We popped into Cuba for a couple of days on our way home. People don't generally pop in and out of Cuba and it's not really advisable, especially when the Pope's also popping in for the same couple of days and planning on generally getting in your way. We weren't stalking him, honest, although he may have been stalking us.
I'd long coveted Cuba as a potential cycle touring destination so knew a few things about it including that it was full of shiny old cars from the Fifties, and considerably less full of Americans. In our brief time there it was interesting to see the reality.
We didn't meet any Americans (although we met quite a few Germans and also an English couple - we realised it had been a few weeks since we'd seen other English people so hearing the accent was unexpectedly odd!). We stayed in a casa particular, which is a private B&B - everything I've ever read about Cuba recommends staying and eating in them rather than hotels and restaurants - and it was certainly very pleasant, but more about that later...
Quite a lot of the cars (maybe a third?) still are ancient yank tanks - most of them (apart from the taxis) are not so shiny with rust patches everywhere and spewing out lots of black exhaust smoke. It's quite a sight though, and very surreal when we first arrived, especially as they were on relatively modern looking roads and not in a black and white movie.
We spent our only full day in Havana trying to get air tickets home. We weren't sure when we arrived there whether we'd be sticking around, we'd become a bit holidayed out and keen to get home, eat delicious English food (actually yes, really) and allow our poor injured wallets to recover a bit - but it quickly became clear, for various reasons, that we'd definitely had enough. So we headed over to the offices of Cubana, the national airline, to buy our tickets back to London and that was when things started getting fun.
We'd checked on the internet the previous night, on our casa's blazingly fast (and probably a bit illegal) 38kbps internet connection, so we knew the price of the tickets. When they tried to charge us an extra 200CUC each we were a bit surprised but when we questioned this it became clear that there was a credit card price and a cash price, and that if we paid in cash we'd get our tickets at close enough to the internet price. Which was where the fun began - there was a cash machine next door, and it even worked (not common in Cuba) but it would only give out 150CUC at a time in 5CUC bills. We'd have to do that about six times to get enough cash, and that many notes in my money belt would make me look super-fat.
The next hour was spent trekking around town trying to find a decent ATM. We found one that only gave out CUP (the other Cuban currency, for locals only) and one that didn't really exist, before giving up and going back to the first one. We went into the bank and tried to use our cards to get money out at the counter. They wouldn't do that without seeing our visas, which the owner of our casa had conveniently not returned to us after taking down our details. So Dgym went to the original ATM and withdrew as much money as he could in 5CUC notes, which turned out to be just enough. He then waddled back into the bank looking extremely fat and changed them for 50's. I'm sure they put the fives straight back in the cash machine. Dgym promptly received a flurry of text messages from his ever-vigilant bank, who had noticed some weird cash withdrawal activity in a foreign country and decided to block his cards. Yay! But we got our tickets. Us: 1, Cuba: 0.
It was lunchtime by then - we caught a tourist bus back to the casa to sort a few things out, then spent another couple of hours trying to get back on the tourist bus (turns out you can get off anywhere but you have to find the stops to get on, or it will whizz by and ignore you) by which time it was getting kind of late and now we were worrying about not having enough cash left to pay for our dinner and all the other stuff - the next day would be a special holiday as everybody had the morning off to watch the Pope do his thing, so the banks (and probably the ATMs too) would be closed. So we had to get off the tourist bus again at the first cash machine we saw, which fortunately worked, while I got us lots more $5 bills. By then it was about 5pm.
No, Cuba's not somewhere you just pop into. For somewhere we only spent a couple of days, there's rather a lot to be said (and if you've spoken to Dgym since we got back, you'll have heard all about what he thought of Cuba!) ... more to follow!
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