Cuba had been on my bucket list for a few years and finally the timing was right, I booked an eight-day biking trip with a cycling tour company.
I also allotted four extra days in Havana on my own to have a look at the city. I chose to travel in February which was ideal – perfect weather hot but manageable.
To be on the safe side since I was travelling alone, I arranged to have a car and driver meet me at the airport. I also booked via the internet, a very well recommended bed and breakfast or Casa Particular, in the centre of old Havana.
Casa Particulars are Cuban’s version of bed and breakfasts. The trip started off very badly, it took three hours in the small Havana airport to locate my one bag, it was all very chaotic because two flights arrived in at the same time my bag must have got stuck somewhere.
Huge boxes and packages (which looked like washing machines) massives suitcases and every kind of luggage came through the arrivals but not my case.
Finally I had to take matters into my own hands and go back into the sorting area. I found my bag laying on the floor. Three hours later, the taxi driver was still holding up a sign with my name on it when I came out. I was full of apologies, hungry, tired and stressed. It was almost 8 p.m. as we set out to drive into Havana.
Soon we reached the outskirts of the city but my casa was in the old centre. The streets became narrow and dingy, lined with tall rundown buildings and in the dim light everything looked a bit scary and depressing.
The taxi driver deposited me at an old building and pointed to the doorway, the casa was up several flights of steep stairs. I pulled my case up the narrow steps and arrived breathless into a small room.
The owner greeted me warmly and then I was told I would not be staying at that building but one further down the street. A local man appeared out of nowhere and offered to carry my case and escort me to the next casa, it was all arranged for me.
The stairs seemed even steeper on the way down and I was glad of the help with my case.. As we walked along the pot holed shabby dim street, I noticed groups of young men hanging around rundown bars and corner cafes, then we stopped at another decrepit doorway. This was the casa.
More steep stairs and I was shown into a room without a window and from the bare light bulb I could detect black mold creeping up the walls, it was a chamber of horrors.
I took flight and down the stairs again, there was no way I was staying there. The owner smiled kindly and offered me yet another bed down the street with perhaps a window in the room. It was now 10 p.m. What to do?
I was tired and hungry and alone and this was way more of an adventure than I needed, especially since I thought it was all booked and paid for before I left home.
I had to make a decision quickly, I shouted to the man to find me a cab, almost immediately a pedicab appeared. Because it was dark, I didn’t noticed a huge hole in the wooden plank on the floor of the bike. My foot got caught but I somehow hung on for life, holding my case while my bag carrier/guide was shouting for his money. I haven’t a clue what I gave him but I think it was $20.
I asked to be taken to the hotel where our bike tour was booked later on in the week.
The Plaza hotel is again very shabby and rundown but well-situated. I explained my problem to the very bored desk clerk and I also mentioned I had a room booked at the hotel later on in the week with the biking tour.
She barely acknowledged me, she was deep in conversation with her friend, she didn’t check any computer and said immediately there was no rooms available, the hotel was full.
It is now almost 11 p.m., I was worried as well as being tired and stranded. I sat down on the grubby chesterfield in the lobby pondering what to do next.
There were lots of trave;lers coming and going although it was late. I was rescued by a Danish tourist who listened to my tale and suggested we go out to dinner and have a drink.
It seemed a reckless thing to do considering I had no bed for the night and it was almost midnight but it sounded wonderful. I left my bag at the hotel and we got a taxi to the restaurant. Dinner consisted of very stringy chicken and two beers but I felt restored, then back at the hotel with my new friend in tow but a different desk clerk who actually searched the computer and found a room for me.
It was only marginally better than the casa and five times more expensive but I felt safer and the location was wonderful.
I had four days ahead of me to do the sights in Havana, the four wonderful squares, the bars and music and
I was thankful the rest of the trip was booked so I had no worries.
The bike trip is another tale.
Marie Bruce has travelled all over the world and written about her experiences for decades