Havana – Getting to know

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To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

I have always wanted to come to Cuba because I have heard many things about it, some good, some not so good, it’s in the Caribbean, and is therefore hot and sunny but mainly because I wanted to see what life is like under a totally communist society that is untouched by capitalism and consumerism. I landed in Havana last night, I am staying in the Casa Alta Habana in Old Havana, it’s on the second floor but it feels like the fifth floor because of the number of stairs that you have to climb to get to it, there is not lift.

A View of the streets below from Casa Alta Habana

I am one of a group of nine. I mentioned to a couple of friends that I was planning a trip to Cuba and they said that they wanted to come along. Next thing I know I am arranging a trip for nine people from London, Perth and Brazil. Luckily my friends are seasoned travellers which made planning the trip that much easier. We have a guide and a bus, and as well as spending time in Havana we will also be going to Vinales, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and finishing off in Varadero.

So Havana, I absolutely love it. It’s colourful, bright, hot and full of history. Today we went on a walking tour via Old Havana, through Calle Obispo to Central Park before returning to a paladar near the casa for dinner.  Old Havana is made up of narrow cobbled streets with old mansions some dating back to the sixteenth century according to Tony our guide. Many have been restored to their former glory after the old city was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1982, but there are still some that look like they are about to collapse.  I love the architecture of the old colonial style buildings with their spacious airy interiors and ornate decorations.  

Colourful buildings line the streets of Central Havana

Today we went for a tour of the city, it is busier than I expected, and not just with tourists.  Apparently, the population is over 2 million, with 60% of white Spanish ancestry, 25% mixed black and white and the rest remaining 15% of Afro Cuban descent.  Spanish is of course the official language but luckily so far everyone that I have encountered speaks some English so I have been able to get by relatively easily.  The smell of petrol or diesel, I cannot tell which it is very perceptible, it hit me as soon as I stepped outside the airport yesterday.  It is probably due to the old cars that people someone still manage to keep running. Not all cars are the classic American convertibles that you see in pictures either, there is an entire collection from Russia the likes of which I have not seen before.  I was amazed by how small some are. There are also newer cars on the road as the government liberalised the laws around car ownership in 2013 but these are still few and far between.

The iconic Americal classic car

There is no widespread internet access in Cuba. The government has slowly started allowing businesses and classes to get it but it is still very limited. Private individuals have to buy a Wi-Fi card and then find a Wi-Fi hotspot to connect. So normally if you find a group of people congregated on the stairs of a building or square all with their eye glued to their phones, you will know that you are at a Wi-fi hotspot. It is not very cheap, and the cards which cost one CUC, which is equivalent to one US dollar, do not seem to last. I am taking this unavailability as a blessing, since it means that I can have a mini digital detoxification and go off grid for a while.

Food is mainly served in paladars which are family run restaurants. After our city tour we had one at one of these close by Calle Obispo and it did not disappoint. I have brought lots of snacks with me because everyone I spoke to prior to my trip has told me that the food is absolutely crap. So I have been pleasantly surprised so far. The variety and the quality has been amazing.  After all that walking I am super tired and will have an early night rather than join the rest of the crew in the rooftop courtyard where our hosts are playing music and drinking. 

Food at one of the paladars