Arriving in Havana I thought we were super organised and had taken all our learnings from the last three destinations and applied it here. Turns out our arrival in Havana was going to make all those learnings redundant. If you want a quick summary of our learnings, skip to the end of this article.
I had googled the airport arrival tips so I knew the process would be simple to get through customs and it was. When we came out I knew there was a currency conversion upstairs on level two that had no queues compared to the one downstairs that had long lines. That was true also. And I knew that the yellow taxis were out the door and to the left and the taxi fare was about 25-30CUC (cooks) to get to the area of Havana we were going to.
Plus we had our accomodation all fully booked for the five night stay. I had taken a photo of the address and where it was in google maps according to Airbnb because I’d read that there was no internet at the airport.
Apart from some extra forms to fill in, customs was simple to get through. I sent hubby upstairs for the currency conversion only to find that they only accepted Euros. Having just come from America we had USD and that was only exchangeable downstairs. Time to join the long queue.
We needed to go to the toilet. The first set had men and women using them and had no toilet seat and the plumbing wasn’t working. The second set was the same but the plumbing was working so I used these. I told hubby there was a set upstairs. This third set was men only or women only but the plumbing was not working and was clogged up. Eeeekk!!
We went to catch a taxi and the driver insisted it was 35CUC so I relented. He was a lovely guy and was willing to teach us some español which came in handy later like “frios” for cold.
Internet is limited in Cuba, so getting around works like it did in the old days: people ask each other for directions. It’s super common to pull up to someone on the street and ask where is a bank or a wifi spot is or a place to rent or this street name or number. Everyone is very obliging and willing to help.
Our driver reached the suburb we were staying in and then began asking directions. We arrived in our neighbourhood-to-be where we had booked ourselves in with a local family in one of their bedrooms. The address was not for a home at all, but for an automobile repair shop! I had taken a photo of her phone number so the taxi driver called her, then the neighbours called her. Many of the neighbourhood residents came out to find out what the commotion was and were using their five or six words of English plus hand motions to convey to us that it was going to be ok and they would find her. However, the host was uncontactable.
We were realising how desperately we needed to learn some basic español because hardly anyone understood inglés and if they did it was very limited.
After some time of waiting around and everyone looking for her, the taxi driver told us we had to find another place to stay. We asked him if we could jump online so we could book another place. It went like this “Wifi. Internet. Book another casa particular?” He seemed to say there was no internet. I thought, well, this is what we need to learn to do in spanish at some point, might as well try now.
He taught me the phrase “puerdo in autra casa para rente”. That’s from memory so that could be completely wrong! Anyway I thought I’d have to get out of the car and start asking people. Fortunately he made some calls and found una Casa Particular. We parked outside a house in a much nicer neighbourhood. The place had a sign outside of it saying “se vente un casa”.
We went inside. It was lovely. It was a private room in a shared space, which is what a casa particular is. But then we had to negotiate the price. We had only been prepared to pay 30CUC per night for the six of us, this was going to be 60CUC per night. I was stressed and it was probably showing. A New Jersey tourist from another room tried to translate for us so that the owner would drop the price. Unfortunately he could hardly speak English despite having lived in Jersey for 22 years.
Eventually we settled on a price of 45CUC for two three-person rooms each with their own bathroom.
Saved!! Now we just had to find wifi and cancel the original Airbnb. This proved a difficult task. Internet is not so freely accessible on Cuba. There are government hot spots throughout the country that are in public squares where you can connect. The lady of the house (I’ll call her lady but she was probably the maid) took me late at night to one of these spots but we were not able to connect. BTW, Mari (the lady of the house) spoke as much English as I spoke Spanish – please, thank-you, and lady. She asked some people who told her that we need to purchase a card. The card only cost CUC2 and gives you one hour of access. This was more than I needed. The problem was the actual connection. I struggled to connect and even when I did, it was super slow. There were about fifty other people trying to use the same spot at the same time.
Mari asked around again and found someone who helped me to connect. I jumped on, canceled our booking on Airbnb with only a partial refund but decided that I could sort the rest out later.
Turns out Airbnb are super awesome in dealing with these types of situations. I contacted them as soon as I had internet in Cancun. They apologised for our inconvenience and the stress it put us under and they explained the process. They would give our host two days to respond to the issue and action a full refund based on that. I knew the host was not going to get in touch. I hadn’t received any communications from her since booking the place.
Once the two days were up and the host had not responded, Airbnb gave me a full refund. They said they would’ve have reimbursed me the difference but because we didn’t have a receipt for our accomodation (everything was paid in cash), they couldn’t pay more than the refund. Another learning 🙂 I was happy with Airbnb’s service and the way they resolved the issue, and for me the refund was sufficient.
Biggest learning is how friendly and super helpful Cubans are – one of the reasons we love Cuba!
If you’re great at negotiating, you can bargain your taxi fare down to CUC25. I’m not one of those (should’ve got hubby to do the negotiating!)
It’s is easy to find accommodation there. There are so many options but they are not online. This is definitely one place you could book one nights accomodation and then ask around, walk around, check out some of the options and then book a place for the rest of your stay.
There is no internet but Havana works like Auckland did thirty years ago: everyone asks for help! I remember we’d pull up to a petrol station or someone walking on the side of the street and everyone was keen to help you out. It makes for a lot more communication, a lot more smiling faces, and a lot more opportunities to practice Spanish.