Havana, Cuba's capital city, can be covered in two days, just slip on your walking shoes and prepare to navigate the peculiar streets. Exploring Habana Vieja will take about three hours where you will see the Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja and may well stumble upon the odd Tourist festival.
Costa Blanca is just a short boat trip across the harbour where you will find a working electric railway, a monument to the former president and the home of Che Guevara.
Centro Habana is the life and soul of the city, where you will find disused theatres, abandoned steam trains, rusting American style school buses and the city Capital. Capitolio Nacional is an exquisite structure modelled on the Whitehouse in Washington, in fact opposite you can find the most central gay bar – Prado Cafeteria. Only open until 9pm and serving canned beers, Cubans stop by this waterhole to exchange gossip and plan their evenings ahead. Tourists get a lot of attention!
The tourist boom has created artists and business people out of nearly every single Cuban. Many who have a spare room will turn it into a Casa Particular, a bed & breakfast; this gives you the chance to get a good peek into the lives of these diverse people. Casa’s will earn them a good extra income if they can keep guests coming, owners are subjected to a high standard fixed monthly tax whether they have guests or not. Be sure you provide your passport on arrival, as they must log each guest.
We found a lovely gay owner in Havana. Jorge Silvio accommodates gay tourists from Europe and Canada advising on where to go and how to get by. Jorge has an excellent network of friends who offer additional rooms, flats, meals, and airport transfers all for a fixed and reasonable price. As soon as you stray towards hotel territory you will see your budget rocket. Budget travel is not really possible in Cuba but there are alternative ways of spending
During the 1950’s Cuba was the next big thing; splendid resorts lined the coast just east of Havana; brightly painted chalets filled the country hamlets and Chevrolets ruled the roads. Today, the resort Playas del Este is nothing more than modern ruins with the occasional working property; the beaches are reminiscent of a lost bygone era of absolute wealth. The chalets, much like the inner city 19th Century Spanish mansions, are dilapidated while the Chevrolets are challenged on who can make the biggest roar by Russian Ladas.
A war that secured independence five decades past applauds the undeniably unique achievement of defeating an American army. However, Cubans have a questionable conundrum and one that will soon change the face of the country.
Its communist infrastructure is still led by Fidel, though his brother Raul Castro manages daily operations – as Fidel lays hidden by illness changes are rapidly occurring. The country opened its borders to travel in the early 1990’s as their Sugar Cane exports ran dry. The need for better technology encouraged them to trade directly with both Russia and China; the main cities certainly do not go without all the mod-cons of the developed modern age – do we include the iPhone? Well, yes they have them too.
Cubans earn approximately £12 a month, receive free education, free national health, and bread, eggs, and rice weekly, its two currency system enables them to participate in the new travel industry. Cuban Dollar – the tourist currency – is worth 24 Cuban Nacionales. When making purchases check whether they mean Nacionales or Dollars, though it is difficult to use Nacionales as a tourist (except in Santa Clara). Cubans supplement their income through visitors; the first day we got caught when visiting the Capitolio Nacional where we tipped one of the guides $5CUC, nearly one third of her monthly salary.
As we tourists invest in their country it is apparent that the government too is investing in tourism. Old Havana has been refurbished to the grand years of the early 20th century; in fact on comparing photos with a friend who visited only three years ago there was a stark improvement. The country certainly knows where it is getting its income from as it enjoys visitors from Canada, Spain and Russia.
Cubans are not renowned for their culinary skills with menu choices being relatively slim. Vegetarians will undoubtedly struggle with Pork, Chicken and Lobster being the main options available. The standard dish is a Creole which is either grilled or batter fried pork/chicken with rice/blackbeans/cabbage salad.
While there is no glaring obvious sign of a gay scene in Havana there are certainly areas in the Vedado area for which you can find a thriving gay community. Calle 23 is the centre of gay life, near the Cine Yara (cinema), this street is frequented by gay people night and day – but don’t expect it to be anything like major cosmopolitan cities. The one gay venue on this street is more like a canteen than a party establishment, though get talking to one of the locals and they will invite you to join them at the official gay party that evening. Unfortunately as the gay scene is yet to enjoy the freedoms of North America and Europe, or even its South American counterparts, Havana’s gay nightlife is one of the best-kept secrets.
If you want to join in the official parties you need to put faith and trust in the local Cubans who will order a taxi and take you to the chosen event. However be aware that you will most likely be expected to pay the taxi fair, entrance and possibly a drink for the guide.
· Legal for sexual relations between same-sex consenting adults 16 and over since 1979
· Public antipathy towards LGBT people is high
· Unmarried and married people enjoy equal rights regardless of sexuality
· Homosexuality was seen as a result of Capitalism and following the Communist victory in 1959, Fidel went on the mission to rid the country of homosexuality.
· National Centre for Sex Education, headed by Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul, runs nationwide educational campaigns on LGBT issues
· Cuba is a country where citizens can have sex reassignment surgery for free
· Cuba has undertaken extensive campaigns against HIV/AIDS focusing on education and treatment, and in 2003 Cuba had the lowest HIV prevalence in the Americas and one of the lowest ratios in the world
· Occasional campaigns by police in recent years (2001/2004) to crack down on homosexual behaviour often targeting meeting places and transvestites.
MUST SEE FILM: Fresa y Chocolate, (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1993) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío
Viazul – the bus service - is the best way of getting around the island without the expense of car hire, however cars will allow you to pause and take in the scenic views of jugged hills coated with palm trees and thick green foliage. The buses go from city to city, tickets are purchased the day before travel from the departing point.
Taxis will give you that thrill factor that you only dream of when watching classic 1950’s flicks. The Chevrolets are a pain in the bum, quite literally, constantly being repaired by their owners, these machines bump and grind along the pot-holed roads letting off a proud roar with each acceleration. Ladas on the other hand can be a tight fit. Wherever you go you will also see Bici-taxi (tricycles with seats) and horse carriage transporting locals and can be used by tourists.