Don’t think a visit to Cuba is going to be all about Mojitos!
Havana has always been on my bucket list, not only is it the home of my favourite cocktail of all time, but it’s the setting of many movies and TV dramas, including the 2004 remake of “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”. But it’s one of those countries that has a certain appeal to it, because of it’s fallout with America and how subsequently it’s a country that’s stuck in the 1960’s… permanently! From booking my flights, right the way to my experience in the airport on route home, I was not prepared!
My trip to Havana was in conjunction with a visit to Miami (which is only 30 minutes by plane, but a whole world apart)! Flying from America to Cuba is a minefield itself, knowing how to obtain a visa, if it’s possible or not as officially you cannot visit Cuba for tourist purposes from America. When flying from America you have to turn up at the airport and apply for a Visa right before you fly, stating one of 12 reasons for your visit (none of them are Tourism).
Skipping past how I got into Cuba, I did, and from the very first moment I stepped off the plane, it was clear I was in a completely alien place. The décor of the airport, the fashion styles of the staff are that I was only familiar with from TV and magazines.
Walking around Havana, especially the old town area is very intimidating at first. It’s very busy, and as you walk down streets, peoples living rooms open up right on the streets. It’s also confusing as very few of the shops or bars have easily visible sign posts, probably because in Cuba you can’t advertise.
My first afternoon I was with a friend and we went into a Café Bar for a bite to eat. We ordered our food, two separate meals. After about 15 minutes my friend’s meal came out, we waited a couple of minutes but no sign of my food. I told my friend to start eating as to not let her meal get cold. She finished her meal when mine still hadn’t come. After about 10 minutes I asked one of the staff “where is my meal” and she replied, “it’s coming, it’s coming”. After about 20 minutes of my friend finishing her meal, mine came out! This was typical during our stay in Havana. Just because you order your meal together, doesn’t offer any guarantee that your meals will arrive together. The Cubans seem to do everything on their own time, and there is a saying in Cuba, that the time you see on your watch, is always different to Cuban time! Everything is at their own pace. Perhaps this is all part of the charm and experience.
I stayed in Havana for 4 days, one of the days I did a day trip to a beach about an hour’s drive out of the city, but to be honest by the end of it I was ready to leave, and could have done with a day less (not many times I say that about a city visit). On paper there isn't actually much to do in Havana, which isn't a bad thing if you visit in the summer as you’ll be too hot and won’t want to do much. To visit Havana you have to be really interested in their culture and be happy to spend your afternoons soaking it all up in bars and cafes. Even just the photo opportunities of the classic cars against a backdrop of colourful but rundown buildings makes the trip worthwhile.
One thing to note, when you arrive you need to take Cash (there is nowhere to use your card). You cannot exchange your money before you go, this has to be done upon arrival at their airport. You will exchange your money for their local/tourist currency which is CUC. You then have to change your money back at the airport (on route home) as you cannot take their currency out of Cuba (above anything else you couldn’t exchange it back in your home country anyway). However, they became very awkward and clearly didn’t make it easy for anyone wanting to exchange their currency back from CUC. Luckily, I only had about 10 pounds worth of CUC left, because after being led on a wild goose chase around the airport, I was unable to exchange this money back.
Don’t get me wrong, I am pleased I visited Havana and do not regret going, it was an experience and for anyone wanting to go I would never advise against it. GO! It’s an amazing experience which you’ll enjoy. Just be prepared before you go. For me it was a once in a life time experience, literally as I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to go back.