16
May-2012

Havana – 1st impressions

It’s a cliché to start writing about the arrival to a new place by airplane. All those tiny houses and roads growing in size when the plane starts to descend. But, in this case, I wanted to begin my first impressions from Havana just like this because of the feeling of deep contrast when I looked through the window. Luxurious forests spread till the eye could see, the hills and valleys covered with a mysterious fog, this couldn’t be more different than the flat, organised and full of development Grand Cayman. Cuba was a promise.

Since the reopening to tourism in the 90’s, Havana is still a very popular destination but the regime imposes some restrictions and you can feel them in the air. In the arrival terminal there is a wall of what looks like cabinet offices that don’t let you see what’s behind, it’s almost like if they were inviting you to go back. After you pass an examination by the unfriendly customs officer, a picture of you is taken so that they know who you are. After you and your hand luggage are searched, you still need to wait for a long couple of minutes for the rest. If you’re travelling to Cuba, get used to the laziness of public servers, you won’t get a smile or a helping hand, so just be patient and enjoy it as part of the experience.

The best way to get to the hotel, or casa particular in our case, is by taxi and you’ll get loads of taxi drivers trying to convince you to go with them but don’t forget to always ask the price first and even compare, as we were going to learn later, it can save you some money. The airport is outside the centre so this was a nice way to meet the suburbs as we drove by. Havana is a city where money stopped running long time ago, at least in this part of town, and everywhere I looked I would see fragile and ugly cement constructions, housing for the poorer population. As we approached centre, view changes with beautiful monuments and revolution themed plazas. We could see along the way in every wall a graffiti praising the Communist regime and it’s heroes. Being in Havana feels like inside a time machine that is set for the 20’s, with all those relics on the roads, we wondered how those cars could still be working, but I guess is the improvisation genius and survival instinct of Cuban people.

We reached Havana Vieja, the place where the city was originally founded and in fact one of the seven first settlements when the Spanish colonised the island in the 16th century. Architectonically, it’s a joy to find a mix of old and new, classic and modern, abandoned and recovered. Every building has a long story to tell and you feel a sense of loss of a glorious and rich past that is only visible now under tons of dirt and degradation.

The taxi stops and we hop off in front of our home for the next days, Casa Alina (check out Trip Advisor), a guest house or more exactly, a family house where you can experience a bit more of Cuban’s daily life. This concept arose when, after the fall of Soviet Union in the beginning of the 90’s, a big economic supporter, the country fell into a deep recession or, what Cubans call, Periodo Especial. The government, to let people have some way of subsistence since no private entrepreneurship is permitted, opened an exception and allowed private houses to open their doors to tourists as a guest house or a paladar (small restaurant set in private homes). Now, there is a casa particular in every building and if you are up to renounce four star hotel luxuries, this is definitely the best way of accommodation in Cuba and the cheapest.

We rang the bell and someone leads us to a relic lift manually operated that looks like it’s going to stop in the middle of the way. Ups! A crank and here we go to meet a new adventure!

View of Havana at dusk from our window at “Casa Alina”.

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