Visiting Cuba – Day 2

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We booked a sightseeing tour with a German speaking tour-guide for 120 EUR in advance. Currently 1 EUR equals (on Feb. 12, 2017) almost 1 CUC, which is the official currency for tourists. An average Cuban worker makes approximately 40 CUC/month. One CUC equals almost 25 CUP, which is the official currency for locals. A visit to a museum costs for a tourist 6 CUC and for a local 6 CUP!

The guide (Carmen) arrived at 9:30 hours to pick us up for the tour, which included a two-hour convertible ride through the town of Habana followed by a three hours walking-tour through Vieja Habana. Carmen was a German philology student and spoke quite well our language. She introduced us to the history of the country and the town.

We drove from our B&B towards the University, the Botanical Garden and the Plaza Nacional where we stepped out of the car and walked around the asphalt pavement to hear about Che, Fidel and their friends during the revolution. Then we continued our tour through the suburbs along parks, embassies and other official buildings such as schools, sport arenas, etc. Our next stop was at Fusterlandia, an art area where José Fuster works in a way like Gaudi did. Born in Caibarién, on Cuba’s north coast, and coming from a very ordinary family, he started working as a literacy volunteer in the Sierra Maestra mountains, followed by studying art in Habana. Today Fuster estimates his personal exhibitions at more than 100. He puts his own money – money he makes from selling his paintings and sculptures – back into the community, redecorating his neighbour’s houses, incorporating them into Fusterlandia. We have been very much reminded of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona that is impressive, too.

From the exhibition at Fusterlandia we drove to the Bosque de La Habana (parque Metropoitano), which is a botanical park area in Havana with exotic plants, a little river and rest areas. Because of the fact that we had chosen the “not raining” season of the year (equals winter in Europe) we did not see many blooming plants and trees, but the temperature was very acceptable (around 28 °C) and the humidity was quite fair. Walking around didn’t cause much sweating but you have to have bottled water with you all the time.

After two hours of driving and sightseeing the driver stopped near Old Havana, the so called Vieja Habana. We stepped out off the car near the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and walked into Old Town Havana. Here we thought we might find the real Cuba: Life music and people dancing while others are smoking cigars and drink Mojitos. But … the worse happened: houses in a horrible status, people who tried to get the tourist’s money out off their pockets, etc. Nothing like Cuban flair or human lifestyle! Although some houses looked nice the average building was in bad shape. You could see that money and effort is needed to bring them back to life.

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This part of town was busy with crowds of tourists walking around and artists trying to make some money by posing or attracting.

After three hours walking around we thought that it might be a good idea to get something to eat. Our guide recommended a place where we could good food at a reasonable price. We stopped at Chacón 162, where we did have a delicious meal and perfect cocktails. Because of the fact that our internal human memory got overloaded with information, we decided to walk back to our B&B to get some rest before we start our evening excursions in Havana.

Dining in Havana can be an adventure, because stepping into a restaurant doesn’t mean that you will get what they do offer on their menu. You should be patient and ask what they have to offer. Many items are not available – especially on the weekends. Knowing this I preordered Lobster at the restaurant Casa Abel two weeks in advance. I found it quite helpful that I have heard – while watching a documentary about Cubas new IT businesses – about an App from which you can easily find restaurant in Cuba: Ala Mesa. I choose this restaurant because of it’s Cuban dishes and it’s close vicinity to our B&B. And we haven’t been disappointed.

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It looks like a wonderful place, tastefully furnished. The menu is a little limited. They also have a balcony with a few tables on the main dining room floor but a shame that the view is marred with an eyesore of a space where a building used to be (I didn’t post a picture of that).

The food was good although the lobster was different to what we knew from Maine, MA or the Provence, France. But the dinner was delicious, the wine from Chile excellent and the dessert what we expected: to die for. When I ordered “La Cuenta, for favour” the host offered me a cigar as a thank you for being my guest instead of a drink on the house. What a wonderful experience we never expected. On our was back to our Casa Particular we stepped into a music club, had a drink or two, listened to life music and were ready to go to bed afterwards.

What an exciting day we’ve had. Let’s see what the next will offer to us. We did make plans already, but we had to see how the weather will be. The forecast wasn’t that good: Strong winds and rain are coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. So we will see …

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Visiting Cuba

img_1511Preparations

To see Cuba before it changes it’s attitude towards capitalism, we decided to go there early 2017.

The preparation to find a hotel or even B&B – that would fit our expectations – wasn’t that easy. First of all we started to talk to friends who visited Cuba before. They spoke about their All-Inclusive experiences and ways to find your way around without a tour operator. One of the most important hints was to choose a Casa Particular instead of booking a room in one of the hotels. The reason for this is, that most of the hotels are overbooking: When you do arrive and they don’t have a room available they will sent you to a Casa Particular anyway. Hotel rooms are also quite expensive compared with the average income of a Cuban.

We made up our minds and started to find the best places for us to stay because we decided not to do a round-trip to see all of the touristic places. Our decision was to stay for a week in Habana and then travel to colonial Trinidad from where we can explore the surrounding area.

The next step was: Finding an airline, which services Habana from Europe without a transfer/stop. There are Condor and Air Berlin, both flying from DUS and MUC non-stop to HAV. Condor we didn’t take into consideration because of our experiences regarding the service they do provide. We flew several times with them from FRA to LAS in Business class and thought that the money we’ve spent was not worth it. Economy class was even worse. Seating is very tight. Air Berlin is almost the same in regard of flight quality: Tight seating, bad service and most of the times they are both delayed.

Recalling my good experiences we did have with Delta Airlines we contacted KLM to get an offer for our trip from DUS or AMS to HAV. Because we contacted them early we found a very good price for two Business class tickets for a non-stop connection from AMS to HAV.

The last step in preparation is getting a visa. When you book a package (flight, hotel, excursions, etc.) through an agency they provide the Visa for Cuba. When you travel individually you have to apply for one at the Cuban Embassy in Berlin or in Bonn. The costs are 25 EUR/person. This visa is a piece of paper that is not glued to your passport. Therefore you have to pay

Arrival in Havanaimg_4827

The estimated flight time was 10 hours 30 minutes. Fortunate enough it was only a ten hours flight. The plane took off at 10:30 and we arrived in Habana at 15:oo hours local time. We went to the Caribbean islands Trinidad/Tobago before and the first sight of the international airport was very similar: Bright sunshine, light colors and workers not rushing around – too hot to hurry. As a result we had to wait for over 90 minutes to get our luggage. When we finally held it in our hands, we had to realize that one tag was missing so we could not clear customs. Waiting in line and than been told that we have to go back to get the suitcase x-rayed again was no fun after such a long journey. My advice: Pay attention to a missing tag and get permission to clear customs before you wait in line to exit the airport.

When we went into the arrival hall we were expecting a taxi driver waiting for us to bring us into Habana, because we paid in advance to the guesthouse host for it. We did this on purpose knowing that fares can vary depending on the driver. Because of the fact that we did not speak Spanish fluently we tried at the airport to grab the attention of an English-speaking woman to help us to find a taxi. She said that the driver might not have waited for us regarding the delay in getting our luggage. She negotiated the fare which came out identically to the one we did prepay already. The Cuban taxi driver was very cool: While driving he moved his body constantly to the rhythm of the music playing. We thought that this is a great welcome and this is Cuba as we expected it. After a 45 minutes ride we arrived at the Casa Particular “Zenia Habana” located at Virtudes y Blanko. An address we would have never found without our driver because the correct address was Virtudes at the corner Galliano. Roads have often two names: The old “Before the Revolution” and the “Past the Revolution” name. Our first impression of the houses and roads of Habana was: They are in an astonishing bad constitution. Asphalt pavement was only on the main roads and the sidewalks – some in concrete but mostly hardened sand – were damaged, dirty and dog poop all over.img_4061

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