Arrival in Havana

Havana Travel Blog

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I finally land at Jose Marti International Airport after my 9-hour flight from Gatwick. Thank goodness I chose to take the direct Virgin Atlantic flight - I slept like a baby right through, the result of partying all night the day before. I had an excuse, though. My beloved Chelsea had just won the FA Cup against archnemeses Manchester United.

I am still slightly groggy and dazed as we land, but I manage catch a glimpse of the countryside from my window seat. I hastily fill up the entry visa, or tarjeta turista, before proceeding through customs, where the stern-looking immigration officer subjects me to a mini barrage of questions. True to rumour, she stamped only the entry visa and not my passport. I smiled and asked if she would stamp my passport, and she gamely obliged. I figure that since I won't be in the States any time soon, I would like an official memento of my visit. As I pass through the customs doors, it dawns upon me that I am actually in Cuba. I quickly grab my backpack from the baggage claim belt, and rush out to the arrival hall, where Kris has been waiting since morning. As usual she is beaming like the cat that ate the canary, and for no particular reason - anyone else would be glum-faced after a five hour wait at the airport. She looks incredibly bronzed, a result of her time in Jamaica, but uncharacteristically, she has nothing much to say about her
time there.

We head out to the exit doors and immediately we are assailed by a small mob of taxi drivers offering us a transfer into the city. The first of them is immaculately dressed, speaks English, and is offering us a "limo service" for $40. Having previously consulted my trusty Lonely Planet guide as well as fellow travellers via the Thorn Tree forum, I dismiss his offer without hesitation. I ask the first car parked outside if he will take us to Centro Habana and he quoted $30. We move on to the second car, and again his price is $30. We walk about 10 metres down where a third car is parked, and he enthusiastically asks us to get in without mentioning a word about the cost. It is here that I put my recently-learned Spanish bartering skills to the test.

"Cuanto Cuesta?"
"Trenta? Es muy caro!"
"No es caro, trenta pesos!"
"Por favor, somos estudiantes!"
"OK, veinte cinco"
"Veinte, por favor"
"No puedo"
"Por favor, no tengo dinero! Estas mi amigo, si? Puedo!"

With that, he reluctantly nods and we are off. I have always believed in bargaining in the local language, and have always sworn by this rule regardless of whether I have been in Beijing or Bangkok. Twenty dollars for a taxi ride is far from cheap but Jose Marti unfortunately does not have any other transport links to the city centre. The car itself is quite the worse for wear, and has obviously seen better days. But along the way we passed by several old American Buicks and Chevrolets - just like the pictures I had seen in the guidebooks and on the internet. They looked like creatures from a different era, roaming the streets almost as if they were dinosaurs, and we were in Jurassic Park. The buildings around us were crumbling and tattered, yet they strangely exuded a certain charm about them.

After about twenty minutes (which went by in a flash because of our incessant chatter) we arrived in Centro Habana, and more precisely at the casa particular which would be our digs for the next couple of days. We met the friendly host, Tamara, who was incredibly kind and chirpy, and were shown to our room for which we would pay a tariff of CUC$25 a night. For this price, we got an en-suite shower (albeit with no hot water), a double bed, a smaller single bed, a fan and air-conditioning. For an additional CUC$4, Tamara would make us a big breakfast of eggs, bread, guava marmalade, a salad of tropical fruits, coffee/tea and freshly-squeezed mango juice. It was the mango juice that did it for us.

After settling down and taking a quick shower, we were off. Kris was starving, so we made it our priority to find a place to eat. Incidentally Tamara had a "friend" over at her place, and promised to show us an "inexpensive local eatery". We gamely followed her to a sparsely-decorated paladar about 5 minutes away, but to our horror the proprietor said it would cost CUC$20 per person for a seafood meal. We then asked how much it would cost just for a basic meal of chicken and rice, and she said CUC$18. Much displeased we decided we were wasting our time, and left. As we walked along the main roads leading up to the Capitolio, we passed by several food stalls serving brown rice with beans and strips of ham. We bought a serving for 15 Cuban pesos (about CUC$0.60) and an ice-cream cone for 2 Cuban pesos (about CUC$0.07). This was the first of our many encounters with the curious dual economy that is in operation in Cuba.

After spending some time exploring the city centre, we decided to head to Habana Vieja, where we enjoyed some excellent mojitos and daiquiris on the roof garden of the Hotel Raquel. Throughout this time, we were being approached by curious locals who thought we were Japanese, to which we would reply that we were from either Singapore or England (simply because many did not know where Singapore was). At the onset of dusk we stumbled on a slightly run-down and very local-looking eatery where we decided to have our dinner - and of course, more mojitos. Dinner was the very typical Cuban fare of rice with black beans and meat. We were charged CUC$6 per person, and were none the wiser about it, thinking that it was par for the course. After our earlier encounter with the paladar, you would have to forgive us for thinking that we were getting a good deal!

During our meal we were approached by a middle-aged Cuban man who claimed to be a jazz musician, and spoke reasonably good English. When we said that we lived in London, he brought up Ronnie Scott's and the Camden Jazz Venue - at the sound of which our eyes lit up (I literally used to live in Camden Town). After a conversation that lasted approximately 15 minutes, he offered to take us to a "local bar" with some "great local music", and we excitedly followed. Where he actually took us could best be described as a canteen, sparsely furnished with wooden tables and stools, and lit by a garish, flourescent neon light. It was here that he introduced us to several of his friends including a former "Olympic boxing champion" and the bar manager himself who also claimed to have played at Ronnie Scott's. As we talked and knocked back the rather dilute mojitos (our friend took the liberty of ordering a few for himself) we also learnt about how all the bars and restaurants were government-owned, and that they were merely employees who had to abide by a strict regime of meticulously recording every unit of liquor sold each day. Well I guess that somewhat explained, if not excused, the appalling lighting. The "music" that was spoken of also was conspicuously absent, our ears being treated to nothing more than pre-recorded songs being played over the dodgy stereo system. While our hosts kept up the charm and candour - there was much goading, high-fiving and back-slapping going on - we sensed that perhaps something was amiss, and were proven right when we received the bill. The mojitos cost CUC$5 apiece, not much by international standards but ridiculously overpriced given that we had had the same at the upmarket Hotel Raquel for half that price!
We paid up reluctantly and headed home immediately, despite their offers to take us to a nightclub and a live music venue. It was only when we spoke to Tamara's husband back at our casa that we realised we had been royally ripped off.

We would later learn that the average Cuban receives a fixed monthly wage of CUC$15-40 from the government, and while education, healthcare and other services are generally provided free, touting was very much a way of life especially in Havana, where it was the only plausible way to supplement a meagre income. Touts or jineteros identify tourists as soon as they see them, and approach them casually or as friends before fleecing them for a hefty commission thereafter - which was exactly what had happened to us. Although the total financial loss to us was a mere CUC$20 or so, we were rather peeved, because we consider ourselves as seasoned travellers who ought to know better. Kris in particular had a rant about "goodwill not existing anymore" and how she was disappointed because she always saw the good in people. By then it was around 2.30 am and we retired to our room exhausted and slightly annoyed, Kris slightly more than I.

erus03 says:
Well, it was very useful reading for me... I'm traveling to Cuba in a week and we are going to see Havana as well. I'm really looking forward to it! Thanks for the price guide!:)
Posted on: Sep 16, 2007
steph_ryan79 says:
Loved your first impressions of Cuba. I recently returned from 5 days in Habana, by myself, and I loved it, but it was tough at times to say the least.

Ashamedly I don't speak Spanish, but am proud to say I have just enrolled in classes, as I will return next year with the language under my belt and with a little bit of first hand experience too.

It's reassuring to know that others got ripped off. I found it really difficult to distinguish between those genuinely trying to help out and those taking you on a ride, but in the end they are just trying to make a buck.

It is a beautiful, vibrant, amazing place. Next time I'll be returning with a male by by side though :)
Posted on: Jun 23, 2007
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