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Brief History - Getting There and In - Food and Drink-
Various Useful Facts

Brief History

The largest island in the Caribbean was discovered by Columbus (who thought he'd reached Japan). It was claimed and colonised by Spain who within a generation had managed to wipe out the indigenous population and had to bring in slaves from Africa to do all the hard work. The struggle for Cuban independence from Spain kicked off in the 17th and 18th centuries and was approaching success at the beginning of the 20th century when the USA picked a war with Spain, interfered in Cuba, and i m posed independence on American terms. For the next 50 years or so Cuba was an American colony in all but name, run by a series of brutal US-backed dictators for the benefit of US big business and organised crime. All this changed in 1956 with Castro's Rev olution, since when the US has thrown a monster sulk, first backing (training and financing) the Bay of Pigs invasion, and then slapping on an illegal (and UN condemned) trade embargo.

Getting There and In

From the UK you can fly direct on British Airways and Cubana. Fares are expensive, starting from around 400 for an apex return. Several charter airlines fly to Cuba (usually Varadero, sometimes Holguin); the cost of a two-week package holiday may work out cheaper than the cost of a scheduled flight. Other European Airlines that fly from the UK include Iberia (via Madrid) and Air France (via Paris Charles de Gaulle), but tickets will not be much, if at all, cheaper than for a direct flight.

British Citizens need a visa to enter Cuba, although there is a concession that allows you to enter on a "tourist card" instead. The tourist card allows a maximum stay of 28 days, although you can extend your stay after you arrive in Cuba. The tourist card is supposed to be issued only to those taking part in organised tours, and should have the name of the hotel you're staying in written on it. The tourist card is not supposed to be used by people not staying in hotels, e.g. in private houses. If you book a package holiday then the tourist card should be issued by the holiday operator. The first time I went to Cuba was on a charter flight (without accommodation). The tour operator still gave us a tourist card that said on the front that we'd be staying in an unspecified hotel to be provided by them, which plainly wasn' t the case but didn't cause any problems. There are however stories of people with tourist cards being asked to provide evidence of their hotel booking by Cuban Immigration, and if unable to provide any evidence being marched to a hotel desk in the airport and being made to book and pay for a hotel there and then.

The second time I went was on a scheduled flight (Iberia) so I had to sort out my own tourist card. (It is possible to apply for the tourist card at Immigration on arrival in Cuba, but if you do this you're opening yourself to lots of questions from Immigration Officers). I went along to the Cuban Embassy in London, who gave me a big list of the documents they'd need to see before issuing the tourist card, including airline tickets and confirmed hotel reservations. Rather than go through all that rigmarole (and especially as I was planning on staying in a private house rather than a hotel) I went along to the office of Cubana airlines in London (Conduit Street, off Regent Street) to buy a ticket on an internal Cubana flight, and they were happy to issue with me a tourist card there and then (although it was about 10 more expensive than the Embassy). I was surprised to find that Iberia didn't want to check that everyone had a tourist card when checking in for the flight. The reason for this became apparent when we started our descent into Havana when the cabin crew handed out fill-in-yourself tourist cards to anyone who needed one. I'd still recommend getting one in advance though, as I don' t know if all airlines (or even all Iberia flights) do this, and some of those who had the cards handed out on the plane were examined more closely at Immigration than I was. You'll need to keep your tourist card with your passport, as need to show it at each hotel when you check-in, and you need to show it when you leave Cuba.

I have differing experiences of Cuban Immigration and Customs. When I flew into Camaguey it was on a charter flight full of fellow Brits on package holidays. It took about an hour to get through Immigration; I was only asked three questions (one of which was "What's your name?" ), but they were examining everybody's passports very carefully. I was then stopped by Customs to have my baggage searched (in common without half of the other passengers on the flight). Maybe they were expecting Garry Glitter. Customs are fairly thorough; if you've brought any fruit it will be confiscated, if you bring anything that they think is a present for a Cuban you'll either be taxed for it, or it'll be confiscated too. A tip I've herd, but not tried, is to put a nice glossy western type magazine (FHM or something similar, the kind of thing that they can't get in Cuba) in your bags, as the Customs Officer will be more interested in flicking through this than in going through your bags. If he or she seems especially interested in it, explain that you've already read it and offer it to them, and you should have no further problems. But as I've said, I haven't tried this for myself. If you do, and things go wrong, don't blame me!

When I flew into Havana on Iberia I was obviously recognised for the man of quality that I am. The Immigration Officer looked at my passport and tourist card and let me though without asking me a question, and I waltzed through the customs channel unmolested.

Don't forget that when you're leaving Cuba as well as having to show your tourist card you'll also need to pay a departure tax. At Havana and Varadero it's $20 (cash), at all other airports it's $15. When you pay you'll be given a receipt, without this receipt you can't leave Cuba.

Food and Drink

Cuban food is fairly basic. If there's a national dish it's rice and (kidney) beans, usually served with either pork or chicken. Other things you' ll see with your meal are plantains (for those who don't know, like a banana but not as sweet), which come either roasted or sliced, deep fried and salted (just like crisps in fact, but plantain instead of potato, and a great bar snack.). Cubans don't seem to be great fans of spices, everything is fairly plain. They also love grease (you'll often get the grease from the pan of your meat served up as "sauce" ). Cuban fruit and vegetables are healthy though; as the US trade embargo makes it hard to import chemical fertilizers or pesticides everything is organic.

Most Cuban restaurants are pretty poor, particularly those run by the state or attached to restaurants. There usually isn' t much to chose from on the menu, and choice is even more limited because quite often they'll have run out of whatever is on the menu. As well as the standard rice, beans and meat combination most restaurants will offer basics such as chips, omelettes, spaghetti, and pizza (although in Cuba "pizza" usually means a pizza base with some melted cheese on it; the tomato sauce is optional, and toppings almost unheard of).

A better bet would be to go to a private restaurant, or Paladar. This concession to capitalism was allowed by Castro, who realised that tourists were starting to get fed up of the food on offer in the state restaurants. By law these places are family affairs, with a maximum number of tables and employees. The "restaurant" itself will usually be a room in someone's home, and there won't be a set menu but you' ll usually get better food, such as lobster, in a paladar than in a normal restaurant.

Food in Cuba is fairly cheap, meals usually costing around $5 to $8, although in an "upmarket" restaurant ("upmarket" in Cuba being somewhere that actually has what they show on the menu). Paladares will usually cost more (and as they don't have a menu make sure that the price is agreed in advance), whereas hotel cafes can be much cheaper.

Readers will be glad to here that Cuba is one of the few countries on Earth (I imagine Afghanistan is another) that doesn't "boast" a McDonalds. Lets all drink to the continuation of the American embargo!

Happily the situation is much better when it comes to booze.

Firstly beer (cerveza). Very few bars in Cuba serve draught beer, nearly everything is canned or bottled. Real ale buffs will be disappointed; Old Goats' Scrotum, or whatever warm, flat, murky piss you're partial to is not available here, it' s lager all the way, and very refreshing in the heat it is too. Imported beer is available (usually Heineken) but the locally produced stuff is cheaper and just as good. Try a can of Mayabe or Legato. It's not particularly cheap though, a 330ml (i.e. Coke-sized) can will cost around a dollar in most bars. Sadly Hatuey beer, immortalised by Hemingway, is no longer brewed in Cuba. I did buy a couple of bottles of the stuff in a supermarke t in Acton a couple of years ago; it's now brewed in Florida by Bacardi, and the label described it as "the beer of free Cuba" because as we know Machado and Batista were democracy loving pussycats.

Rum (ron) is a happy and useful by-product of Cuba's massive sugar industry. The best selling brand on the island at the moment is Havana Club, who have a wide variety of rums; apparently they're better (and more expensive) the longer they've been aged. A decent bottle will set you back around $10 in the shops, and also make pretty good presents for friends who don't smoke cigars. Bacardi used to be distilled in Cuba but took their operations elsewhere after the Revolution, which makes their current advertising campaign, trading in on the new-found popularity of all things Cuban and passing itself off as Cuban, hypocritical and somewhat ironic. Boycott the stuff.

Cuba is also a good place for cocktails. All Cuban barmen will know how to mix a decent daiquiri (rum, lemon juice, crushed ice) or mojito (rum, lime juice, ice, and a sprig of fresh mint). Away from some of the touristy bars in Havana these can be remarkably good value for money, and just the thing for a hot Cuban afternoon.

If you're thinking about going to Cuba for the wine, forget about it.

Various Useful Facts

Even speaking a small amount of Spanish will help a great deal in Cuba. Most of the larger hotels will have someone one their staff who can speak a small amount of English, but in some places you're going to either have to start quoting lines from your phrasebook or resort to mime. The same goes for most restaurants, museums, train stations, and airports. When I was trying to buy tickets at the Cubana office in Camaguey at the time I spoke no Spanish, and the staff there spoke no English. Fortunately another customer in there at the time spoke a bit of French, and I spoke a bit of French, so he was talking to staff in Spanish, and translating for us into French. And you think you're confused!. Most touts/hustlers will speak some English (and most will all claim to have a relative in England, which is almost always bollocks). Other second languages you might encounter are Italian (as lots of Italian tourists come to Cuba) and, strangely enough, Russian (when the Soviet Union was still Cuba's main patron lots of Cuban students went off to study there).

Moving on to money, the official currency is the Cuban peso but as a tourist the chances are you won't see or use any of these. In order to"safeguard the revolution" the tourist economy and the normal economy are strictly segregated. Up until 2004 the official currency of the tourist economy was the US dollar but Fidel, getting fed up with continued US economic sanctions, banned the use of the US dollar. What you'll end up using is the peso convertible; when you arrive in Cuba you can change your hard currency for this monopoly money, which is completely worthless outside Cuba, but which is accepted (and is usually the only currency which is accepted) by most tourist shops, hotels and restaurants. When the US dollar was accepted in Cuba, the convertable peso was interchangable with them (at the rate of one peso for one US$). You can change your cash into normal Cuban pesos but you'll have to do this unofficially (i.e., using a tout). There's little point in doing this because even if you aren't ripped off there's absolutely nothing worth buying with Cuban pesos anyway (Cubans pay for some things in pesos that tourists have to pay for in convertable pesos, such as plane fares, but in order to this you'd have to pass yourself off as a Cuban, for which you'd also need some form of ID). As there are no cash points in Cuba (there are now some in Havana and other major cities, but I'm told that these are for account holders with Cuban banks only) you'll need to bring your money in with you. Travellers cheques aren't as useful as in most other countries because several Cuban banks have been ripped off in the past with stolen or counterfeit cheques and so now many banks won't accept them. And nowhere in Cuba will take American Express travellers cheques (or credit card) as thanks to the US embargo they can't be redeemed. Some big hotels and western-run hotels or restaurants may take credit cards but not many. Most banks will let you get cash advances on your credit cards though.

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