Cuba - where the future meets the past

A picture tells a thousand words, but a video tells the story. Have a look at our video showing off Havana.

Air France

The best airfare we found was an Air France flight trough Paris. Everything went smoothly with them.

We loved their safety instructions, funny, chick and totally French.

It seems that Charles De Gaulle airport has also seen a bit of an upgrade since we were last there. A bus operates around all the terminals, and we got to see two of them, one larger, one smaller. Both terminals were clean, with enough space for relaxing.

Every terminal has video games arcades, play stations, piano and other things to occupy the kids while waiting, so it makes the time pass more quickly if you’re stuck there for a couple of hours. Oh and make maximum use of the free internet there, it’s the last one you see before you depart Cuba.

Welcome to Cuba

You arrive in Cuba after 30+ hours of travel. After waiting in the long immigration line, we finally get our turn. Passport control looks at as funny with disbelief “what is this magical country that actually doesn’t need a visa to enter Cuba?”. They had to check 3 times before letting us in.

After that point you definitely know that you entered Cuba. You go to find your luggage, and you see the airport has only two luggage trails and one restroom in without soap or any essentials. You wait approximately 60 minutes for your luggage. But you cant leave until you’ve been inspected by the agricultural inspection where you will be searched for food. If you somehow managed to survive all of that, you can exit the airport!

Once you walk out the exit, you’ll find lots of airport taxis waiting. A ride to Habana is 25-30 CUC. Agree on the price before you enter, haggling is recommended, but don’t expect you can get them to go 50% or more, fuel costs a lot of money here.

On the left side of the exit door there is an exchange office. The rate is decent enough so change enough money to last you a day or two. Oh and US dollars get a very bad exchange rate everywhere, so do bring euros if you can.

Before we got in the taxi, I read about Cuba’s isolation, and how they cant get any technical goods due to the import embargo. Yet our taxi driver had a Samsung phone, and a relatively modern car. It’s not until you reach Havana until you start missing the things you take for granted every day.

Vedado, where we stayed, is a nice neighborhood. Some good restaurants, several big hotels with some stores on the ground level. The avenue leads down to the famous sea promenade Malecon.

Once a place where mobsters took residence it sort of explains why it’s in a better state than other parts of Havana. 

Vedado, Avenida 23

Vedado at sunset

Malecon

Malecon is a great walk as the sun starts to set. Dont attemp to walk it any time sooner than that, or the sun and the heat will overwhelm you. Oh and dont count that you’ll stump in to a store to buy water, they are hard to come by. So get equipped with your hidration packs early on. The heat is overwhelming. Weather forcast says it’s 32 celsius, but it feels like 45, due to the high heat. Not a palm tree or shade in sight, so if you choose to walk here, make sure to do it when the sun is setting.

Malecon

Malecon

Havana center

Havana center is the most beautiful part of Habana. The colonial buildings, the paved streets, the little squares and parks are just lovely to walk or to get lost in. It is very well kept and clean. A lot of tourists around, vibrant noises and salsa music. There are very nice restaurants there, just follow the crowd. You can sense the relaxed atmosphere all around. An old man gave our older son guitar lessons, playing Manu Chao’s – Me Gustas Tu, then switching to Buena Vista Social Club.

Monkeying around

Cuban Pride

Back to the sixties

El Capitolio

Cuban Street Art

Old colonial buildings

A local band performing

Across the old fort

The old fort

Getting lost in historical district

Statue in Plaza de San Francisco - Havana, Cuba

Plaza de San Francisco - Havana, Cuba

Coche Mambí

Old Havana

But as you stray away in to old Havana, you encounter the horror of every data Havana life for the locals. Buildings in half decay, ten people living in one room, all of them in the streets. You smell urine and excriment, food thrown on the streets, cats and dogs eating the garbage in the gutters. Not a very preety sight. You can see that this was once a beautiful place, from the golden days before the embargo, but it’s all just a distant memory now.

Barber in Old Havana

Walking in Old Havana

Grocery Cart - Old Havana

Balconies in Decay

Eaten away by time

Authentic Cuba

The cars

The old American cars make it a surreal experience,  especially the pink cabriolets strolling down the streets. Almost all of the cars are from the sixties, with some repairs that hept them going all these years, such as new engines. But as exausts have been deamed a luxury, that means you get the full potent smell of their exausts. You can smell gasoline everywhere, in fact it’s hard to get away from it anywhere.  

The cars

Eating in Cuba

Eating is posing to be a big challenge. To offset the cost of travel, we try to cook our selves and save a bit of money. But Cuba is proving to be a bit of a challenge in that regard.

There are no big supermarkets in Cuba. Usually the bigger ones have the essentials like flower, oil, sugar, some canned vegetables, beverages, basic hygienic products etc. The shelfs are half empty. Imported goods are a hard find.

Overall shopping in Cuba is a bit of an experience. Some stores will have you wait to enter, as they allow only a certain number of shoppers inside. Cashier lines can be very long. Oh and bring your own bag, they dont have plastic bags.

As you try to do shopping, don’t expect to find everything at one place. You need to search the block and different types of stores to complete your grocery list.

Eggs are practically impossible to get, as you need government issued vouchers to get them. When we asked our host how to buy them, we got a 30 min lesson in spanish on how things work in Cuba.

In Trinidad we weren’t able to buy eggs as foreigners in the local store. Most vegetables and fruits are sold on the street.

In Varadero there are more markets and they are better equipped, but we still could not find washing up liqid.

For fresh vegetables and fresh diary and meat products you need to go to the green market.

Bread and pastry can be found at local bakeries. Alcohol and tobacco are found in specialized stores. The number one alcoholic drink in Cuba is Rum. Its a basic ingredient in all of the cuban famous cocktails. 

Restaurants

It’s sort of a hit and miss depending on your luck, both with food quality and prices.

Overall original food in Cuba seemed to be blunt, without spices, as if it was served for someone with severe digestive issues. It’s not until you try to visit the local supermarkets that you learn why. There’s very little spices you can actually buy, which probably resulted in the current cuisine.

Prices are also a gamble, some restaurants will be more expensive than others, and as not all of them have the prices advertised, you’ll know once the bill arrives whether you hit the jackpot or not.

Food in Cuba

Shrimp in Colonial District

Pork in Havana

Burger in Trinidad

Fish in Havana

Getting eggs in Trinidad

Market in Havana - Eggs!

Open market in Havana

Meat market in Havana

Empty shelves in the supermarket

Beaches

We decided to go to a beach close to Havana, and we picked Santa Maria del Mar beach close to Havana. The beach was packed full, considering it was a weekend, and presuming it’s also the time when Cubans also take their summer holiday. We walked for 15 minutes before we realized there’s no beach chairs / umbrellas you can rent, all were taken. We tried our luck at improvising a tent with sticks, but that didnt last very long. In the end, we found a local restaurant where we set base. Pinacoladas were cheap enough, and we had a deck of cards. Both kids loved them, and we lost track of time playing.

Some clouds came in shielding the sun allowing us to go in the water.

The beach was overwhelmed with locals, which was quite an experience. Everyone seemed to have a bluetooth speeker, so music is blasting from all directions. People dancing, some on the beach, some in the water. Age seemed to make no difference. People from 4 to 70 years old seemed to be doing the Despasito. People coming in the sea with drinks in their hands, party goes on in the water.

But it turns out people miss conversing with foreigners. One of them teaches our younger kid to swim, one comes to excersize their english skills with us, one tells us about his past girlfriend from Serbia.

Sunset

Havana beach - madness

Sleeping it off

Bottles everywhere

With the locals

You're never too old to twerk

Improvising a tent

A few too many?

Things that went wrong

When vacationing with kids, you cant expect it to be the idealistic vacation you see in the movies, something has to go wrong.

The little one (Luka) is restless when sleeping, so we put an arm chair next to his bed, to prevent him from falling over. I don’t know how, but he managed to fall directly on the arm of the chair and bruise his eye. He recovered in a day, but we had to rearrange the furniture to prevent this from happening again.

Matej got a very high fever in Varadero, without any other symptoms, so we were not able to enjoy our time there as much as we wanted. The fever lasted for 3 days which ate in to most of our time there.

Do watch out for the sun here. We were using sunblock, but even with that we managed to get sunburns. Wearing shirts, and a good shade is a must.

Storms were a bit scary, so make sure you’re inside if one occurs on top of you. They do go away as quickly as they appear, but not before unleashing a torrent of rain and thunderstorms.

Be prepared. Carry your essentials with you. Don’t fear for your safety, but be cautious with your health if you are backpacking. There’s not many facilities of any sort (even supermarkets), so make sure you have all amenities you need before doing something, rather than expecting to “pick something up on the way”.

Cuba in general

The general feeling in Cuba was frustration. From the moment we realized that prices are much higher than we expected, we knew we would have to make a lot of compromises.

We traveled on a tight budget and the taxi fare was expensive ($50 round trip to the nearest beach in Havana, $15-20 round trip to the center of the city). We tried walking but the weather was so hot and humid that you cant reach more than 2-3 km before it gets to you. Public buses were very crowded and the lack of internet makes it hard to find information about the lines and bus stops. The little Spanish we did speak wasn’t enough to help you navigate those things.

We admit, we are addicted to internet. Not so much for social networks but the commodity of searching for information. So we had to regroup and make new plans according to our budget. We appreciated the hospitality of our Airbnb host in Havana very much, who helped us with any information we needed. He would go out of his way and on his personal time would buy us food, takes us to the bus station to buy tickets etc. He also helped us organize transport whenever we needed.

As a workaround for the lack of internet, I printed a lot of the information we needed before we left our country, but we were still missing information on a daily basis.

Kids were surprised how we managed to live before the internet bless. Seeing people talking on the payphone at the street may be a blast from the past for us, but it’s something unfamiliar to them. The iPads were suddenly useless without WiFi.  Maybe they will appreciate their 21st century’s time more after this.

For us, Cuba was a chance for some good, qualitative family time. Playing cards, backgammon, chess or simply talking without distractions.

Even simple things you take for granted can get you. We left our apartment to walk, expecting to buy water in any local shop we see along the way. We ended up walking about 6 km all in all, but did not manage to see a single shop. Be prepared for everything, and don’t expect you will find even the most basic things.