Flying low over the Caribbean in daylight is always a beautiful experience. Not long before landing in Havana’s José Martí International Airport, I looked out the window of the Air France 777 I was travelling on to see the Bahamas stretched out in stunning blue and turquoise water below.
Any delusion I was under that this exceptional view was setting a tone for my day was quickly banished soon after landing when I waited at the luggage belt for half an hour before it was turned on. Another half hour later, after watching unfamiliar bags and cases go round and round, mine hadn’t appeared. I began to feel panicked, until I realised that a number of bags had been lifted off the belt and lined up to one side. Sure enough, mine was among them, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Next was the immigration queue. Each passenger stood at the desks for about 5 minutes, meaning extremely slow-moving queues. After a 45 minutes that seemed far too long for the short queue, I was finally free to enter the arrivals hall. Since Cuban Convertible Pesos, the currency that is used by tourists (although not the one used by locals) cannot be purchased outside Cuba, I lined up at the foreign exchange desk. At this stage I was beginning to get a sense of how things operated in Cuba, so the next 45 minutes waiting didn’t faze me.
Finally, three hours after my flight landed, I was in Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, checking in at the Hotel Plaza. Walking into the hotel’s reception area was like stepping backward in time by 60 years. With its hanging baskets, fountain and mosaic tiles it evoked the faded glamour of a time when Ernest Hemingway and other Americans sat around drinking rum and smoking cigars to the sound of salsa music. Here I met my friend, who had flown in the previous night and told me about her day walking around the city’s famous squares and taking a coco-taxi, a sort of three-wheeled auto-rickshaw with a round yellow shell, along the Malecon, Havana’s famous oceanfront road. We ate at the famous El Floridita, a favourite restaurant of Hemingway’s with alluring decor, an evocative, old world ambience and mediocre food.
The city was filled with the old American cars that Cuba is famous for – import from the US has been impossible since 1960, so the cars that predate the embargo have been well maintained and are still used today. When we arrived in Trinidad, a colourful city on Cuba’s South coast, we found similar cars along it’s narrow, cobbled streets.
Trinidad is a town that has been described by many guide books as being in a time warp. Its brightly painted, low rise buildings and Spanish archways line winding, uneven roads, and bells ring out from a bright yellow church on its main square, Plaza Mayor. The only place I had visited before that I could compare it to was Guatemala’s quaint, colourful town of Antigua, where low pastel houses line cobbled streets. As we wandered around Trinidad getting a feel for the town, the sky above us was a stormy grey. Somehow, the rain held off, leaving us with dramatic photos.
We found that the lack of urgency about getting things done extended all over Cuba, and standing in line for ATM machines for 40 minutes became the norm, often only to discover that the machine didn’t accept our cards and that we had to go inside the bank and queue for another half hour. The same was usual at foreign exchange bureaus and queuing in shops. The shortages caused by the US trade embargo are ever-apparent. Accustomed to travelling in countries with capitalist economies where money could buy whatever we needed, we now found ourselves often struggling to find simple things like bottles of water or snacks, irrespective of how much we were willing to spend on them, and having to visit numerous shops before we found them. Shortages were also obvious in the many restaurants offering only two of the items on their deceptively extensive menus, because they were simply all out of everything else (and probably had been for quite a while). The food was mediocre in general, and for a vegetarian like me, there were few choices other than rice and beans, sometimes garnished with pale pink tomatoes and limp lettuce. Accessing the internet or a mobile phone network was also difficult – unless there’s an emergency, I recommend assuming that you will be uncontactable while in Cuba. Communications are strictly controlled by the government in order to ensure that no counter-revolution takes place, and Castro and the Revolucion are revered, with memorials to Che Guevara in numerous places in Havana as well as a museum in Santa Clara, on the road to Trindidad.
From Trinidad, we took a half day tour visiting El Cubano National Park, where we walked in the rainforest and swam in the river. The river entered a vast cave, where swimmers explored. The water was freezing – even a local dog balked at jumping in – but it was also a great refreshment from the afternoon sun.
Not quite exhausted enough, we finished off the day with a salsa lesson, where I succeeded in stepping on my partner’s feet and my own feet, was told off for trying to lead the man (hello, twenty first century), and generally hobbled and twirled in aimless confusion. Lesson learnt: I cannot salsa.
The highlight of our stay in Trinidad was an afternoon at the nearby Playa Ancon, a beautiful nearby beach flanked by the ugly Hotel Ancon, a blocky, angular object devoid of character and painted in industrial colours that looked as though it belonged in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the beach was lovely and offered us a clear view out across a glittering sea.
Here, I was unlucky enough to get my first and only jellyfish sting. While wading along the shoreline in the warm Caribbean, I felt a sudden sharp sing across the back of my leg and ankle. Coming out of the water, I found three thin red lines welling up across my calf where the tendrils had wrapped around it. Rejoining our group, I found that two others had also been stung. We ambled into the imposing hotel to ask for vinegar to ease the stings, and were met by a waiter who immediately said “Jellyfish?” They were used to this.
As the sun got lower in the sky, we retreated from the beach to a nearby clifftop to watch the sunset with a picnic of salad, cheese, pizza, rice and beans – probably the most varied meal I saw in Cuba – as well as cans of beer. The sunset was spectacular, and we sat for an hour afterward around a warm campfire.
Jellyfish struck again on a later visit to Cayo Levisa, a tiny island off the North coast, when another member of our group was stung. We were told that recent storms had washed them ashore and that this was why swimmers were being stung more often. Cayo Levisa’s beach was pure white contrasted with a royal blue sea. Unfortunately it offered little shade, and after a number of hours there I realised I was badly sunburnt. On the ferry back to the mainland I started to feel nauseous. This increased on the bus ride back to the town of Viñales, where we were staying at one of Cuba’s many casas particulares, homes where the family rent out rooms to tourists. On arrival at the casa, I immediately started being sick. This lasted for five hours, along with a fever and shakes. I was intially afraid that I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me, but with the fever and sunburn it was clearly a bad case of sunstroke. Unable to rehydrate myself while constantly throwing up, I had to skip dinner and wait for things to calm down before eventually starting to sip water.
The next morning I felt weak but better, and managed a light breakfast and regular drinks of water. I didn’t eat much that day, which didn’t matter because when you’ve spent five hours throwing up rice and beans, they lose their appeal.
Outside of being ill, there was still just enough time to see a little of Viñales’ famous landscape. The unusually shaped green hills are often described as “pincushion hills”, and tobacco plantations litter the countryside.
Back in Havana toward the end of our trip, my friend flew home, and I quickly arranged a room for three nights in an apartment I shared with two other women from England and Sweden who we had met on our travels. The apartment was basic but bright, airy and fresh, with an ornate wrought iron balcony overlooking the street. From there, when not struggling to get cash from an ATM machine or navigating bureaucracy inside a bank, I walked the streets of Habana Vieja, taking in its squares, famous buildings and cathedral.
I walked along the Malecon – Havana’s long, curved, seaside road that stretches from the port to the Hotel Nacional, offering beautiful views of the city, and resolved to try to find time to visit Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the fort on display at the other side of the bay.
In the evenings I ate and drank cocktails with my two flatmates and some other travellers we had met along the way. On one evening, we ventured out to Vedado, the quieter suburban area where our new friends were staying, drank rum on their balcony and visited a local bar that was very different to the tourist-filled ones in Habana Vieja with their endless salsa music and pictures of Ernest Hemingway. At the end of the night we stood on the side of the road trying to flag down a taxi, and eventually an old American car pulled over. The driver got out and opened the back door welcomingly for us. There was a smiling woman in the passenger seat – this wasn’t a taxi, this was an ordinary couple on their way home from date night, offering tourists a ride home for a bit of extra cash.
My flatmate showed the driver the card with the address where we were staying, and with a wide smile he nodded and said “Siete CUC”. Seven pesos. We jumped in. What followed was a hilarious twenty minute drive that should have taken ten, as we took wrong turns, retreated back on ourselves, and stopped for directions twice. The couple in the front were good natured and we laughed along with them, thanking them heartily when we finally arrived home.
On my last day in Cuba, along with the others, I took the ferry to the other side of the bay to visit its Castillo. The fort was a military base during Spanish colonial times, and is now open for the public to see. We walked up the hill from the ferry port, past the enormous white Jesus statue that marks the way, and arrived at the fort. A couple of hours were spent wandering through its stone courtyards and taking in its excellent views of the city, before taking a taxi through the tunnel back to the other side of the bay.
Havana is a beautiful city. Its old architecture, through crumbling in places, is still enchanting. The constant ring of salsa in the air spilling out from every bar and restaurant gives it a holiday feeling. There is a common misconception that there is currently no American influence and that this will soon change – Americans who want to be in Cuba have been there along along – however with improving relationships between the two countries this will surely only increase.
I would recommend that visitors to Cuba arrive with as much money as they will need in cash, and change large amounts of it at a time, in order to avoid the long, sometimes stressful attempts to access local currency. Bring along a Visa card in case of emergencies, as Mastercards are widely rejected. If you need to contact home, be prepared to call from the expensive guest phones in the lobbies of the better hotels as your phone may not connect to a network, and do not expect to have much access to the internet. Understand that things take longer in Cuba, and don’t let it bother you. Don’t go for the food, go in spite of the food – and you should go, in spite of the food, because the picturesque scenery of both countryside and cities is worth it. Above all, enjoy a culture that will soon change.