How *NOT* to do Havana

If you’ve been keeping an eye on my goings on over the past three weeks you’d have noticed that I’ve been one busy little traveller. Three weeks and nine flights saw me visit Virginia, Washington DC, Miami, Orlando, New Orleans, Havana and Cayo Coco. I plan to write lots about my travels, but Havana was particularly, uh, interesting.. so I’m going to begin here.

The first two weeks of my travels were spent with my boyfriend and his family (we always do a big family holiday every year) and then I met my two best girls back in Miami to catch our flight to Havana.

Before our visit I hadn’t researched much about the city (when I actually write that sentence down, I feel pretty bad about!) because I’d been so swept up in work and organising the other two and a bit weeks that I was away for. My two friends organised the lot for us and I pretty much came along for the ride. Let me leave that as a preface for what is about to come…

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We met at Miami airport at around 5pm, swiftly cheers’d over (several bottles of) rosé and got our tipsy selves on our American Airlines flight to Havana (American Airlines are by far the best low cost airline I’ve ever been on, by the way. Can’t recommend enough!).

The flights were really inexpensive (approx £110) and the journey only took just over an hour. The tricky and more expensive part came with organising our Visas (you could only buy them at the airport and they cost $100) and gaining legitimate entry into the country (tourism isn’t allowed at the moment so we had to enter under ‘support of the cuban people’). Nonetheless, we landed in Havana without a hitch.

My first impression of Havana was that it was a lot like Bangkok, Thailand; lots of street vendors and that warm smell of drains (that I weirdly now associate with holidays to exciting places and have taken a bit of a liking to… weird?!). Very run down, very raw but very exciting.

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We were picked up in a colourful vintage car and about ten minutes into our 45 minute journey I realised I was going to be getting us into trouble on this trip… I saw a street dog and yelped out the taxi window with excitement.. our driver, being eager to please and keen for a tip, saw my excitement and stopped. In the middle of a highway. and reversed half a mile back down the one way road to find me the dog. We sat in total silence as he got out of the car leaving three little blonde girls in an unlocked car in the middle of nowhere, in amongst many very intrigued cuban men and women. About ten minutes later he came back empty handed and we carried on our journey (travelling the right way down the bypass this time). Strike one.

We opted to stay casa (a local’s house that he rented to tourists) down a very dark road which had its residents sitting out on the street drinking and smoking as we arrived. I’d absolutely never experienced anything like it; I was both terrified and so so excited to experience another culture and country that is so untouched by western influences. America could have been the other side of the world. Our casa was very basic but it did the job for us – it had a fridge, two beds and a shower.  It also cost us 371 pesos a night which equates to approximately 15 GBP. More money left aside to spend on rum was the logic (that we soon came to regret).

The next day we headed out to explore our surroundings. Things were much less intimidating in daylight and we walked the half an hour to ‘Old Havana’ (referenced as the ‘centre’) where we could find some breakfast and have a gawk over some brightly coloured vintage cars. Seeing pink, blue, green, yellow and orange oversized vintage cars sat alongside crumbling buildings and locals sat outside bare foot drinking cups of coffee was totally surreal. I wish I could have got more pictures to show you, but etiquette says we couldn’t take photos of people or their cars (if their owners were nearby) so it was super tricky! Plus, we couldn’t stay in one place for too long as we started to gather a curious crowd.

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We wandered for a few hours, popping into little shops, exploring sweet little side roads and taking a peek at the waterfront before we stumbled into a sweet little cocktail bar for a few rum cocktails. Fast forward three hours and six cocktail each and Houston, we have a problem.

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We more or less wrote off our first full day in Havana thanks to £2 cocktails and picked up another bottle of rum (god help us) and a cigar (when in Rome) and ended up falling into the back of a vintage car for an hour long tour of the city. I put my hands up… my bad, my bad. The tour was amazing and we were all throwing ourself around In the back seat, laughing and stopping off with our guide to have a look at some key tourist hotspots. An hour passed and we got back to the taxi rank where our tour again. “AGAIN, AGAIN”.. and another hour in the back of this poor man’s car it was. However, this time stopping off to pat stray dogs and watch the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen in my life.

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Arriving (translated as ‘falling out of the car’) back at our casa, we walked past a group of little kids throwing a puppy around. Now, if you know me you know that I wouldn’t stand for that behaviour wherever I was in the world. I grabbed this poor puppy out of these kids hands and ran into the apartment. Dear.God.

We woke up in the morning with the worst heads we’ve possibly ever had in our lives. Then our bed sheets started moving (“Umm… girls….” and there was a puppy sleeping under my arm. It was like a scene from the hangover.. without the comedy factor. The girls? Livid with me.. Me? I named the puppy Penelope. I went out to get WIFI to Google animal charities in Havana but there is no WIFI there apart from a few hotspots which are hard to find on a good day, let alone with a rum hangover. I got back to the flat where Penelope had done penelopoos everywhere and the girls had their heads in their hands. Last resort, I ran over the road to a woman who I saw had pet dogs and she greatly accepted a new puppy into her family. Now, as long as my rabies test comes back clear, all ended well!

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Hungover but adamant to make the most of our time, we left the flat in search of food and another chance to explore Havana. We ventured to Museo Napoleonico (gorgeous building holding lots of stories on Havana’s history), grabbed a (soft) drink at the stunning El Surtidor roof terrace and did another spot of shopping before grabbing a quick dinner at a cafe and heading back.

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Much to our horror, word of the previous night’s escapade had spread and we had my name (I don’t remember giving it but my memory is a little fuzzy..) being shouted by more or less every other person we walked past. We had to take refuge in our casa at 8pm and sneak out the following morning at 2am to catch our transfer to the airport to head to Cayo Coco.

I’m sure there’s a ‘what do you call three blondes in Havana’ joke in there somewhere.

For anyone considering visiting Havana, I really suggest:

  • Book a hotel in a nice area. The safety factor and home comforts will mean you can enjoy exploring this beautiful city with peace of mind knowing you can escape in the evenings and get a good night’s sleep.
  • Don’t go in an all girl group. So many locals were lovely to us; stopping us for chats and giving us directions. However there was also lots of attention that was not wanted nor made us feel particularly safe.
  • Plan your itinerary to make the most of your time as you can find hours fly by just by walking and exploring.
  • Go equip with things to do that don’t involve your phone or laptop. Wifi is almost impossible to come by.

Sorry I disgraced you, Havana. But biggest apologies to my poor friends. I’ll do better next time…….

 

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