After 16 hours travelling we’d finally arrived outside our hotel. Exhausted, jet-lagged and wondering whether we’d bitten off more than we could chew, we climbed the steps into the Hotel Raquel.
It was like entering a different world.
Soaring marble columns supported the upper floors, reached by an elegant wrought iron elevators that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Titanic. Stained glass windows sparkled in the sunlight far ahead. There was a cocktail bar. We were home.
We stumbled upstairs to our room. Medium sized and less grand than the lobby, it was nevertheless clean with colonial style wooden furniture, air con and well maintained bathroom. Perhaps the lack of windows was a blessing for an easier night’s sleep. After a perusal and a well needed shower, we headed downstairs for dinner.
It was at this point we discovered the joys of Cuba.
The menu was extensive enough to satisfy both of us (Elle is a vegetarian) and ridiculously cheap (at the end the bill came to 17CUC). The real highlight though was the drinks menu. We both had a gorgeous cocktail for an even more gorgeous price. They arrived pretty quickly, as did the food. Whilst waiting, our lovely, friendly waitress Helen told us all about Cuba and recommended a few things to see and do in Havana. If you visit the hotel she is well worth keeping an eye out for!
Having washed down dinner with our first Caribbean appropriate beverages we paid the bill and had an early night to prepare ourselves for our adventure to begin in earnest!
Arriving at José Marti airport the humidity hit us immediately.
We walked through the airport to customs where we had our first experience with Cuban public toilets – manned by surly women who must be tipped to let you through and provide scraps of toilet paper – and the smell we soon had to get used to. The humidity only got worse as we waited in the dank immigration queue to have our visas and travel insurance checked. Then ominous buzzers swung open the doors and we were free to walk into Cuba…
Once we got out we headed to change money, and made our first mistake – asking a local where the Cadeca (Bureau de Change) was. He cheerfully obliged, waited for us to finish and not taking no for an answer, lead us to his cab. Taking a cab is de rigeur due to a shocking lack of regular public transport running between the airport and the city. Our mistake was that this cab was running on a meter, so instead of paying the normal 20-25 CUC of a pre-arranged fare the meter ran up to double that.
We’d been too trusting. We said it wouldn’t happen again.
The journey in was surreal and thrilling, the heavy smell of leaded petrol hanging in the air, and as night began to fall and we entered Old Havana the realisation dawned on us that this was not the glamorous colonial city we had expected. Certainly there were some grand buildings, but these were set alongside crumbling concrete structures and a crush of traffic.
We entered a seemingly abandoned and poorly lit narrow street with a sense of dread (mainly Rosie). Then we pulled up. We had arrived at our hotel.
We’re Elle and Rosie, recent graduates who wanted a cultural immersion holiday away from resorts and other tourists – our motto: why travel half around the world to spend time with more Brits?
We decided on Cuba because of the promise of Caribbean beaches, it’s far safer record for women travellers than Latin America, the fact that Rosie speaks Spanish, and because of our romanticised images of old cars, La Revolución and adventure. Over the two weeks we spent there together, and then the two further weeks Rosie stayed on alone, we found this to be only part of the intriguing yet also frustrating picture that is Cuba.
We managed to get return tickets with Air France between Heathrow and Havana for just over five hundred pounds (two weeks before our departure date on the 10th June) and booked one night at the four star Hotel Raquel in Old Havana for 28 pounds per person – pleasantly surprised that the price was per room not per person – via Habaguanex (the group that owns and restored all of the hotels in the old quarter).
We were ready to fly to a tropical island!