Day 0 : Flight to Cuba.
We had been thinking about going to Cuba for a couple of years already. And after seeing some Cuban movies (Fresa y Chocolate, Guantanamera) and the Buena Vista Social Club became very famous in the Netherlands, we were constantly saying: we should really go NOW, before things change.We felt we had to see Cuba before large scale capitalism and what we call Mcdonaldisation took over.
So when we had an opportunity in February 2001, we decided we would go.
As always, we did not plan anything: we went to the travel agency two weeks before we wanted to leave and asked what they had. It then turned out that all flights were fully booked. We had to pay extra for the more expensive chairs on the airplane. It took a full week for the agency to arrange all the details. What did we buy?
We decided to go on a so called Flexi-Fly-Drive offered by Cubas Horizontes Hoteles : You rent a car, and get vouchers that are good of an overnight stay in one of their Hotels. Had we informed ourselves a little better we would have found out that it is nowadays perfectly possible to go to Cuba and pick Hotels and arrange a rental Car over there. The people at the travel agency assured us it was virtually impossible to come by a rental car on Cuba. Anyway, we thought : lets play safe, this way well have a minimum of hassle over there and we can just enjoy the Country.
So we took off from Amsterdam and flew to Havanas Jose Marti International Airport via Madrid. The flight was uneventful and it took us about 11 hours in all.
At the airport you have to show your Visa to customs. Lines can be long, it took us about 45 minutes to get across. Just have your stuff together, make sure you shave (you too girls), take off your hat, dont chew gum and all those things that customs are allergic to, and you should be fine.
The Old man and the Vouchers.
So we were pretty tired, and we just wanted to get the formalities over with, get our pre-arranged car and drive to our hotel and get some sleep. Well, not so fast.... When we went into the central hall of the airport, all other tour-operators had taken care of their incoming tourists. However, there was a long queue outside of horizontes little office. There seemed to be some sort of problem with the two French families that had arrived on our flight. They had booked two cars, but there was only one. The old man in charge of the little office had no help from anyone, and he tried to repair things by frantically walking up and down between the Horizontes office and the Havanautos booth. It did not help. We had to wait for nearly 45 minutes before he could attend to us. It then turned out that this guy was probably falling in for somebody, as he seemed very unsure about what he was doing. He counted out our vouchers, which took forever, and was apparently an extremely difficult task, as it took him a looooooong time. He kept dropping some of the vouchers on the floor or loosing them in between other papers. In fact I almost started looking for the hidden camera.....He was supposed to give us a map of Cuba, with all Horizontes Hotels and gas stations neatly pointed out, but when we asked he said we could buy such a map upstairs. After 11 hours of flight and nearly two hours waiting, we had had enough. We took the car, asked for directions (oh, very easy: just straight ahead....) to Havana, and took off.
Havanas center is about 19 km from the airport. We had to admit afterwards that the guy that gave us directions at the airport was 100% right. But it did not feel like that when we left the airport for Central Havana. After a short stretch of highway, we drove into what looked like endless suburbs. At every intersection we sort of guessed what the main road was, usually more or less straight ahead (not counting some forks). After half an hour we concluded that it would probably be best to keep driving until sunrise, as we both had lost faith we would ever find our hotel. There was no indication whatsoever that we were getting near the center of a big city. Roads were obscure. There were no signs at all, not even ones giving us the name of the streets. Later we would find out that this is perfectly normal in Cuba. Later we would also find out that all we had had to do was ask some of the generally very friendly and helpful people. But since we had just come from over-organised, well lit and centrally heated Holland, the dark streets crowded with people just scared us a bit. Actually, those streets scared us a lot.
Then we passed a large cemetery, and we were almost sure it was the one that also appeared in our little map in the Lonely Planet (Or was it the Rough Guide?)
All of a sudden, the suburbs started appearing more city-like. About 5 minutes later we found ourselves smack bang in the middle of Old Havana. Even a sign appeared, pointing to paseo del prado. I had seen that that was were our Hotel was. The Horizontes Hotel Caribbean does not have any sign outside (the picture on their web site is doctored! * ) , so it still took us 15 minutes to locate the place , but then we checked in. Our room was Okay, and we slept like a couple of logs.
* Note : The picture has been replaced, the fake sign that was "edited in" has been removed.