the hoofindex - rewind to the previous trip (cancun in mexico) - fast forward to the following trip (beaching at varadero)
Day 7 - First experience of Cuba
So now in Cuban airspace. Essentially a piece of the world free of American's. After the trip to Cancun airport and the noise pollution produced by the 2 American tourists the Hoof and Hoof'ess were looking forward to an American free zone. Except for the 10 or so American's on the flight... oh well, can't get everything.
After a pleasant and uneventful flight we were flying over Cuba, green and lush but flatter than we had expected. It didn't rise out of the sea with rolling hills, no it was more like an extension of the beach, just happened to be green rather than white, and barely a transition from the clear flat blue Caribbean. Then came a pleasant warning by the pilot that we may experience some turbulence as we approach Havana and descend. Did we get some turbulence?! The Hoof'ess likened it to approaching Wellington on a bad day, To the Hoof it was like playing on a bouncy castle, one moment you're sitting on your seat - the next moment their is clear space between you and the seat and the belt is holding you. There was a few loud gasps by half of the travellers as they lost their stomach (not into a bag!) as the plane dropped into each pot hole.
Then we finally arrived, all 50 of us. Havana Airport at the near new Terminal 3. Not a bad looking terminal, reasonably modern and it did have an air bridge which was better than this mornings departure from Cancun. Moving through the terminal there was plenty of security, not NZ style security which are civilians in "uniforms" - but more Army style looking security. Perhaps the government just got a great deal on green outfits but all staff wore green army style uniforms and the men had the classic flat topped green army hat.
Anyway's, we got to customs - being the only plane to arrive at this time of day it was empty with a number of customs officers, in green uniforms of course. It was an interesting setup, a lineup of customs booths, each with a door behind it. You couldn't see past the doors and each person, as they were "released", was buzzed through the door. The interesting part for the Hoof'ess was that you had to go through one by one. Not couples, nor families, but one person at a time. After waiting for a couple of others from the plane who'd gotten to the customs quicker the Hoof'ess went through. The officer couldn't speak any English which made it interesting for the Hoof'ess, after some arm waving and gesturing she went on through and it was my turn. Luckily the very pleasant lady didn't ask me any questions - obviously saw my European passport and thought I wasn't as high a risk as the Hoof'ess and her New Zealand passport. And into the security scanning area to get our hand luggage x-rayed. Nothing too exciting here other than more green uniforms.
Then onto baggage claim - these Cuban's are much more efficient than the Cancunites. Our bags were sitting there waiting to be picked up and we were through the "nothing to declare" door and out into Cuba. Cause the speed and efficiency could have something to do with the lack of plane volume, but can't be sure. We wondered up to the information desk, bought a map, she asked if we needed a taxi, we in unison said yes, a man appeared, grabbed Hoof'ess bag, I grabbed mine quickly and followed, a whistle and a clean white Peugeot pulled up, threw bags into the back, jumped in and we were off. We just looked at each other in disbelief that we were suddenly racing along the highway away from the Airport in less than a minute.
While we were suddenly whisked away by the taxi driver, he didn't drive fast. It was like he was driving miss daisy. Nice slow gear changes, gentle acceleration, calm lane changing - a shock to the system compared to Mexico. But this is very much like how the people in Cuba drive. They are certainly not in a hurry to get anywhere, time is on their side (so to speak).
And onto another revelation - while few own or drive cars, the roads are massive. There is no shortage of 6 lane roads with 2 cars on them. Rush hour in Havana? This was the view from our room, 8:50 am - its a major 6 lane road called Ave De Los Presidentes, its 6 lanes of hectic gardens, rushing birds... and more grass than your usual 6 lane road. To be honest its a beautiful street, partly because there are so few vehicles.
Rush hour, 8:50 am and you can play "Where's Wally" for car's
So we arrive at the corner of Ave De Los Presidentes and 13th Street. Looked up at the building where we were staying:
The chateau where we were to stay.
Now this is when it got interesting. Our email printout said to go to the 13th floor to where we thought would be the "reception" of the "hostel" we were staying at. Rocking up to the front door, it was locked and there was a nice little note, in Spanish of course. Luckily the taxi driver spoke "so-so" English and told us that the intercom system wasn't working so it said to go down the side street, go into the basement and use the lifts from there. Okay, no worries (in good ol' Kiwi english) we said. The Hoof grabbed both packs and we wandered down into the basement. It was like walking down in the Adam's Family basement, dark and dingy you couldn't really see where you were going. On the right was the "back up generator" but I don't think it was up to backing much up. Surrounded by Lada's and a few old Skoda's we boldly, and blindly walked where no Kiwi had walked before. We then stumbled into a "living room" with Che and Fidel posters on the wall - the blind kiwi's had stumbled into the poor old super's living quarters and before us was his wife who couldn't figure out what we were doing. She didn't speak any English so with our 2 words of Spanish we got nowhere fast. After more than a few quizzical looks at each other she pointed around the corner and said words that we can only guess meant "go that way". Finally finding the lift we thought "yes" finally we are getting somewhere. It was one of those old elevators from the 50's - more like a service elevator than the main one. But we didn't care, in we went with the super's wife pressing the #4 button (don't know why), and we pressed #13. The grill door shut and we slowly moved up towards the heavens. Then we stopped at level 5 - don't ask why it stopped there. After hitting the 13 button for 5 minutes with no movement we opened the elevator door and pressed the buzzer for door #5. After a few minutes a nice older lady came to her door. Deja vu, a pleasant older lady who spoke zero English. After a few minutes of trying to get her to understand we needed level 13 we went down again. The Hoof'ess was almost at her wits end, but the Hoof stayed calm as a cucumber. Back down to the basement, however this time we were met by the super, who had a screwdriver in his hand... hmmmm. Problem with the elevator? We showed him the email and pointed out #13. He then beckoned us to follow as he walked round the corner to another elevator door and pressed "up" - this one looked even more second hand than the first. After a few minutes the Hoof'ess was at the end of her tether. She'd started to walk back out - no idea what she planned to do outside! I waited, Hoof the patient. The super went over to a switch in the wall, turned it off and on a few times to wake the elevator up - and then came back and pushed the up button a few more times. Finally after another few minutes and with the Hoof'ess virtually chewing off her tail with confusion, the elevator arrived. The Hoof'ess looked questioningly at it. We climbed in and "flew" (I use flew very loosely) up to the 13th floor where our hosts were waiting. We actually weren't staying at a hostel at all but more of a home stay with some very nice people, Ramon and his wife who own the place, and Lilly (Ramon's daughter) who seems to run the home stay. After the questionable building and down right dodgy lifts their place is fantastic, a beautiful home with decks looking out to the ocean and a nice large room with en-suite. Now we are talking.
The view south in the evening - this from our room.
And to the North from the desks off the living room.
So finally we were safe and sound at Cuban Casa. Time to orientate ourselves with Havana - luckily we are near the Malecon which the Hoof'ess claims is famous. Not that I've ever heard of it. Apparently it's the place to be for sunsets of the romantic kind.
First meal in Cuba we thought we'd go "semi-safe" and have dinner at a hotel restaurant on the Malecon. It wasn't the flashiest of hotel restaurants, it had 70's style wrought iron patio furniture throughout the restaurant. I decided to try the Chicken which the waiter recommended, deep friend chicken - the Cuban style of KFC - now affectionately called CFC by the Hoof. It was actually bloody good given low expectations after the guide book had said that food in Cuba is very average. The Hoof'ess was reckless and got ham and cheese sandwiches. Overall not bad and we headed back to the Casa to crash.
Day 8 - Happy 80th Birthday Fidel
A slower start this morning - it is Sunday after all. Over some breakfast at the Casa we met one of our fellow guests called Giovanni. Interesting Italian who was as left wing as they come, and lived in every obscure country or city you can think of. After managing to extract ourselves from the table (Giovanni can seriously talk - its like he's got verbal diarrhea) we headed back to the Malecon and went in the opposite direction from the previous day. We wandered around to the Antimperialista monument. This is an interesting monument - built relatively recently. In the background is the American Interests Building - and when it was first built the American's used to have a massive ticker with messages such as "Cuba, you're not free", and other messages against the Fidel regime. So Fidel built this monument with 50+ flags closely packed together so that it was difficult to see any messages that the American's showed and called it the Anti-Imperialist monument - its like a massive Fidel middle finger straight at Bush.
The Antimperialista monument and the American Interests Building in the background
There are always Cuban police and security at the monument and near by the American Interests Building - and around the building are American's solders guarding "American Interests". The purpose of the Cuban police is not to guard the monument, or watch the American's, but rather move along people so they don't hang around reading the messages the American's put on the building. Cuban's will get run along, not walk but run past the building.
Then we kept on going heading for Old Havana, which meant going through Central Havana which is a very rough local area - and everything is ramshackle.
Central Havana - would be beautiful, if it didn't look like crap
As we were walking through a friendly chap started to talk to us, both the Hoof and Hoof'ess were skeptical of the guy and his motives. He asked if we'd seen any Rumba music in Cuba yet - to which we politely as Kiwi 's do said "no we hadn't". He had the place just for us. So we followed, the Hoof'ess was already lost but the Hoof kept careful eye on bearings and was comfortable as long as we were still heading towards old Havana. The streets got worse and worse - extremely dodgy territory - then suddenly we were in CalleJon De Hammel - a famous street named after a french/german resident who was a wealthy arms dealer turned merchant. The buildings along one side (background of picture) are painted with large murals from top to bottom, brightly coloured and well maintained versus the rest of Central Havana.
After the ramshackle of central Havana the vivid colour of the street was a shock!
We listened to some Rumba music and looked around at icons from their religion - Santeria (mix of west african and spanish catholicism). The Hoof'ess was approached by a couple of kids who tried to relieve her of a can of Coke she was drinking (real Coke so no luck there) and Sean the sheep (which again received a pleasant "no"). Then it came, the moment both Hoof and Hoof'ess were waiting for - the reason why the pleasant man had brought us here. There was an art gallery which he showed us into and clearly if we'd bought anything he was going to get a cut. However he had not read his target well, backpackers with one a cheap dutchman and the other a poor kiwi - did I mention unemployed and homeless?
After extricating ourselves from the situation we bailed heading towards central Havana and met back up with the Malecon. Still everything looked broken and ramshackle - the place just feels like its on the verge of falling apart. I swear a huff and a puff and they'd all come down - cause they seem to hold up to hurricane season every year so looks can be deceiving.
Then there are the cars - so many classic American 50's cars. Some in awesome condition.
Then others that need some serious TLC - and are just left on the side of the road - and check out the footpath 'n road!
We finally got to the end of the Malecon which was also the top end of Old Havana. Having sweated out half our bodies we decided to rest under a tree next to the Maximo Gomez memorial who was one of the original fighters for independence from the Spanish in 1800's. While we were recovering from the heat a Cuban security guard approached. We were wary thinking we'd be moved on, rather he just started chatting to us... needless to say after the first incident today we were again skeptical of motives. Again it came, he had a mate who had cheap cigars for sale - top quality - in his words he motioned us to go for a "lookie lookie". We shook our heads and said we were fine - no cigars today thanks. "Lookie lookie?" questioned the hopeful guard. We than said we had to keep moving and quickly moved off down into Old Havana. No lookie lookie today thanks.
Revolution Museum was first on the list of signs - smack bam in the middle of a wide plaza style street. It was originally the Presidential Palace prior to the revolution - then unused until they setup the museum, you can still see the bullet holes in the stairway as you enter.
The Plaza leading down to the Revolution Museum - Hoofy looking forward to seeing a tank or two
One thing I would recommend to anyone visiting Cuba - work on your Spanish. Many museums don't have much in the way of English around, so we blindly stumbled around reading the little English there was, and trying to decipher the Spanish. We did alright but there was plenty we weren't sure what the hell it was. Round the back was the original boat, Granma, which Fidel, Che and 80 others sailed from Mexico to the south of Cuba, "invaded" and started the revolution from the Batista dictatorship. There was also parts of the American spy plane which was shot down over Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962.
Then round the corner to the Hotel Sevilla for lunch, keeping it simple we had rolls with ham, cheese and salami. Simple and effective - and for drinks, no coke or sprite, but the largest brand in Cuba - Ciego Montero Refresco! Haven't you heard of it? Lemon Lime flavour - not bad actually.
Heading out of Sevilla we walked out on the Prado - another wide plaza style street with tree and cobblestones. This area of Cuba which is under restoration is awesome, and will be incredible when everything is fully restored. On a Sunday the entire Prado is full of artists selling their wares. Seeing many that we would happily purchase we pushed on towards our next destination - the Capitolio.
Anything look familiar, just not as white?
The Capitolio design is based on the Capitol in Washington DC - but to ensure the Cuban one was better they built it taller. It is no longer used as the main government building and home of government since the revolution in 1959. Now its open to the public and houses the ministry of science, technology and the environment. It has the third largest indoor bronze statue in the world called Statue of the Republic, and a 25 caret diamond is set into the floor of the main foyer which is where all distance measurements in Cuba are taken from. Sorry gurls, its a replica diamond now! On a Sunday however its closed, so we could only look around today.
Home time, and what better way than our first Cocotaxi ride - a tourist oriented taxi which is like a three wheeled scooter and has a canopy to keep passengers sheltered.
This was an old one - the newer ones looked more like a giant orange with 3 wheels and a motorbike engine
Getting back to the casa we freshened up and then headed out for the evening - back into the dodgy lifts. The Hoof'ess loves those lifts.
Approaching the ground floor the lift stopped suddenly about half a metre from the bottom, door wouldn't open we were stuck. This sent the Hoof'ess into a panic, she started to bang on the window on the lift door. After a minute of trying to get the lift going, the ingenuous Hoof jimmied the door open just as the Super wondered up with his trusty screwdriver. We bailed just as the Super was bundling in another couple of hapless tourists - we wondered if they also got stuck. But it didn't keep us up at night.
We did another night at the Malecon, another sunset. Then off to a small restaurant recommended by Ramon, just around the corner from the Casa. After waiting a long time to get service we finally got help - asking what was on offer he said, "Pork". Anything else? No. Just Grilled Pork with beans and some rice. After deliberating for a long time over our options we decided on the Pork. With beans and rice. Another long wait as others got menu's and we wondered if we'd been shafted. Luckily no, after they'd spent time looking through the menu they were told Pork was the only option. Phew. Finally getting our meal it was not exactly inspiring, it was tasteless Pork, with beans, and dry rice - all only luke warm. This was what the guide book had warned as about - and little did we know it wouldn't get much better.
Back at the building we discovered that the lift had indeed broken down and now stairs were the only option - 13 stories of stairs. At least we worked off the beans.
Day 9 - Back to the future
During a chat this morning to Ramon who owns the Casa, we found out he used to be a government translator which explained his strong English - and he'd travelled to East Germany once just before the wall came down. This was his one and only trip out of Cuba (as far as we know). We also found out we were staying in good company, Che Guevara's son lived a couple of floors below and the former minister of justice lived a couple of floors up.The Hoof'ess wanted to go down to Che's son's flat and get a photo... but no.
Before heading to old Havana we decided to go check that our booking for a car, picking up at the Hotel Riviera was confirmed. After trying to explain ourselves to the semi-helpful car office guy he confirmed that we were not confirmed. There was no car for us. Was it possible to book a car now? The reply was, "no, come back Wednesday when you want it and check again". There was no way to secure a car - just had to take pot luck.
We took another Cocotaxi back to the Capitolio so we could have a look inside. The building is impressive - but to take photo's you had to pay another NZ$4 for each camera. Bugger that, we promised not to take photo's and as honest Kiwi's we didn't. Not much more to saw except that we had the best lunch yet - toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. They were the safe option when nothing else looked particularly impressive.
Retracing some of yesterdays walk, we went back up Prado and into the Hotel Sevilla to check another car office which we'd seen the previous day. Same story, can't book but come back on Wednesday and we will see if we have anything. Useful.
Continuing up the Prado we ended back up at the Maximo Gomez and the Malecon. Instead of turning left which is where we had walked the previous day, we went right to walk the harbour side of Old Havana. This section of the road had little to no cover and already the heat was beating down - later we found out the the temperature had reached 37 degrees, but this doesn't include the ridiculous humidity which made you feel like you were swimming down the road rather than walking. We passed by what could possibly be the best central police station in the world. It wasn't a nice new building, nor was it a ramshakle or restored colonial building. It was one of the old Spanish forts, stone construction with a big ass moat surrounding most of the building - even a relatively new drawbridge where the police cars came out of. Only in Havana. Needless to say we got some wary looks from a pair of policemen as we stood, pointed, chuckled and took photos of their precious police station - to them it seemed, their fort was not a laughing matter.
Finally we reached some shade, the beautiful Plaza De-Armas. It's like a small nature reserve in the middle a square of restored colonial buildings.
Plaza De-Armas - it looked like an Oasis in the desert of buildings and tarmac - thanks God it was real
We took a few moments to recover and rehydrate - and watch a few people go about their daily business - and check the guide book for what was around. One that was particularly appealing for the Hoof was the automobile museum, which apparently included Che Guevara's car, or motorbike depending on which guide book you read. After walking around a few streets checking out the 95% restored area we figured out where the museum should have been. Good ol' Cuba - there were no signs, just big brown wooden doors and no information. If it was still there it was clearly closed on a Monday. There is more than one Sunday a week in Cuba.
Old Havana was fascinating so we kept walking around, through another 2 plaza's called Plaza San-Francisco and Plaza Vieja. This last plaza had an interesting recent history - it had been a under and above ground car park surrounded by decrepit buildings, but now 100% restored to its original design with a fountain in the middle and all but 2 buildings lovingly restored. They were working on one so they end was in sight for the restoration team.
We then taxi'd back to the Riviera in order to visit the only supermarket we'd seen on our travels. Stocking up on water and beverages we headed back to the Casa and luckily the lift was going again - we braved it and got back to the Casa to refresh before heading back out to the Malecon for the 3rd sunset in a row. Unfortunately most had been cut off by cloud on the horizon but the Hoof'ess was determined, and given the Hoof is a hopeless romantic he never misses an opportunity... although 3 was starting to push it.
We jumped into a local restaurant to eat dinner with the sunset - looking over dinner options the menu was vast. We didn't know where to start. Firstly there was grilled pork with beans and rice, reminding us of the previous night. Then there was grilled chicken with beans and rice. The variety blew us away. And lastly there was cheese pizza - oh the decisions. We decided to hedge our bets and get pork, and chicken. And guess what, other than the colour of the meat it was the same as the previous night. The Hoof'ess is not usually a fan of Pork, deep down having a Jewish food tendency - however needs must, we needed fuel for the machine.
Day 10 - Pretending to be in Survivor
Today was a time to sort a few things - we had no car and running low on money. So it was survivor time, the challenge was to sort transportation to Varadero - be that a car or bus - and find a bank to get some more cash.
After a few more car rentals all said the same thing - come back tomorrow morning and we should/may/possibly have a car for you. Too much uncertainty for Hoof'ess and she was starting to worry. But essentially we gave up for now getting the distinct feeling that if we wanted a car, tomorrow would be the day.
Then we got to the area along Calle 23 (23rd Ave) called La Rampa, loosely described as the main commercial area. It was more like Hamilton CBD without about 80% of the shops. In fact that's probably being generous. But the main thing was that we found one of the two banks in Havana that cashes travellers cheques.
So with money but without a car we headed o the Nacional De Cuba, a 1920's hotel that the American mafia built. It's a grand old building which is now the busiest hotel in Havana. We also finally found an interent cafe here - not the cheapest, and certainly not the fastest, but finally we could check emails, and more importantly check what the hell was happening in the world. Check how hard it was going to be to fly back through the States.
Hoofy enjoying a seat in the main gardens at the Mafia hotel
A thunderstorm hit so hid out in a basement cafe for lunch - nothing too exciting but good ol' pizza. Then came the best part of the entire day - we were heading back to Old Havana and were considering a taxi. But out front of the hotel was the best taxi the Hoof could imagine. A classic...
How classy is this? I thought I was in heaven.
So back to Plaza De-Armas to check the Automobile museum - which this time was open. But how average... it had some old American cars which were in okay condition, but plenty on the street were better. There was some old motorbike, but all lined up with no indication of who or what. All up there was about 7 cars and 4 motorbike... Hoof was not impressed.
Then we walked through Old Havana, checked out a few stalls and ended back at the Capitolio, walking around the Capitolio we were heading towards a Cigar Factory which is on the Central Havana side of the Capitolio. We were ready to do a tour and buy some cigars - but no, we wish. After standing in the doorway for about 5 minutes trying to make sense of the sign, a staff member wandering past came out and told us that they were on holiday for a month - the entire factory shut down for a month and all staff were on holiday - no tours until next month. Gotta love Cuba - imagine shutting down Lion Breweries for a month and send everyone home on holiday. We could learn a lot from the Cubans!
We wandered back out and sat down in a park next to the Capitolio to relax and figure out the plan. Within about 5 minutes we had been propositioned by about 10 Cuban's who all had top quality cigars to sell us.
After a quick wonder through Cuban's attempt at a "China town" and then got into another Cocotaxi to head for Revolution Square and the Jose Marti monument. The Jose Marti monument, which is actually a tower, is the highest point in Havana, giving some great views - and an attractive perch for the local Vultures. That's right, Vultures. I'm sure they look forward to those 6 hour speeches from Fidel and the thousands of Cuban's watching - fresh meat for the Vultures.
Hoofy was looking forward to getting a birds eye view of Havana
Opposite the Jose Marti monument, and across Revolution Square is the Che Guevara monument - a massive image on the side of a building.
We then hiked back to Casa and found out that Ramon had booked a bus - so we decided we'd bus to Varadero rather than worry about a car. For one it was a hell of a lot cheap which the Hoof liked.
Approaching evening - guess what we did? Headed out to the Malecon and watched the sunset and took some photos.
Maybe the Hoof should take up photography professionally!
After our last two meals of meat with beans and rice we had trouble choosing a "restaurant". We were definitely ready for something different. So we went to this set of stalls which can best be loosely described as a "food court". We rocked up to a "chicken stand" and tried to figure out the menu. With the help of the server who showed us each item from the bucket behind the counter we picked what we wanted, assuming it still needed to be cooked. But no, she picked them up and put them into brown paper bags... apparently no cooking was required. The Hoof and Hoof'ess was very dubious, but needed to fuel the machine (especially the hoof's thighs) so we munched it down, then hiked it back to the Casa.
Beach time in Varadero