Caught up in the system
Visiting Cuba in January 2017 is still going back to a developing country. Cuba is still very regulated. Stores, hotels, restaurants, transportation, space eg. are mostly state-run businesses. Private citizens can provide accommodation in casa particulaires and run restaurants in paladars, However, business is very much regulated. Everything must be reported to the government at all times. For example, private citizens renting rooms must report all guests within 12 hours of arrival. Paladars, private restaurants, report an invent all sales daily. As we discussed with other foreign visitors, many told the same: local private casa providers would very much like to maintain and improve the outline of their houses; however, for some peculiar reason the state wants to maintain an older and a bit rustic appearence on the buildings and private business.
Images: Revolution square (where parades were held in Revolution day celebrations) and everyday traffic in Havanna.
Stores carry basic necessities for locals, but there’s really no selection nor supermarkets carriyig miscellaneous products. Bread you get from bakery, milk in a dairy shop, meat from butcher’s, veggies from veggie market etc. Snacks from occasional snack carts you may spot in some parks. Restaurants and bars are luckily plenty with wide menus. Liquour shops are everywhere. As a tourist travelling with a child this was a bit annoying since all meals have to be eaten in restaurants or food booths (that were not all that clean and fresh…). That adds up to your expenses fast. Hotels carry some sanitary products and baby products, but with very limited offering. What struck to us as Northern Europeans was the price level – Havanna seemed to be as expensive as our capitol Helsinki, with the exeption of meals and drinks in restaurants being cheaper (eg our average 3 person meal with 2 or 3 dishes + 3 drinks was about 20-30 euros). Prices drop when you leave Havanna to other parts of Cuba.
Pictures from left: 1) long long Malecon, the beach avenue running from the Old town to newer parts. 2) Plaza Vieja, a charming old plaza with restaurants & live music, 3) Hotel Nacional and 4) Hotel Sevilla, in which some actions of revolutions took place
To travellers euros are worth a lot more than US dollars. If you change currency, bring euros. You get a lot more. If you exchange US dollars, you lose a lot (at least in Dec 2016). ATMs sometime work, other times they don’t. Apparently they can also eat up you card so a risk involved. If they work, you get a much better rate! Otherwise Havanna seemed to be quite safe, even to stroll on the streets of Old town with a child at night. Althoug, we did witness a tourist getting mugged by a 10-12 year-old local boy stealing a mobile phone just outside of a big hotel entrance.
When in Havanna, visit the Museum of Revolution and the old Presidents’ castle. It’s definitely telling the story – through Cuban revolutionary lenses. Still, it is a journey to history not too long ago. It was really an interesting trip to what made Cuba what still is today. Museum entrance fees are only 8 convertible pesos per adult and kids enter free of charge. Museum has several halls filled with photographs and articles collected during the Revolution events in 1959-1960, when Castro lead the revolution and took over former president Batista. The building has been Presidents’ palace for all Cuban presidents office, goverment meetings as well as official state visits. You can still witness several bullet holes in the walls from battles.
Images: Revolution Museum, newspapers in local library & picture of Al Pacino in Hotel Sevilla
As we were in Cuba just weeks after Fidel Castro passed away and Revolution memory day Jan 1st celebrations took place, it was really like living the history right there. A visit to Plaza de Revolution (a huge square with monuments and monumental buildings with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara portrayed on the walls) is on most tour routes, but can easily be visited on your own too. The Square is about 5 km from the Capitol National, or a 15-20 CUC taxi ride away (one way). Recently named “Eternal Commander in Chief”, Fidel Castro is very much present and idolized everywhere in the country. To what seems propaganda to us is strong, but then again, it gives hope for a better future for the people. His brother Raul still leads the country; however, it’s hard to imagine what comes after the Castro era.
Images: El Capitolio, one of main streets, Malecon at night
Plaza de Armas is a guaranteed spot for eating out, listening to authentic cuban music and purchasing local souvenirs. Blocks around provide plently for tourists, as do most streets all the way up to Prado, a big avenue dividing the Old town and newer Havanna. The same with Plaza Viejo, the “Old square” close to harbour for big cruisers and other passenger boats. Live cuban music is everywhere. There is no bar that would not provide live Cuban music. A bar with no live music has no customers. Musicians play on tips and selling their cds so contributions are expected.
Fumes behind the beauty of classics
Among strong Spanish influence, and American spice in Havanna is very visible. Old classic cars from the 1950’s America are everywhere and are strongly a part of Havannan image. What is there not to like about sitting in an old colourful and well-maintained American classic convertible and just stroll around the city while driver giving you a tour?
In addition to American oldmobiles, Russian counterpart Ladas are still widely in use. And they are all in heavy use everyday as distances in the city are quite big and public transportation available only in newer parts. Besides American classics and Russian Ladas, there are several possibilities to get around on a bicycle taxi, on a horse carriage or a little three-wheel moped taxis. Trucks can’t be really seen in the Old town; however, very much present in the back alleys and newer parts. And when everything with an old motor on goes on a 83 octave gasoline, you can only imagine the pollution and fumes they bring to this pretty town…! Something that would never be accepted back home (but was very much common still in the 1970-80’s…).
Images: Our hotel in El Prado, an avenue dividing Old town and new town, old classics everywhere, and even moped taxis have to stop for (poor mixture) of gas…
Sure, why not. It’s a city with plenty to do. If I did, I would go in an adult-only trip, make sure to stay in a fine hotel with good services, a pool and decent location in the Old town. I believe in an adults-only trip you can get even more out of the colourful culture (not just the drinks, but eg shows too!). Havanna is ok to visit with kids too – eg. with a day trip from Varadero resort area. But to stay in Havanna, I would go with out and combine Havanna with a village in countryside. That is quite easily done and can be arranged when in Havanna too! Next time I go to Cuba, I’ll be surely visiting East end of the country, eg Santiago de Cuba.