From Merida we traveled by Bus to Cancun where we flew Cubana Air to Havana. I was about to find out that I was totally ignorant about Cuba.
A fantastic tour operator "Jorge" organised our entire visit to Cuba. He was recommended by our friends Pat and Chris from Hobart and he was certainly the way to go. He sends a fully itemised itinerary with all detailed costs. (Subsequent discussions with other Tourists revealed that we actually paid less for most things by using Jorge's service - you would normally expect to pay extra for such exceptional service). A private car and driver picked us up from the airport and drove us to our accommodation late at night. As we drove down dark alleys with people lurking in doorways, we were quite concerned. When we pulled up outside a door with a bell and a falling down building opposite, we wondered what the hell we had gotten ourselves into.
The door buzzed open and we commenced lugging our heavy packs up 2 steep flights of stairs. As we reached the second flight the steps were marble and a man was rushing down offering to assist us. When we reached the foyer on the second floor, it had marble floors, chandeliers and antique furniture. Don't judge a book by its cover! The "revolutionary socialist" government of Cuba allows some private enterprise these days and part of that are the "Casa Particulares" which are basically B&B's allowing tourists to stay in people's homes. This one was a bit more than a private home and the owner later advised that he was stretching the law a bit in converting his home into a hotel "Casa Habana" .
We had a private room with bathroom and airconditioning, there was a dining room with cooked breakfast and a roof top bar where muscle bound Fidel mixed Mohitos for $2 to the delight of the female guests! They will even cook a meal at night providing you give them notice.
Cuba has suffered greatly under the USA embargo, put in place all those years ago and when the iron curtain parted, the support of the USSR stopped and Cubans suffered greatly. I always thought Fidel Castro was a tyrant dictator and Che Guevara was some uneducated trouble maker. Well how wrong was I? Fidel Castro has retired but is still very much loved by the people and Che was an Argentinean Doctor who with Fidel, devoted his life to helping the Cubans and ousting the sadistic Bastista from government. Everywhere in Havana is like a big party. The bars are full of live music and people enjoying themselves. The food is amazing, the service fantastic and and a recent worldwide survey found Cubans as being the happiest people in the world!
Yes there are food shortages from time to time and wages are at what we would consider a poverty level. But they have one of the best health systems in the world and Europeans fly to Cuba for surgery it is so well respected. Education is totally free and the food staples are also free. Our Guide "MarieVee" had her Masters in English from Cambridge University and when I stupidly asked her why she came back to Cuba, she looked stunned and answered "Cuba is my home, I love it here".
The cars in Cuba are amazing. American Fords, Chevrolets and Chryslers from the 1950's some nearly falling apart due to the embargo and lack of available parts and others fully tricked up with korean engines installed. The rest of the world are not silly, they don't support the embargo, hence the Renaults, Peugots, Hyundais, Hondas and Suzukis buzzing around the busy streets.
Technically Americans are not allowed to visit Cuba but they are everywhere. Even ex President Jimmy Carter holidays there every year. The Cubans very cleverly do not stamp passports and Americans fly in and out via Mexico and so providing they don't attempt to smuggle Cuban Cigars or Rum back into the USA they get away with it.
An interesting history here , some interesting facts from the USA perspective here and the human rights aspect here. There are always two sides to a story but surely it is time to get over it and move on!
We were picked up the first day by MarieVee and taken on a 4 hour walking tour of the historic area of Havana, the old Spanish Fort, Che's military base and the amazing old architecture, much of which is finally being restored. It was fascinating spending time with a highly educated Cuban who so much believes in the system and the government. A certain amount of brainwashing no doubt but heh - they are happy!
That night we dined in one of the most amazing restaurants I have ever been to anywhere. It was in a residential area and was a privately owned "Paladar" called La Fontana. The decor was superb, the service second to none and the food was simply amazing. Lobster, mango chicken, fish carpaccio and Mohitos ahhhhhhhh!
The next day, MarieVee and the driver took us to old Havana which was as interesting as the historic area. The revolution museum was fascinating, situated in Batista's old palace. There are still bullet holes in the marble walls where Che and Fidel made their first attempt at overthrowing the government. They were unsuccessful that time and were thrown in jail!
The old Bacardi Rum building is still there with the black bat on the roof but the company has long since moved from Cuba.