TRAVELOGUE
Cuba

Havana

The flight to Cuba would have been almost perfect were there not an idiot on the plane that smoked in two occasions in the toilettes, which activated the smoke detectors. The pilot got mad: he threatened to land the plane in the USA and ask for police assistance. The smoker fortunately stopped making trouble so we continued our flight to Cuba. When we got close to the island the pilot warned us that there is a storm raging over Cuba and that he expects strong turbulences. And so was it - as we were landing the rain was pouring and the lightings were flashing in the night. Once on the ground, due to the strong wind we waited some 10 minutes before the aircraft doors could be opened.

From December to March there should be very little rain on Cuba and the temperatures should be moderate, so it's strange to have such weather in this time of the year. In the summer it rains a lot and the temperatures are very high, while the autumn is the season of hurricanes.

José Martí airport in Havana
José Martí airport in Havana
José Martí is a new and modern international airport, located some 20 km south of Havana. The airport customs is the first contact with the police state called Cuba. 16 exit gates lead out of the passenger terminal, each one with video surveillance (which is a good thing if you, like me, carry money in the passport and then when the officer opens the passport the money falls all over the desk). On every of these exits there is a well dressed and shaved police officer. (The police are no threat to tourists on Cuba. In fact, there are here to assist tourists if needed! If you are stopped by the police on the street they certainly have a good reason to do so.) The crowd in front of the gates is tremendous - the procedure is very slow. I was approximately 10th in the row and I waited half an hour! The police officer stamps the tourist card whose holder is due to keep it and return it when exiting the country. The passports are checked with a machine that looks like those used to check bank notes. Mine failed to pass the test three times. Each time a red light turned on. The policeman looked upon me with an interrogating look and returned the passport to me, all followed by an inevitable "welcome to Cuba". The electric door opened and I passed through.
Havana - Vedado
Havana - Vedado
Here we are, my taxi driver and me, on the road to Havana. The road is so poorly enlightened that I barely manage to see it, although the rain stopped. Its 22 hours. All different kinds of (very) old vehicles are driving on the road. The taxi driver horns when bypassing the other vehicles, since the biggest part of them have no rearview mirrors. The majority of the cars are driving at 30 km/h - I suppose they can't go any faster. Chinese-looking bikes are everywhere, emerging from the dark. All cars have open windows since the heat is unbearable. Many people are standing on the edge of the road and hitch-hiking the cars, expecting them to stop and pick them up. The car is a luxury on Cuba, not available to everyone. Considering the European car prices, the simple math shows that an average Cuban would have to work 50 years to earn enough money to buy a very small car. Every 100 meters there is a car stopped on the road, with the owner desperately trying to repair it...

Transportation on Cuba

Coco-taxi
Coco-taxi
Tourists can use state-owned and pretty comfortable taxies. There are a few taxi-companies, they always use taximeters and their average price is 1$/km. There are also private taxies, old Ladas in catastrophic shape. They have no right to transport foreigners, but will gladly do so because this is how private taxi drivers earn some extra money. They never use taximeters. With some bargaining their tariff is a half of the official one. However, these private taxies lack the rudimentary comfort. The next "taxi" category is coco-taxies, small open vehicles, looking like an empty coconut with three wheels. They can transport two passengers and charge 0.5 $/km. I never used them. Other strange transport vehicles exist, but their purpose is more to entertain than to transport tourists.
Gua-gua (metro bus)
Gua-gua (metro bus)
The urban transport consists in local "bus" lines, officially called "metro bus", colloquially "the camel" or "gua-gua". They look like transport trucks with windows. They are to be paid in pesos, look extremely uncomfortable and are used only by Cubans. The gua-gua stations are easily recognizable by the crowd waiting for gua-guas.
ASTRO bus
ASTRO bus
For the intercity transport there are ASTRO buses, whose lines cover the whole Cuba. These are very miserable buses. Four seats in each of them are reserved for tourists, who pay the dollar equivalent of the price for Cubans. Viazul buses are much more comfortable and they cost just a little bit more than their ASTRO equivalents. They respect the time table (rarity on Cuba) and charge in dollars (since they are used only by tourists). The air conditioning in these buses is very aggressive so it's a good idea to have a shirt nearby. Viazul buses in Havana have their own bus station, for 350 km they charge about 25$.

There are also trains on Cuba, but they look more like a means for the transport of prisoners than of passengers. My experience here is limited because I saw only one train on Cuba, on an unprotected road crossing (where the traffic signalization didn't work, of course).

A few islands interesting for tourists are artificially connected to the Cuban mainland. Boats (old Russian hydrofoils) navigate to the biggest Cuban island Isla de la Juventud (on the south of Cuba). A few years ago two of these frontally collided - one of the captains was drunk...

There are airfields all over Cuba. If you're interested to see how is it to fly with Cubana, one of the least safe air-transport companies in the world, you can buy a plane ticket for a destination on Cuba for 50-100$. I flew with Aerogaviotta, another Cuban company (I will write about it later).

You have enough money and are willing to pay 70-100 $/day for a small car - mostly not in perfect shape? You love big holes in the pavement, inexistent traffic signs and adventure in general? Rent a car! The car is necessary to reach many destinations that are otherwise unreachable. One must be careful when parking a car because a rearview mirror is worth a lot for an average Cuban.

My taxi arrived in front of the hotel Havana Libre in Vedado. Vedado is a tourist neighborhood where I intend to find a place for the night. As hotels are too expensive for me (50-150$ per night, those <70$ are not too good anyway, and there have been thefts in the rooms), I'm looking for private rooms called *casa particular* (=private house, from now on only "casa" [kaza]). A casa is a part of someone's private home (remember, a Cuban can own only one flat or house), mostly with a separate bathroom. It's raining cats and dogs and I feel like Forrest Gump when the rain season started in the film. I'm walking around Vedado, unable to find a casa. I can't find the street names either (later I'll discover that street names, simple letters and numbers, are written not on the buildings but on the pavement)!

Tired, desperate and wet, I sit at the entrance of a house. Soon a guy arrives, sits near me and starts talking about Cuban tobacco! I don't know where to find a casa and he's enumerating the regions where tobacco is grown! I ask him how to make a phone call and he indicates a public phone and gives me a few Cuban coins for the call. But there is a guy speaking on the phone and he seems not to end the conversation soon. As the rain stopped I walk around the block and find the address of one of the casas I had in my block-note! But the entrance door of the building is locked so I can't get in. An old lady shows up and explains me that there is no free place here, but that she'll go to ask her friends. In a few minutes she's back - she found one free casa for the night. A little later another lady, the free casa owner, shows up. The casa is quite OK. Anyway, I don't care at all as long as I have a place to sleep. The price is 25$ + 3$ for the breakfast. Casas cost 15-40$, mostly 20-30$, 30$ in Havana, 20$ elsewhere. Although many Cubans speak some English or Italian, I prefer to speak Spanish; the communication with Cubans is much easier this way.

Good night.

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Cuba: Trinidad
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