Friday, April 04, 2014

Arrival in Cuba

We arrived in Cuba hung over.

For once the Solonaut is not travelling solo. When my good friend Kayo visited me in Australia last year and we took a long-planned road trip up the east coast of New South Wales, we resolved one drunken interlude to travel to Cuba together. Somehow the resolution survived the night and a year later, here we are: Havana.

I met up with Kayo at the airport in Mexico City. We stayed at the Hotel Riazor fifteen minutes away as we had an early flight the next morning. Mexico City is a gargantuan metropolis and the traffic is horrific, so a hotel close to the airport was prudent. The comfortable Riazor was reasonably priced at 1395 Mexican pesos (A$119) for a twin with breakfast, and it looked moderately swish, though I'm not entirely sure as we didn't get past the bar, toasting our reunion with a beer, followed by another, and yet more before the tequila hit the table, we forgot about dinner, and wound up staggering back to our room past midnight. Still, we beat the hangover to the sunrise, heading off the headache at 6.30am, but we didn't even get the breakfast as it isn't yet served at that hour. Sheesh.

When the plane touched down at Havana airport, passengers debarked onto the runway, filtered through the walled, green-washed immigration stalls, collected baggage from the flat carousel, and queued some 50 people deep at the single window of the foreign exchange office. Cuba doesn't allow currency to be taken out of the country so you can't buy any to bring in, so here we are, breathing booze, hung over and hungry in a 30-minute queue so we can get some money to pay a taxi driver to get us into Havana city.

Cuba has a dual currency system — the Cuban peso, called moneda nacional, and the Cuban convertible peso, referred to as cucs ("kooks") after the monetary symbol CUC$. A cuc is worth 24 or 25 pesos nacional, and the value is pegged to the US dollar. But forget about exchanging US dollars. Canadian dollars or Euros are the easiest currencies to exchange. American dollars incur a 10% tax. Tourists prices are in cucs and Cuban nationals pay in moneda nacional, so a 10-minute ferry across the water from Habana Vieja to Casablanca costs a Cuban national 50 centavos, half a Cuban peso, equivalent to about two cents, and a foreigner pays US$2—two cucs.

A taxi driver rescued us from the queue. "This line, phwoar," he dismissed with his hand. "I am taxi driver." He presented the licence clipped to his short sleeve collared beige shirt. "I take you to Habana, 30 cucs. It's okay. You change money at the hotel. I will wait for you." It was about five cucs more than the going price, but we'd probably have agreed to double that and free mojitos all night if he'd asked, as long as he could unburden us of backpacks and get us out of that queue and into a hot shower at the Hotel Capri, which he did. Well, he got us to the hotel. We got ourselves into showers.

The Capri is the old mob hotel in Vedado, built in 1957 by mobster Santo Trafficante at the western end of the famous Malecón seafront drive. Anyone familiar with Mikhael Kalatazov's Soy Cuba would recognise the rooftop pool from the party scene at the start of the film. Fidel's guerillas ended the party in 1959, though, and by 2000 the hotel had joined the innumerable uninhabited ruins of the city. In the last decade it has been carefully restored to its authentic 1950s modernist design with original gleaming white, gold-flecked hard floors, cool kitsch flourishes on the pristine dusty green walls, white and chrome conga-shaped Babaloo stools at the bar and a grand wrought-steel candelabra chandelier in the lobby. The rooms sport black and white photos of Cuba from the era. The hotel reopened in December 2013 with a fine dining restaurant on the top floor and a dusty rose-coloured buffet breakfast restaurant in the basement, and by June 2014 all the floors will be complete, including a third restaurant on level four and duplex rooms spanning two levels.

Settled in, showered, and luggage contents strewn, Kayo and I hit the streets to explore the Vedado. Within minutes we got hustled.

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