Happy 2017! I trust you have had a great start into the new year. My year kicked off in New York City with my auntie Selaelo and my little brother Diego. In my culture your mother's sister's children are your siblings. Your cousins are your mother's brothers children. Off on a tangent, I know. Anyway, you probably know that New York is my favorite city so this means my year started off well. I then left NYC for another solo trip. This time to Cuba for the first time. I started my trip at the capital city Havana followed by the popular beach resort town Varadero. The next blog post is all about my Varadero experience.
I took off for Cuba on 5th January 2017 very early in the morning, my flight was at 6am. I had some anxiety as I did not know whether I would be allowed to fly to Cuba from the USA or not. I had read some weird stories online where people had to cancel their trip at the airport because USA officials would not allow them. These were recent stories (post the embargo being lifted) so I was worried. I had made calls a few weeks before to find out from various embassies and flight help centers. Unfortunately received mixed responses. Some said it is not allowed, others said it is allowed. I decided to book everything and take my chances. I would like to thank the former POTUS, Mr Barack Hussein Obama on relaxing the decades-old trade embargo on Cuba. I had no trouble getting to Cuba on a tourist visa from USA. I got my Visa at the Cuban embassy in Tshwane. Took 2 days and only costs about R270. I did not make an appointment, just showed up at the Cuban Embassy with supporting documents. These documents consisted of proof of flights booking, accommodation booking, application forms and my passport. There are direct flights from NYC to Cuba but they were fully booked for my dates. I had to fly via Miami and that flight was filled to capacity. Americans are flooding there for vacation.
The United Airline flight to Havana, was like being in a time machine taking me back to the 1950's. Havana is everything I expected and more. As we drove into old Havana from the airport. I was astonished by the beautiful and timeless architectural structures, classic vintage cars that roam the streets and the ordinary Cuban people going on about their lives. I was in awe and filled with so much excitement. Couldn't wait to get to the hotel. I stayed at Ambos Mundos. An elegant old hotel located in the heart of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Here are some pics of the hotel.
Sadly my room did not have natural light so was a bit dark. The state of the room was decent. You can't afford to be a snob in Old Havana hehe! With all the stray dogs in the streets, broken bathrooms in restaurants and just nje the level of hygiene. I hate non-white bedding at hotels so was not fond of their bedding. I enjoyed my stay at Ambos Mundos nonetheless. For the amount I paid for the hotel, I would get way much better in SA. So getting decent to good accommodation in Cuba is pricey. I loved hanging out in the lobby and rooftop bar. There is wifi at the hotel lobby and rooftop restaurant, 3 CUC gets you an hour. I suggest you buy the wifi card from the street guys because the hotel charges 4.5 CUC for an hour. You can log in and out, you do not have to use the whole hour at one go. Not to put the snobs off from staying in Old Havana, there are 5 star hotels in the same areas. Not sure what they look like inside. Mine was 4 star. Below is a pic of my room.
The room was kept very clean which I appreciated. Breakfast was always at the rooftop area which was nice and the staff was awesome. I remember how excited they were to hear that I was from Sudafrika. They called me their amigo (friend). I thank the friendship between my late president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and Cuban revolutionary Comandate Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. During apartheid, Cubans were friends of our revolutionary organisation, the African National Congress (ANC). The lift attendant knew a lot about the ANC. He asked me how the ANC is doing, lets just say I got a little sad to answer that question. To my luck the lift arrived so I did not have to answer him, had to get going. Those of us who had either aunts, mothers, uncles or fathers that joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. You grew up knowing that the Cubans are our friends. My uncle Eric was in the MK and used to talk about Commander Fidel Castro and sometimes mentioned the military leader Ernesto Che Guavara during my childhood. These names I knew before I started grade 1.
"The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character." - Nelson Mandela
The pic above is one of my favorite. The shirt Tata is wearing is rife in Havana street. You will see a lot of gentlemen wearing it in the streets.
So a trip to Cuba was definitely going to happen at some point in my life. Now was that time. My step father was in one of the Angola exile camp of MK. In his camp, training took place by Cubans and soviets so he is very fond of the Cubans and highly influenced by their culture. I would be lying if I said he didn't inspire me to go to Cuba now. At home, you are guaranteed good Cuban music on our patio whilst the gents endulge on some Montecristo, Cohiba, Partagas and other great cuban cigars.
The location of the hotel was great as I could explore old Havana by foot and live right in the lively Cuban music buzzing ambiance, rich history of Havana and get to chat to lots of locals at my doorstep. Wifi network within the area is the strongest by Ambos Mundos. Therefore will always have lots of young people chilling there trying to connect. The picture below was taken in the same block as Ambos Mundos. It was the first pic I took as I stepped out the hotel to explore Havana.
A friendly Cuban young gentleman called Lorenzo, came and introduced himself whilst I was taking this pic. That was a start to a friendship. His English was not great neither is my Spanish but for most parts, we understood each other. I then set out to roam the streets of Havana and my new friend insisted that he comes with. Ola Havana!!!! It was pretty cool to have someone show me around and take pics of me haha!
I got this dress from rich factory, totes cute and comfy. I love it! The weather was 30 degrees. It was the winter season during my stay in Cuba but still very warm. I cannot imagine what summer must be like. They are baked every summer mos?...
Lorenzo and I wandered through the buzzing streets. There is Cuban music all over the streets of Old Havana. Local musicians playing the instruments and singing in what seemed like every second corner of old Havana. Lorenzo insisted that I try one of his favorite mojito at one of the local bars. I was in the city where mojitos originated, why would I say no? I actually ended up trying pina colada and just had a sip of his mojito haha!
There was live Cuban music in the bar that created a vibe I absolutely loved, it was well with my soul. My heart was filled in that moment. Lorenzo is a dance instructor at one of the local schools. So he taught me 1 or 2 salsa moves but eish I'm not much of a dancer hahaha! he kept saying I will only get it right if I relax, that I was too tense and need to let go. Eish I am just a lil stiff bra ok? maybe very stiff. At least I was brave enough to upload some of it on my instagram story that day haha! This afternoon was nothing short of pure bliss. I had a great first day. People thought Lorenzo and I were siblings so we played along. This meant random people offered to take our pics hahaha! now I have lots of pictures with Lorenzo from this day. We roamed the streets post drinks. Went into some locals homes as Lorenzo knows some people. Yikes! I realised how unfit I was because I was huffing and puffing up those stairs. Guy must have thought, yhooo! Africans can breathe for daaayzzz. Most local people cannot speak English, I was so glad that I had a translator nyana. Humbling experience and some families tried to sell me black market cigars haha!
I wrapped up this day with a quiet dinner at the hotel. Had seafood Paella that night. Tasted different. Generally I waswondering as to what was in my food most of the time in Cuba. Of all local food, I enjoyed congri the most. This is black beans mixed with rice. I had it for the first time with grilled chicken on day 2 in Havana.
Day 2, I woke up nice and early. Took a shower and put on my #OOTD from the zara sales in NYC. It was a cute curry mustard flowing beaded detail dress with colorful pom pom leather sandals.
I made my way to breakfast. Took the pic below by the elevator on the 6th floor, just before I had breakfast. I loved the view from this widow. It became a morning ritual at Ambos Mundos. I would go stand there for a bit to admire the city and clear my thoughts each day before breakfast.
After breakfast I went to the bank to get some currency. To my luck, I had done some homework and knew not to bring USD. I brought Euros for exchange. They take commission between 10%-30% for USD exchange. The other currencies no commission taken.
There are 2 currencies, the Cuban Peso (CUP) used by locals and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) used by us tourist. You will receive the CUC on exchange. Yes you do need to bring your passport with. I forgot mine so had to ask a couple from the UK to exchange for me because I was not about to queue up in that long line again. In all stores and restaurants they have 2 prices, both in CUC and CUP. You will note how expensive CUC prices are relative to the CUP.
Now that I had money, I couldn't wait to tour Havana in a classic vintage convertible. Took a walk to the plaza where I had seen the taxis the day before. Came across some interesting buildings on the way. Took some pics.
I liked the castle above. Almost every building has a story behind it. If you are lucky enough to find someone that speaks English, you get to hear it out. I arrived at the plaza and had to make a tough decision on which car to tour Havana in. It was tough because I like them all haha!
I chose the red convertible cadillac.
Above is a map of all the spots we were heading to. The list included plaza de la revolucion, capitolio which was the seat of government in Cuba until after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, new Havana, the hotel where Barack Obama stayed on his Cuban visit hotel nacional and much more. Hare are some pics
The tour came to an end an hour later. I was so hungry and had to be on a mission to find food. Took a walk around the beautiful maze of old Havana architectural gems. Came across some locals and more interesting buildings.
Can you see the mosquito bite by my left eye? Eyooohh mosquitos had my face for supper the night before. I woke up with 3 'gungas' on my face.
Managed to buy some cigars for my aunt Rahaba and finally found a lunch spot where I had chicken with congri. That mojito tasted soooo good. I was soooo hot and it was nice and cold. Again, if that is considered winter, I fear visiting in the summer. I was sweating like crazy in that heat.
I am not a fan of Cuban cooking, found it a little strange. It was not too bad though, I managed to eat it.
Spent the rest of the afternoon just exploring Havana. Met another new friend I ended up having drinks with till very late that evening. He is originally from Hungary but lives in France. There are lots of European tourist in Old Havana. Some of the couples I met, mentioned that they go to Cuba every year for vacation. My new friend insisted on taking the following pics. The band that played at the joint below was my favorite.
Had a late night but again woke up nice and early the following morning. Day 3 I wanted to check out some museums and other sections of Old Havana. Promised my new European friend that I would meet him for lunch on this day and maybe hang out again thereafter. My original plan was to also do a cigar plantation on day 3. I was happy to let go of this plan as I had the experience in the Bahamas before. Yes it would be a totally different experience in Cuba but it made sense to hang out with the new friend instead. I enjoyed his company.
This meant I had the morning till noon to do all this. Went for breakfast at the usual spot in Ambos Mundos.
I managed to get lost walking back to the hotel. Old Havana feels like a maze. Then it was lunchtime with the friend. We had a delicious seafood paella. Got me thinking I was probably trying the wrong spots. Some restaurants had really great food.
It rained that afternoon. My jumpsuit was soaked at the bottom. Walked back to the hotel to freshen up and we linked up again to go for dinner/drinks later. Tried some art galleries and museums before hitting a really nice joint called 'La Bodeguita Del Medio', try it when in Cuba. Probably the best mojito I had in Havana. The vibe was so lit. Outfit of the day was a red frilled jumpsuit from zara and qupid metallic platform creeper sneaker.
Day 4 was time to leave Havana for Varadero. I was a bit sad because there was still so much to do in Havana. I guess this gives me a reason to go back. In hindsight, I should have spent another day in Havana.
I walked around the area one last time with a bit of a heavy heart because I wanted to stay one more day. I also wanted to hang out with the friend again haha! #OOTD was made up of summer high waist shorts with matching top from Artisticgusto.
Hotel Ambos Mundos prides itself as being the first residence of the famous writer Ernest Hemingway. Throughout the entire hotel there are memories and tributes him. The room he stayed in is now turned into a museum. For those that love the guy, they will enjoy this hotel.
A big thank you to everyone that made my stay in Havana such a joy! Many people I have not mentioned as I do not want my posts to be too long. Cuban people have great hearts and are very friendly. You were good friends during my stay.
I spent the next 4 nights in Varadero. Blog post coming up soon