The Cuban Timewarp

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Monday, October 13, 2008

IMH: Things that come to mind when I think of our trip to Cuba are: 50's, beautiful crumbling buildings, smiling happy (sometimes toothless or with a big cigar) people, toe clapping live music and amazing art. Note that good food does not come to mind...

I was expecting to enter the "time warp" I've been hearing about upon stepping off the plane in Cuba, but the airport in Havana is not worse than some of the places we've been to on our trip and it did not really seem like an "out-of-date" city upon first arrival. Especially when the female airport staff all wear very short skirts (if they've got the figure or not) with fancy patterned stockings, long manicured multi-coloured nails and carefully groomed hairstyles. By the way, your passport is not stamped when you enter or exit Cuba; a loose paper in your passport is stamped and recorded.

As you enter the city however, it becomes clear that not much has changed since the fifties regarding building and infrastructure maintenance or the introduction of new technology or vehicles. Most buildings looked old and in dire need of some pollyfiller and a coat of paint. The newer apartment blocks are all built to look the same and reminds me of pigeon holes.

Havana, or Habana as the Cubans pronounce it, is the capital of Cuba and also the main tourist destination. We stayed in New Havana, in a local family's home or B&B. What a unique experience! For a family to run a business like a B&B they have to pay the government a certain amount of CUC's (local currency) per month, if they have guests staying or not, as it would be unfair for them to make money while another family does not.

The lady of the house, Rachel (pronounced and maybe spelled Rakhel) is very proud and we gathered that they must be one of the more wealthy families in Havana. Three or four generations seem to live on the house and we're not quite sure how many bedrooms they have, but Ryan and I had a lovely room with an ensuite bathroom and so did Nick and Avril. The house was full, very full of antiques from furniture, art, crockery, silver cutlery and glassware to books. It felt like walking into your grandmother's house - full of 'things'. Thank goodness Avril learned to speak Spanish; otherwise we would have had no means of communicating with our hosts. (Avril has inspired me to try and learn another language as she proved it's possible to teach yourself with a computer aided package, which uses visual aids in education as apposed to English/Spanish translations.) The Cubans also really appreciated the fact that she could speak Spanish, while we just nodded and smiled with the odd word here and there.

Rachel is very house proud and enjoyed Avril's special interest in the art and antiques and made sure to point out that they had two rolls of toilet paper per bathroom. Currently toilet paper is very scarce in Cuba and thus a luxury. In Avril and Nick's bathroom she displayed two rolls of pink toilet paper, not for use, only for display. In our bathroom three empty bottles of perfume was exhibited, probably also showing that they have travelled or had the means to obtain such luxuries. The most recent hurricane destroyed half of Cuba's agricultural crops so fruit and vegetables are hard to come by, but Rakhel's daughter did manage to get some fresh fruit every morning for breakfast. Clearly a resourceful family.

We had two nights and one and a half days in Havana which was utilised brilliantly. We spent our first night in old Havana exploring the cobble stone streets, enjoying the local art galleries and sipping Moijto's in small bars, almost all with a live Cuban band performing, as we go along. Many of these bars are focussed on tourists, but it's still pretty authentic and creates job opportunities and employment for locals. To end a splendid evening we were lucky to be entertained as the only customers in the bar where Hemmingway drank his Moijito's, usually buzzing with tourists. Moijito is a Cuban found cocktail consisting of Habana White Rum, soda water, sugar and fresh mint leaves all crushed together - delicious.

We visited the Capital building, which is a replica of the US Capital building in Wasington DC. It was a gift from the US to Cuba several years ago. One floor is open as part of the museum and it is beautiful on the inside. We did not really have a clue what was going on inside until a guide met us in one of the rooms and explained in Spanish what some of the things meant.

The La Casa del Habano cigar factory was another highlight where you are guided through the cigar making process from the grading and selection of the tobacco leaves, the rolling (all manual but unfortunately not on the inside of virgins' thighs as some claim) and packaging. Each factory worker can smoke as much as they want during a working day and can take two cigars home every day. The cigars which are smoked and given to employees are the ones which did not pass the quality check or is rolled in the cigar rolling school and cannot be sold commercially - same quality tobacco leaves, but probably not rolled 100% correct. We guess these are the cigars which make it to the black market and are sold on the streets of old Havana for as cheap as a dollar for a Cohiba.

On our last night we visited Club Havana - a Cuban version of Hard Rock Café with a fifties look. To our surprise a brilliant show was produced from different singers to a full dance show with 50+ dancers. We had a ball!

Just before we caught our flight back to Grand Cayman, we stopped off at the renowned art market in old Havana. I was amazed at the art on offer, for very reasonable prices.

Nick, April and Ryan have all been to Cuba before, but noted some changes in Cuba on this visit which can only be due to Fidel Castro's brother taking over recently. Some of these changes include that Cuban's are now allowed to have mobile phones, computers (but no internet yet) and Nick pointed out that the streets are cleaner and the general vibe felt more comfortable. Before, locals we not allowed to talk to tourists. Now, Ryan has even been approached by a Lady of the Night (day at that stage actually). Luckily he declined her offer.

I was also under the misconception that Cuban's are not allowed to travel, this is not true as Ohmydear (that's how her name is pronounced, but surely not spelled) and Vallerio explained during brunch. Cubans can submit a request to their government to travel to a specific location, the Cuban government then approves it (or not) according to their requirements and the intended destination (e.g. Grand Cayman) can then approve that person to enter or not. I guess it's probably a bit more complicated than that, but the point is that they can exit and re-enter the country, which is very different form a country such as North Korea.

We will probably not have the opportunity to return to Cuba, but I would love to see the rest of the country outside Havana, which is said to be beautiful and also boasts some popular dive sites. I think we would need to brush-up on our Spanish before then.

Once again, Nick and Avril organised everything and it was fantastic. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
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