Havana, Cuba was our first non-European destination “enroute” to Australia. The initial experience was very much like how London felt on the morning of Brexit – shock with a generous sprinkling of horror. Our friend was supposed to get there before us, but had forgotten to get his visa. The “visa” also known as the Tourist Card costs €25pp and is a blank piece of paper that I had to fill myself. I booked the tickets directly with Condor because they were cheap. If you think Ryanair is bad, try being on an 11-hour flight that is an hour late, only serves one meal for the duration of the flight and has 2 movies and 2 episodes for entertainment.
Havana started off with a bang. We were supposed to meet our friend Pete at arrivals, only to find out that we landed at a different terminal from him and the terminals are 2km apart. We didn’t have any accommodation booked and after queuing almost 45min to get the currency, caught the old vintage taxi to supposedly the place our friend had booked. The taxi driver was kind enough (because I think he charged enough) to call our homestay host and wait with us until she arrived. After initial pleasantries were exchanged using my limited Spanish, she advised that Pete still wasn’t there. Once checked in, we hoped he will show up or we will try and meet up with him at our agreed “emergency” meeting point the next morning. However, crisis was averted when Pete knocked on the door an hour later.
We started off our first day in Havana with a simple breakfast at our homestay and then exchanging some CUC (pesos converted) into the local CUP (pesos de Nacional). We walked about 23,000+ steps (over 15 km) during the entire day, taking pictures of the vintage cars with the backdrop of crumbling building that we could tell were stunning at one stage. We visited Chinatown with no Chinese people in sight. Pete bought a pair of shorts from one of the many random markets along the Simon Bolivar and got stuck into the local cuisine of grilled fish and of course Mojito!
Day 2 in Havana consisted less walking but venturing out into the real tourist holes and myth busting. From the pictures that we have seen in the media and a few friends who have visited, we thought (perhaps naively) that there will be old ladies wearing colourful dresses with a cigar hanging off their lips on every corner. We could have not been more wrong. First of all, we didn’t see many people smoking at all. The ones who were, predominantly smoked cigarettes because they are so cheap. However, there were plentiful older men and women around in full costumes like the images we had seen, hanging right outside the busy restaurants, charging a tip for taking a picture. The area around Plaza Vieja and Calle de los Officios is where most of these people hang around. Additionally these are the areas that are super clean compared to the rest of the streets and reminded us of any other campo in an Italian/European cities.
Day 2 also consisted of drinking a lot of Mojitos. The most expensive one from La Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway used to like his drink and the cheapest one at Restaurante Europa at CUC 1.95. Mojitos in Cuba are not only cheap but also deliciously lethal, which is great. I don’t think anyone bothers with measurements and most of the bartenders are generously heavy handed.
For the next few days we decided to leave the big smoke and explore a couple of other towns, starting with a little tobacco farming town of Viñales. It took us over 3 hours on a Transtur bus that we had booked the day prior. I was told by a friend who visited Cuba earlier in the year, that Viñales was a tourist hole with beautiful landscape. He was right about both. It’s the first time that I have ever felt like I’m in a vacuum with no way out. There is the main drag in Viñales where you only see, do and buy whatever the locals want you to. There are hardly any supermarkets. The only way to get around was on a bus that comes only every 1.5 hours and a handful of restaurants serving cheap drinks and possibly the most horrible meals I’ve had in a long time. Even with all the “negatives”, Viñales’ national park is a sight to behold. Exploring it on a horseback on a scorching hot day, riding through vegetable and tobacco farms spread out as far as your eye can see, the isolation was tranquil.
I have never been so hot in my life as I was in Cuba. Mrs FOMOist loves the heat but even she was melting in the high humidity. So, after two nights in Viñales, we booked a collectivo through our Casa Particulares to take us to the beachside town of Varadero. One vintage taxi picked us and three others from Varadero and the second one took us into Varadero town.
In addition to exploring Cuba, we used all the available transport options and now arrived in Varadero town on a Saturday during high season without anywhere to stay. After lugging our bags in scorching heat, knocking and getting turned down by every Casa Particulares in the area, an old lady invited us to sit on her shaded porch while she called at least 20 numbers from her phonebook and finally found us accommodation. We will be forever grateful.
After dropping our bags, the first thing we did was to ask our host the directions to the beach and after walking across the Main Street, we were rewarded with turquoise blue, crystal clear water going back and forth trying to get hold of the soft, powdery, white sandy shore. We stayed in Varadero for three nights and the routine included waking up, walking around in the heat till we could take the heat no more and then calling off in the warmest water I have experienced so far.
Unless one books an all-inclusive resort holiday, Cuba is far from a relaxing break. It’s hot, it’s humid, it’s foreign and it’s stuck in a time-warp with big back TVs, scarce Internet and toilet paper that you can’t flush down the toilet and really bad food. But Cuba is an experience. An experience enriched by kindness and generosity of people that are content with whatever little or large they have. At times it was a struggle, but I’m glad we got to see it in its true gritty state before it changes too much because it certainly will.