I think it’s rather unfair on the poor Americans – who I always find make very good travel companions – to sniffily shout “ooh, get to Cuba now before it changes”……. "it" being not-so-secret code for the Hawaiian-shirted hordes massing in Miami, ready to launch a hundred Starbucks and Subways in Havana before you can say “viva Fidel!”
But the prospect of change in Cuba is definitely afoot. And if you want to see the island as it is with its patriotic revolutionary billboards and advertising-free boulevards, go very soon.
The USA has cut economic ties with Cuba for over fifty years and the island effectively remains in a languid 1950s time warp, with thousands of geriatric Chevrolet and Chrysler cars on the roads alongside fume-belching Soviet Ladas and East German Wartburgs, as well as man-powered bici-taxis (bicycle cabs).
I stayed recently in Havana on my tour of Cuba at the Hotel Nacional (which was run by the American mob in the 1950s as a way of laundering their ill-gotten gains) and it retains a strong feeling of a bygone-era, from the plumbing to the lifts. It’s not such a bad life, you think to yourself, sipping a classic mojito outside in the hotel’s garden, listening to a band playing and warmed by a breeze blowing in off the sea.
The next morning I wandered into town, a half hour stroll along the Malecon, the road that is slapped by waves coming in over the sea wall and where, in the evening, the locals come and just hang out. On the way to the more touristy and slightly better-scrubbed Habana Vieja (old town) I paused in Habana Centro, which is a photographers’ paradise: crumbling old buildings, slogans daubed on pastel walls, men tinkering under the bonnets of sixty-year old cars, music seeping from doorways, and neighbours in hair curlers hanging out on street corners to gossip. It’s just all tremendously vibrant, alive and different – for now.
Change will be inevitable, and for many Cubans it will be a good thing. But in a world where McDonalds in Edinburgh is the same as Toronto and Sydney and Hong Kong and Johannesburg, you’ve got to admire a small island that has bucked trends for 60 years. Even if human rights’ watchers obviously might, very justifiably, have another viewpoint.
So if you are thinking of going on a holiday to Cuba soon, here are a few of my tips on preparing for your trip and once you’re there.
When you land at Jose Marti International outside Havana, you’ll need to change money. Bring Canadian dollars, British pounds or euros. You can in theory change US dollars but you’ll get a much stiffer exchange commission charge, so don’t bother. And for some reason you can’t change Aussie or NZ dollars full stop. You’ll be given convertible pesos, written CUCs and pronounced “Cooks”, which you have to use for hotels and most restaurants. 1 CUC is worth 25 national pesos, which is what the locals use: in the week I was in Cuba, though, I didn’t use national pesos once, but it’s not illegal to have them.
And one last thing on money at the airport: after you go through customs, the line to change money will be long. Instead go upstairs to departures, where there are two booths (next to the departure tax window: in Cuba you have to pay CUC25 in cash when you go, it’s not added onto the ticket) and there the line should be much shorter. As for credit cards, don’t really bother, especially if they are issued in the US. There are some ATMs in Havana apparently, although I didn’t see them, but you’ll get hit with the same poor US$-exchange penalties, so it’s not worth it unless you’re in a total fix.
The internet? Again, don’t bother. It’s certainly not impossible: hotels will sell you a wifi card for CUC10 an hour, but at that rate, why not think of your holiday in Cuba as a digital detox. The world will survive for seven days without your tweets. Foreign mobile phones will work in Cuba for sending texts, but I found sometimes the texts went through absolutely fine and other times, even when there was a signal, they didn’t: no rhyme or reason other than, hey, it’s Cuba.
As for food, I’m not going to go into details other than to say the Lonely Planet Cuba guide has a very good list of newly-allowed private restaurants in Havana, which serve great, if not particularly spicy, dishes, and are way better than the state-owned offerings. Having praised the Lonely Planet, its food list is generally the only part that was better than the Rough Guide, which I also took, and, overall, would recommend more highly.
So go with an open mind, do not expect North American or European levels of service, and you will have a blast.