18. - 23.10.2016: Vancouver - Mexico City - Havana

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18.10.2016: Vancouver - Flight to Mexico City

On our way south from Canada to South America we decided to take a holiday in Cuba. (Yes, even we need a holiday from time to time!) It would be our first Caribbean island and we found out that we can only get a visa for 28 days. So we booked our flights so that we would be staying for 27 nights.

We hadn't had any time to make a plan but I managed to read through some of the digital travel guides we have so that we had some sort of idea of what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go. Cuba might be opening up to tourism so we wanted to visit whilst the "real" Cuba still existed.

We followed the reports on Hurricane Matthew closely. It hit Haiti and Cuba in the first week of October and we were due to get there on the 19th October. Most of the news reports focused on the damage and destruction in Haiti but we could see on the weather maps that the eastern part of Cuba had been hit. We would find out more when we got there but were already thinking we would stick to the western and central parts of the island and hope that the hurricane season was over!

Cuba is the largest Caribbean island and has the second highest population of around 11 million people. (Hispaniola has the highest population). It was colonised by Spain until the Spanish-American war of 1898 that lead to nominal independence as a de facto US protectorate in 1902.

It was a fragile republic but mounting political radicalization and social strife culminated in the Batista dictatorship in 1952. Further unrest and instability lead to Batista's overthrow by Fidel Castro and the state has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba since 1965.

Cuba was embroiled in the cold war between the Soviet Union and the US. There was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, much needed financial support from the Soviets dried up. Cuba had to sort itself out, and from what we have heard from the many Cubans we spoke to, it was the Cuban people pulling together and helping each other through a very hard couple of decades that helped Cuba survive.

It took us three days to get to Cuba with an overnight stop in Mexico City. We only managed about 5 hours sleep at the hostel because the flight got in just before midnight and we needed to get back to the airport early the next morning to organise a visa for Cuba. We put one of our bags in storage at the hostel that was filled with things we needed for South America. It meant we could travel a bit lighter through Cuba.

Wednesday, 19.10.2016: Mexico City to Havanna - sunny, 28°C

We checked in for our flights and found the office nearby where we could get our visas for 314 Mex Pesos per person. It was all very quick and easy and we needn't have worried. Our flight was just over 2 hours and we flew straight across the Gulf of Mexico. We even got to see some of the beautiful beaches and islands along the northern coast of Cuba before we hit clouds and landed in Havana at just after 2pm local time.

We had already booked our first four nights in Havana at a Casa Particular. These are rooms with families in their private houses. We'd found Casa Lourdes y José in Lonely Planet which was a reader recommended place and had phoned them up directly to book. We would be staying next door for the first night because they were fully booked but then we could move in to their house for the other nights.

It's very helpful if you speak a bit of Spanish and makes it a lot easier to travel. We thought we might need an address for the various forms and the visa but it wasn't needed. But at least we had somewhere and knew the address for the taxi driver.

At the airport in Havana the first thing we needed was money. You can't get Cuban money outside of the country and changing US dollars incurs an extra 10 percent charge. There is a small exchange office right in front of the main exit at the airport.

We talked to a man in the queue behind us to see if he wanted to share a taxi into the city centre. He was being picked up so didn't need one but his driver fetched another taxi driver who got us organised for 25 CUC (Convertible Pesos, 1 CUC = 1 $US) There is also a second currency in Cuba CUP or Moneda Nacional and looks slightly different. You need to check change though because 1 CUC = 24 CUP and getting the wrong change will leave you seriously out of pocket!

We bought a map of Cuba and Havana for 3 CUC and our taxi driver was already waiting for us. The ride was about 30 minutes long and took us right past the Plaza de la Revolucion and the famous Che Guevara mural where there are a lot of old timer taxis from the 1950s. Our taxi driver spoke clear Spanish for us and we found out he has a girlfriend from Germany who visits regularly. A really nice young man.

It was a great welcome to the country and we came to realise that the people here are not only very friendly but also very willing to help or answer questions. Our host Lourdes welcomed us and we stayed with her neighbour Maria, essentially in the house above. The stairway was very steep but we managed to get our bag and rucksacks up there. Our room had four beds in it and was en suite but the toilet had no seat! However, it was very clean - in fact every Casa we stayed at was very clean with really nice hosts.

It was 28°C with high humidity so our bodies needed to adjust from the cold, dry weather we had come from. Maria made us a cup of tea but put the hot water into a thermos that had been used for coffee and tasted accordingly. Fortunately we had brought our kettle with us and it proved to be a life saver. Good job we'd also brought tea bags because we never found any black tea in the shops! Kirsten went out to a nearby shop to get us some drinking water (general price 1.90 CUC for 5 litres) because you can't drink the water here. (Note - It's fine for brushing teeth just don't drink it.)

We had our evening meal at Lourdes and José and were joined by two Germans, Ute and Olaf who had just finished a 7 week cycle tour of the whole island. We had a soup that tasted of fish but was actually pumpkin and pasta, followed by white fish, fried rice (really good!) avocados and corn bread with pork pieces in it. The fresh lemonade was very good.

Ute and Olaf told us that they were in the east when the hurricane hit. They weren't in danger but everything stopped and they called it a "hurricane holiday" and had to wait 3 or 4 days before they could go any further on their trip.

We were so tired that we fell into bed that evening but still couldn't sleep much - probably over tired. We had to keep the fan running all night because the temperature didn't really drop much. So we were still tired when we woke up the next morning.

Thursday, 20.10.2016: Havana - rain in the morning, sunny in the afternoon, 28°C

There was no water for showers or the toilet but when we told Maria the problem was fixed right away. Our breakfast was fried eggs, fried plantain (banana) chips that tasted a bit like French fries, pork scratchings (rind) that was apt to break our teeth so we left that, pineapple and guava fruit salad and guava fruit juice. We also left out the tea because the hot water was in the same coffee tasting flask - we made our own.

It was raining quite heavily so we stayed in the room until noon and then took our bags down and moved into Lourdes Casa where we had a twin en suite room with air con and fan but no outside windows. The room was spotlessly clean. Unfortunately the jack hammers from road works were making a lot of noise. They are laying down new pipes and we also had to contend with loud barking dogs. After months of peace and quiet it was going to take some getting used to!

Lourdes and José are really nice people who patiently answered all our questions that they have no doubt heard thousands of times and gave us a map of Havana Vieja. They also told us that they have two grown daughters, Claudia, who lives in Havana with her husband and daughter, is a director of a cancer clinic and Caroline, who is 15 months older, is a ballet dancer and is currently on a 6 month training course in Mexico City.

We thought they must earn good money but found out they only get 25 CUC per month = $25 US dollars per month which is less than $1 per day! How do people live on so little? We are paying 26 CUC per night with breakfast for the two of us and it would seem that most of it goes to the government. They need to buy a licence to run a Casa Particular, every guest is written into a book with passport numbers. Then they have to phone up to register each guest at the local authority and each guest is given a specific number.

In other words, the government can see where each tourist is and where they go - Big Brother is watching you! But we're not bothered at all because we're just tourists and want to explore the island for a few weeks. We still wondered how much the families can actually keep from the accommodation money, though we didn't feel we should ask - they might not be allowed to answer! It certainly gave us a bit more insight into the real Cuba.

After changing some CUC into CUP at a nearby exchange bureau so we could buy things where only the local currency is accepted (e.g. lemons from the local market for Kirsten's tea!), we did our first walking tour of Havana.

Havana is the capital city, largest city on the island and a major port. It is divided into three parts - Vieja (old), Centro and Vedado which is the newest suburb. Havana Vieja contains the core of the original city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The capital also contains everything that epitomises Cuba - poor but happy people, music everywhere, a time-warped city with eclectic architecture that includes Spanish baroque and French classic and lots of old cars from the 1950s, and, of course, revolutionary heritage.

We tried to see everything and spent our first five nights here. The first thing we did was to check out bakeries! Well, of course, what else! One was listed at Hotel Inglaterra, the oldest hotel in Cuba and built in 1856 but the bakery didn't have anything that appealed to us. The capitol building was under construction but we saw lots of old timer taxis - a one hour ride around old and central Havana costs 30 CUC.

Our Casa is nearby so after a quick tea break we set off again and walked down the main boulevard to the sea front and promenade where we can see the forts across the bay. Back into town we walked along Calle Obispo which is the main pedestrian street. There are lots of restaurants with live music - oh boy is that loud! We wouldn't want to sit on the tables next to them without ear plugs!

We managed to find another bakery and I bought a piece of cake just in case! I didn't actually need it because our evening meal was very tasty - black bean soup, chicken cordon bleu, rice, cabbage, sweet potatoes and freshly made papaya juice. We were the only guests for the evening meal so Lourdes, José and Reina (who helps with cooking and cleaning) joined us for the meal. They had the TV on to watch a Mexican soap opera. Mexican TV is the only international TV they can get here.

Friday, 21.10.2016: Havana - mostly sunny, one quick rain shower, 28°C

After cheese omelettes, fruit and juice for breakfast we walked to the Museo de la Revolucion. Before the revolution the building was the presidential palace decorated by Tiffany’s and where the dictator Batista lived. The Memorial Granma building has a replica of the 18 foot boat sailed in by Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries behind a glass wall. The building was under construction so we couldn't go inside. Outside stood the tank used by Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

We walked past the Spanish embassy and went in search of two famous hotels but couldn't find them. We had marked them down on the wrong map. Lonely Planet divides the city slightly differently so we were looking in completely the wrong place!

We left them for another day and went to the cathedral. Kirsten put on a sarong as her shorts were a bit too short! She'd bought it with her but there were also skirts for general use at the entrance. We paid 1 CUC each to go up the tower and got a 3 CUC note in the change, the first time we'd seen one - Cuba is the only country to have that number note.

We climbed the steep, narrow steps upwards and Kirsten banged her head on a piece of wood because she was watching her feet - ouch! I was ahead of her but I passed right underneath without even noticing it - I'm just a tad smaller! At least the view over the city, the plaza and the forts was worth it. Good job the bells didn't ring because we had to walk right past them.

It started to drizzle so we decided to go and find food. We bought four chocolate éclairs as we passed the bakery and checked out a restaurant listed in Lonely Planet, but it wasn't what we wanted. Then we just happened to walk past a Crêperie! Well, we had to check it out! Wow - really good savoury crêpes, very clean and very friendly service. We shared a chicken and veg crêpe and a Swiss three cheese one. Yummy!

We sat upstairs on a kind of balcony above a shop and the kitchen was open so we could see everything being prepared. Our waiter, Ricardo, proudly presented our food and whilst Kirsten ordered a lemonade, Helen decided to go for Ricardo's tip and had a lemonade with basil - tasted really good. It cost us less than 10 CUC. We decided straight away that we would return to try the rest of the menu!

Our favourite restaurant in Havana is:

Crêperie Oasis Nelva
Calle Muralla, corner Habana
Open: Noon to 10pm
Web: http://oasisnelva.wordpress.com

On our way back we checked out the Partagas cigar factory but there aren't any tours over the weekend and it was Friday. We were leaving on Monday so we'd have to postpone it until we returned. After a photo stop at the Gran Teatro de la Habana with its baroque façade that has space for 2000 people we returned to our Casa for a tea and éclair break.

We sat down with Lourdes to ask for tips. I had read various guide books and had an idea of what we wanted to do and see. Lourdes said she would organise all the Casas for us and give us their addresses and phone numbers. She would also organise transport to our first destination by taxi. It would cost a bit more than by Viazul bus, the main bus company serving the whole island, but it would save us 30 CUC in taxi journeys to get out to the bus station to buy the tickets a day in advance and then to get there to catch the bus. Why on earth is the main bus station so far away and why isn't their a bus connection to get there?

At the same time we added a fifth night in Havana as we'd only booked four prior to arrival, booked the three last nights of our stay in Cuba with Lourdes and she also said we could leave a bag there if we didn't want to take everything with us. Super. Fantastic. Everything organised and it took us less than an hour! Did I mention that this Casa was reader recommended in the Lonely Planet?

Around 7-30pm we set off again to take in Havana by night. It's warm enough for shorts and T shirts and we had no problems at all walking around this capital city at night. Most of the Cubans are out on the street enjoying a stroll, or listening to music and enjoying the cooler night air.

Later we sat on a wall by the water and waited for the cannon fire that takes place at 21-00 hours every evening. There is a procession inside the walls of the fort (Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana) where people are dressed in 18th century costumes and carry burning torches. The entrance fee is 8 CUC per person. We decided to sit on the wall across the bay to hear the cannon fire and then decide if we wanted to get a taxi over there the next evening.

We could see the torches from where we were but not any of the costumes etc. We were too far away and one of the walls of the fort partially blocked our view but we definitely heard the cannon - one loud boom!

Saturday, 22.10.2016: Havana - sunny morning, shower in the afternoon, then cloudy, 30°C

The following day we did a walking tour through the Centro and Vedado areas of Havana. We walked around 35 to 40km whilst we were in Havana but there are numerous transport options - taxis, pedal rickshaws and the little coco taxis that look like bright yellow shells on wheels. We just prefer to walk and explore.

We headed out along the promenade and came across a cycle race that included the Cuban professional cyclists. The streets were blocked off and we ended up chatting to two women from Australia and England, swapping tips.

We continued on our way to the US embassy where, according to the Lonely Planet there is some very funny graffiti knocking the Americans. But it had obviously been cleaned up due to the recent visit by President Obama! Opposite the embassy there was an area with 138 flag masts with every flag from the regions and towns of Cuba as a form of protest against the US. The masts were still there but no flags.

Further on we took a look at the Focsa building - one of the seven engineering wonders of Cuba because it was built in 1956 without the use of cranes and was the second highest building in the world at the time. It was so ugly Kirsten didn't even take a photo!

Then we found the two hotels we'd searched for in the wrong place. Hotel Nacional, built in 1930 and a copy of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. In 1946 all the Mafia bosses met here for a Frank Sinatra concert - well that was the excuse. Famous actors, singers and Winston Churchill stayed here. We just used the toilets!

After a bakery break - very nice mille feuille (custard slices) - we went to Hotel Habana Libre. It was a brand new five star Hilton Hotel and had only been opened for nine months when Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries commandeered it in 1959 as their headquarters. It's another ugly building which I'm sure was wonderful back in 1959! At least it was a bit more modern inside where there was a small photo gallery depicting the revolution.

Our next stop was the Coppelia ice cream parlour which, according to the Lonely Planet is huge and very crowded with long queues because the Cubans love their ice cream. We saw the queues out on the street well away from the building. As we only wanted a photo we walked into what looked like a park area and were heading for one of the many buildings when we got stopped by a guard.

He rattled off lots of very fast Spanish. We asked him to repeat it more slowly and even then had to fill in a few blanks! We think he said that tourists aren't allowed inside not even for photos. We have to go to the small concessionary stand for an ice cream. Obviously they don't want us lot to see just how cheap the ice cream is for the Cubans. We're supposed to pay tourist prices! Oh well, we didn't want an ice cream anyway but it was a pity we couldn't take photos.

Next stop was the Plaza de la Revolucion where a million people came to see Pope John Paul II in 1998. Today we're the only ones there. The Plaza is surrounded by ugly government buildings and on the wall of the interior ministry building is the large mural of Che Guevara. Kirsten was more interested in the old timers parked nearby!

We wanted to go and see a church but we had already walked quite a few miles in the heat so we asked a Coco taxi how much the 1km journey would be - 10 CUC! Rip off! We politely said no and started walking. A small battered car pulled up to us. It was a taxi and the driver asked us if we needed him. We haggled a price for 2 CUC and drove to the Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon, the only marble church in Cuba. Inside there were lots of colourful stained glass windows.

We headed back towards Havana Vieja via the Chinese Quarter which looks anything but Chinese! There was a huge queue outside a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant. We'd only just got there when the heavens opened and it poured with rain. We took shelter in the doorway and checked the menu but the queue was too long as it was a Saturday so we'd have to come back. Instead we went to another restaurant nearby for expensive spring rolls and a drink.

Back to our Casa for a few hours rest and lots of cups of tea - we were really thirsty. Lourdes was doing a major cleaning job but told us that she had booked all our accommodation for us and would give us a list with all the details. Super!

We went back to the Crêperie for dinner. Kirsten had a salmon crêpe and half of Helen's chicken and veg crêpe - Helen needed to save some space for a banana chocolate crêpe for dessert! Yummy!

Sunday, 23.10.2016: Havana - sunny morning, a few clouds in the afternoon, 27°C

We met a couple from Spain and Italy at breakfast the next morning and spoke in Spanish. They had arrived very late last night and would be in Cuba for two weeks. We gave them tips as if we were travel guide writers! Lourdes was listening in whilst she was preparing breakfast (toasted cheese and ham sandwiches, plus freshly squeezed juice, fruit and tea/coffee) and came in to tell them that she had never met guests who brought their own printouts of maps and were so well prepared! I may not have had much time but at least I had the basics. Kirsten hadn't had time to look at anything and so all she had to do was sit back and enjoy a real holiday!!

It was Sunday today and we headed out to go to Callejón de Hamel where there would be Cuban music and dancing from noon until 3pm. The music is played in a small and narrow alleyway, with bath tubs in concrete as seats, various sculptures and murals. The small area got really crowded and most of the people there were Cubans who come to hear their music played.

The first band consisted of about 10 women who sang, played various instruments (different bongos, shakers and other percussion instruments) and were really good. I stood on a small wall so I could see above the crowd and danced along. Some of the dancers were also in costumes and they were all very professional performers. We really enjoyed the first 1.5 hours and so did everyone else, dancing and singing along.

Even I was singing the oft repeated refrains although I hadn't quite got the lyrics right - "No agua" (No water), "No sopa" (no soup), "Hoy es un tenedor (today is a fork!) No one corrected me though so maybe I was right after all!

Between bands we went off for a break and walked to the bakery we had found the day before for cakes and a cold drink. Back to the music, there was a male band playing who, in my humble opinion, weren't as good but then the female group returned for another session. I danced with a Cuban who was surprised how good an old white female can swing her hips!!

Then another Cuban did a very low limbo dance and leaned back almost touching his feet with his back! I said "Oh I can do that" and pretended to go backwards - of course I can't really do that, it was just a joke. But my dance partner caught on very quickly and stood behind me. With his help I leaned all the way down to the floor! What he didn't realise was that I would be a bit heavy to haul back up again - the give away was the short doubtful look on his face before he gave another push and got me back up again! It certainly entertained the crowd and I was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek from my dance partner!

Live music at Callejón de Hamel

It was great fun and we saw how much the Cubans enjoy music and dancing. Then it was back to the Casa so Kirsten could work on the 1500 photos she had taken in less than three hours!! We went to an Italian restaurant for our evening meal - spaghetti Carbonara for me and shrimp and mushroom pasta for Kirsten.

Cuba is not known for its gourmet food - the meat can be very chewy, the pasta isn't al dente but overcooked and mushy - but we had chosen La Dominica because it was recommended in the Lonely Planet for it's al dente pasta. It was a very good meal. We're leaving Havana tomorrow but are already looking forward to our return.