‘Cuba’ I answered
The question was what place would I like to visit as part of our annual anniversary trip. My wife is the planner and I am the traveller. Since she has visited most of the world, it does become difficult to find new places to visit. So this time we decided to visit 2 countries we both had never been to before, Mexico and Cuba.
After visiting Mexico via Miami, we flew to Cuba. Cuba, the very word stirs up visions of old American classic cars and a world from the 1960’s and Cuba is all that and more. Anyway let’s start from the very beginning – getting to Cuba
Travel to Cuba
Visa – Cuba has a facility of a Cuba tourist cards, but there is huge ambiguity on Indians being eligible for the same and how exactly does one procure it. While there are links which promise the same, when we got down to doing it no one could help out so we went the old fashioned way and got a Cuban Visa. If you are planning this be assured it will take a bit of time. There are just a couple of agents in India who can do it, so plan properly.
Our processing time in Mumbai was more than 10 days as the passports have to go to Delhi and then come back. We both had active US visas, however that doesn’t help in getting a Cuban Visa any quicker. Thankfully doesn’t impact it adversely.
Miami was our port of entry into North America. The primary reason was that we got cheap tickets and my wife wanted to meet her sister who is studying in the US. Flights to Mexico and Cuba from Mumbai otherwise cost a bomb and Miami is a good place to visit. Also if you have a US visa then entry into Mexico doesn’t need another Visa, so you can put your effort into getting a US tourist visa which also opens up many other countries. However do check with each country independently as the Visa status changes.
We flew into Cuba from Cancun in Mexico. Jose Marti airport is named after the man who unified Cubans against the Spanish. He is the equivalent of a Mahatma Gandhi in India. Interestingly Fidel Castro the man who would be considered the creator of modern (or classical) Cuba, has passed an edict under which no statues or monuments of him are allowed in Cuba. wish our leaders did that too!
Now as soon as you land in Cuba, you realise that the country is in some sort of suspended animation. The colour, the decor, the styling is definitely from the 70-80s. We stood in a long immigration line. For some reason our passports were scrutinised and we were made to continue waiting near the line (Happened to another Indian colleague so be prepared).
Immigration lines forever give me stress, even after being in roles in countries which had me travelling to a new country almost monthly. I am always worried that we may have missed some small little document. Apparently we were stopped because we had effectively just asked for a 4 day tourist Visa. When questioned by an officer (in plain clothes), I told him that was because that was all the leave we got and smiled apologetically. He took all our passports new and old (suggest you carry all of them) and scanned through them near the window. After 10 minutes we were called to the window, shown our passport. The lady dressed in uniform looked at us and said, ‘Welcome to Cuba’. Sigh of relief.
Havana airport departure area is a big mess. It is also one of the last points in Cuba where you have access to an ATM. Since we had run through our dollars and had carried some Euros for conversion in Cuba, we needed to get hold of CUCs. Cuba has 2 currencies, CUPs (Cuban Pesos) for the locals to buy essentials and CUCs (Cuba convertible currency) for tourists. As tourists we carry limited cash, preferring to use the card to pay for our transactions. It feels safer too. In Cuba though we carried cash in Euros as conversion from Euros to CUCs causes less loss (lower transaction charges) than from dollars. The CUC though is pegged to the USD which defies why there is an extra cost on converting USDs.
Travel and communication
Cuba is a Spanish speaking country, like most of the American continent. With my limited Spanish skills which was generally misunderstood, we were more than happy to find our B&B owner was fluent in English. He was most helpful in also getting us a cab to pick us up from the airport. This is something I would suggest as cabs are expensive otherwise and difficult to coordinate with courtesy the language barrier and more importantly the lack of mobile connectivity or wifi. While we have heard of Etecsa services (Cuba’s AT&T or BSNL) being available to foreigners since we came back to India, when we visited Cuba in April 2018, no Etecsa booths were at the airport. Also no Wifi signal, which is uncanny for an international airport.
Cab ride cost: 30 CUC (std fare from airport to Havana city)
We were greeted by our cab pickup service, A cuban couple Marie and John who held up a a board. What followed was a deluge of Spanish from Marie responded to by a deluge of english from my wife. Both did not understand each other but looked happy. We were escorted across a car park full of cars manufactured from the 50’s till 2018.
Expecting a classic car, we were taken to a Russian car which had very little space but a lot of heart, grunting on each gear change. Cuba due to the embargo from the US, its closest neighbour has had one tough time getting new cars. Russia stepped in as an industrial partner but their cars were really nothing to write home about. Therefore the Cubans have developed the art of Jugad (innovation), they kept cars from the 60’s running sheerly due to necessity and now they have become an integral part of the experience
The car took us across parts of the Malecon, which is Cuba’s Marine drive. The drive to Old Havana is a historical tour in itself where you get to see landmarks like the hotel nacional de Cuba. On the way we managed to understand that the couple who were driving us had a son who had visited India. Cuba during the days of the Soviet Union had very good relations with India. Then we turned away from the Malecon into Old Havana. Our first sight of Old Havana was a little worrisome, we entered the area through a decrepit old street in which the car hardly fit. One of the buildings on the road looked like it had caved in.
While we do travel quite a bit, we somehow have always avoided Air B&B as we always found hotels which met our requirements. Then Cuba posed a bit of a problem as the hotels did not meet our review score expectations and therefore we booked our first Air B&B Casa Habana Flores which also featured on booking.com. In Havana, as with the rest of Cuba, property is owned by the government, so most of the buildings are a bit dilapidated. We walked into what could be described as a European style building and reached our B&B. The entrance and the location had us a little worried and then we met this young girl who gave us the keys. Our wonderful car driver couple bid us farewell. The girl then gave us a fair idea of how to travel around Havana and most importantly gave us a phone which could be used for local and also in emergency international calls. Having not informed India of our successful entry into Cuba and seeing the decrepit state of the road we tried reaching out to our parents, who couldn’t be reached. Then informed my wife’s sister in Chicago who was told to pass the message on.
We stepped out of the room a little worried. While we don’t really flaunt around wealth while travelling, as we don’t really carry much, I do carry a camera and we had to carry cash and this road looked a little scary. We walked down the empty O’Reilly road which looked like the widest road to the centre of Havana where we laid our eyes on some of the most beautiful cars ever. This is the square called Parque Central right next to the Capital building which is the location of hotel Manzana, La Floridita and the Alicia Alonso Theatre. The beauty of this park and the hotels is a far cry from Old Havana’s darker streets.
Advice: Download Google Maps offline map on your phone as there is no concept of data on mobile phones in Cuba
Paseo De Marti
The Parque Central is connected to the Malecon via the Paseo De Marti which is this beautiful road with a central walking area similar to a La Ramblas in Barcelona. It is a nice road to walk through and immerse yourself in the culture of Havana. Adventurous people that we are we decided we must watch the Sunset at Malecon, which is another popular attraction of Havana
The Malecon is Havana’s marine drive. It is a road by the sea where you can sit back and relax. While the laws on whether drinking on the roads in Havana is allowed was a little unclear to us, we saw people having rum from Tetra packs, which was pretty cool. The Malecon can be recognised from a few movies shot here.
We walked back in almost pitch darkness with few street lights. Tourists are supposed to be very safe in Havana but the city can get a tad dark. It was then on our way back that we realised that we had taken the wrong road. Obispo is the road which has all the tourist traffic. This road is as touristy as it gets. Also imagine our surprise when we walked in from this side and realised that La Bodeguita del Medio was our neighbour.
La Bodeguita Del Medio
La Bodeguita is the restaurant where Mojitos were invented and the Mojitos are to die for. Fresh, lemony and quite tasty. This little bar has been frequented by everyone from Ernest Hemingway, Paulo Neruda to Gabriel Garcias Marquez and therefore can be a little busy but if you are lucky and look exotic amongst the European tourists, you get special attention :). Intrigued with the speed at which Mojitos were being made I shot this video. The mojito obviously gets its flavour from the crushed mint, lime and the unique Cuban rum, though there is this lemony drink added which gives it a unique flavour.
Day 2 – Walking tour
Day 2 is when we decided to go on a walking tour. Walking tours are something we would always suggest to travellers as they are generally done by locals and they tell you stuff about the place that a lot of guide books don’t tell you. With Cuba, since there already is very little info, it helps even more.
For starters, the average Cuban person in a government job gets all the basics of life like rice, healthcare etc easily, but buying anything else is a major issue. So this is where Cubans had to depend on their American relatives to help them out with money to get stuff like say an Iphone. Now with tourism opening out a lot of educated Cubans are getting into it leaving their government jobs. One of those was our guide Jose. He took us through the streets of Havana, telling us a lot about Cuban life. One tip we got was to not walk under balconies of Havana as they are crumbling. since the government owns the buildings, they repair it, however there is a bit of a waiting list
Plaza De La Catedral
Plaza de La Catedral is the church to visit when here. situated right next to a Bodeguita, it is unlikely you will miss it. Not too ostentatious, it has a simple architecture and is quite well maintained. We walked along the quaint European constructions past Museo 28 de Sieptembre onwards to the main plaza.
The main Plaza is where the Capitol building an exact copy of the Washington Capitol building is. However this one is slightly taller and everyone in Cuba makes sure to mention it
The beauty of the Capitol building is in the buildings facing it. They house one of cuba’s best restaurants and yet look old and dilapidated and yet have a lot of character. The architecture and work done needs to be seen to be appreciated
El Floridita Bar
Ernest Hemingway lived in Havana and after Jose Marti he is the most famous person in Havana and he frequented El Floridita. The El Floridita bar is famous for it’s daquiris which are really tasty. At the end of a long day we downed a few and walked out for dinner at one of the fabulous Havana restaurants Al Cappucino where were also serenaded by Cuba’s wonderful singers all who look like they stepped out of a 70’s jazz bar.
Cuba at night
Cuba at night has an easy vibe. We didn’t encounter any party place as such. What you get to see is beautiful buildings like the Hotel Manzana, Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso” and the main plaza along with street art and beautiful cars parked along the road
The classic car tour
Cuba’s cars deserve a post of their own. We had booked ourselves a tour of Cuba by classic car which meant that we landed up at the Museo De La Revolucion, which is a definite must visit. Some confusion on Air bnb meant that we had booked ourself one seat on a group trip, which is not what we had planned for. However on a special request the gentleman car driver called his young American return cousin Sally
While we ended up travelling in at least 5 classic cars, mostly red. each car ride seemed special. The first one as they say is always the best. It also took us all around cuba from the Nacional hotel to the beautiful Fusterlandia
Fuserlandia is Havana’s mini Parc Guell. Jose Fuster a local artist started using chips to decorate his house and kept going till he decorated all his neighbours’ house too. The place has multiple floors with a floor dedicated to love and other floors full of beautiful designs.
Museo de la Revolucion
This is a must visit for anyone who wants to understand the history of Cuba. Cuba after all is a country which fought for its freedom from the Spanish and then revolted against dictatorial governments propped up by the US. The defiance of Fidel Castro, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guera and camilio Cienfugos got Cuba freedom and the desire to end it’s dependence on USA brought in communism. Here you can read about the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis from the Communist viewpoint. While the current state of Cuba is no sales pitch for communism, it is interesting to see how this small nation kept itself free of American influence. Guantanamo bay does receive mention here as occupied Cuba.
We did visit in the time of Trump when we were told the US embassy which had been opened by Obama had been closed down. The common man in Cuba has relatives in Miami sending him money and essentials. Unlike other communist countries, Fidel Castro actually revelled in allowing his people to escape to America.
The Granma memorial
Granma is the yacht which brought 82 freedom fighters to Cuba to wage a war for independence. The Granma memorial still houses the Yacht along with other famous revolution vehicles.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña
The last day we dedicated to visiting the fort across the water, where the guns protecting Havana were once placed. this part of Cuba needs half a day to explore at least. What with well maintained forts which are huge but don’t have much in the way of buildings inside. It also gives a beautiful view of Havana which must be seen
And thus ended our short trip to Havana. You also must visit the Revolution square which we passed through and probably the Bacardi museum which has mixed reviews. The Havana Rum is quite cheap, though there is an extremely high end version available too. Since we had our bags full of Mezcal, we couldn’t carry enough rum. what we did carry were memories of a time that stood still, beautiful cars and a communist country, which has God standing across the harbour blessing it’s capital
Havana – a must visit
-Pranay with Aanandita