Backpacking in Cuba – Culture, Cigares and Havana
Why Cuba? I’ve often been asked that and maybe not everyone will share the same opinion after a trip to Cuba, but the Caribbean island wraps you around your finger with its charm and unconventional nature. Because it’s not like the other Caribbean islands. Flights to the Dominican Republic, for example, cost just a quarter as much. And then there is this political situation in the country that everyone is afraid of.
But those who are not looking for the material paradise, but a cultural one, whose charm and charm is not affordable or tangible, will take Cuba into their hearts. For me, it is an adventure and not just a usual holiday with all the self-evidences. In my mind one has all these pictures of happy people dancing and making music on the beach or in colourful alleys, but also of scarcity economy and hard restrictions of human rights. Of course, socialism is omnipresent, but you know that even before you start your journey. It is important to travel to Cuba unbiased and without huge expectations, only then you can get to know the country and its people properly.
Entry under observation
The plane took us from Frankfurt to Havana in almost 11 hours. As I said, the flights to Cuba are not exactly cheap, but if you compare something before, you can certainly bargain here. But so far one can only dream of a private jet to the Caribbean. Before entering the Caribbean, one needs – besides his valid passport of course – such a tourist card. You can get it at the embassy or consulate in advance. In the case of package tours, as far as I know, they are also sent directly to the embassy or consulate. With a correctly filled out card, one can stay in the country for at least 30 days.
But one must not only be able to name personal data, but also a state-approved accommodation for the stay. Thus, at least for the first days, a place to stay should be booked in advance. When entering the country, only half of this tourist card is withdrawn, the second stays with you and you must keep it well until the end of the trip, otherwise there will be trouble when leaving! Furthermore you have to pay 25 CUC when you leave the country, which you should put aside right at the beginning.
Cash instead of Visa
As far as money in general is concerned, compared to other countries, the dollar does not get very far in Cuba. In addition, a 10 percent penalty fee is levied when the dollar is exchanged. Even paying by credit card, which has become a matter of course for many, is only rarely possible here, especially not if they are from an American bank. For me, however, this is not a problem, you just have to be a bit flexible.
Then take Euro notes with you (no coins) and exchange them on the spot. The means of payment for tourists in Cuba is the “Peso Convertible”, short CUC. 1 CUC corresponds to about 0.75 Euro. Cubans pay in CUP, the correct national currency, which is worth a little less. Of course, as a backpacker you can also try to buy this currency in order to buy something cheaper from local shops. How long this somewhat bizarre parallel currency will last is not certain.
But back to the entry: it lasts in Cuba! In a large hall, the entrants have to line up and wait until the critical controllers wave you through. I waited an hour until it was my turn. After the long flight and the 6 hours time difference you are a bit irritated, but the people there are just doing their job. And that means checking passports and entries carefully.
Once in the control cabin you will first be photographed and then partly questioned, e.g. about the reason for your trip, but also about your previous trips. Thanks to the many stamps in my passport, this part took a little longer. But no matter if you are a communist friend (e.g. Vietnam) or a capitalist enemy (e.g. USA) – none of my past destinations became a problem. Finally I was allowed to enter officially.
Actually it is pointed out on many information pages that in Cuba since 2010 a valid health insurance protection must be proven with the entry. Before I had simply called my health insurance company, told them about my travel plans and immediately I was sent an insurance confirmation – in English and German. The nice inspector at the airport didn’t have eyes for it, probably she was too busy with my passport stamps. By the way, there is no vaccination obligation for the entry, but maybe you should inform yourself at the Tropical Institute about meaningful vaccination protection beforehand.
Varadero – bathing holiday vs. culture shock
From the airport near Havana I took the bus two hours east to Varadero. Before I start to explore the lively capital, I want to really get there, get used to it and relax a bit.
The narrow, elongated headland is probably the most touristic area on the island. The further one drives out the only main road, the more isolated one is from the real Cuba. Here, tourists stay among themselves, reserve at 7 o’clock in the morning their own hotel beds and then spend 14 days only at the – admittedly – idyllic beach of Varadero. For all those who like the Caribbean, but without cultural influence. That’s why I decide for a nice, small hotel right at the beginning of the headland in order to get at least some contact to the country.
Shortage economy in sunshine
A paradise in socialism awaits me here. You soon notice that in Cuba everything is approached more loosely and more slowly. Your toilet in the room doesn’t work? Maybe someone will come by tomorrow. Until then drink a rum with us first! Your room is flooded with water from the air conditioner? Let’s see if we can reach the plumber, just have a siesta with us first! Most Europeans will have some difficulties to get used to this mentality. You just have to get used to it.
And you also quickly notice that socialism means a scarcity economy and that even in the all-inclusive hotels you don’t have everything available every day. One day there are no tomatoes, another day coffee is missing, fresh fruit is waiting for you. As in the GDR, my parents would say. But you get along, you certainly won’t starve to death and after all you’re not in Cuba for dinner.
Welcome to Real Socialism
At this point, we also have to show the necessary understanding for the people in this political and economic situation. And especially when it’s not a matter of business or urgency, the Cubans are a very warm people who like to share everything with you. The people are very warm, usually have a broad smile on their faces and are incredibly grateful for small gestures. Especially if you treat them with respect and for example scratch a little Spanish together and try to have a nice conversation with them. In general, even in Cuba you make better progress with German than with English.
Otherwise Varadero is really a nice place on earth. For 5 CUC I take the bus, which drives up and down the main road every few minutes, and drive to the pointed end of the headland and then simply walk back along the wide sandy beach. The sea is clear, has some waves and you just want to jump in every few meters. At the beach, one meets beside many sun worshippers also some local employees who take a short break. We talk about their country and their job and about how to try to avoid the many regulations and restrictions. And despite the lack of freedom of press and opinion, the Cubans are proud and somehow happy. They don’t whine and try to make the best of it.
I meet a small dealer who sells fresh pineapples and mangos on his bike on the beach. He doesn’t beg, he doesn’t want alms and during a little chat he tells me about his family and his little daughter and he just seems very satisfied. I really wish I could take some of the serenity and indescribable sense of freedom that these people radiate despite their political situation.
Underwater world as theater of war
Around Varadero many dive boats start daily to explore the underwater world. Normally you can always go to the dive center and book your trip right there. It certainly doesn’t hurt to see the ratings of the different dive bases on the internet, e.g. on www.taucher.net.
Sales mentality – no chance!
On Varadero there are not so many different diving bases, therefore I choose the next best one – Barracuda – and call from the hotel simply times. Better: I try to call. The telephones don’t work so well at the moment and I can hardly hear the hooting at the other end. Typical Cuba again: Telephone doesn’t work, instead of worrying about fixing it, you arrange somehow. Will go again sometime.
Until then I just walk to the base and meet some hangover instructors who were more annoyed than excited about their new client. Something that happens more often here: the lack of interest in selling. In many oriental or Asian countries you can’t get around trading and haggling, you are literally bombarded with offers. Cuba is much more relaxed.
Do-it-yourself – Diving
So I book a diving day with two dives. The next day I will be picked up from my accommodation – almost an hour later than agreed, but at least. Shortly before I go on the small boat, I get my rental equipment. It’s really okay, you can’t complain, I had already seen much worse. The service is somewhat limited, in many other countries you get everything wordlessly assembled and carried back and forth. But I like to assemble my equipment myself and not have to rely on others. The crew is nevertheless very nice and one gets on the small boat fast prima into the discussion.
Relaxed at over 30 m depth
Something frightened me was just our goal. I had indicated that I was still a beginner, which means in plain diving terms: I have a normal OWD certificate from Padi (Open Water Diver) and am officially only allowed to dive 18 meters deep. Today’s dive spot is a gigantic wreck almost 40 meters deep, which I have to admit is quite appealing.
There is also a rumour that Cuba is the only place in the world where you wouldn’t accept diving licenses from Padi – an American company. As expected, the Cubans are also relatively relaxed here and simply take me with them without any further questions.
Old cannon ship “Russian Destroyer”
My diving buddy was already an old hand and so I dared the intoxication of the depth. It was a bit colder than usual and with increasing depth it gets darker and the colours duller. But the wreck was just awesome! It’s an old frigate called “Russian Destroyer” and there were still a lot of big parts around the wreck. Besides, the ship seemed to have tank cars or similar.
The charm of Havana
With a rental car we finally went back to Havana. There were some really beautiful spots on the way there. I make a detour to Matanzas, a small province in the north. There a Cuban had recommended me an old pharmacy called Botica Francesa, which looks quite inconspicuous from the outside. More like a residential house.
Old pharmacy in Matanzas
An old man was just sweeping the front door and when he saw me, he smiled and asked me in. There was hardly a man far and wide. The man led me in and next to a pompous staircase a really old and above all impressive pharmacy awaited me.
It is as if at some point in the 19th century the gates had been closed and everything had been left as it is. The heavy wooden shelves reached under the ceiling and everywhere there were bottles, barrels or ampoules with ominous substances. The old man made me understand that this pharmacy is unique because it is still fully equipped. After a tour I wanted to give him some money to say goodbye and to thank him, but he waved and just squeezed my hand.
When I came out of the pharmacy, it suddenly rained from streams. The water was already on the streets and when I was finally in the car, I was already soaking wet. I continued on my way to Havana and everywhere I saw people and cars drowning in rainwater. When it had stopped raining a little later, the water pulled away in no time, a few women dried their entrances and everything was as before.
Where is the bus?
On the big streets there were sometimes dozens of people standing at the edge, waiting waiting like crazy, and only very seldom you saw a bus, but it was filled to the brim. As I learned a little later, petrol has been heavily rationed for years and private cars (marked with yellow license plates) often form car pools. Furthermore, because of the US embargo, cars were imported mainly from Eastern Europe. The Lada seems to be the standard vehicle here. The many oldtimers typical of Cuba, on the other hand, date back to the time before the revolution, which is why spare parts are often lacking today. The drivers of the colorful, old carts want however often coal for a mad tourist photo with the old timer, as I had to determine.
City with a thousand faces
Finally arriving in Havana, I stroll through small, run-down streets that look very much like developing countries. A little later I find myself on a large, chic square with clean terraces and expansive balustrades. I stand on the Plaza de Catedral, the entrance to the famous Jesuit church. Famous because the bones of Christopher Columbus are said to have lain here until the 19th century. I take the next side street, this time more colorful and less broken. This city looks different on every corner.
A Mojito, please!
I wanted to make a detour to the Bodeguita del Medio, the alleged Mojito bar of Ernest Hemingway. A small, open pub with live music and filled to the brim with people. Hundreds of fans from all over the world have immortalized themselves at the entrance door.
On the way back to my car I pass a kind of book market with old books and magazines, most of which are socialist propaganda works. But also Hemingway can be bought here for only a few CUC, and so I buy his classic “The old man and the sea” as a souvenir to enjoy it on my last day with rum and cigar on the beach.
Plaza de la Revolucion & Capitolio National
I wanted to visit two sights in Havana: the Plaza de la Revolucion and of course the Capitolio Nationale. The former is Cuba’s largest square and Castro regularly held political rallies here. Beside a huge statue of José Martí there are also several government buildings, among others also the strictly guarded former offices of Fidel Castro. On the interior ministry the gigantic head of Che Guevara is emblazoned.
In general, you can find posters everywhere in Cuba, as well as little wall scrawls with pictures of Fidel or Che, which call for a lasting revolution. There is always a certain fighting spirit in the air. The Capitolio Nationale – by the way a replica of the Washington original – was unfortunately just like a construction site, but still worth a visit.
Once sitting on the park bench with John Lennon
There was still a little time until the evening, so I made a detour to the Parque Lennon. Yes, correctly read, a John Lennon Park in Cuba! The small inconspicuous park is just called that because a life-size Lennon sculpture is sitting on a park bench innocently.
The only drawback: the famous glasses of the ex-Beatles were stolen again and again, that’s why there is a park guard today, w
Only shortcoming: the famous glasses of the ex-Beatles were stolen again and again, therefore there is today a park guard who always puts the glasses in and puts them on John’s nose only for photo purposes. Fortunately for me, the parking attendant was there today and I was able to take a snapshot of Lennon and myself.
Havana at night
It is slowly getting evening and many tourists drive in coaches past me. Now they probably visit the Tropicana Show – a dance cabaret with traditional costumes and lots of food and drink. But for me it sounds more like a chic meeting and so I decide to discover Havana at night.
Together with a British couple I met at Lennon Parque, we explored some pubs and drank some mojito. You don’t have to be afraid at all, you feel very welcome. People dance everywhere, fiery guitar music booms out of the bars and the joy of life just infects you. And even if the shops all close slowly, there are still hundreds of people on the streets and along the long wall by the sea.
Cigar & Rum on the beach
It’s my last night in Cuba and I grab a cigar, rum and hemingway and sat down at the rushing sea. At the thought of how I got these treasures, I still have to smile. You can admire Cuba’s export hits in many factories and buy them expensive. The state shops are all very well supervised and also the employees are controlled everywhere again and again.
Buy real Anejo – how to do it!
I visited the Havanna Club Museum and took part in the catering afterwards. This good rum is already a fine thing. I drank my first Anejo (7 year old rum) in a cool live bar together with a Cuban rocker from a biker gang. The guy said that I should definitely try this. But a bottle of 7 year old Havanna Club was too expensive for me. So how else did I get the rum?
About an acquaintance I was told that one should simply push a dark bag of banknotes over the bar of the hotel’s barkeeper. 5 CUC for one bottle, 10 CUC for two etc. A few minutes later the bag is back on the counter for you – with rum in it. It wasn’t a Havana Club, but I must say it tasted almost better, just because of its adventurous procurement.
From belts to real Cuban cigars
The only thing I could get more daring than that was my cigars. I had chosen Romeo y Julietta, after Cohiba and Montechristo the best cigars in Cuba. Here, too, the cigars in the state shops were far too expensive for me. Sadly I browsed a few other shops instead. A salesman wanted to sell me a few thick leather belts, I refused thankfully, and he asked me mischievously: What do you want then?
I hadn’t even finished pronouncing the word “cigars” yet, so he grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out of his shop, along the street, a few side streets and backyards, and I suddenly stood in his private apartment. An elderly lady with a baby on her arm sat at the table, little surprised and when the man explained my request to her, she pressed the child into my arms and returned a little later with a box of 25 Romeo y Julieta.
Really great, but from where…? No questions and please do not show publicly, I was asked. For 50 CUC they are yours! To seal the purchase we puffed another one together and afterwards the belt seller led me back to the main street in a good mood.