I had been considering travelling to Cuba for some time, but because of uncertainty with my employment, it was very touch and go whether I was actually going to take this trip. Then I was like, “Screw it, I’m going to Cuba!” And that is how I ended up in Havana. Good story, I know!
My first 3 days in Havana were pretty epic, with a lot of walking, and finding out things I just never knew I didn’t know about Cuba. A little research on Cuba would have helped, like these common misconceptions about travel in Cuba.
Getting from the Varadero Airport to Havana
The voyage to Cuba was surprisingly calm. Except for the 2 hours spent on the runway trying to leave Toronto. And the night spent on the floor of the Toronto airport. And my classic case of airplane nasal congestion rearing its ugly head mid flight. But hey, I work ok with waiting, sleep deprivation, and mucus.
When I arrived in Cuba almost 24 hours after I left Vancouver and I was safely through the infamous immigration (though honestly I don’t know what all the fuss was about, it was pretty on par with basically every other country in the world, and way easier than the US!), I realized something.
My Spanish was coming out more like Kyrgyz, and while I had a place to sleep that night, I hadn’t figured out how I was going to get there. I was in the Varadero Airport, I needed to be in Havana. Ummm…
I asked an airport maid where there was a bus to Havana. She pointed yonder. Helpful. Then a dignified looking English speaking gentleman asked me what I was doing. He said I could take that bus right over there, for a certain amount of money. There was a super cute guy standing in front of it, so I was like, mmmmaalright!
Cute guy ended up being the guide on the bus, so I chatted him up and he said they could drop me off right at my casa, aka my place to sleep for the night in Havana. Ok! I happily boarded the bus only to be met with 40 middle aged German faces glaring at me. I had really stepped in it, right into a big puddle of sleep deprived Germans whose youths had been spent behind the Iron Curtain. I was about to start snapping my fingers.
Instead I just diverted my youthful eyes and sat in the back of the bus and listened to Carrie Underwood tell me to let Jesus take the wheel.
The drive from the airport to Havana is about 2ish hours with a quick stop. Gorgeous scenery, one side was often the ocean, while the other was either rolling hills or decent Jungle Book sequel location material. We went over the Bacunayagua Bridge, aka the highest bridge in Cuba, or as Cute Tour Guide called it, one of the Seven Wonders of Cuba. I was impressed. I think I was the only one. I was actually so impressed I jumped up to see the view out of the other side of the bus and crushed my skull into the overhead compartment. I may have a brain bleed.
Three quarters of the way to Havana I started to fall asleep, while desperately trying not to. But alas, like trying to beat anaesthesia before a wisdom tooth extraction, 24 hour lack of sleep got me in the end, it always does. Or I really did have a brain bleed. I woke up to the sight of a massive cruise ship and assumed I was in Havana harbour. I was correct.
And true to word, the bus dropped me right at my casa, even before it took the Germans to their cruise ship. I think that was a version of subtle resistance from the Cute Tour Guide who had already clued into the tough crowd he had with him. I met my host Nelson, got settled into my room, checked out the awesome rooftop, and went out in search of food, since the last thing in my tummy had a Tim Horton’s copyright on it. I ended up at a great microbrew right on the harbour for a pork skewer, rice, and two beers. Because, beer was necessary by then. This awesome casa is Hostal La Caridad in Old Havana (Nelson’s email: email@example.com)
The first of my Havana Nights, I went to bed at 8:47pm.
The next day I really started getting into it.
Walking Tour of Havana Cuba
Havana! I just wandered around, really.
Old Havana is gorgeous with cobblestone streets and the classic cars everywhere, some more archaic than classic. There are several main plazas, which serve as the hubs and from which streets span out.
Old Havana has it all, stoic stone forts and cannons, massive cathedrals that have somehow survived over 50 yeas of Communism, old men in white suits playing trumpets, bodacious ladies dancing down the cobblestone on stilts (which I imagine takes practice), and basically a pulse of life through the whole Old town. There are also dogs everywhere and children kicking soccer balls in any direction, regardless of where your face is. I loved wandering the art galleries of Havana that spilled out onto the streets, adding a richness and a colour that you just don’t get in many cities.
I loved Havana.
You could take cycle rickshaws and have some poor dude pedal your rice and beans infused ass around town or do like the rich white people do and rent classic cars for the car and be driven around like Bogart and Bacall. I of course walked everywhere, primarily because I’m cheap, and secondly because I had this idea in my head that if I walked all day my evening beers and mojitos wouldn’t count.
One thing I knew not to miss in Havana was the Malecon, which is basically the Havana sea wall. It goes around a good portion of the old City and the downtown core’s coast, and is a wonderful place to walk, get sprayed by the ocean every now and again, and then stop and lie in the sun!
Havana is where I finally decided to plan my trip. I know, this sounds a little late in the game, but normally this kind of thing works fine in developing countries, and that’s what my parents did 4 years ago when they were here. So I started to look at buses. Well, let’s just say, things have changed since Sue and Kev came, and my typical style of flying by the seat, wasn’t totally working.
Basically, it seems like there are many more tourists now, but they have not increased the bus services. Which means showing up the day of and going where you want to go, not really an option. Buses were sold out days in advance, and you can no longer book buses by phone, only Internet (more learned on this later!!), but Internet is very limited, soooo, that change doesn’t make a ton of sense. And tourists are not allowed to take local transport, aka buses you can just show up to, pay significantly less for, and be very uncomfortable on but eventually get to your destination du jour.
I believe this is racist.
I discovered all of this after two days in Havana, when I taxied out to the Viazul bus station (the major government run, tourist bus line) to try to get out of the city for the next day. The guy was like “You can’t go anywhere tomorrow, everything is booked”. He may as well have patted me on the head and given me a sad, lonely, gross flavoured lollipop. Shit. Ok, so I booked a bus to Trinidad for the following day. Because daaaaaaamn, I might just spend 3 weeks in Havana if I don’t!
Also trying to plan my trip on the ground and in the moment, I walked to the place where I’m supposed to buy a ticket for an island transfer that I have in mind for later on. After getting lost (the road I was on, which I thought was parallel to the Main Street curved just so, just enough) and getting caught in the worst squall of plummeting rain that I had to then experienced, I finally got there at 12:30.
They stopped selling tickets at noon, you can only check in for buses after that. Awesome. And that totally makes sense, those three people doing nothing in the ticket booth do look overrun. I took a local city bus back from there back to the centre. The Lonely Planet book says city buses are not meant for tourists, but after Marshutkas in Kyrgyzstan and chicken buses in Guatemala and the like, I thought the city bus was just fine! Luxurious almost. And I planned to take said city bus back to the bus station to next day to try again to buy a ticket to the island.
Top Attractions in Havana Cuba
Museum of the Revolution, Havana Cuba
In between all of the transport frustration, I went to the Museum of the Revolution, it was very interesting. Glory to Che and Fidel and all of that. Frightful amounts of propaganda, but enjoyable to spot those bits nonetheless. You know it’s good when there is a picture of a random person with a gun shot wound and the caption says something like “Native Cuban shows his experience of living in America, supposedly the world leader in human rights”
Errrrrrrmmmmm. Pot, kettle, black?
Mrs. Tener of Brookswood Secondary would have been all over it back in History 12!
I was impressed by the tank that Fidel was reportedly in during the Bay of Pigs. Then there was 35 foot yacht Fidel and Che came all the way from Mexico in at some point. And really, say what you will about socialist guerrillas, Che was hot.
Havana Street Vibes
I’m loving the old cars of Havana, I probably have 20 pictures just of cars. I think Havana is a very interesting place aesthetically, and it’s vibrant in a way that isn’t obnoxious. Not quiet in the least, but it’s cool hearing bits of music everywhere, today on my epic walk, (turned out to be over 6km) I passed three different sets of people just dancing on the sidewalk.
One wasn’t even listening to music, just rumba’ing solo! In Canada we would call that crazy, in Cuba it’s culture!
Architecturally, Havana is a hodgepodge, all spattered with brilliant colours nobody at home would dare paint their house. That being said, maybe we should all have magenta houses with teal edging. And the street art in Havana plays a very fine game, from classic Che murals to splashed of the modern world, the murals run the gambit in Havana.
Main complaint about Havana, not surprisingly, are the tourists. Now, I realize I am one of them, but the cruise shippers and the tour groups! They clog everything up. Backpackers don’t move in packs, we are easily divided and unobtrusive, unless you are a restaurant in Laos that puts pot into your pizzas of course.
The peak tourism spots in Havana remind me of Rarotonga, or Suva even, when the cruise ship was in town and the population of the island doubled for the day, but in Old Havana it’s every day. This in itself was what made me not cranky about getting lost walking to the bus station, seeing different neighbourhoods and being out of the old Havana core was very cool. If not insanely confusing and wet. Seriously, I could not have been wetter if I peed myself.
Havana Travel Blog – My Take!
I had a cheap taxi ride from a really old guy in a crappy car to the Viazul station, and asked him to wait, but he didn’t, grr. My inner Amazing Racer was choked! So I got a more expensive ride back with a young guy in a nice car. Interestingly he actually talked a bit, in English, about the status of Cuba. He talked about people making cash on the black market and how doctors only make 40CUC a month. Which blew my mind, then thinking that’s even less than the average Kyrgyz person makes!
A guy just walked by who looked like Che, seriously.
My Spanish is rough, like so rough it sounds a bit like Kyrgyz sometimes. I even said spasibo, Russian for thank you, instead of gracias earlier. Languages are just crashing around in my head apparently!
As I said earlier, I walked a lot in Havana, the first day, around 5km, then more yesterday, and already 6.5 today. I know because I’m keeping track on my new running watching got from my parents for Christmas! I set the activity and it follows me and tells me my distance, pace, climb and all kinds of things. Could have used a compass in that rain storm. My camera has one in it though! Have therefore slept well, though last night I had a dream about being attacked by a creep on the street, yikes.
Have already read two books. Also yikes. May end up reading the Three Musketeers after all!
On one of my flights I watched Border Patrol, and upon arrival in Cuba there was a dog jumping on and off the luggage carousel sniffing bags. Then some daft old woman went to pet it and the moment took everything I had to not scream “She’s working!!!”.
I had to move casas after my third night as they didn’t have a spot for me for my additional night, too bad as the rooftop at my previous place was just the best, but the ladies at this new one seem very pleasant. The guy at the last casa called around for me last night and found me this room, which was good of him. He was very kind and helpful when he could be, I think he also got a kick out of me as I high fived him whenever possible.
Cuban beer is pretty good, and the food is fine, have actually had a few really good things. Have been eating picnic dinner in bed for the last couple of nights since I don’t relish the idea of the very dark streets alone at night. But hey, bread, mozzarella, crackers and avocado do me just fine! When I get somewhere smaller and less major city I will see about real dinner, at a real table, with people around me.
When you arrive in Cuba, get money at the airport. Just do it. Also use the toilet there, just saying.
At the luggage carousel, airport employees were pulling bags off of it and lining them up on the floor. Not sure why, but it did freak me out a bit. Luckily, my very inconspicuous flag tattooed backpack was left alone, I have no idea why that would be.
There was a lady behind me on the flight who complained non stop about the delay in takeoff from Toronto; she was whining about it because she had a baby. Umm…a) nobody forced you to take your baby on vacation, and b) by bitching at this magnitude and consistency, you in fact, are being the baby, Her baby seemed to be just fine. Ironic. It’s like a free ride when you’ve already paid.
I stood in a Tim Horton’s line for about a million years in the Toronto airport. The donut was worth it.
When I got to my casa there was a bar fridge with beer in it. Heaven.