The unique city of Havana, Cuba – a blighted city

Stepping out in Cuba Jose Marti airport is the first moment you realised you’ve stepped into a different world. The 1970s-looking building has bright red window frames, low ceilings and is full of posters of Havana Club rum and Cuban cigars. From this moment on you learn that Cuba is not a budget destination, it’s a world of its own with a currency only for tourists (that is one for one with the dollar) and for backpackers like us it’s easy to lose sight of the budget.

You are already at a loss before you even enter the city after paying $18 each for a visa to enter the country and 20% commission on the dollars you change into Cuban pesos (called CUC – the tourist money).

We pre-booked our taxi with the Casa Particular (a government approved bed and breakfast style accommodation) we were staying at and it cost $30, we later found that this was a little over priced, and our accommodation was also not the cheapest option, but is one of the cheapest options you can book in advance. You can arrive and look for a “Casa Libre” which is the same thing but without the taxes and additional payments to the government, and these are slightly cheaper.

You instantly notice two things as you enter Havana Vieja (the old town) – it is full of tourists and the people are very poor. We already knew about the incredible crumbling old buildings and classic cars, and those sights also never cease to amaze you as you take in the old streets, but it’s the poverty and desperation of people that you don’t expect.

The cars are kept in excellent condition, while the houses are mostly ruins, except ones that are home to famous bars and/or hotels and are privately run. People seem to live in one or two rooms in the colonial historic mansions that line the narrow streets, while some of the rooms in the house are left unused or with washing hanging. It’s a crazy sight.

As you walk the streets of the old town you are continually approached by sellers – they mostly try to sell you three things in this order: A taxi/classic car ride/horse and card ride, a meal/mojito in a restaurant, and finally a cigar (they usually have a friend or some in their house). And if that doesn’t work, which it never did with us thanks to Stephen’s Spanish and ability to get them to understand we don’t want these things, they ask for milk for their baby or just for money. That’s when you are saddened once again, and the tourism is no longer a game to play with the locals.

People were extremely friendly with us and appreciated the effort to speak Spanish, but don’t expect genuine advice for meals etc. We’d used the Lonely Planet as a rough guide to food, but found this to be a little overpriced, even the one dollar signs were setting us back seven or eight dollars a meal. When we asked locals, they only wanted our custom at their family bar or restaurant, and so it’s difficult to find budget food, and most importantly good food, this way.

Sadly much of the “budget” tourist fare is terrible. It has little to no flavour and is barely Cuban. We actually both came back with food poisoning from one such establishment. The quality just isn’t there. The best meals we had were in the local restaurants hidden amongst the tourist joints – look out for signs saying they accept Nacional pesos (the local currency) and you will probably be in for a very tasty meal at very cheap prices (and they usually accept dollars).

We spent one morning touring the Havana Club Rum Museum, it costs $7 with tasting, and while a little overpriced the tour was informative, although they don’t make the rum there anymore. We also scored a free ride in a classic car around the streets of Centro Havana, which is very different from the Old Town, and played guitar with a musician/guitar teacher on the street who loved The Beatles. The people live in a deeper poverty here, but the colonial buildings still run through the veins of this part of the city.

Five days in Havana is plenty to explore the large city. We did everything on foot, but that was exhausting and it’s probably best to get taxis if you can. Walking to Vedado is far, but is worth exploring. Here lies the old mansions and impressive hotels, including Hotel Nacional. This is where I had my favourite and most expensive mojito. The hotel is grand and overlooks the ocean, it’s great for a sunny day and a dabble in the old corrupt and wealthy past of the city.

The thing I will take away from Havana is the incredible and resilient people. The food and drinks are hit or miss and overpriced for what they are, but the people are fun, energetic and intelligent. They know a lot about the history and politics of their country and are mostly happy to talk to you about it. They don’t seem concerned about the impeding influx of American tourists, and expressed that they have had tourists for a long time, and much of their industry depends on tourists. Whether it will push the gap further between rich and poor it’s difficult to tell, as it seems very wide right now.

It’s difficult to live like a local in Havana for this very reason, and to imagine what it is like as a home, even though we felt at home with our Casa owner Martha. But it is most definitely one of the most unique places I have ever visited. Now we only hope they can build a better future for those people that were left behind to deal with the realities of Socialism, and the cartels and corruption that still runs the country can be overcome. Oh and if you do visit make sure to take some clothing – they were always asking for it.