At Cancun Aiport filling in our Cuban Visas.
The morning we left Cancun for Havana we got up early to try and sort out our money, and thankfully the exchange down the road had Euros - such a relief I cannot tell you. If you know that you are going to Cuba make sure you sort out your Euros in advance (best exchange rate with the CUC - peso convertable - only available in Cuba), it will just make life much less stressful. In addition to sorting out our cash situation we were still waiting on our laundry that never arrived the night before. We had to really impress upon them that we needed it asap due to having to leave for our flight. Thankfully it did arrive, although later than expected, but at least we still managed to make it to the airport with enough time.
In the taxi in Havana, from the airport to Casa Tamara.
The airport was busy and proved to be just as stressful, as we had to sort out our tourist visas for Cuba and pay our Mexican boarder exit tax - if you fly in and out of Mexico this is included in your flight... we however came by bus from Belize. Once sorted and through to the gates we ate lunch in the food court which was very americanised i.e. McDonalds, Burger King, Domino's Pizza etc etc. Thankfully the flight over to Havana was short and uneventful.
We got a cab from the airport to Casa Tamara, where we stayed for our first couple of nights in Havana. In Cuba you typically stay in what is called casa particulares, which are essentially rooms that are rented out by families. These rooms are licensed under a government agreement (or at least they should be) and can hold no more than two people.
My room in Casa Tamara.
But, be forewarned - if you are travelling on your own or in an uneven group - the person who ends up in a room by themselves has to pay for double occupancy... you pay per room, not per person as I found out. Casa Tamara was very nice and Tamara who co-runs the accommodation was lovely and very helpful. The casa was on the outskirts of the city, within 5-minutes walk from the main bus terminal and a good 30-45 minutes from the old town.
Our first eve we just cabbed it to the old town and found somewhere to eat dinner. It was a lovely little outdoor cafe with a limited menu - by no means is Cuban food fantastic, except perhaps for when you eat in at the Casas - generally the quality and quantity is so much better.
Me at the Plaza de la Revolucion.
Anyway, our meals weren't very expensive and we were entertained by some local buskers and a dog that decided to protect us from anyone that walked passed i.e. barking and growling for no apparent reason. After dinner we just walked around a little bit before cabbing it back to Casa Tamara.
The following morning we had breakfast at Casa Tamara which was breakfast fit for a king - just delicious and so much food. We decided to walk up to the bus terminal to confirm our bus tickets for the following morning to Vinales, where we learned that we needed to head to the main ticket office a good half an hour walk away. Well, we decided to walk.
One of the many posters re the 50 year anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
.. and as it turned out this wasn't such a bad idea as we ended up stopping at the Plaza de la Revolution. The Plaza is a vast concrete area where all major political demonstrations are held and has two government buildings on the edge of the plaza, one with the image of Castro and the other with the image of Che. Opposite the plaza is a statue of Jose Marti, an obelisk and museum dedicated to Jose Marti's life - a key figure for the Cuban War for Independence. There were posters everywhere regarding the Cuban revolution as 2009 was their 50 year anniversary.
The walk to the main bus ticket office turned out to be quite a hike - passing lots of local housing, markets and even the zoo! Once sorted we caught a cab back to the old town, as to walk it would have been more than double the distance and none of us could face it.
Looking back on the Capitol Nacional as we walked to the old town.
We started off at the Capitol Nacional, which is a replica of the American Capitol in Washington D.C. - this reflects when Cuba was under U.S. thumb. All around Cuba you will find vintage motorcycles and cars - especially the Chevrolet- the great iconic American car. My understanding is that many of these wonderful Chevrolets were abandoned by the general and wealthy public who left Cuba during the unrest and revolution, and with the trade embargoes placed on Cuba these are the cars you still see now today - either wonderfully maintained or hopping along with a bit of glue and tape! At the Capitol Nacional we even had an opportunity to sit in an open top Chevrolet for a photo opp. Havana is a beautiful old city in need of some TLC.
A fabulous block of colonial buildings opposite the Capitol.
The government is coordinating restoration works all over the place, but there is plenty more still to do to bring to life some of its wonderful old colonial buildings.
We spent a few hours walking around the old town, wondering along the main street - Obispo, with it's general commodity stores (often with limited goods), craft shops, markets and food stalls - including the wonderfully cheap Cuban Peso food stalls. You can exchange CUCs for CUPs (peso cubano) - start small i.e. 5CUCs or you'll end up giving it away at the end of your trip. From these food stalls you could get cheap and cheerful pizzas and ice-creams etc for next to nothing. Along Obispo we went in to an amazing craft shop with knickknacks made out of papier-mâché and wood - both of which seemed quite popular.
A craft market on Obispo - I bought a mask here from this cermics seller.
Just down the road was a craft market that we did a quick wonder around, it too had things made out of wood, papier-mâché and ceramics - this of course is where I come in... buying... yes you guessed it... another mask! It's really cool, it's the head of a Caribbean lady smoking a cigar and around the bottom it has four hooks for espresso coffee cups - and the cups came with it (Sadly somewhere along the way the cigar broke out of the ladies mouth... so now I need to figure out how to repair it... bugger).
Anyway as the day wore on Maree started to feel really unwell, so when we passed a pharmacy (Pharmacia Taquechel) on Obispo Al and Maree popped in to see if they could get anything for her. I took photos of the pharmacy as it was just wonderfully historic and so lovingly maintained - really worth a look in.
Maree and Al feeling the affects of their 24hr flu bug.
I however was told to leave... as I was holding 3 melting ice-creams at the time.
Unfortunately the pharmacy couldn't help Maree so we kept walking down Obispo - now in search of another pharmacy or medical outlet that might be able to help Maree. As we walked we ended up in the Plaza de Armas, at the end of Obispo, here you'll find second-hand book sellers surrounding a small park enclosed by shaded marble benches - according to the guide books this is Havana's oldest square dating back to 1519. At the bottom of the square was a small temple - El Templete - apparently the first catholic mass was held here. While I was running around taking photos, Maree and even Alan hit a wall - it seems Al caught the same bug and as the day progressed they both faded - with me finding them sitting near the temple looking pretty sorry for themselves.
The Plaza de la Revolucion.
We kept the hunt on for some cold and flu medicine, eventually finding some, after which we called the day to an early end so that these two could get themselves in to bed and on the mend.