old cars and rum
31.07.2013 - 03.08.2013 35 °C
We were incredibly excited as we got to the San Jose airport for the first of the two planes to get to Havana. After a little frustration of having to pay yet another airport tax, we were off to Panama and then Havana!
We arrived in the afternoon and were instantly hit with the humid heat. After changing our money into the two different currencies, which will always be baffling and incredibly frustrating, we headed off to Havana, not in an old 50's car, but in a Hyundai! But there were these old cars and buses everywhere. Puling up to our accommodation in Centro Habana we were struck with how run-down all these beautiful colonial buildings were and also there were just people everywhere. The people just live out on the street or from their balconies looking over the street. There was almost always more pedestrians than cars. In Cuba there is not really a hostel system in place, instead in the early nineties the government allowed families, under strict conditions to rent out rooms within their houses to people. It was one of the first forms of private enterprise allowed in the country. People of course still have to pay the government a fee for this but it an incredibly popular thing with Casa Particulars as they are called, everywhere. We were staying with Lidia and Argnelio who owned this particular house and they were so lovely and so interesting to see how the people live.
We spent the afternoon strolling around Habana Vieja, the old town. It was a fascinating place, if it was restored to its former glory it would feel so much like Cartagena in Colombia. It was so sticky walking around the streets, seeing the cafes and the stores. The shops are so different to ours. Absolutely everything in every store is kept in cabinets, there are no supermarkets or convience stores. Everything feels like you really need to know where it is and how to get it. Just finding a place to buy bottled water was hard enough. The other thing about Cuba is the food is TERRIBLE. We sat down at a restaurant recommended in Lonely Planet which was nice and cheap. You wouldn't think it is hard to screw up pizza or pasta but the whole country just can't cook. It's probably the ingredients they have to work with - the ham tasted like spam, and the cheese was just plain terrible and the chorizo was just mush, we didn't even see how it resembled a sausage. After our 'interesting' dinner we walked through the old town up to watch the sunset on the Malecon. A promenade along the sea linking Habana Veija, Habana Centro and Vadado - The old and the newer parts of the city. Then back through into Habana Vieja to a bar where we had some Mojito's and watched the salsa dancing while talking to an aussie guy from Parramatta also having a few drinks! (small world)
The next day was spent walking around all the sights of Habana Vieja - the beautiful refurbished squares, the grand buildings, having some semi-decent lunch and taking in the atmosphere. We also visited the Revolution Museum which sounded promising but was really just badly curated with a lot of propaganda. It was housed in the pre-revolution presidential palace and there were some bullet holes all around from an assasination attempt on Batista, the former 'tyrant'. Everything in Cuba is about the revolution, there are billboards everywhere with pictures of Fidel, Raul and Che along with passionate revolutionary words. The revolution museum was no different and had a section with vehicles used in the revolution that these guys drove and also the boat they attacked Cuba with. To be honest it made us a bit incensed, with how much propaganda there was. The government really does have tight control over the Cuban people and their way of life.
Another example of this tight control is Internet. There is no such thing as free internet, indeed it was only a few years ago that people were allowed to own a computer. We have become acustomed to having free wifi wherever we stay and at restaurants and cafes but in Cuba it is only in either the really expensive hotels at a premium, and only accessible in the lobby areas or at a slighly less expensive price at the government telecommunications provider, of which there is normally only one of these in the city. So to use internet we had to go to a fancy hotel and pay $8US an hour to send a few emails and book some accommodation. Needless to say our time in Cuba gave us a little distance from the rest of the world.
We also visited the Havana Club Rum Museum. Havana Club is the most famous and oldest Cuban Rum and in a quick tour we learnt how they make it, under the guidance of the Rum Masters. We also got to sample some, but no matter what I will never like drinking it straight. That evening we walked all the way along the Malecon to Vedado to go to a famous ice-cream parlour - Coppelia and then the cabaret. The ice-cream parlour turned out to be a disaster and showed just how screwed up the double economy was. We tried to walk in through multiple but security guards turned us away or pointed us in the direction of private room. Basically foriegners are not allowed to pay the cuban prices (CUP) and must pay in the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), but the markup from the CUP to the CUC feels like 5000%. Something that costs 3 CUP will then cost 3 CUC but the rate is actually 1 CUC is 25 CUP. So basically as a tourist you are getting horrifically ripped off. We left the ice-cream parlour angry and ice-cream less. It may only be a few dollars but it is not right. We went instead and spent the money on mojitos.
The cabaret was an interesting event, the salsa version of the moulin rouge. We were quick expecting all the tackyness and we weren't quite sure what was happening at all through the whole event but it was entertaining none the less.
Our third day in Havana involved a day trip to the region of Pinar Del Rio and Vinales. The tour firstly took us to a cigar factory in Pinar Del Rio where we saw rows of people sitting at workstations rolling the tobaco into cigars. These people earn approx $25 US a month and work 6 days a week. The most exciting part of their day is when the news or stories or announcements are made. Everything is nationalised in Cuba and cigars are no exceptions, factories are not for individual brands, instead all factories make all brands and each day they make different cigars.
After a quick visit to a rum and cigar shop we passed on Vinales, a beautiful landscape of karst mountains surrounded by tobacco fields. We firstly went to a lookout point to see the landscape and then into the valley where we visited the ugliest rock mural ever seen, supposedly a picture of the animals that have inhabited this land over all time, before going to a cave within one of the mountains. We had lunch at the cave before going back to Havana. The tour was pretty good, especially the cigar factory but it all took a down hill as I got incredibly sick, food poisoning that seemed to last for the next few days.
After a horrific night for me, we left early in the morning for the bus to Trinidad.