Cuba - Days Out In Havana And Trips To The Beach

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March 8th 2011
Published: April 12th 2011
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Days Out In Havana ….And Trips To The Beach

Exploring Havana

After several days of following my instincts and wandering about soaking up Havana I decide it’s time to explore a bit more purposefully. By now I have teamed up with Iselin, we find that we both want to see the same things, and we tend to spend the afternoons after classes exploring Havana together and with other students from the school or people who are staying at our houses.

Exploring the city together seems to reduce the hassle we would both get walking round the city on our own. I had an early experience when I stopped to get some lunch, got talking to a couple of Cubans and before long found that we’d be joined by two young Cuban girls who gave me their phone numbers and promised to “teach me how to Salsa” Any delusions that I’d become incredibly handsome and developed an interesting personality during the flight across the Atlantic don’t last too long!

Everyone exploring the city on their own gets similar hassle. Being blonde is a distinct disadvantage. Replies like “I don’t want a Cuban boyfriend/girlfriend” don’t work. “I’m from Iran”
Squeezing Onto A BusSqueezing Onto A BusSqueezing Onto A Bus

Will we be able to get off?
and “I have chickenpox” seem to be more effective!

Exploring the city together gets rid of all of this and we just have to deal with the guys who try to sell us rolled up banana leaves or who don’t believe we are capable of walking anywhere. Iselin also has a guidebook, a map, a sense of direction and a sense of humour – I can only manage one of these!


Cuba has two currencies – the CuC, which is the currency used by tourists and which can then be used to buy imported goods, and the Nacional which is the official currency and the money in ordinary use. Having some Nacionals opens up a lot more of Havana to us. We can now eat at a lot more places include the street vendors, use the bus system and use collectivos.


Collectivos are the shared taxis which operate in Havana. They operate along set routes, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. These tend to be the American cars which can just about move along the road but haven’t been restored enough to work the tourist trade. There is a standard fare of 10MN {about 25p} for all journeys. We quickly work out the route that takes us from Vedado to Parque Central but don’t figure out too many of the others. The drivers seem to have some sort of sign language they use to indicate which route they are driving on which the rest of Havana understands but I can never quite figure out. The drivers also have the annoying habit of telling you they are not going to a particular destination if they are passing just a couple of minutes walk from it.

Queue Here To Sit Down….Queue Over There To Stand Up

The buses tend to squeeze in as many people as they can and getting onto one can be a challenge during peak times.

At some places there are two bus stops – one for people who want a seat and one for people who are prepared to stand {I never worked out if the fares are different!}. We stand in the queue for the bus at Avenida De Los Presidentes. The bus arrives but the doors shut when every seat is taken and we don’t get on. We then have to sprint across the square to join the queue for standing passengers as the bus goes around the square. We manage to sardine onto the bus and throw a few random coins in the collecting box until the driver seems happy. It’s not until my fourth week in Havana that I manage to find out what the fare should be. There’s a fixed fare of 0.40MN {about 1p} for all journeys. I think that on our first couple of bus rides we’ve thrown enough coins in to pay for everyone on the bus! Thierry, who seems to like setting himself a challenge, becomes our expert on the bus routes. He’ll often spend an afternoon jumping on the buses just to find out where they go. At the time I left Havana he was very close to having covered the whole network!

The Worst Pasta In The World…..Ever

Having Nacionals means that we can try out the food on offer at the local restaurants and food stalls. I get used to finding lunch at some of the places near the university but usually I’m quite cautious and tend to pick “safe” food and avoid
Sampling The FoodSampling The FoodSampling The Food

It tasted like a big cornflake
the drinks on offer and stick to bottled or canned drinks.

On one occasion we try our luck at what looks like an OK eating place. It proves to be a mistake as we are served up the worst pasta and pizza ever. I seem to remember that I actually managed to finish mine! Celia made the best choice by not ordering anything.

We Are Being Watched

One day we get stopped by the police. I’m walking along The Malecon with Hedi and Gauthier when Gauthier is stopped by the police. Hedi and I clearly look like tourists but Gauthier, who at the time was walking a couple of yards behind us, could easily be mistaken for a Cuban and I guess some stereotyping has gone on.

Fortunately Gauthier has the good sense to be carrying a photocopy of his passport with him and there are no problems and the policeman is very good-natured. We feel brave enough to ask the policeman why he stopped us and he explains that we were being watched on the security cameras and they’d thought that Gauthier was following us.

The {discrete} search is on for the security cameras! We spot it and we spend the rest of the afternoon playing “spot the security camera”. There’s lots of them in Havana, usually hidden under a streetlight. I really find it hard to resist the temptation to wave at them!

¡Vamos A Playa!

The beach is obviously very important to Iselin. She organises an afternoon at the beach like a military operation.

The beach at Playa Del Este is about 20km from Havana but is easily reached by the tourist bus from Parque Central {3 CuC return}.

With all the students having Spanish lessons in different houses which all finish at different times, and with other jobs to do before we can go to the beach, a trip to the beach needs precise, exact timing.

I am trusted with the important task of collecting the correct pizzas for everyone and reporting to the Habana Libre at an exact time so that we can head off for Parque Central by a combination of buses, collectivos and fiercely-negotiated taxis. We are usually able to get a couple of hours on the beach before leaving in time to make sure we get a seat on the bus back.

The part of the beach we visit has sun, white sand, water that is warm enough to swim in and not much else. This suits me. You won’t find a large plastic banana to ride around the bay on here.

There’s also a noticeable presence of police on the beach too. {Despite this a couple of weeks later I meet someone whose bag was stolen on the beach when he went for a swim. He felt that the police weren’t too interested in helping him. My own experience of the police on the beach was quite different, though – I found them quite helpful} They are checking the I.D.s of Cubans on the beach and I suspect that they are also discouraging the young Cubans from being too pushy. Again we find that going to the beach in a mixed group seems to reduce the hassle that we get. Anyone on their own is likely to find they are soon joined by a Cuban who will be quite insistent that they should have a Cuban boyfriend/girlfriend.

After a couple of weeks the weather seems to change. It is still sunny but there are now strong winds every day. This makes visiting the beach a trip for hardened sunbathers only as the sea is rough and the wind blows sand in our faces. On one trip we find that we have the beach to ourselves as the wind is particularly strong – it does seem as though this weather has set in for the season!

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