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Cozumel (Mexico) - La Habana, Cuba 14 - 16 April

After the delays at the hotel, there were further delays at Cozumel airport.  We thought it would be quick as they had a General Aviation Terminal there. First Flemming went to the plane to meet the refuellers. After 30 minutes they still had not turned up, so he had to go back to the General Aviation Terminal to call them again. They finally arrived. We wanted lots of fuel in case there were Avgas problems in Cuba, so we wanted the cabin tank filled up. The refuellers claimed they were not authorized to put fuel the cabin tank and wanted approval from the 'Comandante' before proceeding. After 15 minutes the 'Comandante' came by foot from the main terminal, inspected the Swiss approval documents and then told the refuellers that is was OK to put fuel into it.

Then we were sent from place to place (Comandante, Customs, Immigration, Landing fee office) to collect stamps on the General Declarations and flight plans in 3 copies before we could depart.  One office would tell us one thing and another the opposite.  As a result, we wasted time and energy carrying our bags back and forth.  We finally took off two hours later than originally planned.  Fortunately, though, we had no major weather problems on the way.  After reaching Cuba, there were a few cumulus nimbus (CBs) around which we could easily avoid and a headwind that delayed us even further.  Cuban air traffic control went smoothly, radar contact all the way and no questions were asked as we had put our clearance number on the flight plan. We landed about an hour before a major rainstorm hit Havana.

On arrival, we were met by several officials.  One of them looked suspiciously like a handling agent. I tactfully inquired whether handling could be avoided to be told that it was obligatory - almost everything in Cuba is run by the state, so they make their own rules.  That didn't surprise us as we had been warned by friends that Cuba was an expensive country to fly in.  The official worked out the amount we would have to pay including landing, parking and navigation fees and it came to almost US$ 300! And that didn't include the US$ 20 each for the visa.  Well, we wanted to visit Cuba, didn't we?  We just had to hope that Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba would be more reasonable.  On a more positive note, unlike in Greece, the Cuban government handling agent was active in smoothing the way for us and it wasn't long before formalities were completed.

It was during our taxi ride into Havana that the rain came bucketing down.  Our taxi driver was a super guy - friendly and helpful and good looking to boot!  He seemed far too well educated for that kind of job and we suspected it paid better than his own profession.  Our trip into town took us past grim, typically Communist block, apartment buildings and then older (but shabbier) art deco buildings from the pre-Castro era, to finish in the charming old town (La Habana Vieja), where some of the buildings are literally falling apart and others have been lovingly restored. There was little traffic for a city of over 2 million inhabitants, but we were told later that there was only a fraction of that amount 10 years ago before they opened up Cuba to tourism. Like the buildings, many of the 1950s cars were in a sad state of disrepair, whereas others were in prime condition.

It wasn't easy to find accommodation as  tourists prefer to stay in charming Habana Vieja and the better value hotels in restored colonial buildings were all fully booked.  Our taxi driver waited patiently while I went from hotel to hotel.  We could have stayed in a private house in the Centro or the entertainment district of Vedado, but our taxi driver warned us against private accommodation in the old town.  After the hefty landing fees, Flemming wasn't willing to pay  US$ 80 a night for a hotel in one of the restored colonial houses, so we ended up at the government-run Lido  in a rather grotty street where we had a plain, but clean room for about US$ 40.

By this time we were tired and thirsty - too tired and thirsty to venture far, so we went to the nearest place we could find that had a balcony overlooking one of the paseos, called 'Casa del Científico'.  The idea was to watch the Cuban world go by as we downed our beers.  Unfortunately, they had just run out of cool beers so gave us the local concoction called 'Mojito' (rum, lime, sugar, ice and a sprig of mint) instead.  Too weary to look for a good restaurant, we made the mistake of staying there to eat.  Either it was the ice in the drink or the fish, but I got the worst Delhi-belly of the whole trip!

Back at the hotel, while Flemming slept, I went through a mini-depression.  I was feeling utterly travel-weary and questioned the point of staying in Cuba at all if we couldn't afford a decent hotel.  Then I felt guilty for being depressed as most people would envy me the chance to visit the country - and, of course, that didn't make me feel any better! Actually, I am not surprised I was getting tired of it all.  For the past 3 weeks, we hadn't spent more than 2 nights in any given place, either in California or in Mexico.

A new day

I felt a little more cheerful after a good night's sleep and even tipped the sour-faced waitress after the lousy breakfast that she served.  She wouldn't even give us jam with our stale bread unless we paid extra!  At least the tip generated a 'Thank you' and a smile from her.  I am sure she was quite unused to that sort of treat!

Armed with our 'bible' (the Lonely Planet guide), we walked to the Plaza de la Catedral as the starting point of a walking tour of  La Habana Vieja.   It is a lovely square with the cathedral and its two unequal towers, an old mail box and a beautifully restored old colonial house now housing a café and restaurant called El Patio.  Buskers played lively Cuban music in return for a tip from the tourists in US dollars.  (There is a so-called  'convertible' peso - originally rigged to the dollar - that the locals use as currency.  Tourists have to pay for everything in US dollars which are now worth 26 times the peso.  So one dollar goes a long way for a Cuban).

We kept being accosted by people wanting to sell us cigars or be our guide.  One guy stood out from them all.  He offered to take us on an hour's walking tour of the old town for US$ 6, with the option of continuing for another hour if we liked.  We liked the look of him and decided to give it a try.  As it turned out, it was the best thing we could have done.  Felipe spoke excellent English and had the whole history of Havana in his head.  The only snag was trying to absorb all the information.  After an hour, we took a break for lunch at a good restaurant that he recommended (El Mina), and continued for another hour after lunch, starting with the Plaza de Armas. 

Felipe has a PhD in chemical engineering.  He went to the Soviet Union (Leningrad) to study for his degree and suffered the cold for 10 years there.  He worked in his profession for 20 years, but the government salary was abysmal. Guides are supposed to work for the government too, but Felipe says they turn a blind eye to his working privately.

We arranged for Felipe to take us on a car tour  of the city the following morning and then took ourselves off for a walk.  First we went to the Capitolio to search out some street photographers for my friend Zilmo de Freitas who is preparing an article on this dying race for a photographic magazine.  We hadn't seen any since Jaipur in India.  Here we found three of them and took lots of pictures for him. Then we went for a stroll (well, with Flemming it's never actually a stroll) along the Malecón (the long coastal road), passing the heavily guarded US Interests office on our left.   Then we headed for the Hotel Habana Libre, formerly the Hotel Hilton, which was opened just a year before the 1959 revolution. Fidel took over a suite there and it served as his headquarters for a time.

We had dinner at the Café Taberna in La Habana Vieja, also a good choice recommended by Felipe. There was a great atmosphere with live music by a small band of old timers and a couple of professional salsa dancers.

The car tour with Felipe the next morning was really interesting.   He took us to the Centro and the huge cemetery where the rich and famous constructed costly marble family vaults, Vedado (the entertainment district) and Miramar, where it was fashionable to live before the revolution and where most of the foreign embassies are now located.

In case anyone reading this is going to Cuba in the near future, here is Felipe's address:  Felipe Ventura, 82B no. 720, entre 7 y 7A, Miramar, Playa, Ciudad de la Habana.  Tel/Fax: (537) 203 75 16.

He also does tours to other parts of Cuba in his brand new car at very reasonable rates.  If we'd had more time, we would have done a two-day tour with him to the west.  I gather from friends who have tried renting a car and touring on their own that the cars can be unreliable and road signs are either two faded to read or non-existent.

On our last evening we took a taxi through a tunnel under the harbour to the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña - one of the largest colonial fortresses in the Americas.  Che Guevara set up his headquarters there after the revolution and we had a look round.  Havana looked splendid from the fortress as the sun was about to set.

We watched the cannon-firing ceremony amongst a large crowd of other tourists.  The whole display is rather theatrical.  About 10 men dressed in 19th century uniforms march over to the canyon and make a great show of priming it to get everyone on tenterhooks before one of them actually lights the fuse... and bang it goes!

We finished up the evening at the Jazz Café, Havana's latest night club where live jazz is played.  This was the only recommendation of Felipe's that didn't turn out so well.  He'd suggested it because we would find more Cubans than tourists there.  But we were disappointed to discover that the music was only due to start at 11.30 p.m.  After downing a mediocre dinner, we still had an hour to wait.   The place filled up, sure enough, but the music turned out to be more like hard rock than mellow jazz.

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Charming La Habana vieja:  a live car museum

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A rickshaw, reminiscent of Nepal
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Buskers on the Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja
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Flemming using a mid-19th century mailbox to post a birthday card to his Mum
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Cuban salsa entertainment during our lunch at 'El Mina'
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Mini Carnival at the Plaza de Armas
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Classic 50's Oldmobile taxi
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Malécon, near the US Interests office: 'Dear Imperialists: we are not the least bit afraid of you!'
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Cuban family on the Malecón sea wall
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Street photographers near the Capitolio
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Our second street photographer photo on our trip around the world (first was Jaipur, India)
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Angela and our guide Felipe outside the crazy house of an artist friend
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At the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña with Havana behind
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In Spanish times, a cannon was fired every evening to signal that the city gates were about to close - the tradition has been kept up as a tourist attraction
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