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See the real Cuba
Cuba. It’s the place to go. It’s the destination of choice. It’s the latest city to add to your list of “must see places”. On almost any given Sunday, I can open the travel section of the papers and there will either be a story or a travel tour or cruise advertisement offering the trip of a lifetime to Cuba. Add to this current media on the thawing of decades old sanctions by the USA against Cuba, along with the mystique of this isolated and deeply communist country, and you have all the ingredients for it to be the new hip travel destination.
And so it should be. It’s a great place. But I think it’s at it’s greatest now. In it’s original, communist, rundown, unique but beautiful state. I can also see it in the future. As further sanctions are removed, and the gateway to tourism, capitalism, economic upturn and development happen – and it will happen – Cuba will be transformed. Some will argue that this is what it needs.
Others will say that it’s time the communist ideology is broken down. Some will welcome development and the employment and business opportunities it will present. But when it does happen, it will no longer be Cuba. Well not the Cuba that exists today. The ‘caught in time’ crumbling Cuba. The Cuba that has no idea of the economic value naturally attributed to it by virtue of being an island surrounded by the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean.
We chose to go to Cuba so that we could experience it before any of this happened, and also because it wasn’t a usual holiday destination for the majority of travellers.
Getting there was quite the logistical operation, given we travelled there when the sanctions were still well and truly in place. Essentially, there were only a couple of gateways that were open to air travel. So the Cuban odyssey began at Lima Airport (Peru)……here’s how it all unfolded.
We jumped in a cab at about 4am, with the very heavy mist of Lima swirling all around us. Remembering this time to put our smaller bags on the floor to reduce the level of interest to motorbike thieves that whiz past, smash the window, and grab the bags off your lap or anywhere else within their reach.
Current requirements for travel to Cuba
For anyone travelling from Lima to Cuba, allow yourself more time than you would normally allow as the visa and check-in process is diabolical.
It is a requirement of entry into Cuba to have a Tourist Card, which you can get at the departing airport. We were flying with LAN so we went to their counter to get some assistance only to find that the only person who could process it didn’t start her shift for an hour. By the time we got processed, the line behind us was filled with stressed travellers, who were now all inside the two hour window prior to the flight and we still hadn’t checked in. One NZ couple had spent the night in the airport after not being able to find anyone the night before to process a visa for them.
We took off from here to go and get our suitcases shrink wrapped as we had heard from numerous sources that the Cuban baggage staff like to go through bags looking for things that they find valuable, prior to putting them on the carousel.
Finally we were checked in, and on our way to the lounge, or so we thought. As we rounded the corner we saw one of the biggest security and then immigration lines we’ve ever set eyes on. For the next hour and a half, we snaked our way slowly through hundreds and hundreds of people, most of them getting fairly stressed as their planes were well past the boarding time, and approaching the actual take off time rapidly. Frequent representations to the staff were met with a hand gesture to get back into the line. Unless you were about five minutes away from taking off, you had to suck it up. Every one, including us, had to sprint to the boarding gates. Our plane was due to take off at 8.50am and I think we got on just after 9am.
With that over, we settled in for our five and a half hour flight to Havana. I felt like a covert operative coming into Havana airport, as we were carrying a lot of soap that we had brought with us from home, plus what we had collected from the hotels we had been staying at. Sound a little strange ? Soap, a rationed item in Cuba, is a coveted essential. Each day we would take some of the soap out with us and find a young family or two to give it to. We learnt that as long as we said “for your family”, the gift was met with great appreciation, as the young mothers or kids ran off to their homes to show off their newly acquired goodies.
Next line of defence at the airport is the row of nurses lined up behind desks, complete in their white uniforms and old fashioned white paper hats. They check you as you come through, just in case you look sick, and take your health form off you that you have to complete before entry. It’s just another reminder that things happen differently here.
Money can be tricky
Getting financial was our next mission. When it comes to money, Cuba plays to a different tune once more. The local currency is the national peso, but tourists cannot get access to this ‐ it is illegal, and police all over Havana will regularly watch tourists to ensure they hand over the correct pesos. Tourists must use the Cuban Convertible Peso.
All currency can only be bought and sold in Cuba itself, you cannot bring it in, nor take it out. Their socialist government and their hate of all things American also makes it incredibly difficult to get cash out and using credit cards is not at all common. But more on that later.
As we started to drive away from the airport, I saw my first old Cuban car, so I quickly got out my camera and started snapping, desperate not to miss the opportunity. I needn’t have been concerned. Dodges, Chevys, Plymouths and Cadillacs, the iconic 1950’s cars are the most prolific thing here. In varying states of disrepair, their colour brightens up many of the decaying and colourless neighbourhoods.
They are held together with string, paperclips and the results of innovative local engineering, since spare parts became caught up in the trade moratorium with the USA in around 1959. These cars, in all colours of the rainbow, are a shout out to a bygone era and a reminder in our own age of consumerism that they don’t make things like this anymore.
As we approached the neighbourhood where we were to spend the next five nights, I started to question whether I had made the right decision……..
Coming up….Our adventure staying with a local family in Havana.