Cuba for beginners

Steve McKenna
Cuba for beginners

As we walk the cobbled streets and squares of Old Havana, our ears assailed by the sounds of live salsa and jazz, our noses by roasted coffee and cigar smoke, random Cubans keep wishing us 'happy holidays'.

At first, it seems they're living up to their famously friendly reputations. But a pattern emerges; the affable welcomes and toothy smiles foreshadow another question (usually: where are you from?), then an invite to a friend's shady bar, a meal at a restaurant, an offer of knock-off rum; even a request to spend some quality time with their denim-hot-pant-clad girlfriends.

We'd been warned about these CUC-hungry Cubans by Rolando, the loquacious owner of Havana's most popular backpacker hostel (called Rolando's) and fountain of knowledge on this extraordinary, and, at times, extraordinarily baffling, Caribbean island.

The cause of some of the confusion — and the motivation for the street hustling — is Cuba's twin-tiered monetary system, where the CUC (or 'Cuban Convertible Peso') runs in parallel with the CUP — the Cuban Peso, also known as 'the crap peso'.

Whereas most Cubans are paid in lowly CUPs and buy their daily goods from CUP-only establishments, CUCs are primarily for tourists, who pay for accommodation, dining, transport, souvenirs and other goodies in a currency with 25 times the value of the CUP (one CUC is $0.97).

For Cubans, earning CUCs can mean the difference between existing on the breadline to living in relative comfort. Tourists desperate to feel rich should exchange some CUCs for CUPs.

The financial apartheid cultivated by the dual currencies doesn't fit well with the egalitarian ideals of the 1959 Revolution, whose mottos (especially Che Guevera's 'Hasta la victoria siempre!') are still flaunted on roadside billboards and street graffiti.

But Cuba — a communist nation with an increasingly capitalistic zeal — is a mass of contradictions; a place capable of leaving you exasperated one minute, enchanted the next.

We'd flown to Havana from Cancun. The journey was only an hour, but it felt like we'd time-travelled back 20 or 30 years. Unlike Cancun, there are no McDonalds and Starbucks. Internet access is sparse, slow and expensive (Facebook and Twitter addicts, prepare for detox). It appears, more than anywhere else I've been, that people make their own fun. From dawn til well after dusk, groups of men, women and children linger on street corners, chatting, laughing, buying, selling, singing, dancing or playing baseball, backgammon and chess.

Salsa-esque grooves, and cooking smells, drift from open windows and doorways of dishevelled, peeling colonial-era properties that look as if they could crumble and tumble any moment.

Every other vehicle is a colourful, vintage 1950s Chevy, Buick or Cadillac. Some purr ... but most cough and splutter. Watching them motor past the iconic Capitol building, or beside the Malecon, the seemingly endless seafront promenade, are the ultimate in Havana cliche.

Seeing the Cuban capital, warts and all, on foot, from its beautifully restored core to its down-at-heel backstreets, is an exhausting, but exhilarating sensory feast — far preferable, to us, than lounging in the old mojito-and-daiquiri-spiked hangouts of Ernest Hemingway (La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio), which are crammed almost exclusively with elderly Americans and Europeans.

The best way of mingling with ordinary Cubans is to stay in casa particulares — spare rooms in Cuban family homes. Humble but homely, a casa's décor and furnishings are usually old-school (think grandma's flat) but the welcomes are warm, the food great value for money and the conversations about the country's past, present and future fascinating.

The last few years have seen drastic changes to Cuba's economy, with around a million state workers laid off, as the government strives to stimulate private enterprise. Casas are just one route to self-employment. Others include opening hole-in-the-wall pizzerias, shoe-shining businesses and boutique fashion stores.

As absorbing as Havana is, especially in this time of flux, see the back of it and swap its noise, clutter and pollution for the fresh air and dreamy pastoral landscapes of Vinales, a sleepier than sleepy town where days can be spent hiking and riding horses in the Avatar-esque countryside, and evenings perfect for lazing on veranda rocking chairs, book in hand (recommended reading includes Che Guevera: Writings on Politics & Revolution and The Island That Dared by Dervla Murphy).

Cuba's main tourist resort of Varadero, a 20km-plus spit of beach, lined with all-inclusive hotels, is very couply, languid and a bit like Cancun — only without the fun stuff.

Far more rewarding is Trinidad, a stunningly photogenic colonial town, sporting uneven cobbled streets, colourful churches and mansions, a blaze of street music and entertainment and restaurants dishing up delicious chunky lobster for a pittance.

Hemmed in between scenic green mountains and sparkling blue Caribbean waters, Cuba becomes the go-to 'happy place' for travellers intrepid enough to visit.

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