Before you travel to Cuba, those who have been before will tell you that landing there is like landing in the 1950s.
They’re not wrong.
But it isn’t just the cars that are old fashioned. From the rations the people live on, the propaganda they’re constantly fed, the restrictions on travel, imports/exports, the properties which they haven’t had the materials to maintain; it all harks back to half a century ago.
Flying in from the Yucatan we were, literally, sprayed with disinfectant. There’s probably good reason for that, from a disease control perspective, but it set a tone that stayed with us throughout much our visit; a feeling of being needed (for every penny that could be drained out of us) but not exactly ‘welcome’. That isn’t to say that some of the locals we met were not incredibly friendly and that we didn’t enjoy our trip, more on that later.
Coming through baggage claim at the airport gave us our first insight in to the lengths Cubans have to go to in order buy everyday items. There were people with luggage trolleys stacked with televisions, kitchen appliances, even tyres. The queue for ‘items to declare’ was perhaps the longest we’ve ever seen in an airport.
After a bit of wrangling with the currency exchange, we met our pre-arranged transfer in to town to find it was a brand new car (disappointingly – because those classic cars are really beautiful) and so quizzed our driver on how he’d acquired it. There is a waiting list for cars. You can be on it for years. Our driver told us he had waited 5+ years and we got the impression that you don’t get an awful lot of choice in what you receive.
In Cuba, unless you’re staying in an all inclusive resort, you stay in a ‘Casa’. A residential property which is licensed by the government to host either national, or international guests. You can tell which by the sign above the door. We only had one night in Havana on arrival (we’d be back later); our Casa for the night was basic but comfortable. We got our first insight in to how the locals serve guests breakfasts the next morning, when we were left unable to finish the spread put on.
That afternoon we took some time to explore the local neighbourhood near our Casa and sat in the local park a while, watching the youngsters play football, the old men stood on the corner argue about baseball and (my particular favourite) a man walk his pet goat. Complete with jumper and bell around its neck. The locals looked as bemused as we did.
In the evening we met our new tour group and leader. In Cuba, all tour guides must be government employees, so you have the benefit of knowing they definitely have local knowledge, but you also quickly realise that they have to stay ‘on message’.
Our guide had organised a quick group dinner out where the majority of us sampled the local fare (shredded beef with rice – not bad). Wandering back towards our casa we came across a bar with live music and thought we really ought to sample a couple of Cuba Libres. So up the 4 stories of stairs we climbed (well, I hobbled) to the roof, which is where many of bars are located in Havana. So it took me a while, but the delicious drinks and marvellous music were well worth the effort.