Our Cuba trip was organised online as we could not find any travel agents able to assist. We booked a one way flight to Havana and two nights accommodation at the Hotel Plaza. We'd stayed at this very hotel last time and although it looks beautiful, knew it was pretty run down, but it was one of the few Havana hotels you could book online.
Havana is famous for its old cars and one of the first thing we noted was how many more there were on the road. 10 years ago they were scattered about the city, often derelict and seeing one driving was something to note. Now the streets were full of them. Raoul's economic reforms allowing people to use their vehicles and houses for tourism purposes has been an incentive to Cuban vehicle restorers. However, not all cars are what they seem to be. Many an old car is actually a body transplanted onto a modern car chassis and engine. We drove in a 1957 Ford Customline powered by a four cylinder Toyota engine. Raul's reforms have done much good to give Cubans a new source of income and incentive to keep so many old cars on the road, but it does have its own negative effect. You cannot take two steps without someone calling out "taxi!" After a very short time this becomes extremely frustrating.
The US invaded Cuba in 1898, seizing the colony from Spain. The colony was already run down under the Spanish and the US did little better. The colony was handed over to landed interests and the mafia, becoming a haven for corruption. The common people remained basically serfs.
Fidel Castro led a guerrilla war against the Batista regime through the 1950s, until president Batista fled the country. Castro implemented a socialist revolution which focused on education, health and land reform for the rural poor. The US has never been able reconciled itself to the Cuban Revolution and attempted invasion, assassination, subversion, sabotage and an illegal economic embargo on the country. Despite this, Cuba's revolution has largely been a success with a first rate socialised education and medical system, second to none in the region - albeit at significant cost.
Old Havana is a tourism gem. The sad decay of the old city has a romantic, atmospheric quality (that's great if you're a tourist or photographer but less so if you're a resident). Each street and alley is a photo opportunity. The city's ruin made me ponder the failure of the communist system here in Cuba.
Several causes are immediately obvious. First, after many of the upper and middle class landowners fled the country after Batista's downfall, the government seized the vacated properties and handed them over to the working class. Many of the new tenants would not have had the resources to maintain the buildings, which progressively decayed. Secondly, the government, which took responsibility for state housing, had more pressing priorities in education, health and defence than ensuring the plaster facades on 19th century mansions was maintained. And thirdly - and most importantly - the illegal US embargo against Cuba has prevented any investment in the country and what was probably seen as a temporary housing measure in 1960 has been maintained longer than it was ever intended.
However, while pondering the deplorable state of the city it suddenly dawned on me that the condition of Havana was not all that different to the conditions in other Caribbean islands. The islands we'd visited on the cruise were all 'capitalist' but their public buildings were often in similar condition. The difference with Havana was only one of size - Havana is enormous. Living conditions in the countryside were comparable - clapboard and wooden shacks, rarely with glass windows. The difference for Cubans is that they have first rate health care, free education and housing, which most Caribbean islanders don't. It's important to remember.
After two days in Havana we took a day excursion to Vinales, a national park in the best of the island. I won't say the sights of Vinales are a must see. There is a cave excusion, a giant mural painted on a cliffside, a visit to a tobacco plantation and some great scenery.
The next day we took a taxi to Trinidad in the south of the island. The journey takes 4 hours and cost us 100CUB each. Four of us were crammed into what I think may have been a Hyundai or Toyota; it was hard to tell as most of the badges were missing. As were door handles, seat belts and air conditioning. It was an interesting drive though. There were lots of trucks ranging the highways; a strange mix of Russian GAZ, Romanian, East German and Japanese vehicles, some new, some very old. Horse carts were common off the highways in the rural townships.
Trinidad is a pleasant little town on the Caribbean coast full of rough cobblestone streets, pastel coloured buildings and old cars. It's quite different from Havana. We stayed in a hostel; basically a B and B in someone's house. The family had converted three rooms into self contained flats. The rooms were comfy and the hosts enthusiastic and lovely, although they spoke no English and we no Spanish.
Trinidad was a lovely to wander, but quite hot and the sun was fierce. It was interesting to note that most houses had a full length window opening onto the street enclosed by a wrought iron cage that projected a foot out into the street. The windows had no glass, allowing breeze to enter their homes, but the projecting cage allowed them to see and speak to their neighbours without leaving their home.
After a night of bar crawling and street drinking we left the next day for the beach resort area of Varadero The travel agent we'd organised the trip through was insistent that we must see Varadero, which is the area most European package tourists visit. In hindsight we'd have been better off staying an extra night in Trinidad.
After breakfast our taxi arrived at the hostel. The taxi representative had promised a modern, safe car with functioning seat belts, and airconditioning. The car that was presented to us was anything but. It was smaller than the previous car and already held two occupants - Ana from Slovenia and Paolo from Italy, who were popping over to Cuba for a quick 10 day trip. We all had large suitcases and we watched in consternation as the rep and driver packed and unpacked the cases into the boot. Despite trying every possible arrangement, there was always one suitcase left over. Never mind! A new taxi was called, slightly larger and the farce repeated itself. After another 15 minutes pushing and shoving all the bags were jammed into the boot, albeit at the cost of breaking a seam on Paolo's bag. Once we settled into the car we realised this car was in even worse condition that yesterday's car. The left hand windows were jammed up (there were no handles either) and the right windows were jammed down. Seat-belts and door handles were missing. Air-conditioning was provided by the missing right hand windows. The driver spoke no English so we all had an animated discussion about the constant lying and misrepresentations of the taxi reps. It's especially galling when one considers that the average monthly wage in Cuba is about 50CUB. This trip was costing us about 150CUB EACH! Taxi drivers (or probably their reps) make VERY good money in Cuba.
Fortunately Ana, Paolo and us all got on well as the trip was about to take a turn for the worst. The journey takes 5 hours and an hour out of Trinidad the driver gets a call. The hostel had called to say I'd left my laptop behind. Shit! I am usually very diligent checking the room when we leave but it had been covered by a pillow that had fallen off the bed. To go back meant adding two hours to journey. Ana and Paolo kindly agreed it was best to go back now and after much debate we did. When we arrived back in Trinidad I thought we'd go back to the hostel but instead we had to deal with the taxi rep who was determined to extort as much as he could from us 'for his time.' We eventually got back to the hostel where the owner's mother happily handed over the laptop and a Caribbean guide book we'd left behind. I told her she could keep the book and she was very happy, giving me a big hug and more business cards "for next time." I gave her a tip too. I tipped the rep too, evidently not sufficiently as he made a big fuss about how much time this had cost him - not that he actually had to do anything - but we finally got away. The return cost us nearly two hours.
Varadero was not worth spending 8 hours crammed in a shitty car with no air-conditioning; although it was a pleasure to meet Ana and Paolo. We arrived at our resort late because no one knew where it was. The resort was probably built in the 1980s for Soviet and East German package tourists and they've barely changed anything since. The room was huge and could have accommodated a whole family. We hit the pool, swam and relaxed.
We expected that there would at least be a bus or shuttle back to Havana from Varadero (its about 2 hours away), but it seemed we might have been the first people who needed to go to Havana. The hotel staff had no idea and couldn't help so there was nothing for it but to go out and find a taxi driver. Just outside the resort there was a couple of American classics lined up so I walked over to the car I liked most and asked the driver if he'd take us to Havana airport. I was a little surprised when he said yes and asked only 85CUB (I was so used to being fleeced by taxi drivers by then). The car was a 1956 Ford Customline, but now running on a Toyota four cylinder light truck engine. Although this car was old it's doors and windows worked and it was extremely comfortable. He took us along the coastal route rather than the highway so we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing along the way. He got a deserved tip. It was a great finish to our Cuba adventure.