Cuba had always fascinated me due to its location, tropical climate, incredible architecture and my love of old vintage classic cars.
I read countless travel guides and websites in preparation for my visit, but nothing could have prepared me for the slow pace of life and no McDonald’s or Starbucks. It was a relief to witness a country that hadn’t been taken over by America and had something different to offer.
As soon as we landed and headed over to the immigration area the slowness kicked in. I had never queued for over two hours to just pass through immigration. I had never seen a queue move so slowly and everyone around me thinking it was normal. In London we speed through things and don’t spend hours queuing and our queues are, well straight.
Once out of the airport, I was keen to explore the country despite the five-hour time difference. We quickly got some money changed which took far too long and hopped in a cab which took us to our Casa Particular. I had never heard of the Casa Particular concept before visiting Cuba and was a bit apprehensive about staying in someone’s house. The concept is a bit like airbnb with a Cuban twist. We arrived at our Casa which looked like it was a room in a war-torn looking street in the old part of Havana. The bed had satin sheets and wasn’t quite to my taste, but hey once in Cuba, you have to embrace all things Cuban. I quickly learnt that you could haggle on the price for everything in Cuba. Being Asian haggling came natural to me.
Walking down the street towards the old part of Havana I noticed that people were staring at my companion and myself. I asked my Amiga if I had anything on my face and she said no. Me and my Amiga are both Muslim so we dressed slightly different to the rest of the Cubans. My amigo was a hijabi (wore a Muslim head-dress) and was worried how she would be received by the Cubans. But the Cubans were mesmerised by the two of us and the head scarf turned into a talking point. It also made us stick out like a sore thumb amongst the scantily clad babes and signalled to the Cubans that we were tourists.
One thing to note about Cuban men, they love women. It doesn’t matter if you are fat, thin, short or tall, Cuban men just love women and there will always be a dashing Cuban willing to teach you salsa or a few other things. I had a few gentlemen try to teach me salsa, but salsa is a very intimate dance and I wasn’t too partial to getting to up close and personal to the Cuban studs.
Havana is a chaotic city full of hustle and bustle and con artists looking to prey on the next tourist. But, if you overlook this you’ll find a city full of charm and character. Each street tells its own story and no two streets look the same. You can find run down and beautifully restored buildings all in same street. The street I fell in love with is Caix Havana which is a street filled with incredible cafes, art shops and houses.
My Amiga keen to smoke a Cuban cigar in Havana enlisted the help of a local Cuban to buy a cigar for the bargain price of 3CUC (£2) from a local cigar selling. The guide books all advise against this and I can see why. Not one to miss a bargain and an opportunity, we thought we had struck a great deal. We lit the cigar in the old square and puffed away only to start coughing and having a sore throat. I wasn’t a cigar smoker or even a smoker, but I struggled to smoke the very harsh cigar which tasted foul. We put it down to a cheap cigar, little did we know that the cigar was a fake and had banana leaves inside it. Note to self, don’t get conned and follow the guidebook tips.
I was horrified to discover that Havana had no WiFi. Yes, that is right no WiFi. They even have WiFi in rural villages in India and Pakistan. How were we going to survive 12 days without WiFi? My poor phone would be a neglected iPhone. There was light at the end of the tunnel and we quickly discovered that you could get WiFi at three hotels in Havana but it cost more than a three course lobster meal in a local restaurant. Therefore, we decided to forgo WiFi and instead resort to face to face communication. I have to say it was a delight to have real conversations with people without constantly checking my phone every five minutes to see if anyone still cares to see if I’m still alive.
We spent our first three nights in Havana and then continued to Vinnales and Las Terraz for one night for a spot of horse riding in the mountains and a visit to a cigar factory. We shared a taxi with a couple from Germany and went on our way in a car that could only be described as a shed. I expected to be escorted in a 1950s Cadillac. But, no we got an old banger that didn’t even have seat belts. Out taxi driver arranged by the nice Casa owners turned out to be a bit of a shifty geezer. He took us on a whirlwind tour of Las Terraz which lasted about 15 minutes before he whisked us of to his mate’s cigar factory.
At the cigar factory we discovered how cigars were made and sampled a few fine cigars. The cigars tasted so much better than the one we bought from the back streets of Havana. The cigar owner’s wife offered us lukewarm tasteless coffee. Cuba is not known for its coffee and I can see why. I decided to purchase two cigars, yes two cigars to the dismay of the cigar factory owner who said a few choice words in Spanish in disgust at our poor spending habits. His wife even wanted money for the coffee, even though it was vile. I am not tight, but I refuse to pay for something that looks like lukewarm piss and tastes shit.
We left the cigar factory and carried out to Vinnales with a pit stop at a scenic location which involved gentle persuasion by the taxi driver to eat at his mate’s restaurant. Note to self, Cuba is not known for its culinary delights. If you like rice and beans and fish, then it’s a gourmet paradise for you. If you like your food with a hint of flavour, then you’ll be very disappointed. The only western food I spotted was cheese and ham sandwiches on hard bread and undercooked pizza. One trick to learn whilst travelling in Cuba is to get some of your hard-earned cash changed into Cubano peso. That way you can buy an undercooked pizza from the local street stalls for a bargain price of 6 peso about 25p. For that price you can’t go wrong or complain and eat to your heart’s content.
Once at our Casa which was a dusty little room with satin sheets (what is the obsession with satin sheets?) we decided to go horse riding in the valley with the local cowboy. The valleys are breath taking and tranquil. Vinnales is so calm compared to Havana. We ventured to a little cave where we had to buy lights to enter the cave. We had to buy a light per person, even though we only needed one. The cave was very eerie and dark, but definitely worth a visit. Our cowboy showed us a few tricks on his horse and tried to teach us Salsa. But this girl has two left feet when it comes to Salsa and isn’t a fan of men who have rough hands, so the lesson was over very quickly. However, I did offer him some hand cream to smooth his hands.
We only spent one night in Vinnales and managed to arrange a shared taxi to Cienfuegos, the old port town the next day with a French couple.
Our taxi driver was late, but this is Cuba and people are never on time. We set of in a new car with seatbelts to Havana where we were going to swap cars. Once at Havana we were transported to a new car, well an old car with no seat belts and a new driver. The driver was a cracker and switched on his reggaton (Cuban hip hop) tracks and proceeded to tell me how he shaved all his body hair and didn’t need Viagra. It was more information than I needed to know and I felt like I knew him better than I needed to. I was also a little disturbed when he asked me to stroke his arm hair’s and lifted his top to show me his toned hair free torso. The guy was 50 and in good condition, but it was a little too much for a mid-afternoon drive along the highway.
On our journey to Cienfugos we broke down. This didn’t surprise me as the car was a shed, and as we had already paid the first driver we were stuck so had to stick with Mr smooth as satin. Our hairless Cuban driver decided to repair the car which only took him about an hour as we watched the cars and people go by. Not one person stopped to help us or see if we were well okay or needed some water given it was about 35 degrees and we had no shade. Finally after an hour we were on the road. Woohoo, we were meant to arrive in Cienfuegos at 1, but we arrived at 4. Note to self, nothing in Cuba happens on time.
Part two to come soon