Cuba is a crumbling colonial city – literally. The few buildings that comprise the center of Havana and also the small town of Trinidad are immaculately kept buildings, preserved in their same state since colonial rule, but the rest of Havana and all the more rural towns are filled with buildings that are literally falling apart. The stereotypical colour array of brightly painted houses only applies to the lucky buildings, and the ones that are in the middle of being restored look quite different as colourless facades completely gutted and surrounded by scaffolding old enough that vines have overtaken them. The deteriorating state of homes may have something to do with the fact that they are all owned by the state; individuals are allocated housing and have no ownership to the property, and of course when something isn´t yours, its harder to motivate someone to take better care of it!
The women are as colourful as the houses, wearing a lot of bright, bold colours like red, yellow and white, that stick out beautifully against their dark tans. Some of the people are actually quite fair; green and blue eyed beauties represent the many that are actually of European decent. The antique cars that literally fill the city are also as colourful, immaculately restored to look like they’ve been newly made in the 60’s just yesterday. The rest of the 50 year old cars, mostly Russian Lada’s, are barely running, heavily pollutant, and definitely wouldn’t be street legal in any other country.
People in cuba really do smoke a lot of cigars, but not the Cohibas or Montecristos that are exported for foreigners; they smoke 1MD (moneda nacional peso – the equivalent of 5 cents) cigars that I think are just as tasty, so long as you don’t get one that is totally dried out. You can also buy ridiculously cheap churros and ice cream, but only if you are far away from tourist central, since they will charge foreigners the peso equivalent in CUC (aka pesos convertibles) which are actually worth 25 times more than one MD peso. This is an extremely confusing pricing system, since both are referred to as ´pesos´but one is pinned to the US dollar and actually converted at a rate slightly stronger than it, and the other is their ´old´peso currency, but both still circulate as legal tender. The most ludicrous business in Havana is getting on the internet; since it was just recently legalised to have computers and internet connection, expect to pay around 4 or 5 euro per hour!
I visited the tranquil Cementerio de Colón, which was extremely beautiful, but some aspect of reverence was lost when a man in flip flops walked up to the cemetery wall (from who knows where since there was just a highway beside it) and threw a dead chicken over it. Weird.
Traveling as a woman in Cuba isn’t easy if its your time of the month since they do not sell tampons, anywhere. Couchsurfing is also, for the most part, non existent since it is illegal for Cubans to host foreigners. And buses and trains operate with extreme infrequencies, with posted schedules a rarity, and even if they were accessible, tourists get different bus services and ticket prices – about 25 times more the cost for long distance buses that only run once or twice a day.
All in all it was a wonderful trip, but one of the more difficult latin american countries to backpack through since little tourism infrastructure exists outside of Havana or the resort hotels. People outside of tourism hot spots are not used to seeing tourists, and definitely not aware of how the industry works, and frankly, not interested in finding out since the laws on interacting, hosting or charging tourists are extremely strict; instead of looking like walking wallets, most tourists probably just look like a reason to get in trouble. The quietude I experienced from almost noone hassling me for my money was something that has never happened to me while traveling, and at times I enjoyed it, but other times, it made travel a little more difficult since people almost totally ignore you and are much less inclined to help you or spend their time talking to you if you have questions! Kind of bizarre, but I don´t blame them, and when I did get to interact with the locals, they were an extremely happy, friendly bunch.