Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Havana, Cuba

Before I start blogging Cuba I'm just going to put a warning out there for the upcoming negativity of the following entries. I didn't like Cuba. It is the least favourite country I've ever visited and the the best part was arriving back in Mexico. Plenty of things annoyed me which I intend to complain about. But let's start with as an economist, the whole extreme socialism thing irritated me enormously. The country is so inefficient and feels about 60 years plus behind the rest of the world. Although the US trade embargo hasn't helped with that so I guess it's not all Cuba's fault.

Because of the embargo, getting to Cuba from the US is a pain in the arse. Basically you need to fly from Mexico or somewhere else in central America. For me, this meant Cancun. After leaving Vegas I flew to Mexico with a one night stopover in Cancun.

I went for three weeks and while I saw a lot of the island and it wasn't all terrible, I would not go back. In fact, I would rather go to the North Pole in the middle of winter (which I hate) than return to Cuba. And since I went there and saw the place, I am entitled to have an opinion even if it's negative. Now thanks to the internet I can share that opinion with the world. Aren't you lucky?

I flew to Cuba with the government airline (of course) Cubana, which in my opinion is the world's shittest airline for being on time. This flight was massively delayed for like four hours or something. Thankfully Cancun has a reasonably nice airport. That said, I was watching tv on my laptop and keeping an eye on the tv screens to see when it was finally boarding. For some reason 'boarding' doesn't flash up. So I'm sitting there and then some guy comes over to me all shitty and says the plane is waiting for me (not that they'd called my name I might add). I thought that was rich given they'd delayed the plane for four hours and I 'may' have delayed it for like five minutes. I say this with confidence cos I was talking to some girls at baggage claim in Havana and they didn’t even notice they were waiting for someone despite the staff making a big deal. 

Cuba is not off to a good start.

Anyway we get to Havana airport where we wait about 40 minutes for the bags to be unloaded. This was the slowest baggage reclaim ever. And since it's Cuba, everyone is smoking IN THE TERMINAL! Cuba appears to have no anti smoking laws (like I said, it's behind) and on the off chance you go somewhere there is a sticker, everyone ignores it. And this was not like Vegas' casinos either where they pump loads of oxygen into the casinos so you 1) stay awake and gamble more, and 2) can’t really smell the smoke. Everywhere in Cuba with air-conditioning (including restaurants) just smelt gross.

So after finally retrieving my bag I got a rip off airport taxi to Hostel Hamel. It is run by a really nice older couple who speak minimal English. Luckily it's always full and there's usually at least one backpacker there who speaks good Spanish and English who can act as a translator when required. This place is extremely good value for money (5CUC a night) and one of the few places you can meet other backpackers. I recommend it to everyone I meet. Apparently there are only three hostels in Havana and no one else is allowed to open one. The government has obviously decided that everyone should stay in overpriced accommodation since the mantra of Cuba is 'all tourists are rich so we should rip them off as much as possible'.

Hostel Hamel is around the corner from a cool arty street (calle Hamel). Unfortunately you can't enjoy it too much cos everyone is desperately trying to get you to come into their bars/ galleries/ whatever.

How stuff works

On my first day I went with some Germans from the hostel to get local money and they gave me 'the orientation', which includes a run down on the two currencies, where the internet place is (since WiFi doesn't exist in Cuba) and how to minimise getting ripped off. 

Lining up for anything here is interesting. The Cuban way is not to form a line but stand around. You have to ask “el ultimo?” to work out who the last person is, and then you know you’re behind them in the queue. I guess since Cubans spend a large proportion of their days lining up for stuff, this way just became easier.

After a few days offline, I needed the internet to check a flight. So I walk down to Etecsa (the teleco company) and go inside. Instantly the guard sends me back outside. You have to line up outside first even though it's really hot and humid. Only three people are allowed to line up inside at a time. Another backpacker who was leaving had given me his card but after unsuccessfully entering the code I discovered this only works in the hotels not the Etecsa internet places. This is despite the cards looking more or less the same and both being provided by Etecsa. So then I had to line up and buy another card. 

Since a new internet cable from Venezuela came online in Feb 2013, the internet is no longer dial up speed in most cities now. It wouldn't be great for video streaming or online gaming but it's fine for email, FB, etc. The cable has also brought the price down. You can buy an hour of internet for 4.50CUC and the card is valid in any Etesca building (which are in every city centre) so you don't need to use it all at once. Interestingly you have to show your passport to buy an internet card. I'm unsure how Cubans access the internet. I think it is heavily controlled and restricted, which would suck.

There are two currencies here, one for locals and one for tourists. However, this is fucked since tourists wanted Cuban pesos (local money) cos everything in pesos is way cheaper and locals want CUCs (tourist money) so they can buy normal things instead of just getting their rations. So now anyone can easily get their hands on either and having two currencies just adds to the never ending list of Cuban inefficiencies. I think as a tourist, a few years ago it was much harder to get your hands on Cuban pesos but now it's easy. Also you need to bring euros, Canadian dollars or pounds in with you since the US dollar is taxed an extra 10% on conversion. Thankfully, I had a wad of euros with me from French Guiana so I avoided that.

There are two kinds of supermarkets here too. One for locals where you get your government issued rations, which basically means there is one type/ brand of whatever you're entitled to. Some of them can sell extra some stuff. The other one is tourist supermarkets where you can buy coke (from Mexico not the US), imported beers, non-US international brand foods, toiletries etc. These are always in CUC, which is why the locals want them so bad. However, the quality of each supermarket varies a lot and often you see empty shelves.


After getting some money me and the Germans walked around along the Malecon (seafront) towards the Vedado area of Havana.

All the hotels are run by the government. This is one of the nicer looking ones.

Most buildings (the Old Town is the exception) are a fantastic display of communist inspired architecture that would make you want to kill yourself if you had to work in them every day. Like this one, which is the US Interests Section.

Interestingly there are loads of guards surrounding this building and you can’t even walk on the footpath on that side of the road. Not sure why they have an American Interests building when Americans aren’t technically allowed to come here as tourists or do business (don’t lose your passport while you’re not here!)

How about this as a monument to ugly buildings?

This sign confuses me a lot. Visas, passports and meat?

One of the things tourists like (apparently) is all the old cars. Lonely Planet says there are 35,000 pre-1959 American cars in Cuba. About 20 of them look like this.

The other 34,980 are shit boxes that look more like this.

There are also a scary amount of Russian Ladas here too. They are such pieces of shit, don't even get me started.

Oh look, here's one that's broken down!

As a result of all these shit, old, highly polluting cars and buses, Havana has terrible air quality. After three days of walking around this city, my throat hurt a lot and black stuff was coming out of my nose when I blew it. Not good.

On a better note, one of the people I met at the hostel was a Dutch guy named Jan-Pieter. He became my travel buddy for the next three weeks since we got along and were travelling for similar amounts of time. While still in Havana we decided to walk to the fort. On the way, we were looking at the hop on hop off bus timetable. While standing there, taxis were driving up to us telling us the bus (which goes everyday) isn't running to try and get our money. We're like, "um, we've just seen two going in the opposite direction". This was our first clue that Cubans are big liars, and being lied to became a regular feature of this trip.

Anyway, we got to the fort and it was kinda cool and worth seeing. Some bits are free and some bits aren't. We're cheap so we only went to the free bits.

You get some good views of the Old Town.

And there's a Big Jesus! It's been a while since I posted a photo of a big religious statue.

Then we had a walk around the Old Town. The buildings in touristy area are really nice and a lot of it is pedestrianised, which is good.

Annoyingly, a number of buildings have scaffolding up.

I'm guessing they're on a work go slow here!

Given that the Old Town is quite nice, it's a shame it's ruined by people constantly annoying you to buy their crap/ buy their cigars/ go in their restaurants/ take a tour/ etc. Cubans are relentless and do not like to take 'no' for an answer so they keep on hassling you and it becomes very annoying very quickly.

The non-touristy parts of the Old Town are less nice (but a lot more authentic in terms of how Cubans live). Obviously if they had the money to restore these buildings they'd look pretty amazing.


China Town.

The next day Jan-Pieter and I decided to do the hop on hop off tour. It costs 5CUC which is pretty good value since it takes you to loads of places around the city. Some attractions would cost quite a lot to get to if you paid rip off taxi prices.

The Plaza de la Revolution is one place that would be difficult to get to on your own. Even though this is a historically important place, you don't really need to get off the bus since there isn't much there and you can take all the photos you need from the bus.

For example, on one side there is an ugly building with a Che Guevara mural.

Then on the other side is another ugly building with a Camilo Cienfuegos mural.

They do light the murals up at night, which is nice (mostly cos you don't have to look at the ugly buildings). If you fly in to Havana at night there's a good chance the taxi will drive past it on the way to the city.

You also get to stop at the Necropolis Cristobal Colon Cemetery, which apparently is one of the largest in the Americas. If you're into graveyards and Cuban history, you'd love it. Loads of historically significant Cubans are buried here and there are a lot of impressive graves/ tombs.

I like this cool pyramid one.

One of Cuba's most famous graves is also here. La Milagrosa (the miraculous one) is a grave of some random woman who died giving birth. The baby was buried at her feet but when they exhumed the grave years later, her body hadn't moved but the baby was in her arms. Obviously Catholics have jumped on this 'miracle' and now thousands come to her grave to pray for a solution to any fertility problems. Well I guess it's cheaper than fertility treatments. I was just curious about what all the fuss was about which is why I wanted to see it. And while it was an interesting grave, the last thing I need/ want is a child! Luckily I believe in science so I was confident that standing beside a dead woman's grave would not increase my chances of becoming pregnant.

In the afternoon we went to the Revolution Museum. I really don't know much about Cuban history except that there was a revolution in 1959 to over throw the US backed dictator president Batista. It was led by the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, who obviously succeeded since the Castros have been ruling the country ever since. Anyway, a lot of it was lost on me but if you know your history, I imagine it would be quite interesting. 

What I did notice was that Cuba does seem to be war loving nation. There are a lot of tanks and big guns on display everywhere including outside the museum. I think it helps explain why they hate the US. Two war loving nations aren't likely to be friends.


Unsurprisingly, Cuba and Venezuela are besties!

Inside the museum, there was a whole section on communism and how great it is, which I found particularly entertaining.

Communism cares about the elderly.

Hmm, government enforced camping? That sounds TERRIBLE! No wonder everyone wanted to escape to Miami.

I love these American conspiracy theories. Gold.

The museum only shows positive economic and social statistics up to 1990. Interestingly this is the year when sugar prices fell and hit Cuba's economy hard and everything went to shit. I guess their stats weren't so good after that so it's best to ignore those years when you're trying to convince the masses that communism/ socialism is (still) the way to go.

1990 is also the year when they starting letting tourists in to counteract economic losses from sugar sales. Funnily enough, it’s now capitalism from tourist money that enables socialism to continue in Cuba.

After the enlightening tour on the benefits of communism we decided to meet some of the others from the hostel for beers at one of the expensive touristy places in the Old Town.

That beer tower was supposed to have six beers in it but it had five and one of head. Of course they charged us for six even though technically we only got five glasses. They even had the cheek to include a tip in the bill. I argued that we should only pay for five beers and they were ripping us off. They made us pay for six. We didn't pay the tip.

It was the Korean girl's first day. When she arrived she told us a terrible story of how she wanted to buy some cigars and got led astray by two scammers who tricked her into walking a long way through town to some apartment. When she refused to go in (as you would) they got shitty but then apologised and pretended to be friends with her again and asked her if she wanted to get a drink. They then ordered a bunch of mojitos each and made her pay the bill. Clearly they were in cahoots with the bar cos when she tried to refuse the bar backed up the scammers and made her pay for everyone's drinks.

And Cubans wonder why tourists don't like them.

Being vegetarian/ vegan

Before I arrived I did a lot of internet research about vegetarian/ vegan food in Cuba. The situation seemed pretty dire and this was the thing I was most concerned about. Based on internet research and tales from other travellers, Cubans seem to survive on a diet of ham sandwiches, hot dogs, cheese and ice cream.

In fact I actually saw a dog's hind legs in the street and pondered what became of the rest of it since they love hot dogs so much. Maybe it literally became a hot dog?

Mmm, a pallet of unrefrigerated street cheese anyone?

Thankfully I stocked up on vegan goods at Wholefoods in Vegas. The downside was I was carrying an extra 3kg around but at least I had emergency food.

None of the casa particulars (private houses you can rent rooms from) will allow you to use their kitchens in an effort to get you to buy meals from them instead. However, since the start of my trip I've been carrying around a knife, lightweight plastic cutting board, and a bowl so I can make salad/ fruit salad wherever I am. 

After food shortages 20 years or so ago when farmers had no incentive to grow anything above and beyond the minimum since they got paid the same regardless of quantity, the government now only takes the bulk of produce for rationing. This allows farmers to privately sell anything they produce above their quota. Thankfully I was always able to find seasonal fruit and vegetables for sale in street carts throughout Cuba so I didn't have as many food issues as I was expecting. One good thing about Cuba is most of its fresh produce is organic. All the fruit and veg I bought on the island tasted really good and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety. However, the situation may be different if you go in the middle of winter for example, when there is less fruit about. I don't know.

In terms of actual vegan products, you can also buy a litre of tutti fruiti soy yogurt in some local (only) supermarkets. While I did get excited about the possibility of soy yogurt (even though socialism dictates one size and one flavour), when I looked at the ingredients there were a lot of e-numbers and additives which put me off so I never tried it. But the ingredients did appear to be vegan, so that's a plus if you don't mind some chemicals in your food.

The best market I found in Havana was on Avenida Belgica between Correles and Apodaca. You can get everything you want there but the prices vary between pesos (for in season produce) and CUC for imported produce. Again, I guess what you can buy cheaply depends on when you're there.

On my last day in Havana I also found a health food store selling imported natural products like granola, GMO free soy milk (since it's not from the US) and rice crackers on the corner of Amargura and San Ignacio in the Old Town. I never saw any of these products anywhere else in Cuba so if you want them, you have to go here.

In Havana I ate at the hostel a few times. Dinner cost 2CUC, which is a good price. Given the amount of backpackers that go through, Magnolia and Frank have a good understanding of what vegetarian and vegan means if you're clear about what you want to eat. My dinners included included lentils or beans, rice, salad and fruit salad. However, spices never really made it to Cuba so you need to bring some with you unless you want to eat relatively bland food. Thankfully, I’ve been carrying around a jar of creole chilli from French Guiana, exactly for this purpose. Add a bit of that into the rice, and it’s all good. 

According to Happy Cow and Lonely Planet there are a couple of vegetarian restaurants in Havana. Apart from one which is quite far away in some botanic gardens, the rest were all walking distance to the hostel. Obviously I went looking for them but failed miserably. They are all now closed or re-opened as regular restaurants. So don't get your hopes up if you're looking for dedicated veggie restaurants in Havana and Cuba generally.

However, because the hostel is in the residential area there are lots of local peso restaurants around. The prices are set by the government so you pay the same in each one. If you're vegetarian these aren't too bad cos you can get overcooked pasta with tomato sauce and cheese for about 40c. Meat free pizza also costs about 40c although peso pizza varies in quality from one place to the next, so it pays to ask around the hostel for a recommendation.

For the vegans, some of the peso restaurants offer a beans and rice dish for less than a dollar. I found one near me that was actually pretty tasty and came with salad and avocado as well. These peso restaurants are probably your best bet if you are prepared to walk outside the tourist areas looking for them. And they are really cheap!

I should also mention that Cuba is really safe. It is one of the safest countries in Latin America, so walking around (even at night) is generally fine.

Bakeries are also a vegetarian's friend. They are easy to find in each city and lunch sized bread rolls cost between 1 and 3 pesos (so less than 12c). This is why it pays to bring a jar of Vegemite/ Marmite/ peanut butter/ expensive organic hazelnut paste from Wholefoods. Keep in mind this is Cuba so all the bread is white and there is usually one size of bread available at a time in any given bakery. Generally there is a line for locals getting their bread rations and another line for people paying cash. You also have to take your own plastic bag. Customer service doesn't exist here either. The women serving you are all grumpy bitches who always have an expression that says "why are you buying our bread? Now I will have to bake more for the people with ration books!". It's best just to ignore them, get your bread, and move on.

Playas del Este

Being a Caribbean Island, going to beach is probably something most tourists want to do. Havana's best beach is Santa Maria del Mar, which is about 18km east of Havana and worth a day trip since it’s a pretty nice beach. It’s very easy to get there. There is a second hop on hop off bus for 5CUC that goes from the city centre to the beach hotels. 5CUC return on an air-conditioned bus is a pretty good deal and you don’t have to negotiate with any rip off taxis. 

There are local buses but it’s very difficult to work out where any of them go and they are always chockers. If you’re a poor student who wants to pay fuck-all to be a sardine on a non-air-conditioned bus and you speak reasonable Spanish so you know you're on the right one, then this might be the way to go. Otherwise just pay the 5CUC. Plus if you're bored of the beach early enough you can get dropped off at the fort and do that before heading back to town. That alone will save you 2CUC getting the boat over and back from the Old Town in a separate trip.

This is the government issued beach hotel, Tropicoco. For about $100 per night you can stay in this sad, 1970s looking building. I read on Tripadvisor the food is top notch (not).

And that was Havana. While some bits were ok and the food wasn't as bad as I expected, after a few days I really wanted to leave so I could breathe without it hurting again.

Next stop: the Cuban countryside, Vinales.


Salar Salahshoor said...

Enjoyed reading your trip report. Funny stuff.

Jacek said...

Thx for writing it down. I myself am going there in one month and i'm vegan. I also plan to tun there a lot.