America,  Cuba,  TDM,  Travel Journal

Havana (Cuba): exactly as I imagined it (1/2)

Cuba has been a destination on our “to do” list for years. The American embargo will soon be lifted, it is time for us to visit this beautiful destination before the old colorful cars are replaced by modern ones and mass tourism distorts the charm of this country.

Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

Day 1 :

After a long trip with a 5 hour stopover in Madrid, we land in Havana at 10 pm with hundreds of other European tourists travelling during the Easter vacations.
We go through immigration very quickly. Because of a small inattention, we wait for our luggage in the wrong place and lose 10 minutes for that, but we are very surprised that everything is so smooth and fast.
Even the wait in front of the exchange offices doesn’t seem that long to us (10 minutes). We change only 200EUR because the rate isn’t super top (1 euro for 1.02 CUC), essentially asking for 10 CUC and 5 CUC tickets to be able to top up for the cab.
We booked a casa and cab by email a month ago. At the exit of the airport, we have a small welcome sign with JB’s name written on it. We wait another 15 minutes to take a cab, shared, with other tourists. They are dropped off before us.
Between the various waits and the cab, we arrive at the casa only at midnight. We ring the doorbell, our host appears on the balcony and throws us the key from the balcony. The room is spacious, with an impressive ceiling height (3-4m). We even have air conditioning, hot water, soap. I am rather impressed!

Day 2: CUC, CUP, two currencies for one country

Because of the time difference, I get up at 10 am to have breakfast before it’s too late (I have until 10:30 for breakfast). 5 CUC (5€ per person) for a decent breakfast, composed of fruit salad, bread, scrambled egg, a sausage, homemade guava juice and tea/coffee at will.
JB shows me the terrace of the hotel which gives sue sue a plaza. It’s too much Cuba, he tells me! Indeed, the sight corresponds exactly to the idea that one makes of Havana. We are in a hurry to go out!
Our phones can’t locate us so we wander the streets at random. We fall very quickly on the very touristy pedestrian street Obispo (Bishop’s street). We find there the tourist office Infotur where a bilingual lady explains us in English where to buy Wifi cards, change money and how much cabs cost.
On this same street, there is a CADECA (an official exchange office) where about thirty tourists are queuing outside. I don’t like queuing. I spot on my map provided by the casa a bank not far away: banco metropolitan. Bingo! There is nobody, it’s exactly the same rate, I could take my time to change 500 euros at 1eur = 1.031 CUC (the state always takes 3% on transactions of this type so we will never have the official rate of 1.07CUC). I ask for a few bills of 50 but essentially bills of 10 CUC and 5 CUC. And then, I take the opportunity to change 20 CUC in local currency CUP to be able to buy in the street (yes the system is weird, you can change the EUR in CUC, but not in CUP. It is necessary to change EUR -> CUC then CUC -> UPC).
Note: There are 2 currencies in Cuba, the convertible pesos CUC and the national currency CUP. The locals use the CUP among themselves, everyday products are to be bought in CUC, the prices displayed to tourists are also in CUC. In some places, there are rates for tourists and rates for locals (like 1 CUC for foreigners, and 3 CUP for locals). However, no one prohibits tourists from buying UPC. It is more convenient because many stands on the street display UPC prices.
The unofficial rate (e.g. at the supermarket you can pay either in CUC or in UPC with an unofficial rate of 25 UPC for 1 CUC). But at the bank, they sell us UPC at a slightly less advantageous rate: 1 CUC = 24 CUP.
Tips: CUC and CUP tickets are very similar. Always check when you get change. On CUC bills, you can always see “convertible pesos” on them. As for the coins, it is impossible to tell them apart for beginners.
We were amused by the somewhat rigid character of the security guy. “One person per booth please”, even if we’re together, he doesn’t care, “one person per booth please”. There’s also a bit of bureaucracy: Once the employee gets me to sign the exchange receipt, he passes it on to his superior who validates the transaction with another signature.
Now that we have our pockets full, it’s good, we can wander around the old town. It is the exit of the classes, we cross a lot of children in uniform in the street, the boys with mustard color pants, and the girls in red skirt burgundy. They queue like us in front of an ice-cream parlour which sells ice cream at 10 CUP (national moneda).
We are the only tourists there, it seems that we are the only ones to have this currency. Next to it is a churro stand whose price is clearly marked: $5. The disadvantage with both currencies is that you have to guess by yourself if it is the national currency or the CUC, because the prices are always marked with a $ sign. We ask the seller for more details and he invents a story of 5 CUC for 2 cones of churros. But if we want only one cone, it is 3 CUC! We find that much too expensive and he lowers the price to 1 CUC. WTF ? Feeling the swindle at full nose, we leave, to find another stand at 5$ the cone, but in local currency. That’s 15 times less expensive!
There are quite a few street rabble-rousers but curiously we aren’t too disturbed. It is perhaps my Asian head which makes them flee (they should not know in which language to communicate with me). So much the better! We visit 2 of the 4 main plazas of the old city: Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Catedral.
The streets are full, it’s total anarchy, you can come across anything and everything on a street corner. You can spend a long time admiring a baroque building and then fall on an empty space, where you see traces of a house that collapsed on itself leaving only a marble staircase leading nowhere. One can enjoy the melodious sound of a piano coming from a bar in a 5-star hotel frozen in the 60s, and then stumble upon a bicycle cab equipped with two large speakers, with rap music at full blast.
In Havana, there aren’t only colorful Chevrolet convertibles, there are also newer cars, French Peugeot, Citroën… car repairmen settle down in the street, and chat happily with the neighbors who watch them from the balcony. The vendors of souvenir stores attract attention with a drum in their hands. When we look at them, intrigued by the noise, a huge smile followed by a “holla” awaits us.
In the shade, a woman dressed in Cuban (i.e. with a super colorful dress), a big cigar on her lips is being photographed with the tourists. She opens her arms and proposes to the tourists to take a picture with her, for a small fee. In front of a busy bar, the tourists sit on the sidewalk, a mojito in hand, to listen to a singer/guitarist with the voice of an angel.
In the street, it is the law of the strongest. Cars have the right of way, pedestrians try to cross as soon as they can enter looking in all directions. Cars give way to the cars with the most power.
Havana exudes a very positive energy that I like very much. In spite of the chaotic atmosphere, you feel perfectly safe. Even the drummers aren’t very insistent, and chat happily with us (even if their primary objective remains the sale of concert tickets or taking us to an overpriced restaurant).
We have dinner at the Plaza Vieja where several bands play in the restaurants. The atmosphere is superb! I love it! It really makes Cuba 😀 Finally, it is really the Cuba that we have in mind. I try the national dish Roja Vieja (pieces of lamb sautéed in tomato with black bean rice), which I don’t like at all, while JB enjoys the breaded chicken. 20.5 CUC, drinks included.

Day 3: The Internet, the Internet black market & the tour of Havana

It’s only been 2 days since we aren’t connected to the Internet but like drug addicts in need of a fix, we are in front of the ETECSA Telepunto in Obispo street to queue. Some people are circling around us, offering Wifi cards twice as expensive, but sparing us the wait. I believe that Cuba is one of the only countries where they sell you the Internet connection as if they were selling you cannabis lol. There is even a black market for that! (cf. at the bottom of the article)
We resist. Anyway, queuing is part of the local experience.
1h30 later, we have 2 Internet cards of 5h each (7,5 CUC/5h) and a phone card of 10 CUP (moneda nacional) to use in the phone booths. It is always necessary to have a way to call the casas particulares (or the police). You never know!
Too happy to have our Wifi cards, we test them at the hotel Florida located the day before. We enter there like in a mill even if we aren’t customers and we sit comfortably on the armchairs in the lobby. The hotel has an ETECSA wifi, where we can use our Wifi card. All you have to do is enter the username and password. As soon as we finish, we leave the session. There is no need to spend the 5 hours of connection in one go. Internet is surprisingly fast.
We go back to our casa and have lunch at the restaurant next door, where there was a long queue last night. It must be a good restaurant. Indeed, for the posted price (between 5 and 6 CUC/flat), the portions are rather generous and the cooking not bad at all. The Cuban mojito is served with a lot of alcohol, but contrary to the mojito that we are used to drink, the Cuban mojitos are served without pieces of lemon.
I am out of luck and choose once again a dish I don’t like too much (shrimp). Finally, I will eat an Italian ice cream sold on the street for only 1 UPC (moneda nacional). The seller is surprised when I hand him a 5 UPC bill. But he is nice and doesn’t try to rip me off. He gives me back the remaining 4 UPCs. Those who do not have a moneda nacional (other tourists) pay 1 CUC (25 times more expensive). That’s it!
We’re back to the same place we were yesterday where the churro sellers were trying to rip us off by taking advantage of the CUC/CUP system. This time, by handing him a CUC (moneda nacional) ticket without asking any questions, the seller says nothing and gives us back the money he owes us. Thus, we were able to pay 5 CUP for the cone of churros, like the locals.
We walk to the Ingleterra hotel from where the Habana Bus Tour buses leave (hop-on hop off). We make the tour in 1h45 and pass in front of the famous Hotel Nacional, the Aquarium, place of the revolution… all that for 10CUC/person. The walk along the sea is superb, the water is transparent. It’s a good overview of the paradisiacal beaches that are waiting for us in other cities.
Burned by the Caribbean sun, we return to Habana Vieja with a dry throat. The Coca-Cola imported from Mexico, at 1.75 CUC, has never seemed so refreshing to us.
Back at the casa, we ask the owner to call the next casa in Vinales where we are going tomorrow, to confirm our reservation and time of arrival. It’s practical this system of mutual help between casas. It’s the proof that maybe we can live without Internet 😀
We dine at the Hanoi restaurant, named to express his friendship with Vietnam (Vietnam and Cuba have been friends for a long time. Moreover, at the museum on September 28th, we still see many gifts made by Vietnam to Cuba), but the menu is anything but Vietnamese. A group of musicians plays there. I taste the “arroz parra” (a kind of paella) while JB orders shrimps with black rice. Everything is tasty, generous, for 17,5 CUC, mojitos included. I highly recommend it!
We are walking around when we notice about twenty Cubans sitting in the street with their smartphones on. Intrigued, we activate our Wifi but we can’t find the ETECSA Wifi. Only 3 wifi with passwords. We ask a Cuban woman to which wifi she connects and she points out a guy, saying that we have to give 1 CUC to this guy to have unlimited Internet. That’s what learning Spanish is for! To be aware of this kind of good plans.
After discussion with the guy, we quickly understand that as we are tourists, it is another rate: 2 CUC, for 1h20. Amused by the experience, even if it is more expensive than the ETECSA card we bought this morning, we accept and pay him 4 CUC for 2 smartphones. He enters the password on our phones and we are equipped with the slowest Internet connection in the world.
In 1 hour of connection, JB managed to send 1 email and a tweet. I was able to read 2 Facebook notices and did a Google search, but that’s it! Having said that, it’s so much fun to be part of this local “deal”, you feel really integrated. We are the only tourists to take advantage of this deal with the locals.
Apparently this deal isn’t (yet) censored by the government because the meeting of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) takes place right next door, 5 meters away. They surely know what is going on, but close their eyes.
Technically, this “dealer” does nothing wrong. He also goes through the government-controlled ETECSA network. But his genius consists in “transporting” the ETECSA wifi up to here (there are only 51 hotspots all over the country), surely via relays installed along the way. Thus, he pays only 1.5 CUC/hour, so 7.5 CUC per evening max to resell his connection to 30 people and pocket 30 CUC. In one evening, he has to pocket the average monthly salary of a Cuban.
Thus, the speed is super slow. But locals don’t care because it’s much cheaper than buying ETECSA cards at 1.5 CUC/hour. Here, they can stay as long as they want for 1 CUC.
Note: How could we know that the dealer was going through ETECSA (Government Internet)? Because at one point, he ran out of credit and everyone fell on the ETECSA login page aahhaha

Part 2: Practical Tips


Conversion rate :
1 EUR = 1.07CUC but we had to change at a rate of 1.031CUC
1 CUC = 25 UPC but had to be changed at a rate of 24 UPC

  • Airport Taxi -> Habana Vieja : 25 CUC
  • Accommodation: 35 CUC/person
  • Breakfast : 5 CUC/person
  • Mojito: 3 CUC in a 5 star hotel, otherwise it’s 2 CUC
  • Coke: 1.75 CUC
  • 5h Internet Card: 7.5 CUC
  • Bus hop-on hop-off Habana Bus Tour: 10 CUC/person for a total trip of 1h45
In moneda nacional :

  • Phone card (national calls only): 10 UPCs
  • Churros: 5 to 10CUP (moneda nacional)
  • Ice: 10CUP (moneda nacional)
  • 5L bottle of water: 75CUP or 3CUC -> it is better to buy this big bottle and then decant it into a small bottle because the small 500ml bottle is sold at 1CUC

Address of the Casa Particular

Calle Teniente Rey (Brasil) , Number 461, Entre Calles: Cristo y Bernaza Habana Vieja, Cuba
Propietario: Nancy y Fidel
Telephone: (+53) 7 8628227
Movil: (+53) 5 249 5549
Precio. 35 cuc/noche habitación

Part 2: Practical Tips

Address of our casa

The reception is a little cold but the location is ideal

CASA CRISTO 461 sound:
Direccion: Calle Teniente Rey (Brasil) , Number 461, Entre Calles: Cristo y Bernaza Habana Vieja, Cuba
Propietario: Nancy y Fidel
Telephone: (+53) 7 8628227
Movil: (+53) 5 249 5549
Precio. 35 cuc/noche habitación

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