Cuba always used to be one of the destinations, that was on top of my travel-bucket-list, however it took me ages to make the trip.
Usually when I'm visiting a unique country or city, and just right after I fastened my seat-belt on the airplane I tell myself silently "In 10 hours you will be standing in.... (the name of the city)". If it is a long-awaited destination, I really have a hard time believing that it's finally happening.
With Havana it was just the same kind of "ritual" again. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to finally set foot in Cuba and again, I couldn't really believe it, that I was sitting on the airplane.
After all these joyful thoughts during the flight, I gotta admit, that my face certainly didn't look that happy, when I stepped outside of the airplane. Havana definitely has the shabbiest airport I've ever walked through. Even the ones in India looked fancier. Well it was just an airport!
The customs officers were sitting behind desks that looked like zoo-type-cages all painted in red. I stepped forward and softly said "Hola!" (knowing no spanish at all)... the usual procedures with fingerprints & mugshot followed, and I got a gently "Welcome!" from the officer.
The baggage-claim was crowded with too many visitors. All the travelers were waiting along one single carousel. It didn't feel like you were waiting at the international airport of the capital.
At the main-hall, when leaving the airport, there are a couple of ATMs where you can withdraw money. I didn't wait too long (5-10 minutes), because I landed late in the evening around 22:00h (10pm). At the same ATM you could exchange money, but the machine asked for your passport if you were exchanging cash.
The governmental taxis ask a fixed price of 30 CUC (24 € / 30 us$) to bring you to the city. The ride took 20-25 minutes to reach the "parque central" where the most popular hotels are located. I took a hotel for the first 2 nights, because I didn't feel adventurous after 10 hours of flying. After the 2 nights at the hotel, I switched to two different "casas particular" (homestay with a cuban family). More to that later.
I stayed at the "HOTEL PLAZA". The lobby looked very descent, old fashioned, but just as you expected a hotel to look like in Havana. I paid 100$ a night! Which was way too much. The room was OK, but I had better hostels for 20$ a night. I wouldn't complain about the hotel if I had paid 20-40$ a night. Just as a quick reminder, I paid 35$ a night at the "casa particular", which looked nicer, smelt better, felt better and of course with a light-breakfast included.
VERY IMPORTANT!! BRING CASH!!
I had carried two VISA-Credit Cards to Cuba. Two different banks, same country (no U.S. bank of course). My credit-card from the international bank "ING" worked without any issues. The one from my local bank "POST" did NOT work. I contacted all the different services and always was told "your card has not been blocked, and should work just fine. We couldn't notice any denied transactions". The several phone calls cost me about 100€ (115$), and I absolutely got no further help, neither from my bank, nor from the VISA service. Always the same robotic answer. The VISA customer service told me that still some VISA cards wouldn't work in Cuba. But it didn't make sense, why the credit-card from a bank of Luxembourg, wouldn't work at all. You will feel pretty lost in Cuba, if your main-payment-source is being denied on the very first day of the trip.
Scams & police intervention on the first two nights.
As soon as I stepped out of the hotel on my first evening around 23:00h (11 pm) a cuban girl approached me and asked where I was from, my reason for visiting Cuba, etc.
She told me that I was lucky, because on that particular weekend, there would be a "Cigar Festival" and cuban people would sell them at the local low-budget store called "cooperativa". The point of the "cooperativa" was, that only the local people would get the money of the cigars, and not the government. (of course there wasn't a national cigar festival!)
I could sense the act of being tricked. However I'm always too naive and I wanted to see what the "cooperativa" looked like. I followed her through the streets of "habana nueva", while talking about Cuba & Havana. The whole neighborhood, which was badly lit at night, looked very degenerated. When we arrived at the shop, they sold me 2 cigars for 10 CUC, which was way overpriced. And of course I'm a non-smoker.
After that the girl asked me, if she could show me a local bar. I accepted the invitation, because I was really looking forward for my first Mojito in the city. As soon as we walked inside the first bar, I told her that I would like to move on alone and that I wouldn't like to enter a bar with no customers inside. I told her that I noticed the scam with the cigar, and that I wouldn't bother, but I'd rather leave her alone.
She denied the scam and asked for a last favor. She wanted some spare change for buying powder-milk for her little girl. I refused to give her money and walked away.
On my way back to the hotel, I passed by a bar that looked pretty crowded, a cubano was waiting outside and asked me if he could show me the bar. I approved and we went inside. The chico asked me to invite him for a Mojito as well. As I was traveling alone, and all the streets looked deserted, I agreed to spend a drink for a little conversation with a local. The 2 cocktails were 16 CUC (13 € / 16 us$) in total. WAY TOO MUCH for Cuba! After we took a seat at the bar, I noticed all the women inside the bar who were approaching us like vultures. Prostitutes of course... many prostitutes! I clearly told them, that I wasn't interested, and they moved back without any discussion. After the drink I decided to get out of the bar, again I didn't like the vibe.
Almost having reached the hotel, I bumped into another habanero, who started a conversation. I told him, that I was tired of bumping into people, who just wanted my money and that I don't feel like spending another 8 CUC on a cocktail. The cubano started laughing and said that I got tricked. "If you want, I take you to a place where we get a Mojito for 3 CUC if you invite me."
Of course I wanted another Mojito and decided to follow the cuban guy and his girl. We went to the same place where the first lady wanted to get me in for a drink, and of course she was still sitting there. As soon as she noticed me coming in with the cuban guy, hid name was Alexis, she left the bar. But hey, the drinks were 3 CUC at this bar.
Alexis was fluent in italian, which was very impressive, because he had never left Cuba in his life. He told me that he learned italian because of an italian ex-girlfriend who was living a couple of months in Havana.
Alexis seemed honest in what he was talking about. He also told me about the tricks with the "powder-milk" and the "expensive-cocktails". As soon as local cubans bring tourists to a bar, the prices of the drinks go up. So for exampled they charge you 2-4 CUC more, and when the tourist leaves the place, the bartender and the "inviting friend" split the over-charged-money.
It works the same with the powder-milk. Powder-milk for babies is hard to get in Cuba, and of course for locals it's very expensive. They usually ask 10-13 CUC for the milk. Tourists with a big heart, follow the women to the shop, where they buy them one or two packs of milk. As soon as the tourists move on, the "scam-artist" brings back the milk to the shop, gets back the money, and they split it with the shop-woman behind the counter.
never pay more than 4 CUC for a cocktail, a glass of rum is about 1 CUC, a decent meal should never be more than 12 CUC (fist plate, main dish, 1 beverage).
The 3 of us, got pretty tipsy/drunk that evening. For a first night in Cuba I couldn't complain. As I could communicate fluently with Alexis, and he never asked for money on my first night, I agreed to meet-up again on the second night.
On the second night he brought me to 3 bars. As we left the 2nd bar, 4-6 undercover agents, moved towards us from all directions, some were walking, and some were on a motorbike. Even though they weren't wearing uniforms, I could tell straight away that it was the cops. And they weren't happy to see Alexis with a tourist. Even though I don't speak spanish, I could vaguely figure out what they were talking about (because of the similarity with the italian language). They were pointing towards the directions/spots where I was walking around with Alexis. They knew that I was staying in a hotel near the "parque centrale". Outside of the bar they were taking mug-shots with a mobile phone of Alexi's face. And they told him in spanish "if something happens with the tourist, you will go back to jail.". I didn't want to cause Alexis any trouble, so I told them in italian/english, that I was alright, and that he was only showing me around. Stupidly I proved them that I was a police-officer as well, and they all started laughing, showing me their hidden guns, shaking hands, and telling me to be cautious, pointing at Alexis and saying "bandito viejo" (old bandit/criminal).
Before the cops showed up, Alexis already told me that he spent 2 years in prison, because he was refusing to work for a monthly salary of 40 CUC. That would be a reason enough to go to jail in Cuba. However I can't tell if that's true or not.
It was a fun night though. It was a weekend, and Old-Havana, the most touristic spot in Havana was dead on a saturday night. Most of the bars/restaurants were closed after midnight. So I felt alright, having spent a night-out with a "bandito" who showed me around, than spending a lonesome night somewhere else in bar.
However because I spent about 100 CUC that night on drinks, I decided to check out Havana the next day on my own. And it was time to check-out of the hotel and move on into a "casa particular".
Safety in Havana.
After the police-control Alexis told me that two officers already asked him outside of my hotel, why he was following me. That was during the first 24 hours.
It's crazy to witness, how the Cuban government wants the tourists to be & feel safe. Besides Japan, I've never visited a country where I felt that safe as in Havana. At night I often walked by myself through the darkest and dirtiest alleys. There wasn't one single incident where I felt unsafe.
Many Cubans told me that the population of Havana would be around 3 millions, and that there were 1 million police officers working in the streets of "La Habana". I can't tell if it's true. All I could notice, is that the cubanos don't like the police that much, but they show a lot of respect towards the officers as soon as they show up.
Especially Old Havana and Malecon is packed with officers and patrol-cars.
Even the Cubans are convinced "Cuba is the safest country in the world."