After a good night’s sleep we woke early so went down for the start of breakfast at 7am. The restaurant was Moorish and had incredibly high ceilings (like most Casas, or houses, too- in the days before a/c it helped with airflow, and still does as most Cubans don’t have a\c ) The buffet was very good, from eggs cooked any way you can think of to fresh fruit, pastries, cold meats, fish and coffee and hot chocolate. There were 3 labels by the thermos flasks- café, leche caliente (warm milk) and agua caliente, but only 2 flasks…. Cuban style!
Checkout wasn’t till 12 so we left our stuff in the room and went to explore. We asked for a map at reception but were advised there weren’t any. I’d already downloaded maps on the very useful app called citymapstogo so was prepared! (Useful tip- these maps also use the GPS facility on your phone which works even with data roaming turned off so you are the ‘blue dot‘- which is incredibly useful to find out where you are….although in Cuba it wasn’t always 100% accurate!)
We walked out of the hotel to cries of ‘you want taxi?’ but as soon as you say no they move on to the next person so we weren’t particularly hassled.
ON THE FILM SET
As we attempted to cross the busy street to the Parque Central opposite we were literally stopped in our tracks- it really was like we were on a film set- we stood staring incredulously at all the 1950s Chevy and Buick cars, old rusting Ladas and Fiat 126s!
The classic American cars are relics of a time before the revolution (1953-1959) when economic relations between Cuba and America were close. After the revolution and subsequent trade embargo (el bloqueo), Cuba had limited means to buy new cars/parts so were forced to continue using and maintaining these huge gas guzzlers.(no lead free fuel in Cuba!) Many have since been modified with diesel engines and this makes them even noisier!
We needed to change some money (you can only buy Cuban currency in Cuba) so headed to the CADECA cambio/exchange. These are state-operated and usually offer better rates than banks/hotels. I’d read about the Cuban queuing system and it actually happened as I’d read …..we rocked up and someone said “el último” which means they are last in the queue. You then take your place behind them till the next person arrives, you say “el último” and you have your place in the queue and can go away and come back safe in the knowledge you have your place.
The office had a one in one out policy and also only one person allowed at the desk so Bill went in to the air-conditioned office by himself! When he came out he said they didn’t speak English but he’d managed! We bought mainly CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos or $, pronounced ‘cooks’, as well as some Moneda Nacional, also called pesos but abbreviated to MN. Sounds confusing?! The money looks similar so you have to check you are given the right change as the MN is worth 1/25 of the CUC. Often items are priced the same, be they CUCs or MNs but tourists are expected to pay in CUCs so 25x what Cubans pay. However, we did pay for a few things in MNs, such as beer, ice cream and taxis particulares about which more later, which made them incredibly cheap.
Apparently the Cuban government has decided to eliminate the dual currency system- not sure how they can do it without substantially increasing the cost of living for the locals…….
VOLUPTUOUS NAKED LADY
We then wandered the streets of Habana Vieja, taking in the sights and sounds, then stopped for a delicious café con leche for 1$CUC in Plaza Vieja in the Café Escorial.
There was a bizarre bronze statue of a bald, voluptuous naked lady in stilettos brandishing a large fork astride a huge rooster. This bronze was made and donated by award winning Cuban contemporary artist, Roberto Fabelo.
Suddenly, we heard then saw a group of children doing exercise in the square. It seems they were a nursery school class doing their outdoor play including music and movement and even relay races. Throughout our trip we saw many groups of school children of all ages, from nursery to senior, doing their PE classes in the local squares. They appeared completely oblivious to people watching. What a great use of space, especially in city centres.