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Cuba (part 1): Havana

Stepping back to the good ol' days - amazing music, awesome cars and hand-rolled cigars.....magnificent and potent culture...

sunny 35 °C

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I had a totally amazing time in Cuba... it is an unashamedly charming, stylish, welcoming, musical and wondrous place....
Here's part 1 in Havana....

Visas

Visitors to Cuba will require a tourist card/visa.
Visas can be arranged through through embassies, or if travelling from within the region a tourist card, issued at the airport suffices.
I flew with Interjet from Cancun, and they had a separate tourist card stand next to the check in counter.... where I arranged mine in minutes.

Arrival Havana

As soon as I left the plane at Havana Airport, it felt like stepping back in time - to the good ol' days of formal smiling service, pay-phones and paper forms.

Money Exchange

The money exchange is outside of the airport. As you leave the arrivals section, turn right.
Note that foreigner used currency (CUC) is not traded outside of Cuba. You need to buy them after arrival.
In hindsight I underestimated how much cash I would need, and found it very difficult withdrawing money thereafter... so be warned... cash is king in Cuba, and you can always change surplus back to Euros/Pounds on your way out of the country.

The best rates seemed to be or Euros. GBP/USD can also be exchanged, though AUD cannot.

Taxis

Just like almost anywhere outside of the "west" meters are not used in cabs, so negotiating price before setting foot is essential.
The first driver I met wanted 30CUC to my Casa, and we finally agreed on 25.

The drive from the airport was nothing short of spectacular....
Cadillac after Chevy after classic car traversing the palm tree lined motorway... each car full to the brim of people.

We passed through bustling Habana Centro in all of it's original 50's glory to my Casa Particular, the border of Habana Veijo.

It felt like the beginning of a Mad Men episode... Don Draper would have loved Cuba.

Homestay

I wanted an authentic experience, so opted to stay in a Casa Particular in Havana i.e. family home.
There are many advertised on Tripadvisor, or you can take your chances by walking the streets, as families have signs posted outside of their homes.

Casa Pablo Menses was recommended to me by a travel compadre, and it was a solid, solid choice!

I was warmly welcomed to the home, and to my lovely room; complete with a brand new air con system, glistening bathroom, comfy bed, fridge and TV.... opening out to the casa's lovely courtyard.

Welcome dinner at Casa Meneses
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Casa Pablo Meneses is a grandiose, immaculate family home which surrounds and enclosed open courtyard with a lovely garden and latticed furniture. Their tiny pseudo restaurant is also renowned in the neighbourhood.
On several nights during my stay, a group of French tourists visited for a banquet, favouring Meneses to their posh hotel around the corner.

This intrepid group, all had disabilities of varying forms, some travelling with dedicated carers, some in wheelchairs, etc.
They had bonded over the internet and joined together for a self managed adventure traversing Cuba... determined, jovial and absolutely adventurous!

The patriarch of the Meneses house, Cesar helped arrange a private guide/spanish teacher for me, and taxis when I needed.
I had many broken Spanglish conversations with everyone in the family, and I really can't recommend their hospitality enough.

There is a pedestrianised walkway near Meneses, leading from the main square down to the coast.
People trade, hold group discussions, sell art and have performances along here....
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Habana

Havana is a dynamic, festive, musical, friendly and relatively safe city.
The old city is particularly amazing, and absolutely gorgeous!

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I booked a private guide though Saint Cristobal, and she took me to all of the squares, explained the history of Cuba and significance of landmarks; from Spanish arrival, to the independence revolution and ensuing abolishment of slavery.... right through to Che and Fidel's revolution and beyond.
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Havana was of course home to Ernest Hemmingway. He lived in Hotel Ambos Mundos....
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His hotel room is now a museum, and atop the hotel you will finds some of the best views of Havana
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....and most delicious mojitos.

Music is everywhere in Havana!!!
You won't hear much recorded music playing in the old town.
Instead, almost every venue has a band playing during all hours of trade!

Casa de la Musica is definitely worth a visit, however I was most impressed by the bands at smaller venues!

The small bars are ace at night!!
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My favourite band were at Cafe Paris...
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Walking the back streets of central Havana, I stumbled upon a massive block party.
They had set up massive speakers in the middle of the street, and guys were rapping in heavy Español Cubano with an enormous, rapturous crown encircling them. It was MEGA!!

During my time a huge public concert took place to celebrate Independence Day.
It felt like most of Havana came for it. It was a spectacular setting, with musicians from all over the world including China visiting to perform.

Setting up....
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During the show...
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Cubans take music very, very seriously and it is their national passion.
I haven't seen virtuosity, unassuming talent or genuine interest in music like this anywhere else.
Lone pianist... twinkling the ivories
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The big hotels are worth visiting even if you don't stay in them.
They are relatively unchanged since the 60's and all have working banks, salons, etc, and are immaculately kept.
The Museo de Revolución took 4 solid hours to pass through, and documents Che and Fidel's revolution in meticulous fashion!
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Revolution Square is also well worth a visit!
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Havana at night is also magnificent.....
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Just like any tourist destination, there are sharks, but harmless if you politely catch them out and decline their game.
There is a visible police/military presence especially at closing time...but not perturbingly so.

Pimps are everywhere, and they will make it their business to convince every male they meet (single or not!) that their providers can make your Cuban stay more authentic.
I was out with a lady friend from Colombia one night, and still had to shoo a cheeky pimp and one of his ladies away!

Resources

I definitely recommend taking a guidebook.
You can find (slow) wi-fi at the big hotels, however you need to purchase an exorbitantly expensive login card, which aren't necessarily available at the hotels themselves.

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I also used a fantastic offline app called Havana Good Time which contains many user reviews.

I'll be back....

...more from Cuba shortly.... Viñales, Varadero, Cinfuegos and Trinidad.

'luego!

(sad to leave Havana...)
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Posted by SkinnyFists 14:59 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba music havana salsa havana_veijo casa_particulars

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