Cesar picked me up early and I said my goodbyes to Peter and Andrea, and it was off to the airport. Usually I have concerns about which terminal I’m flying from, but that was completely taken care of. As Cesar worked there, he knew not only the terminal, but also the best place to park, so I’d be right by the check-in gates for Cubana. I left some things in Mexico, most notably my laptop, because I was expecting to be camping most nights and having minimal internet access. I’d also left my GPS, but that wasn’t out of choice. You are not allowed to take GPS devices into Cuba. Things like smartphones, with built-in GPS, are no problem. My Garmin handheld GPS was definitely banned. I could have put it in my bike box and hoped that no-one opened it, but getting it confiscated would have been a very expensive lesson. I had a pdf map of Cuba on my Kindle, and the Bicycling Cuba e-book so I had some idea of my surroundings.
I flew to Havana with Cubana and was delighted with my 40kg luggage allowance, and that they had no interest in trying to claim a bicycle fee, unlike most arilines, that want $100+. The flight was short and smooth, and before I knew it I was in José Martí Airport. Immigration was standard, with everyone getting their photo taken as they went through. Security asked me to open my handlebar bag, which I’d used as my carry-on, and I was glad I didn’t have my GPS. I had a torch, my headlamp and the front light from my bike in the bag. The official asked me about each one, checking what they were and ensuring there were no antennas to be found.
It took a good while for the bags to come through and while I was waiting, I was greeted by what would become a familiar smell: smoke indoors. Although the baggage claim part of the airport is technically a no-smoking area, a couple of officials seemed intent on ignoring it.
I’d come prepared with Mexican Pesos to convert. There’s a 10% commission to change USD, and it was a good thing I had brought those Pesos, as my main bank card wouldn’t work. Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Convertible (CUC) which is tied to the dollar, with $1 being 1CUC. The other currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP) which is the currency that Cubans are paid in and in which they pay for everyday things, with 1CUP being about $0.04. Some people seem to have the idea that CUP are only for Cubans, and the lady at the currency exchange desk seemed surprised when I asked for some, assuring me that I’d not use them. I’d read that lots of ice-creams are sold in pesos and so explained myself by saying I was going to be eating a lot of ice-cream, how little did I know just how truthful that would turn out to be!
I found a taxi to take me to the one hostel in Havana, where I had a bed organised for 5 CUC a night. They officially charge 25CUC, but I found someone else to split it. I would have biked in, but I needed to keep my box and I didn’t fancy assembling my bike, attaching my bike box, and then riding the 20km to my hostel. Having already paid 25USD for my Cuban visa, it would end up being the second most expensive day of my month in Cuba.
A cold front was passing through Havana so it was generally grey, overcast and raining for my days there. I wandered around the city, but, having been able to go to every museum or other attraction for free in Mexico, it was difficult to bring myself to pay 6CUC to go into museums. Instead I opted for people-watching, reading and finding the cheapest things I could to eat. The food was mainly pizza, congris (purple rice with beans), spaghetti and cheese, ham or egg sandwiches. The spaghetti is like the stuff from tins that has been watered-down and over-cooked. The pizzas are small and quite delicious, costing 10 CUP.
One of the things you hear a lot about Cuba is that the people are very creative. The way they have so many old cars still running without any spare parts is just kinda crazy. When I met up with a cyclist called Ebert from Couchsurfing, I saw a perfect example. I rode over to his place and he was looking at my bike, and then spotted my Ortlieb panniers. He’s going to be leading some tourists on a bike tour in the coming months, and so wants some of his own panniers. Considering just how expensive they are, especially when you remember Cubans get an average monthly salary of $20, his mum is planning on making him some. My panniers came off and were then traced and analysed in fine detail for the next 30+ minutes, with the tracings being annotated with every point of interest.
The other example of Cuban ingenuity was less positive. My Vibram Fivefingers are about 3 years old and the soles have worn through. I went to a cobbler and he assured me that he could fix them. He used a new piece of rubber, applied glue and then stitched it in place. At first, it wasn’t that comfortable, with the stitching being noticeable when I walked on it, but I ignored it, hoping it’d get better. It did, in a way, as the stitches broke after a few hours of walking around and then I just removed the patches.