson learned, hopefully, I will spot such scams next time and do my maths properly.