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Cuba Day 1: Arrival in Havana

Disorientation before orientation

· Travel journal,Cuba,Joey

At the airport

Iris and I landed at Havana Airport, excited to be taking our first step on our year of exploration. We had booked our trip to Cuba with a group of friends from university (who were to arrive a few days after us) before we had decided to quit working, but serendipitously it seemed a good place to start. After years of city life in London, we figured Cuba would be a kind of detox from the fast-paced city lifestyle, smart phones, internet and Netflix. We had also gradually gotten used to the little luxuries in life, our lifestyle and spending habits more than keeping pace with the increase in earnings that we saw in our early career. Cuba would strip that all away.

Within minutes of setting foot in Havana, the airport gave us a taste of what was to come. We were faced with lengthy queues through immigration, which took us around 50 minutes for just the people on our plane to pass through, as the officers were reviewing each passenger one by one. We ended up being one of the last ones through immigration, only to join yet another huge queue straight afterwards for another round of security (this was the first time we’ve experienced this on landing - usually it’s only in the country of departure).

Finally, we got through to security to baggage collection. I was worried that over 70 minutes after landing the bags would have all been collected and that someone may have taken my checked Osprey 55L, by accident or on purpose. There was no need to worry.

It was chaotic. Our whole plane, and the passengers from several other planes, were crowded around two baggage carousels on one side of the large hall, with another carousel a 100m away at the opposite end. This included those in first class and even the Virgin Atlantic flight crew (such egalite - love it). It was hot - I heard there was air conditioning at the airport, but it didn’t seem to be working. No-one was sure which carousel our bags would come out from - the staff there didn’t seem to have a clue either. I made conversation with one of the flight attendants, who just said, “Don’t worry, this is typical Cuba. Happens all the time.”

50 minutes on, which seemed an eternity to someone still on London pace, I finally collected my backpack, which was one of the first bags to come out (hurrah!). I noticed that the lock I’d put on my bag was no longer there. I’d read somewhere that the airport staff look through the items of every single bag, so I shrugged off the loss (read cried a little inside) of my £4 lock and headed out into the main hall of Havana Airport to look for our taxi driver. We were now two hours behind schedule. The City worker in me cried out in frustration, but another voice in me soothed him, reminding him that there was no rush anymore. Tranquilo, he whispered (“take it easy”).

The humidity hit us hard as we walked out into the main hall to face a huge crowd of taxi drivers holding up signs and Cubans eagerly awaiting their family members. We saw our taxi driver, Roberto, who we’d booked for 25 CUC through our first casa particular (a casa is the most common type of accommodation in Cuba - separate post to follow on this). In broken Spanish, I indicated that we needed to change money. He explained that the queues are long and the service very slow at the airport, and that we could stop at a Cadeca (Casa de Cambio - a place to exchange foreign currency) on the way to the casa. I felt a bit unsure leaving the airport without any way of payment, as cards are mostly useless over here. Tranquilo, the voice whispered again. I also figured that the taxi driver needed to get paid, and that it was in his interest that we manage to get our hands on some Cuban currency.

Roberto’s car was relatively modern compared to the old ‘50s vintage cars that we saw being driven around us. Despite missing out on the novelty of riding in a beautiful car 60+ years old, I was secretly thankful for the modern air conditioning with the humidity and heat of 35+ degrees Celsius.

Rainy drive in Havana

Wish you were here?

On the way to our accommodation, we stopped at a Cadeca and I jumped out to exchange some money. I exchanged £300 for 450 CUC, for which I had to provide my passport, and exchanged 10 CUC for 240 CUP (local money - separate post to follow on Cuban money). As I was doing this, I felt a bit scared leaving Iris and our bags in the car with a stranger. After all, this wasn’t Uber with its checked profiles and reviews. There were no CCTV cameras around. If he disappeared, I’d probably never be able to find him (and Iris!) again. My heart jumped when I stepped out of the Cadeca to find the taxi gone. But it had just pulled away a little ways down the road. Breathing a sigh of relief, I jumped in the taxi and we headed to our first accommodation.

The first casa we stayed at was Casa Gustavo, booked through Mario Rizzi’s BestCubaGuide.com. Gustavo met us outside of the flat with his son, Kevin, and showed us a 2nd floor 2 bedroom flat, which wasn’t the one we booked. I noted that there was no casa particular sign (see below) but it was our first day, the price was the same (30 CUC per night) and the air conditioning seemed to work, so we agreed to take the place. We paid Gustavo, got a few restaurant recommendation and decided to explore.

Casa "Off Menu" Gustavo

Our home for the next three nights - Casa "off menu" Gustavo

Getting our bearings

Having been a scout, the first priority for me was finding water - you can’t drink from the tap in Cuba. Our flat was just around the corner or Havana Libre Hotel in Vedado; we located a shop outside the hotel and bought a 1.5L bottle of water for 1.7 CUC (c. £1.35). Our thirsts quenched, we walked through the streets of Vedado and alongside the iconic Malecon, a wide road that runs along the coast of Havana and the best place to see classic American cars filled with tourists.

After an hour or so of strolling through Havana, taking in the architecture, cars and just the atmosphere, we started to get hungry. So we headed back to grab some food at La Paila, a place just around the corner of the flat, that Gustavo recommended for having good food, mas barato (cheap) and big portions. It did not disappoint. Iris ordered some huge chunks of grilled pork (of course, we didn’t know what we were ordering) and I ordered a ropa vieja, stewed shredded beef with vegetables. We celebrated our first night in Havana with a couple of mojitos and daiquiri, and including a 10% tip the bill came to 20.52 CUC (£16.30)! Bargain!

Ropa vieja ("old clothes") - shredded stewed beef with vegetables

Ropa vieja ("old clothes") - shredded stewed beef with vegetables

Feeling thirsty, we searched around for more water, but all the shops were closed so had to pay 3 CUC (like a noob) at the hotel restaurant (Toro). Feeling rather jetlagged and disoriented in the foreign climate, speed, language and the shock of buying such expensive water, we called it a day and headed back to the casa.

Oh I also smothered myself head to toe with Jungle Formula insect repellent. More on that later.

Daily spending tracker - for 2 people

(So this turned out to be a bit of an obsession of mine during the trip. While working I had no idea what I was spending. Having no salary coming in sure sharpens the mind financially!)

Taxi: 25 CUC from the airport to the casa

Casa: 120 CUC for 4 nights (30 CUC per night)

Water: 1.7 CUC (1.5L bottle)
Frappucino: 2.5 CUC (1 cup somewhere in Vedado, near the Malecon)

Dinner: 20.5 CUC (at La Paila)

Water: 3 CUC

Total: 82.7 CUC for the day

(1 CUC = c.£0.80)

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