It took 45 long minutes, after an 11 hour flight to see our luggage coming out at the end of the belt. But contrary to what I had read on the internet, the customs and immigration clearance in Havana international terminal was quick and smooth.
The previous week we had a long debate whether to rent a car or find a local guide to drive us across Cuba. I decided to take my chances and go for the self-drive option. I booked on the internet, paid in advance and crossed my fingers. The car turned out to be much better than I expected, a 2013 Renault with 63k km in great shape and the staff at the pickup point was surprisingly helpful. They even told us that they will not charge any fee for dropping the car in Santiago de Cuba, despite the fact that the booking site mentioned 300 CUC for this service. Bear in mind that Santiago de Cuba is more than 900 km away from Havana. The only scam, was the official policy to prepay a full tank of gas and return it empty, meaning they would benefit from any gas left over.
Outside the main terminal it was a sunny and warm 27°C, a real pleasure after the freezing overnight stay in Amsterdam and the cold weather back home. The local Cuba Cell kiosk did not sell sim cards and we decided to spare the drive to the center and minimize the mobile phone usage during our stay. Telecom charges are very high on the island and you rarely see a local with a cell phone.
Once in the car, I switched on my iphone and tapped on the Cuba GPS Map app by Kaart Data. Fortunately it worked. This is the part I was mostly worried about, since the road signs in Cuba are not exactly descriptive. It worked – almost – smoothly throughout the trip, with some idiosyncrasies and minor glitches that I learned to work around and was worth every penny of the €8 that I spent.
The road to Havana is wide and mostly empty, with sporadic appearances of some Chevys and Ladas. After twenty minutes we arrived at the Copacabana hotel in Vedado. It screamed government run business but the rooms were decent and there was a huge pool by the sea front.
After a short rest, a shower and some Lonely Planet browsing we decided to go to dinner to The Gringo Viejo, a cozy paladar, i.e. a private restaurant, with 8 tables and a friendly ambience. The food turned out to be excellent. I devoured some fried chickpeas and a huge roasted swine leg. Even on a Saturday night there is very little traffic in Havana and plenty of room for parking.
At around 9pm the jet lag started kicking in, so we got back to get some sleep. Next: Cienfuegos