I’m still looking over my photos and thinking about some of my experiences in Cuba.

Cuba is everything people say it is. The architecture is phenomenal, Havana bustles, the classic cars are a real treat both to drive in and to watch on the road. I walked the Malecon, Havana’s sea wall, a number of times and couldn’t get enough. It’s beautiful by day and night. No matter what the weather, it makes a statement.

Malecon, Havana, Cuba

The Malecon in Vedado section, that is the farthest from Old Havana.

When I returned to Havana, after just over a week in Vinales and Cienfuegos, I ended up staying in a hotel in the Vedado area. I asked about a restaurant and the receptionist sent me to a place nearby that served only full-course meals and was mostly in darkness. I’m not sure if it was because they thought it was romantic or they had trouble with the electricity. Lighting is dim in most places in Cuba, as though the light bulbs aren’t very strong, but I don’t remember seeing a candle the whole time I was there.

I decided I wasn’t that hungry and left, but at some point returning to my hotel I took a wrong turning and found myself passing by Cafe Mamaine, a hip-looking little place with very young staff and a bright front room. The bar was well stocked and the English/Spanish menu emphasized drinks and tapas.

I found this shot of Cafe Mamaíne on the Internet, better than the one I was able to take on my phone.

I found this shot of Cafe Mamaíne on the Internet, better than the one I was able to take on my phone.

The only ‘meal’ the cafe served was a pork cutlet and a couple of vegetables. I had that plus chocolate cake (which was three layers of white cake with chocolate icing — very tasty) and coffee.

After I had eaten and paid, I told them that I had a problem. I was staying at the nearby Hotel Victoria but had no idea where it was, which made them laugh. One of the staff looked up the address on her cell phone and gave me directions. Everyone seems to have a cell phone and just like here, it acts as a lifeline.

I liked the place so much that I went back the next night, which had unexpected repercussions.

Returning to my hotel, I passed a gas station across the street which reminded me that I had been going to find out the price of gas. Since there’s only one source, there’s no need to post the price in large numbers that a driver can see from the street, as we do here, so I needed to have a close up look at the pump to find out what drivers were paying.

There’s a lot of traffic everywhere — public transport buses, tourist inter-city buses, the hop-on hop-off bus, taxis for both local and long-range rides — and I didn’t see any evidence of a sense of conservation. Vehicles idle for long periods, the tourist buses often seem to travel half empty. A couple of times I tried to buy a ticket for the tourist bus and the agency tried to sell me a ticket via a taxi that as far as I could tell just duplicated service.

Lots of taxis some of which are classic cars, some these mini cars which are double the rate, and bicycle taxis which are much cheaper and only really available in Old Havana.

Lots of taxis some of which are classic cars, some these mini cars which are double the rate, and bicycle taxis which are much cheaper and only really available in Old Havana.

Near Havana harbour

Near Havana harbour

I surmised that people were buying gas in the national currency and making money by driving tourists for foreign currency. That’s why I was curious about the price of gas.

(For those who don’t know, Cuba has two currencies. Foreigners have to change their dollars to Cuba’s second currency at a rate of $25 to one Cuban convertible dollar.)

So I stepped off the curb to cross the street, which was not well lit. I suddenly sensed that there was a pothole just about where I was to step and it made me hesitate. My foot came down hard and off-centre and I felt a very sharp pain in my ankle.

I hobbled across the street, assuming the pain would go away, and looked at the pump. Gas was selling at $1.20 a litre in foreign currency which in Cdn dollars is about $1.60. I went inside to talk to the attendant and asked him what the national currency price was. It turns out that no one can buy gas in the national currency. Which suggests an awful lot of people have access to foreign currency and taxi drivers don’t have as big a profit margin as I thought.

One curiosity satisfied, I was able to satisfy another the next day. What is Cuba’s health care system like?

By the next morning I wasn’t able to walk easily without holding on to the wall or any conveniently placed article of furniture. Both the chambermaid and the hotel receptionist told me I should go to the clinic and gave me the address — the one that foreigners use, I was told.

I wasn’t looking forward to long hours in Emergency but was having enough trouble that I decided it was worth it if I could get my ankle bound up.

The taxi delivered me to a clinic that had an attendant outside to direct people. The whole place was compact, modern and seemingly well-run. There were a number of people in the waiting room and a number of others came through while I was there. There seemed a mix of foreign and Cuban patients.

After about 15 minutes I was shown into a consulting room and spoke to a doctor who had about as much English as I have Spanish. But hand gestures convey a lot and everyone at the clinic seemed used to dealing with people who don’t speak Spanish. He examined my foot, said it wasn’t broken, that I had an esquince (he wrote it down. It means sprain) and that the most important thing was to ice it five or six times a day. He also gave me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory which I was able to fill at the pharmacy there. Everyone was very pleasant and helpful, very professional.

The consultation cost $25; the prescription $18. The whole thing didn’t take half an hour.

It put paid to my plans for that day, however, which had been to take a local bus to a well known beach just outside of Havana and take a long walk in the sand. Instead, I spent most of the time in my hotel room with ice on my ankle.

Havana, medicine, gas prices

Any time I road around Havana — by taxi or bus — the architecture was always so interesting.

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The sinking dollar gives Cdn travellers that sinking feeling

This is one of many squares in Old Havana, corners of a block where there are no buildings, just trees  and flowers and place to sit, sometimes a fountain.

This is one of many squares in Old Havana, corners of a block where there are no buildings, just trees and flowers and places to sit, and sometimes a fountain. People who live upstairs have a ringside seat to watch what’s going on in their neighbourhood.

I’m watching the news today about the Canadian dollar reaching a new low, something I admit I didn’t think about when I was planning my trip to Cuba.

This is a very practical post — the costs of vacationing in Cuba in light of the plummeting Canadian dollar, especially if you’re not going on an all-inclusive trip at a resort. Then at least you know what it’s going to cost you before you get on the plane.

Cuba is cheap by Canadian standards and although the amenities aren’t always what you might hope for, there are many services that are efficient and well worth what you pay.

All the information in guide books and on the web talk about CUCs (what all the foreigners call ‘kooks’) which is the tourist dollars you buy when you land in Cuba — $1 Cdn for $1 CUC which means that when a private home advertises a room with private bath for $30 CUC (breakfast extra), I expect to pay $30 Cdn per night.

Reality hit at midnight when I woke up a dozing clerk in the currency exchange office (cadeca) at the Havana airport. My $500 Canadian netted me $406 CUCs, which immediately raised my holiday budget by 20 per cent. I exchanged Cdn dollars a couple of more times in the two weeks that followed, but of course, it didn’t get any better.

However, $30 a night for a room with private bath — all of them extremely clean and outfitted with fans and air conditioners — is very reasonable. Breakfast is always the same — juice, eggs if wanted, bread and cheese, perhaps ham which can range from slivers of cooked ham to slices of canned ham, butter, jam and pitchers of wonderful coffee and hot milk.

Vedado, Havana, Cuba, casa particular

This is the first casa particular I stayed in. It’s in the Vedado area of Havana, close to where the Malecon ends. It may not look like much — not many houses do — but it’s clean, secure and welcoming.

I had budgetted for some excursions — a tour in a classic car, a day at Veradero beach, a night out — and for the most part the agencies charged about what I expected, although I didn’t think it was always worth it.

One of the things I didn’t allow for is how much it cost to get anywhere, especially if you stay outside of Old Havana.

Every time you talk to anyone about some place to visit or where to eat or anything you might want to see, the advice is always the same. “Take a taxi. It’s only about $5.” The problem is that in a day it’s not difficult to rack up $20 or $25 worth of taxis, and it turns out that a lot of taxi drivers don’t think $5 is enough.

I took a taxi from my casa to Hotel Nacional, a trip of about 10 blocks. Not far, and the driver charged me $5. When I returned, a doorman had arranged the taxi and I didn’t bother asking how much it would be. We got to my place and the driver said $20. (I refused and we settled on $10, which was still too much.)

It’s the kind of minor scam that every tourist runs into in every city in the world. It doesn’t happen a lot in Cuba, but it happens.

Old Havana, paladar

A paladar means it’s a private restaurant, not state-owned. They are almost always the better choice. Better service, better food. This one is in Mercaderes St in Old Havana.

Eating out is also a challenge. A lot of restaurants typically serve complete meals that run between $10 and $15 with drinks extra. Upscale restaurants can be twice that. I was always looking for places where I could eat smaller amounts. The town of Vinales has a lot of restaurants, including a vegetarian one, where you have more options. Those meals, even with water and/or coffee, would run between $5 and $10.

Sometimes if I had a big meal during the afternoon, I would go out in the evening and just have dessert and a latte. Flan is served everywhere and was my favourite. This serving is at the vegetarian restaurant in Vinales -- basically custard surrounded with toffee. Yum!

Sometimes if I had a big meal during the afternoon, I would go out in the evening and just have dessert and a latte. Flan is served everywhere and was my favourite. This serving is at the vegetarian restaurant in Vinales — basically custard surrounded with carmelized sugar, also known as toffee. Yum!

The other cost I wasn’t prepared for was water. You drink bottled water in Cuba and it comes in plastic bottles. A 500 ml bottle is $1 in a casa particular — every room has a little fridge in it with soft drinks, beer and bottles of water in it — and $1.50 in a restaurant. I spent $3 to $5 a day just on water.

And lastly, the Internet. It doesn’t exist in the casas, only in hotels and the Ectesa office, which is the telecommunications office in every centre. You buy a card that gives you a username and password that logs you in for up to an hour. The cost is $6 to $8 and hour in Havana and Cienfuegos, only $4.50 an hour in Vinales.

Some hotels have sold all their cards that day and won’t have any until the next day. There’s always a line up where you have to wait for 30 or 40 minutes for a turn at a computer. Sometimes the card doesn’t work and you have to exchange it for one that does. And the connections are almost always really slow. Accessing email, reading an email, replying to an email can take 5 to 10 minutes. Very quickly you decide that it’s not worth the hassle.

The prices I quote, of course, are in CUCs. Add 20% to get the equivalent in Cdn dollars.

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Music in Cuba

One of the things I was really looking forward to was hearing Cuban music. I knew that I wouldn’t be going out to clubs, but I had read there were lots of opportunities to hear music outdoors so I was ready for that.

I did hear some great music, but a lot of it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Some musical memories…

An elderly man on a trumpet in a street in Old Havana playing the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way”.

The pianist in the lobby of Hotel Parque Central — I admit, a very expensive five-star hotel catering to tourists — playing You Are My Sunshine and the theme song from The Godfather.

Sometimes disappointment became irritation, like the time I and half a dozen other tourists were being driven to a park outside of Cienfuegos. The guide turned on the car radio and we listened to an Elton John tune and Celine Dion singing My Heart Will Go On.

Restaurants were a good bet for Cuban music. Although I often found the songs loud and interminable, most people were really swayed by the beat. A lot of the music was new to me, but every restaurant band I heard sooner or later sang Guantanamera and played The Godfather theme.

In Vinales, there was a band that played every night at one restaurant. I could enjoy them while dining at a restaurant across the street. One evening a woman passed by and spontaneously started to dance and continued until the music stopped.

One evening in Cienfuegos made up for it all. After dinner I went for a walk towards the town square with some idea that I might hear some music there. I was walking along a street that has been recently fixed up and is lined with upscale stores and an art gallery or two.

I heard children singing and realized they were behind a shuttered door. There was an opening just above my eye level, I presume for air circulation. I stood on tip toe to peek in and saw it was a small but very modern shoe store. Six children, about 10 years old, were seated in a row facing a young woman who played the guitar while they sang.

The light on the street was dim; the air was fresh and cool. Their voices were so sweet, I just stood for awhile to listen to them. I wanted to take a photo but I was afraid they would hear me and it felt too intrusive.

More was to come. I walked further on where a six-person group was playing the kind of Latin music I had hoped to hear. There were two women as lead singers and they had wonderful voices. They played electrical instruments and the technician was set up inside an art gallery. The group — called Cinco Pa I was told — played on the sidewalk.

Cinco Pa in Cienfuegos. This is clearer than the video below because I took a night shot. Not possible with video.

Cinco Pa in Cienfuegos. This is clearer than the video below because I took a night shot. Not possible with video.

Cinco Pa in Cienfuegos

An audience just gathered spontaneously and grew, with some people dancing and everyone enjoying the music.

There were places to sit and people began to gather. A middle aged couple with a young son walked by and they stopped and started to dance. The woman tried to get her son to dance with her, which he did very well and with the same kind of hip action everybody in Cuba seems to know, until he saw people looking at him. Other couples began to dance.

There was a master of ceremonies who seemed to be saying that this was a celebration, possibly of a poet since there was also someone who declaimed poetry in between songs.

I managed to upload a video, only part of a song unfortunately, to this location.

http://bit.ly/1BlWlfr

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Getting around in Havana

One of Havana’s great pluses is a double-decker hop-on hop-off bus that tours the city. Tickets are $5 for the day. It’s a great deal even though it isn’t perfect. You have to tell the driver if you want to get off; there are only a few places where it always stops. One of those is the Plaza de la Revolucion, a highly touted city tourist draw that is — to my mind — just a huge parking lot ringed by government buildings that feature giant images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos (another Cuban revolutionary but less well known outside Cuba.)

I visited the Plaza four or five times because the bus stopped there coming and going, and when I rented a classic car for an hour’s tour of the city, my driver insisted on stopping there as well and giving me a chance to take more pictures.

Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. You can see Che's face everywhere but I was surprised how rare it is to see a picture of Fidel Castro.

Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. You can see Che’s face everywhere but I was surprised how rare it is to see a picture of Fidel Castro.

I have a story about the bus. At the end of one day, I took the last bus from Parque Central about 5:00 in the afternoon. Locals take it as well as tourists, if it’s convenient for them. I doubt they pay tourist prices for it.

Four local women got on when I did and went to the upper level. They got off somewhere along the Malecon and the bus continued. Almost immediately, another vehicle passed us and the driver yelled something to the bus driver. Piecing together what happened, I think he told the driver that one of the women who had got off had left something behind.

The bus driver pulled over and went upstairs and came down with a bag of shopping. Much discussion between him and the woman conductor taking the tickets, and we continued.

As soon as we came to a place where he could reverse direction, he turned and drove back about a mile. At some point he saw one of the women, pulled over and she got on to take her bag. She was very thankful. I doubt they knew each other because there was no hand-shaking or kissing which is very common amongst acquaintances.

The bus driver retraced his route by a mile at least to return this woman's shopping bag. She was very grateful for it.

The bus driver retraced his route by a mile at least to return this woman’s shopping bag. She was very grateful for it.

The driver drove until he found a spot where he could turn the bus again and we could continue on our way.

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Some photos I wasn’t able to post from Cuba

I’ve written a bit about Havana and Vinales, a small town to the south west of Havana that is popular with tourists, largely because of its nearby national park.

Here are some pictures I wasn’t able to post before. There will be more in the next few days — about Cienfuegos, music, casas particulares (bed and breakfasts).

The 1952 Ford I drove to Vinales in. The driver had  wired all of the windows to operate automatically with switches on the dashboard.

The 1952 Ford I drove to Vinales in. The driver had wired all of the windows to operate automatically with switches on the dashboard.

Soroa, Cuba, orchids

An orchid bush! On the way to Vinales we stopped at the town of Soroa to pick up a couple of German tourists. This was in the front yard of the place they were staying and outside their little cottage was a bush of orchids.

Vinales, Cuba

A view of the valley where Vinales is located. Later in the day I walked through the valley to a huge mural on a mogote that took us past the tobacco farm in this picture. The large structure is not the house but the tobacco drying shed.

Vinales, Cuba, mogote

Vinales is famous for its mogotes, vegetation covered rock formations that look like they’ve been plopped on the valley floor.

Vinales valley, trees

A type of palm tree, I guess, by the side of the track through the valley.

A farmhouse in rural Vinales Valley, Cuba.

A farmhouse in rural Vinales Valley, Cuba.

This is Rydel, our guide. We stopped at this little roadside stand for a cold drink before we arrived at our destination.

This is Rydel, our guide. We stopped at this little roadside stand for a cold drink before we arrived at our destination.

Vinales, Prehistoric Mural, Cuba

Our destination, the prehistoric mural. It was a bit of a disappointment because the only thing prehistoric about it was the rock. We had expected fossils although a careful reading of the tourist bumpf doesn’t promise that. It was painted as a tourist draw, which is what it does. You pay to enter, there’s a restaurant there and a souvenir store and numerous tourist buses visit it every day.

Behind this table is a man repairing cell phones. He's set up on the covered sidewalk outside another business. Over to the right is a woman who is doing manicures. Both of them seem to have lots of business.

People are taking advantage of the changes that allow them to set up private businesses. Besides fixing up spare rooms, or even building separate houses for paying guests, there are other examples. Behind this table is a man repairing cell phones and accessories. He’s set up on the covered sidewalk outside another business. Over to the right is a woman who is doing manicures. Both of them seem to have lots of business.

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