Current Location: Havana, Cuba
Maurice, our Airbnb host in Havana, picked us up in the airport just as the daily rainstorm was starting. We were trying to figure out how to overcome our language barrier (he spoke French, and minimal Spanish/English) and he gave us some advice that managed to carry us through our days in the city. The first Cuban Spanish phrase we learned was: “Taxi collectivo. El Capitolio. One CUC.” That bit of logistical knowledge and a tall glass of tamarindo juice were our welcome to the country.
The aesthetics of Cuba are something to marvel at. It’s an amazing melange of near-ancient Spanish architecture from the early colonial efforts, and 1950’s and 60’s modernism. Take those influences, don’t repair them for a couple of decades (because proper maintenance is expensive) and then paint it all pastel. The cars are the same; beautiful colors, and everything is stripped down on the inside. All the things that are not essential are torn out–you might have to short-circuit some wires to roll the windows down or start things up. You can see classic American, Russian, or French cars going down the road at all hours–those are the taxis.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
We flew into Cuba from Fort Lauderdale, expecting that after Donald’s proclamation, Cuban-American relations would be chilled and we might be barred from departure at the gate. We expected the third degree, that we would have to concoct an elaborate story to get to the island and that we wouldn’t convince the hardened border guards and custom officials. But once we actually landed in the country it was easy to get through customs. There were many other foreigners from across the globe, and even some Cubans returning from a brief trip to Miami.
Maurice brought us to Miramar, the place where we would stay for a few days. We spent the first night at a quaint, eccentric cafe down the street from his house. We ended the night right, with a Cuba Libre (rum and coke) and an Irish coffee.
Though Miramar is a nice suburban community with views of the ocean from the Malécon (boardwalk 7km long), peppered with ancient trees and foreign embassies, all of the traditional tourist activities happen in Old Havana. We used our newfound language abilities to get downtown and started our tourist odyssey. There were few landmarks we recognized, but we did encounter a German tour group that led us to our first stop: El Bodeguito del Medio.
The Bodeguito del Medio is the place where the mojito was invented. They crank them out ten at a time to meet the tourist demands. We’re hardly connoisseurs, but it was a pretty spectacular beverage.
*Pause to make a disclaimer about Internet and cell service*. Cuba does not offer public or private internet access almost anywhere in the country, and that makes planning myriad aspects of your trip difficult. You have to pay for a key to join the ETECSA network, the global Cuban telecom provider, in a one-hour block of time for 1.5CUC. As the government is the only distributor of these cards, you have to wait in line at a government office each time you want to get internet access. We timed it–for us it was about 40min. If you meet an enterprising young Cuban person that recognizes you as a tourist, you might be able to purchase a wifi card on the black market (read: without waiting in line) for just a 1CUC premium.*
Since Cuba is so hot in the middle of the day, we quickly grew tired of walking around and developing a base sunburn. Electing to preserve our complexions, we went to Hotel Parque Central and decided to check out the rooftop pool. Hospitality management folks in Cuba don’t do their due diligence to confirm whether or not you are a guest. But, there’s an unspoken rule that you should buy a drink if you are going to lounge for a while. We got some delicious fruit juices and took in the views of the city from one of the highest points, as well as some lovely music.
After an ill-advised hop-on-hop-off bus tour, we wandered around some more. We made our way to a square, and in the corner of the square was a Camera Obscura. We paid 2CUC to see a projected view of the entire city–it was the most fascinating thing we did, and it comes highly recommended.
Since Cuba is famous for its fantastic fully-stacked sandwiches, we were worried we vegetarians would be at a loss when it came to dinner. Not so! During our time in the city, we ended up subsisting on delicious Cuban pizzas. They’re like a cross between a Neapolitan pizza and a quesadilla.
Some of the places we found affordable and enjoyable were La Factoria- a local brewery and our pre-game restaurant for beer and cocktails, El Dandy for tapas accompanied by views of a torrential downpour during the rainy season, and Cafe Europa for great food and atmosphere. The house band played some traditional samba music, and there were a pair of dancers accompanying them. They danced with each other, and also were grabbing people from the crowd to entertain everyone else. And, of course, the street food and fresh fruit is incredible!
We also made our way to the Cuban Art Museum (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes). The two of us had never been exposed to Cuban art, which is sui generis and extremely political. There are four floors displaying Cuban works throughout the ages, starting with the most modern on the bottom floor and working up to works from the 1500’s at the top. Sadly, the museum is not climate controlled. The further up you go, the hotter things get. In some works, you can see some damage from the heat and humidity, a major disappointment for the conservator in our pair.
And it wouldn’t have been a trip to Havana without visiting a famous author’s haunt. We walked down the narrow streets to Ambos Mundos, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote many works. His hotel room has been turned into a mini-museum with rotating exhibits and his old typewriter on display. It’s about 2CUC to get in, but if you’re a fan, it’s well worth it.
Finally, and most importantly, our gracious hosts Yamira and Marcel invited us to a family meal. Yamira’s brother was in town to visit the US Embassy, in pursuit of a visa to visit his impending grandchild. Naturally, much of the dinner discussion turned to politics; thinking about the influence of our President from outside the country, and how it is changing relationships between the US and Cuba. Instead of being frustrated, people were sad more than anything else—-the Cuban people have quite a few family members that made it to the US, and want to see more of America. They also want Americans to come and experience their lovely land! Engaging conversation aside, Yamira spent all day cooking an immaculate meal for us, and a great time was had by all.
Keep you posted about our time horseback riding through the Viñales Valley.
Stay cool out there,
Key travel tips:
- Don’t expect developing country costs. Havana is about the same price as Miami; plan accordingly.
- If you need it, get internet early.
- It’s easy to swim at a rooftop pool at a hotel; just buy a drink.
- Buy your water at a Mercado instead of a hotel or tourist stall; though it’s affordable at each place, it’s significantly cheaper at a Mercado.
- Stay with a family instead of at a hotel.