Cuba was an amazing experience. I wish I had more time and money to see more of it. Havana is a mismatch of contradictions; it’s gorgeous architecture and cobbled streets, look beautiful yet run-down as they bustle with people. Locals will either pay you no interest or try and sell you everything, but you won’t be surrounded by tourists – you may see some at the museums, but you are truly immersed in Havana. The 1950’s style cars are incredibly cool, Cuba definitely takes you back in time. If you are heading over to Cuba make sure you look into it before you go, or buy a guidebook, because there is no internet anywhere to find information.
We flew into Cancun, as we couldn’t get a flight from the US (obviously). Flights were $146 from Cancun, one way. We had intended to look into it more, but ran out of time. We had booked a ‘casa’ on airbnb before we went, after discovering that hotels in Cuba were ridiculously overpriced. We got to the airport in Cuba and were approached by several people trying to get us in a taxi. We had also already booked a taxi through the air b’n’b lady for $30, which we definitely could have got cheaper.
We had to change our money at the airport into CUC, as you cant get currency for Cuba in the states. Our taxi drove us to our casa, located in Old Havana. The streets were filled with people, chatting, walking, just generally loitering, and the taxi beeped them out of the way. We arrived at our casa, in a narrow cobbled street, filled with people and were quite nervous. We were greeted by two Cuban ladies, who gave us our keys to the bedroom and explained that one of them would be there at all times to let us in the front door – in broken English. Our room was lovely, albeit not quite traditionally Cuban and had more of a modern hotelesque feel to it. After traveling all day, flying from Tennessee to Cancun then Cancun to Cuba, we were not ready to face the hordes of people outside and crashed out.
We woke up early, refreshed and ready for the day ahead. Our casa host provided us with a lovely breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, coffee and a smoothie of unknown ingredients – which we later found out was not actually included in the price. We set off with rough directions from our host to the nearest supermarket – which we never actually found. We stumbled across a cute little plaza, where again we were offered taxis, a horse and carriage, photos, tours, cigars and much more. We had no idea where we were going and soon realised a lonely planet guide book would have come in incredibly handy. I think we just figured there would be wifi in the casa and we would just look up places to go in the morning – there is no wifi anywhere in Cuba, apart from the expensive hotels.
We came across Castillo de la Real Fuerza, with no real plans and the square looking pretty empty, we headed inside to check it out. ‘The Castle of the Royal Force’ began in 1555 by Spanish authorities to defend cuba from invasion. It was completed in 1577 and is the main architectural feature of the Unesco World Heritage site of Old Havana Cuba. It cost us $2 to go in. While I was busy taking pictures Paul, my travel buddy, had some how got roped into having a tour guide take us round the castle.
Our lovely tour guide was good fun and showed us around the castle with much enthusiasm. She made us take pictures at every opportunity (so my phone is now filled with images of model ships and plastic soldiers) She also made us take a very awkward photo of my friend kissing my cheek. The tour was interesting, but I’m not sure I learnt all that much and of course we tipped her at the end, rising our very cheap entry fee. However it was cool to look around at the old architecture and the views from the bell tour were amazing, allowing us to figure out which direction to head in next. As we left the castle flocks of tourists had arrived to the site and it was very different from our early morning ghost town.
We kept walking through a maze of streets and found ourselves at the Museum of the Revolution. We were incredibly thirsty after walking around in the incredibly hot air, so we approached the guard at the entrance and asked for the closest super market to grab a bottle of water. Apparently there wasn’t one nearby and were told that there was a shop inside that you could get one. We still hadn’t seen any shops and without our trusty google maps and seeing as we wanted to have a look around the museum anyway, we headed in. Our ticket this time was $8CUC, quite a price increase from our morning castle, but coatcheck was free! I also used the bathroom, which had an attendant that gave you a few sheets of toilet paper to use – which I then tipped her for.
Honestly in terms of quality the museum was slightly lacking. I found it really interesting because I didn’t really have very much knowledge on Cuba’s history at all, but the exhibits themselves weren’t amazing. I would still definitely go though. Note if you do go, it gets super hot, so try and go really early in the morning – I was drenched when I left. Unfortunately when we went the ballroom was being renovated and the Pabellón Granma, a memorial to the 18m yacht that carried Fidel Castro and revolutionaries from Mexico, to Cuba in December 1956 to launch the Revolution, was also enclosed by scaffolding. We cooled down in the bar at the museum and finally got some water! We met two other Scottish people there who had been there for a few days and they mentioned a show at the cultural centre that we should see and told us directions to a bank – which we were starting to think we would need.
We finished our waters and set off to do some more exploring. We found another big square section which I think was in new Havana. Big hotels lined the sides and we were approached by more people trying to sell us things. I couldn’t tell you where we walked, the quaint streets filled with people all looked quite similar. We got to a section that seemed even busier and decided to wander down. This is where we met Jorge. Jorge had been to London before, for a tourism in Cuba promotion. He owned a small bar on one of the streets and invited us for a drink. After we had politely declined his drink, he offered to show us a casa on the street, that his friend owned. We decided to have a look. One of his co-workers, another big man, joined us for our case viewing. The owner spoke no English so Jorge translated for him. Honestly my first thought as the three men hustled us up the stairs was, I probably will not come back through that door. It was a nice place, the bedrooms had no doors and there was a balcony over the main street. This is how it works in Cuba though, unless you have lots of money for a hotel, you just head around the streets and find someone with a casa for rent. Most will have a sign on the front and you ring the doorbell and ask to see it. After explaining to Jorge that we didn’t need somewhere for that night he told us to com back tomorrow. He asked us to come for a drink with him in his bar, but we wanted to get on and said we would pop back later. We never did, I still feel bad for Jorge that we never returned.
We carried on walking around and stopped off somewhere for some food. We had very little in our budget left, we hadn’t had much to start with, so we shared a pizza between us and got a coke each. It cost around $20CUC and was delicious. We had bumped into some English flight attendants and they had given us some recommendations for places to go out, apparently Fabrica is a good time. However with no money and a long day of taking Havana in, we headed back to our casa for a relatively early night before our flight out the next day.
If you have more time in Cuba try to explore the island further than just Havana. My brother visited a month before me and made it to Vinales and Trinidad, which seem to be very different to bustling Havana. The bus to Vinales takes about 4 hours or you can rent a taxi for the day, which we were told would cost $140CUC. A bus to Trinidad takes 8 hours.