Friday, 3 November 2017


27th - 29th Oct 2017

Capitolio National - Havana. Imitation of the one in Washington DC
Like me I expect you have seen photos of Havana with all the ancient old bangers and bands and somewhat grotty streets. Well, it's all here in abundance.

Left: An example of one of the more roadworthy old US jalopies. This one is jazzed up for tourist tours. Most are ancient 1950s Chevrolets, Buicks etc., but I am no car expert and many have long lost their marque logos so I'm none the wiser. In fact the older ones have been so repaired with fibre glass and polyfilla and painted over that the original bodywork has been lost. Their old petrol V8 engines have often been replaced by diesel engines, some of which belch black smoke and sound as if they are taken from old Russian tanks and APCs. 

Havana is divided into three principal areas; Habana Viejo (old city) to the east, Centro (central) and Vedado to the west. The main city is about 3 miles in length and the only reliable means of transport for a tourist, if you don't feel like walking, is a taxi. These can be (as everywhere) a complete rip-off. The smarter yellow taxis are expensive, but it is possible to haggle...before you get in that is. I have adopted the tactic of finding the most dilapidated old jalopy in sight which may have bald tyres, broken windscreen, dodgy brakes and sounds like a tank, and negotiate a sensible price; probably much less than half that charged by the yellow jobs. Which reminds me, there are three certainties in life in this part of the world; death, taxes and taxi drivers who won't have any change. Some of the cars remind me of Coco the Clown's circus model which has eliptical wheels, stops with a loud bang, plume of smoke and the doors fall off. I have done a lot walking.

I have been staying in Habana Viejo at one of the hundreds of 'Casa Particulares'. They are basic but, so far, clean, relatively cheap and the owners are most delightful and helpful. I only pre-booked the first night (from Lonely Planet) and it is easy to find subsequent accommodation when necessary. One just has to be aware of the omnipresent touts (jineteros...translates literally as 'jockeys') who, if you succumb to their offers, will scam you with 'false' accommodation as well as try to sell you virtually any other dubious goods. They are a pest, but react favourably to a polite 'bugger off'' ('no me moleste por favor'....a useful phrase).

At breakfast on my first morning at the 'Greenhouse' casa I met a very interesting and informative lady and her son (Betty and John) from New Jersey, USA. Betty, who was born in Cuba, and her parents (her father worked there) had been booted out in 1961 following the revolution. They were only allowed to take out what they could carry in an overnight bag. All their property and financial assets were confiscated. Anyway, she and her son who both speak Spanish, had returned to visit long lost relatives. They were a fount of useful information. 

Right: A typical Havana 'old town street'. Much of the city is incredibly ramshackle with seemingly little maintenance having been carried out since the 'revolution'. The people look seriously poor and down at heel. Having said that, some heroic effort is being made to restore old and prestigious buildings in Habana Vieja to their former glory. It will be a very long and uphill job. The cobbly streets, however, are in good nick.
Althought most of the people look poor, scruffily dressed and seem to spend most of their time sitting ouside on doorsteps, they seem remarkably cheerful and, I have been told and have experienced, generally honest and pleasant natured. Apart from any normal city pickpocket threat, the place is very safe, especially for tourists. Certainly no violence on record!

Perhaps because they don't have much money they amuse themselves by learning to sing and play musical instruments. As a result the ubiquitous bands perform most enthusiastically, and skilfully, at just about every café, restaurant and bar. OK, it does get a bit tiresome having maracas rattled in your earhole at every pit-stop...followed every half hour by a collection basket being taken around for tips, but most of the music is very jolly.

A particularly good band was this 'all girl' group who played at 'La Factoria' a bar/restaurant on Plaza Vieja. Bass guitar, keyboard, bongos, vocalist plus maracas and, especially, the girl at the front (in white top) who played the flute quite beautifully (poor pic left). They were joined on occasions by a skinny screaming gay queen with a blonde wig who girated in front of the group and waggled his scrawny bottom at the audience. I'm not sure if he was part of the ensemble but, quite frankly, he was a most unwelcome distraction. He's the one front right. A right twit.

The state authorised 'casas particulares' are all indicated by this sign outside (right). They are everywhere in all Cuban towns. If you haven't made a booking you can safely rely on finding somewhere to stay (as long as you don't follow a jinetero), and I suspect they are all of a similar decent standard. The normal cost is around CUC 25 plus CUC 5 if you want breakfast.

Talking of 'CUC's, Cuba has a double currency. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC...pronounced 'cook')) is pegged to the US$ i.e.. 1 CUC = 1 US$. This currency is the one in main use and normally used by tourists. The other currency is the Cuban Peso, or Moneda National (MN$) and sometimes used by locals. 1 MN$ (Peso) is only worth 25¢. Apparently the notes look similar. Hence beware! I haven't actually seen a MN$ yet, so maybe they have been discontinued.

The next issue, having eventually, after much queuing, bought your ETECSO WiFi card is to find somewhere you can use it. There are local 'hotspots' outside (just look for a collection of people playing on their smartphones) and inside some of the larger hotels, although a couple of the really smart places ie. Hotel National in Vedado (not particularly smart by western standards I must say), have their own internal a price. I used the bar in Hotel Inglaterra near the Capitolio (left). At least you can sit down with a drink. Unfortunately it is difficult to find a charging point for your PC so at some point either your WiFi card or PC battery runs out. All most inconvenient.
The Hotel Inglaterra looks most impressive from the outside. Not so great inside and, as usual, the food served there is very moderate. Again, mostly combinations of chicken, pork, rice and beans, and sandwiches. I have never undestood the Latin American obsession with putting cheese (queso) in every sandwich, and the cheese is always the same kind of flabby slab of processed stuff. The whole sandwich list had whatever + 'queso'. There was one I ordered which was just a 'salad' sandwich. I got a plate of lettuce and carrots plus a toast sandwich containing, you've guessed it, bloody cheese! You would have thought someone with a modicum of imagination might try something completely different.

On the move tomorrow and have much more fascinating information and photos to inspire you with about Havana, but will stop here in case I never get connected again.

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