After reading Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’ we were pretty excited to go to Cuba. And we found Havana to be surprisingly accessible given its reputation, it is just a short, cheap flight from Cancun. However, as soon as you arrive in the airport you feel as if you are going back in time. It doesn’t look like things have changed here for decades. Leaving the airport was quite time consuming as we had to wait a long time for our bags and then wait for a long time in queues top get our money changed into Cuban CUCs. Interestingly, in Cuba they have two different currencies, one for tourists and one for locals. The CUC is for tourists and is pegged at the American Dollar. This is the currency you need to use because any activity you want to do or accommodation you stay in requires payment in CUCs. It is possible to get hold of the local CUP currency which you can mainly use at local food places. It allows you to eat really cheaply but we found it wasn’t really useful for anything else. With money in hand we caught a taxi to our accommodation in Old Havana. There is only one hostel in Havana, so everyone stays in Casas, which are local peoples’ homes where they rent out a few rooms. We had booked to stay at Casa Colonial Zaiden and it was fantastic. It was an old Spanish villa where the rooms were quaint and the breakfasts in the morning were gorgeous. Our hosts were lovely and helpful and it helped that they could speak some English (rare in Cuba!).
It turned out a few of our friends were going to be in Cuba at the same time, so we decided to explore the country together. It was great having a big group from New Zealand. Everything in Cuba is old, from the buildings to the cars. Vintage cars are everywhere and you can take a tour around the city in one of them, but good luck finding a guide who can explain anything in English. Our limited Spanish was pushed to the extreme. However, the ride was a lot of fun and we got to see a lot of the city.
Old Havana is beautiful, the roads are old stone and the buildings are all Spanish architecture. Communist propaganda posters and pictures of Che Guevara and the Castros adorn the walls. We never got bored simply exploring the streets.
While in Havana we took a walking tour of the city. Our accommodation hosts organised it for us with a friend of theirs from the University. He was a brilliant tour guide. At first he was very careful about what he said about Cuba and the regime, and stuck to talking about the Spanish architecture and occupation of the country. However, we soon wore him down and he spoke to us about the Castros and about the reality of life in Cuba. It was fascinating. He told us that there was not really any future in Cuba for anyone and the only occupation that you can make any real money in is tourism. But even to get into tourism you need to have a licence from the government – that guy busking on the street? Yes he has a licence from the government to be able to do this. People are still not allowed to criticise the government or the Castros, however, he told us you probably won’t die if you do, but they will make it very difficult for you and your family living in Cuba. The government in Cuba owns everything and dictates how people’s lives, from your occupation, to where you can live, even grocery stores don’t exist. All this was just so foreign to us, and it was crazy to learn all this while in a Communist country. One moment really struck me, it was when Andrew and I were buying some posters from a guy on the street and he was so well educated, and it hit me that this is the best that he could do with his life. It was sad.
However, Cubans do know how to have fun. Our nights in Havana were spent listening to live music, drinking mojitos and salsa dancing! We had such a blast on our Havana nights. People will tell you that the food is terrible in Cuba, but we found that it was actually not that bad. Just don’t expect any tacos or anything too ethnic. There are great, incredibly cheap, pizza places all over Havana.
We found Havana an incredibly interesting place to visit. We learnt a lot and we are so lucky to get to visit a place where the culture and ideology is so removed from our own.
Here is a breakdown of our costs for 3 days:
Budget = US$423 (NZ$600)
Accommodation – US$88.50
Activities – US$41
Food/Drink – US$223
Travel (incl. Taxis) – US$67.50
Miscellaneous – US$61
Total spent – US$481 (NZ$682)
Whew, Cuba is not cheap! We were US$58 (NZ$83) over budget. We definitely could have saved money on our food and drink budget, but we were just having way too much fun. Just a note that most of the ATMs worked for us with a VISA credit card.