Some random thoughts, in no particular order...
Caught a super cheap deal direct from Calgary to Havana, staying in the dump Terrazas Atlantico Islazul on the eastern beaches. $486 for 8 days, all taxes in. Incredible price. I posted the deal on Debbies Forum and offered to split it with someone as a double occupancy. I had no interest in the resort so whoever wanted to come along could have the whole place to themselves. A couple of hours later the lovely and vivacious "Janet" dropped me a line and a week later we were flying to Havana together. She had a great time at the resort/beach and I had a riot in Havana, we met again on the flight going home. Thanks Janet!
The new regulations allowing private enterprise are turning the economy upside-down, but as predicted the new businesses are failing as fast as they're starting. With no support from the government in terms of start-up loans or even more importantly independent suppliers plus a general lack of business knowledge many of the new vendors are doomed before they even begin. Too bad because many of these businesses would be a boom for the tourist industry.
Super, super cheap meals available more easily than ever - you can get stuffed with semi-decent food for 2 CUC including a beer. (1 CUC = $1 USD)
Super, super cheap transport too. The old American classics held together with spit and a prayer are everywhere, running on fixed routes and foreigners are no longer an issue. Prices are in Cuban Pesos (CUP) not Convertible Pesos (CUC). 10 CUP (we're talking less than 50 cents Canadian) will get you anywhere in the city. Even running from downtown all the way out to the eastern beaches is only 20 CUP - less than a dollar. (1 CUC = $1 USD = 25 CUP. Yes, 24 of them!)
It's easy to rent a taxi for less then 40 CUC/day, including fuel. If you go outside the city limits then of course you need to buy some fuel every now and then.
One of the raunchiest late night (adult, of course) discos in Vedado - at the end of La Rampa, right by the Malecon - is a kid's disco on Sundays. The place was packed! Too frigging funny.
Decent 4 bedroom/3 bathroom private house in an upscale neighbourhood with swimming pool and full-time cook/maid/security can be had for less than 250 CUC/day. Great option for three couples or a family with a bunch of kids - way better bang-for-the-buck than any hotel.
Loads of independent American travellers visiting illegally, more than I've noticed before. As always they're fabulous people - informed, common sense, hipster travellers ignoring the silly blockade and blowing every dumb American stereotype out of the water. Met two groups of Americans travelling legally though, staying at the Park Central Hotel... the propaganda they're being fed (and believing) is mind boggling...
Weird dichotomy of upbeat, positive vibes everywhere, tempered by some real desperation, more than I've seen in a few years. The usual crimes of opportunity like purse snatching, pick pocketing and simple thievery are worse than ever. Maybe it's just that Christmas is around the corner but there are lots of places where a normal single traveller has no business being at night, and for that matter not during the day either unless they're using common sense and the usual street smarts. That said, Havana is still one of the safest cities its size (located in a developing nation) anywhere on the planet.
The new real estate laws have caused insane speculation that's completely out to lunch. The laws don't actually change anything - they simply legalize what existed under the table before - but the value that some people are putting on dumps is endlessly amusing.
There's some great deals to be had with some of the local tour operators. Excursions from Havana to Cayo Levisa and Cayo Largo were very inexpensive.
In 6 rum purchases 3 of them were counterfeit, and this was in 5 different establishments. (The seals were broken and the bottles filled with who-knows-what.) Maybe I was just unlucky or perhaps I'm looking like a dumb yuma even more than usual... I suspect the latter.
You can get two full kegs of beer delivered, iced and a guy from the distributor to stay and operate/serve for less than $100 CUC. That's a pretty good deal considering it's almost 1,000 cups of beer. Of course it's the CUP swill so it's good to warm-up with a few of the usual Cristal and Bucanero.
I can't begin to keep up with all the new paladars (private restaurants.) No time to check-out any of the newer high-end ones this time, but I'll make it my mission in the New Year. We hit one in Centro (Concordia and San Francisco) that is hands-down the best bang-for-the-buck I've ever found in Cuba. Great dinners x 4 was 11 CUC in total + booze.
The water in Havana was oddly clear and clean looking. On the eastern beaches it was a mess.
My Spanish is steadily deteriorating or the locals are using even more slang, colloquialisms and generally horrible pronunciation than ever before. What a joy it is to travel elsewhere in Latin America where they speak real Spanish - or perhaps I simply need to start hanging out with a classier crowd. That said, learned many new dirty phrases, some of them gut-busting hilarious.
The rock/rap alternative scene is bursting at the seams. Much of it is still illegal but gigs are easy to find and police are turning a blind eye more than ever. Even the silly emo kids are out in full force although they don't quite understand any of the classic emo jokes yet...
The burgeoning middle class has embraced pure breed dogs, pimp-my-ride car accessories and real mattresses. The last one is a revelation.
All and all a nice (but very short) last-minute warm up to an extended escape starting in a few weeks.