The craziness of Cuba starts at 6am, Mexico Airport…

It seems ironic that the most memorable (for all the wrong reasons) moment in our journey to Cuba was the check-in cue at Mexico Airport. A group of four or five people scouted the cue for people to smuggle bags of what appeared to be cosmetics (either banned or very difficult to obtain in Cuba) into the country as their own carry own luggage. They seemed quite open in this operation, shaking hands with security guards, and hovering, even taking notes on their ‘mules’ for the people at Havana airport to identify them. Lucky for us, our Spanish is hopeless, but they managed to find a handful of suckers to participate. At Havana airport, we saw one of the small bags make it through security, but I’m sure they don’t always!

As if the process of entering Cuba isn’t difficult enough – endless security and paperwork checks and then, the sound of the immigration door opening with a loud buzz and we were in. On the taxi ride into Havana, the first thing you notice is the sheer number of people on the street, something that doesn’t subside the entire time you’re in Cuba, even in country towns. Old American cars chug out black smoke and bus stops have endless lines that look more like a crowd than a cue and billboards encouraging ‘solidarity’ dot the highway.

Arriving at the historic centre of Havana you feel like you’re entering a war-torn city in, say, Serbia. The roads are covered with obstacles like rubble and homemade carts, bicycle taxi’s, dogs, children and of course tourists. The architectural style is consistent with few modern buildings (20th century) and the feel is decidedly European but decaying. Some of the multi-story historic buildings have been restored, but the vast majority seem be falling apart. And even in the worst cases there is evidence that people live within – fresh clothing drying in the windows and the occasional pot plant.

Along the Malecon (a long sea wall built by the Americans to protect Havana from the pounding ocean waves) the buildings are slowly being restored (or demolished). Six years ago when we last visited, this area was a vibrant, though tatty strip of housing facing the sea – prime real estate you would have thought! And of course the government worked this out and is building some new hotels, restoring old apartment blocks and demolishing those beyond repair. One can only hope that they’ll do it all with some taste and return this boulevard to its former glory.

And in the rest of Havana, change (at least since we were last here) seems slow. There are a few new additions – cafe’s, hotels, modern Chinese tourist buses, but the footpaths are still broken and crazy wiring hangs from every pole and every window. Electricity and water still seem dysfunctional at least (try getting a hot shower at any hotel, no matter how much you’re spending) and food (unless you know where to look) is average at best.

That said, our of our best meals was a couple of simple cheese pizzas bought for 50 cents from a small window. Oozing with oil and served on a square of paper, it was a delight shared with locals in a residential back street. More formal food almost always follows the pattern on pork/chicken/beef with rice and beans. Pasta is rare and when you can find spaghetti it comes with a watery tomato sauce with a little cheese if you’re lucky.

Drinks on the other hand are a delight. Mojito’s are cheap and really good and after you’ve consumed a few, the importance of dinner is diminished. One night we stationed ourselves at the famous La Bodeguita del Medio bar, a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway amongst others. Cuban music, animated discussion and four (or was it five) mojito’s later we realised we hadn’t had dinner and wandered into the dark, but generally safe streets of Havana.