Havana – Cigars, Cool Cars and the Legend of El Che

It was whilst working for a somewhat dubious marketing company in Sydney in 2001 that I first became aware of the power of FEAR OF LOSS. The company I worked for used ‘fear of loss’ as a verb and we were actively encouraged to work this angle to the utmost in order to sign customers up to the company product. Which in this case was a regular subscription to three of the big, heavyweight Australian charities – not an obvious fear of loss candidate. Nevertheless, people signed up in their droves and I assuaged any feelings of marketing-ploy guilt on my part with the thought that the doctors would continue to fly and hearts would continue to be researched.

Havana trafficAt a national level, no country does fear of loss as well as Cuba; if you haven’t been then anyone who has will quickly tell you in a confidential ‘take it from me, I seriously know what I am talking about’ tone that you need to book your ticket fast – the changing face of Castro-maintained socialism is not going to stand around waiting for you for long.

Stage one of your Cuban experience is to get those flights booked and it goes without saying that the earlier you book, the greater the chance you’ll have of getting a good deal. Virgin fly directly to Cuba from the UK; I have heard they also serve vegetarian food and show films on their flights, but the air steward on AirEuropa scoffed when he overheard me saying this so perhaps this is a myth. I booked December flights for myself and my husband in February and as this holiday was a gift and in the spirit of puritan anti-excess, I naturally opted for the cheaper option involving a flight change in Madrid. Neither of us had heard of AirEuropa before; they are in many ways like the Ryanair of long-haul flights. That is all.

Nearly eleven hours later, having nearly been broken by the adverts on repeat in the plane which seemed, subliminally to be telling me to ‘kill the child kicking the back of your seat, kill him, kill him, the other passengers will support you’, we arrived at Havana at night. Exuding a level of travel breath that would be graded as ‘extreme’ by the World Health Organisation, we made our way painlessly through immigration control and had our tourist cards stamped. You need to apply for these cards in advance of your trip to Cuba and will be refused entry without one. Tourist visas cost around £20 and allow you to spend 30 days in the country; Cuba demonstrates its fondness for Canadians by allowing them 90 days per tourist card. Perhaps this random fact will be significant later on. We used www.visacuba.com and were pleasantly surprised as to how straightforward and quick the process was: India and Russia, please take note – you are just being ridiculous.

Lady of HavanaThe government has stepped up its entry requirements on the travel insurance front, so be sure to bring a copy of your policy and insurance certificate showing names of those travelling to avoid being delayed. No one asked to see our documents which is just as well as we saw signs up clearly emphasising that only ‘approved’ insurance providers were accepted, and who knows where Natwest stands on that front – we certainly didn’t. If in doubt, VisaCuba are also an approved insurance provider. I should emphasise that I am not employed by this company (yet!).

Cuba’s economy is based on two currencies, CUC$ which are widely used by tourists (1 CUC roughly equals 1 USD), and Cuban Pesos (CUP) which are rarely used by the vast majority of tourists, but can be handy to have when travelling around. We only used CUC for the duration of our time in Cuba, and brought Sterling with us to change along the way, in addition to our bank cards, to be used at ATMs. Currently, the worst currency you can bring with you is American dollars, largely because you pay a 10% penalty on top of the standard 10% commission fee for having the nerve to even look in the direction of the star-spangled elephant in the room. Well done for making it awkward.

Before leaving the airport, many travellers join the long queue to change money for their onward journey inside the airport, however it is worth checking in advance to see if your hotel has an oficina de cambio. Taxi drivers are generally happy to accept money in Sterling, or to drive you to your hotel and wait for you to change your money there. If you have had the misfortune of flying with AirEuropa then this small tip will buy you precious minutes in the race to stop your empty stomach from digesting itself.

Havana - The locals are friendlyCabs are supposed to charge a flat rate of 25 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC$) from the airport to Central Havana, where we had booked to stay for the next three nights, however the official taxi company we used had upped their rate to 40 CUC indicating that things are changing in Cuba’s previously tightly controlled economy faster than they can print the guide books. Or it meant that we got ripped off.

The drive from the airport to the city centre was, in a word, dark. Our taxi driver soon gave up trying to challenge the stereotype that British people are largely ignorant and lazy when it comes to learning any language other than English, and left us to stare silently out of the window at the passing sights and infamous, classic dinocars.

Havana - Cool CarsHavana offers a wide range of accommodation choices; based on a family recommendation, we booked the Parque Central which turned out to be most central indeed, and a great base from which to explore the city. The Parque Central is generally viewed as being the best hotel Havana has to offer, its five star rating comes with an impressive price tag, albeit on a half-board basis, which does at least help you to justify the cost to an extent.

Many hotels in Cuba carry a three night minimum stay, which is worth knowing in advance if you have your heart set on staying in one. The Parque Central has a lovely rooftop pool and bar with views over the city, as well as an impressive lobby, which was beautifully decked out for Christmas as we arrived on Boxing Day. They have live music most nights, and a lovely bar area that somehow reminded me of the film Lost in Translation (the bit where the lady with the red hair is singing Midnight at the Oasis – oh Bill Murray, how could you?). You will be asked if you want to buy a cigar from the cigar tray, which is ceremoniously wheeled about the place by the cigar girl. We fully intended to buy a Partacus cigar for our friend James Axford (do you know him?) to pass on to his friend, who is the actor currently playing Spartacus in the TV series, but somehow this plan (which for a while was our best plan of 2014), was not realised.  BUT I DIGRESS…

Havana - El CheArriving late at the Parque Central was not without its perks; as full board guests we were entitled to a good, hearty Cuban dinner, so we headed straight down to the restaurant having dropped our bags in our room. I would fully advise that anyone staying here find a reason to be a little bit late for dinner (which closes at 10pm), as the buffet (which we had the following night and were really unimpressed with) had been cleared away and along with some other latecomers, we enjoyed an excellent three course meal that we ordered a la carte. The beef carpaccio was amazing, and the spaghetti bolognaise I ordered for my main was also pretty high up there. The tiramisu sadly paled in comparison to Aunty Bridie’s benchmark, however you probably would have had the advantage of still being ok to drive should you have needed to after eating the hotel’s offering.

Check the time on the TV in your room is correct. This will help you to avoid setting your alarm clock incorrectly, and therefore needlessly getting up an hour early for breakfast. You may have guessed that I am a survivor of this exact set of circumstances; at 7am I was dressed and ready for breakfast. At 7:10am I was commenting to my husband Will that the hotel was “one of those places that has bottles of free champagne out for breakfast! God, who could face it?!”. At 7:40 am I was accepting the champagne-filled glass that Will handed to me and drinking it saying “gosh! It’s not even 9am yet!” It was at this stage that Will, who looking back on the mornings’ events had seemed very surprised that I was so sprightly, pointed out that it wasn’t even 8am, which also explained why it was still quite dark.

Getting to breakfast early did have the advantage of allowing us to bypass the hordes, and there literally were hordes, of guests who were queuing up at a more respectable time the following morning; we assumed that this must have been a cruise ship stop-off.

Cuban cigarsA good way to start off your first day in Cuba is with a walking tour; we took a two hour tour for 40 CUC with an English-speaking local guide called Eerahisy (00 53 52548034/ 00 53 8670633) who picked us up from the hotel and offered us the option of being driven round the city in one of the horse–drawn carriages parked outside. Eerahisy gave us a wealth of information about Havana, and at the end of our two hour tour with her, we were given a whiskery kiss each and let loose on the streets of Havana feeling reassuringly orientated. An open-top bus tour also operates around the city and is a much cheaper alternative. The tour picks up regularly from Parque Central and allows passengers to hop on and hop off around Havana and neighbouring Miramar for around 5 CUC per person.

Havana is very easy to navigate on foot, and walking between the four main squares of Old Havana will allow you to stop off at cigar shops, a wide variety of museums and numerous bars with links to Ernest Hemingway. There are few other places I can think of where the sight of a rat riding a dog, a dog wearing glasses, and an old woman with a massive cigar, accompanied by a Siamese cat in a dress are largely blanked, as they’re not seen as being that unusual. By one of the squares, Will was approached by two rather large Cuban mommas, with the intention of presenting themselves as a two for the price of one photo opportunity. Polite refusal was getting Will nowhere and having circled him in ever tightening circles, they went in for the kill. Turning to see what was happening, I saw Will make a break for it and powerwalking between them in a bid to escape, while exclaiming in rather nervous tones “My Wife! My wife!”. Resistance was futile; they grabbed an arm each and waited for me to ready my camera before oil-slicking his cheeks with huge fuschia-pink lipstick marks, remnants of which were still visible hours later. If you take a picture then you pay – expect a public shaming by indignant locals who set themselves up as photo opportunities if you don’t, this is how many people make a living in Havana.

On the topic of alcohol, the mojitos we tried in Havana were a serious let-down. Just to be sure of this, we tried them in most places we went to before I finally gave up and moved to THE CUBANITO. Basically this cocktail is a Bloody Mary with rum as opposed to vodka; you can’t drink them too fast as they are so tomatoey, but this works out well as the service in Havana, and Cuba in general, is so astoundingly slow that the odds are heavily stacked against you drinking too much on a night out.

Cuban taxiThe Museo de la Revolucion (inside a former presidential palace decorated by Tiffany’s) is well worth a couple of hours visit, the Chocolate Museum on the other hand, is not. This is mainly because it isn’t really a museum, it is just a café specialising in chocolate, where you can see the chocolate-making process in the corner.

If you take a walk along Prado, the road that leads down to the Malecon, (Havana’s famous coastal road that leads to Miramar) you’ll come across some very original artwork being sold along the central walkway. This road more than most gives you the opportunity to truly appreciate the crumbling grandeur that epitomises this city. The Malecon is best investigated early in the morning, before the traffic fumes from hundreds of beautiful, old, pre-catalytic converter cars choke up the air. The old cars are so impressive to see being driven around in such large numbers that a little lead hardening of the arteries doesn’t seem to be to big a price to pay to witness them in action.

We stopped off at Los Gijones for a drink along the way, a small, friendly café that serves excellent coffee and the opportunity to take a good look at their ‘glorious revolution wall’, which displays photos of Fidel playing baseball and really getting into it by the look of things.

Fifty-five years after the revolution, the Cuban Government can say it has provided its people with the second highest ration of doctors per person in the world, it has reduced its infant mortality rate from 54 to 4.7 per 1,000, and has achieved a literacy rate of 99.8% (higher than that of its old rival the USA). This final statistic is all the more impressive when you take into account the GDP per capita – $5,382 per capita in Cuba, compared to $49,965 in the USA. Havana may be faded around the edges, but sympathetic restoration is taking place across the city, giving it new life. Visit it now or visit it in twenty years time, you will not lose out, as long as at some point you book your flights and go.