This Cuba trip was a long time in the planning. It could have been weeks compared to our usual days or hours. We had some classic pre-trip chaotic moments. Twelve days before travelling, Hurricane/Tropical Storm Elsa roared across Cuba near Havana and hinted at disruption to electricity, roads, and food supplies. Six days before travelling there were huge anti-government demonstrations in the streets of Havana and elsewhere which threatened civil disorder, military roadblocks, and a shutdown of the already heavily restricted internet. And just one day before travelling the German RKI reclassified Cuba from a Covid Risk Area to a High-Risk Area which had possible implications for us returning to Germany. We decided to go anyway.
17.07.2021, Frankfurt to Havana, Quarantine Day 1
It was an early start. We used the Air France business lounge in Frankfurt airport and again in Paris CDG. The plane seats were comfy enough but the food a bit disappointing for the French. A kid on a seat behind us had a bad nosebleed and, in an unusually maternal gesture, H gave him a spare T-shirt. The kid’s parents, sat elsewhere on the plane, turned out to run one of Havana’s classier hotels and they offered local assistance, but I’m hoping we have no desperate need of it.
We knew some quarantine would be inevitable on arrival in Havana. We had already had PCR tests before arrival and yet another one on arrival in Havana airport. After changing some money, we got on a chilly air-conditioned bus which was supposed to be our transfer, but the bus was planning to wait for another 2-3 hours on other flights arriving. Being impatient to get this quarantine started, we extracted our bags from the bowels of the bus and got a taxi to our hotel, the Parque Central. Our room overlooks the shiny Capitolio Nacional de Cuba and some other fancy buildings and a small park. The view slightly spoiled by one of the balcony doors being steamed-up inside the double-glazing. With the official quarantine package we are on, we get three meals a day as room service and daily medical checks. We brought plenty of duty-free Havana Club rum with us which might seem like coals to Newcastle but shopping here is said to be a difficult experience even for basic foods and being stuck in our room for possibly five nights we can’t just pop out to queue for hours at the local bottle-shop.
18.07.2021 Parque Central, Havana, Quarantine Day 2
We were up early with jetlag. Breakfast turned up but had little resemblance to what I ordered off the menu. We were told there may be demonstration in the streets below our balcony on this steamy Sunday afternoon, but all is quiet so far. We blew some expensive Wi-Fi watching “The Cuba Libre Story” on Netflix to get up to speed with the local politics.
19.07.2021 Parque Central, Havana, Quarantine Day 3
Most things we chose from the breakfast menu were not available, so we just let the kitchen give us what they had. H wanted some extra milk for tea during the day and it came in what was obviously a fruit-juice carton repurposed with tiny overprinting saying Leche. They have learned to be creative dealing with shortages here. The streets of Havana are a little busier on this Monday morning, but it is quiet compared to most cities elsewhere. Most of the cars here are restored 1950’s American cars or 1960’s Ladas sporting lurid paintwork. In the small park across the street, I can hear a lone saxophone playing slow blues. The weather is predictably steamy and hot but it would be nice to get out of this room.
20.07.20121 Parque Central Havana, Quarantine Day 4
21.07.20121 Parque Central Havana, Quarantine Day 5
22.07.20121 Parque Central Havana
Free at last. We had breakfast in the lobby restaurant and went for a swim in the rooftop pool. Had a walk in the steamy heat through the mean streets. We grabbed a taxi and went to a car rental place in the Vedado district just off the Malecon. They kept us waiting for about an hour for no obvious reason and gave us a battered old Renault. The damage report form describing scratches a dings, just ended up being one big scribble.
We drove around to see some of the sights in Havana, including the huge Necropolis Cristobal Colon, which was closed, and through the Plaza de la Revolucion and the and then back to the hotel.
The old Spanish Colonial architecture is impressive but in terrible condition. Some pre-war public buildings are nice and the rest is just falling down. It seems like the dilapidation of the city is quite uniformly spread around in a Socialist way. We originally intended to tour around Cuba, staying at a number of different hotels. Everything we tried to book was closed so we extended our stay in the Parque Central and changed to a slightly better room on the same floor.
23.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
Up early and we had a long drive down the A1 Autopista Nacional to the town of Trinidad. The roads are very bad here with huge and dangerous potholes. Hitchhikers and chickens live in the slow lane. There is very little traffic. Every few minutes, a ghostly 1950’s car lumbers out of the mist. Further down the island, cars disappear altogether and are replaced by horse and carts and horse riders. It all looks like a scene from a Western movie. Trinidad is a colourful place but a complete disaster area. The roads in town are made of boulders and holes and impassible repair works. We visited the ruins of Pompei last year and I would say Pompei is a slightly more liveable place than Trinidad these days. Like the rest of Cuba there were almost no hotels, restaurants, or shops open. The few food shops you see, which are really only recognisable by the large disorganised queues outside, look like they have nothing to sell anyway.
On the drive back we stopped in Cienfuegos. A nice-looking place and completely different from Trinidad. The buildings are more of a Spanish Colonial style painted in pastel colours. Further on we passed Playa Giron on the Bay of Pigs of CIA invasion fame. There seemed to be a museum, some roadside gravestones but not much else. We didn’t have time to look around as we had to be back at our hotel before the curfew.
24.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
We explored the old part of Havana again on foot. It was still not great from a tourist point of view. The touts were a nuisance but there were almost no other tourists for them to bother. In the evening, we took the car and cruised the Malecon. The Malecon is a famous promenade that runs down the coast side of Havana. It is a road that is only attractive from a distance. Much of it is crumbling, and falling down, Spanish Colonial villas, 1950’s Mafia hotels and other concrete monstrosities. We persuaded our hotel to let us dine alone by the pool on the roof..
25.07.2021 Parque Central Havana, drive to Artemisa
We took a drive to the west of Havana to the small town of Artemisa. It was the usual mess of lumpy roads and tumbledown houses, old Chevrolets and circling vultures. With the help of Lonely Planet, we found an old-abandoned coffee plantation called Angerona, 5 km to the west of Artemisa. It was a creepy place in the middle of nowhere. There were no other signs of life apart from a single old American car parked at the end of the dirt road that turned out to be a taxi bringing a party for a wedding photo shoot. The old ruins, slave barracks and watchtower would have been impressive constructions in the 1820’s and I’m sure they would have thrilled the 450 slaves who once toiled there. We drove on through the countryside. After many Police and medical check roadblocks, we took the coast road via the port of Mariel and the exceptionally unattractive beach town of Playa Baracoa then back to Havana.
26.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
We were expecting the streets to be lively today as the 26th is National Revolution Day but we saw nothing although there may have been something held in the Plaza de la Revolucion that we didn’t see. Instead, we went on a pilgrimage to the Ernest Hemingway drinking hangouts in Vieja Havana. This being coronavirus time, no bars were open, but we photographed the outside of the La Floridita, the Bodeguita del Medio and the Hotel Ambos Mundos. We managed to grab a takeaway daiquiri for our stroll and bought a good number of cigars in a shop near La Floridita. There were no other tourists in the streets. In the evening we watched the 1959 movie “Our Man in Havana” based on the Graham Greene novel and starring a young Alec Guinness.
27.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
Drove to Finca Vigia to the southwest of Havana. This was the home of Ernest Hemingway from 1939 to 1960. No surprise that it was closed. We drove next to Cojimar, an inlet on the coast, where Hemingway was inspired to write the “Old Man and the Sea”. There is a tatty memorial there to Hemingway. The bronze bust is said to be made from propellers donated by local fishermen. In the evening we rolled up at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This hotel is maybe the swankiest that Cuba has to offer. There is a famous film taken during the Revolution when it was shelled by Castro guns. The place is normally closed to non-residents in these Covid times, but we had an invitation from a well-connected German chap called Tino that we met on the plane going to Havana. The hotel is like a museum, maybe unintentionally, to the 1930’s. We sat with Tino and his stepfather Sigi on huge rattan armchairs on the hotel veranda and swilled mojitos in a rainstorm until time for dinner together with Tino’s extended Cuban family.
28.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
We had another wander around the streets of historic old Havana on foot in search of anything we may have missed the first time. With the doors of any place with any historical interest, or any food and drink, firmly closed there were only takeaway daiquiris and Cuban sandwiches to be had.
29.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
We had coffee on the terrace at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba with Tino and Sigi and then walked to the Clinica Internacional Camilo Cienfuegos for pre-departure PCR tests. We had to wait outside in a small queue for 3 hours before being allowed into the scruffy hospital. The form of queueing here seems to be typical for Cuba where there is no line, and you just keep track of who is in front of you while finding shade somewhere else. Queueing for rare stuff like chickens and cheese is how most Cubans seem to spend their days. After getting into the hospital, we waited, for no reason that I could see, for another couple of hours for the actual test. There were only ever a handful of people in front of us. Drinks and lunch were back at the Hotel Nacional then back to the Parque Central. Waste of a day really.
The hospital is named after Camilo Cienfuegos who was a popular revolutionary campadre of Fidel Castro’s. He disappeared 29 October 1959, in suspicious circumstances. I think he may yet be discovered waiting in a queue someplace.
30.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
We waited again, for a an unnecessarily long time, outside the hospital in hot sunshine to get our test results. Eventually a security guard found them under the seat cushion of his chair . Anxiety about test centres losing test results and causing missed flights is a new travel phenomena but in this case we were good to go. We then had a last drive around Havana in our rented car and before returning it. We had a nice dinner by the rooftop hotel pool and packed our bags.
31.07.2021 Parque Central Havana
Breakfast was also by the pool in splendid isolation. H ordered a taxi to take us to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The car was a large 1958 Oldsmobile Super convertible in red and white which was a stylish way to travel. We had drinks on the veranda with Tino and Sigi with a Cuban band playing in the background then it was time for another taxi to the airport. We travelled together with the elderly Sigi who would be on our flight as far as Paris. Tino staying in Cuba with family. We arrive in Frankfurt tomorrow. Trip done.
I don’t usually write after-trip impressions, but my overall opinion of Cuba is not one of enthusiasm and it needs some explanation. The people, for the most part, are friendly apart from some tourist rip-off touts but you get that in any poor country. It is evident that Cuba over the last couple of hundred years has travelled from the spectacular Old World life of a Spanish colony to the New World glitz of post-war America and can now only be described as Third World today. There seems to have been little building or road maintenance done anywhere since the 1950’s. Personal transport for ordinary people outside the cities is slowly reverting to the horse and buggy of the 19th century. The ancient 1950’s American cars that you see everywhere are an interesting enough tourist sight but are also a tragedy as they are only kept going out of necessity. Food shopping is very difficult for Cubans and large queues can be seen outside all shops. Shopping is effectively impossible for tourists and almost all restaurants and bars are shut apart from the occasional sandwich and drink being passed through the iron bars of windows. The Cuban government seems to be a bit over enthusiastic with closures and roadblocks and it looks very much like this has less to do with pandemic control and more to do with clamping down on anti-government demonstrations. I think it would be wrong to entirely blame the American embargo for the economic situation in Cuba. It is understandable that the USA would not want to lend any support to a Cold War enemy on its doorstep. On the other hand, it is also understandable that Cuba would not want to be under the control of US corporate interests and Mafia corruption as they have been in the past. Cuba has, with this latest revolution, 63 years ago, just repeated yet another Cuban cycle of liberation from an oppressor only to replace it with another similar oppressive system a few years later. And in this case, Communist oppression has additionally sucked the entrepreneurial life out of the country. The Soviet Union has long gone and with it their once essential financial and ideological support. Time to break the cycle. Bring in some kind of democracy, re-join the world trading system, and yes, build defences against the foreign corporate dominance and the corruption of the past, and also importantly, repair the world-class heritage of Spanish Colonial buildings quickly before it all crumbles away forever.