Travels: Havana, Cuba
Posted on May 1, 2016
Four Days in Havana
The American Forbidden Fruit | April 2016
A few weeks ago I travelled to Havana, Cuba, an increasingly common destination for Americans though still not entirely a simple maneuver. You may have heard about relations being relaxed between the US and Cuba in July of 2015 and the shiny new embassy being opened right on the Malecón; the challenge still lies in getting to the country. While you can pay a tour group to organize your trip and fly you straight from Miami to Havana, this is excessively expensive and you’ll be stuck to an itinerary for your entire journey. Currently, this is the only way to get into Cuba with the US Government’s blessing. We opted for the less licit route, flying through Mexico City instead. This option is, admittedly, somewhat nerve-wracking given that your entry to the country is entirely at the mercy of two governments (Mexico and Cuba) who are not your own. I know you’ve heard it from every news outlet imaginable but now is the time to go. The hard reality for Cuba is that it’s infrastructure simply cannot handle the sheer amount of money that’s about to pour into the country from hotel chains and waves of legal American tourism. It’s a fragile flower floating just off the coast of Florida that’s mere months away from being swept away by the tall waves of capitalist influence.
I can’t say enough positive things about my experience in Cuba. Havana is so thickly layered in culture you could cut it with a knife; from the incredible, yet tragically crumbling architecture of a bygone era to the music playing on every corner and out of every home, this felt like a barrel-aged moment out of a Kodachrome-steeped imaginarium of sound and color. I wanted to take this trip strictly as an observer and I think I successfully accomplished this. It’s, unfortunately, rather easy to get sucked into the tourism industry in Havana (which is their main source of income, anyway) and I wanted to do my best to avoid that. If I were to do it again, I’d travel with someone who spoke Spanish fluently as the extent of mine can find me a bathroom and that’s about all. English is not widely spoken, and while I can rustle up some French in a pinch, we found that Spanish is king here even if you’re in a French hotel. I felt incredibly safe walking around the city at all times. I opted not to take my huge Nikon D810 and instead brought my Fuji X-T1 thinking it would make me a little more inconspicuous. Unfortunately, the second anyone sees you with a camera, they’re all over you to get you to come to their cousin’s restaurant or to let them give you a tour for a fee. Everyone’s in it to make a buck so be travel-wise and just say no. That being said, at no time did I feel unsafe walking around day or night. See the full writeup here.
We spent the night in Mexico City near the Zócalo, the main central square in CDMX, which was featured prominently in the opening sequence of the last James Bond film, Spectre. The next morning we were up early and headed to the airport. You purchase your visa to get into Cuba at the ticket counter once you’re through security at the Mexico City airport. It costs approximately $40 USD and you’re on your way. This process could not have gone smoother. Again, it’s nerve-wracking to leave such a crucial step in traveling up to the last possible moment but we had no issues.
The Havana airport’s a trip in-and-of itself. It’s very run down and it’s past life of being a smoking-friendly airport hangs heavy in the air. We wound up spending much more time here than we would have liked and found that the airport essentially shuts down unless there is a flight landing or taking off in the next three hours. The Cuban government mandates that you arrive at the airport three hours prior to your departure time, which we thought was a joke, but were informed that they take this very seriously and will not let you through security if you’re terribly late. More on this later. You’re allowed to carry on approximately 13kg (28lbs) onto the plane with you from Mexico City to Havana; one of our bags didn’t make this cut off and we spent about an hour and a half waiting for the bag to come up. Reason number one for why I highly recommend traveling extremely light for this trip. Given that the airport was our first impression of the country, it was interesting to see that when going through the military-run customs, no one is carrying weapons and while the male soldiers are wearing standard olive green drab uniforms, the female soldiers (of which there are many) are clearly required to step their game up, dressing in skin-tight olive green dresses and 6″ pump heels.
We had a really hard time finding good intel on places to stay and eat without overlapping with the heavily-European based tourism market. We opted to stay in a hotel, the Hotel Mercure Sevilla, which was right off of Paseo de Marti, one of the main boulevards with a pedestrian walkway down the center. The hotel was nice but definitely felt like something out of a bygone era. The best part of the hotel was the 24 hour bar in the central courtyard which served delightfully cheap mojitos, cervezas, and cuba libres set to live music at all hours. This put us in walking distance to almost anything we’d want to do including the Old City, Habana Vieja, the National Art Museum right next door, and several hotels with rooftop bars. My main goal was to wander on foot as much as possible and document daily life and I think staying where we did provided me with just that.
We did our best to only eat in Paladars, or privately-owned restaurants. Many of these are in people’s homes or in apartment buildings which can feel strange at first. There’s two benefits to eating in a Paladar; you can get food you otherwise wouldn’t see on a menu due to rationing (because…you know, communism) and your money will go to support locals instead of the government. I’ll list some of my favorites at the end including bars and a few places that I thought were worth seeing. Everyone I spoke with prior to going said how awful the food was. While this definitely wasn’t a culinary mecca, we were able to find some great places with interesting offerings.
The most fascinating thing we saw was how locals interact with the internet. Widespread access just got to Havana about a year ago with the installation of a few dozen wi-fi access points across the nation. Most hotels have relay points but, as with any access point in the country, you need to purchase wi-fi time. The going rate is about $3 per hour and you purchase a card with a scratch-off access code to let you get on. I didn’t bring a laptop, just used my iPhone, and was surprised to see how many of my apps were actually blocked. The only two I could reliably access were Facebook and Instagram, both of which are incredibly popular with Cubans. The hotels chase locals out of their lobbies, where they also sell cards at a premium for $5-6 per hour, so they head to a public access point. The closest one to us was about a ten minute walk west in Parque Fe del Valle which is a small concrete park with trees and a few benches. Kids are roaming around selling bootleg wifi cards for a premium but strikingly, it’s a sea of people standing silently staring at their phones, laptops, and tablets. The internet’s new to them and, admittedly, if I had just discovered it’s somewhat endless (censorship is, after all, a little limiting) wealth of stupid shit, I’d be glued to my device as well.
We visited a market to try to buy water, which they didn’t sell. The only fluids you can buy in a market, at least the one we visited, are dish soap and rum. The stores were interesting as everything is kept behind the counter. There are no speciality shops, no liquor stores or anything of that nature. They just have generic “shops” where they sell whatever they have available. One we walked into had portable radios, diapers, face lotion, and rum. That was it. Water was shockingly hard to come by; we were informed at the hotel that the locals avoid drinking the tap water so we should, too. I spent the trip largely dehydrated, both from heavy rum consumption and from complete lack of access to drinking water.
Walking around the city was an absolute joy. It has a jubilant post-apocalyptic feel which sounds strange but is honestly the best way I can describe it. Everyone is happy. The locals are in the streets, sitting on their doorstep chatting with neighbors and watching their kids play soccer and baseball. Buildings with the most gorgeous European-style architecture painted bright shades of green, blue, and pink are crumbling into themselves, yet fully occupied. We did notice that many people were missing windows or sometimes even entire walls in their homes. If you look at the image of the train, further down the page, there’s a man living in the blown out hole in the wall behind it. This was a fairly common sight. My understanding is that government housing (which everyone lives in as only foreigners are allowed to be land owners) costs 10% of your income per month with the average Cuban income being around $9.00 USD monthly. Factoring that into the state of disrepair in many homes we saw, it starts to make a little more sense. There isn’t a lot to go around and basic home repair takes a bottom priority.
My favorite shots were kids playing in the streets, people waiting in line with their ration cards to get their groceries, a barbershop tucked beneath a staircase in an apartment building, and more daily life stuff. Life is happening everywhere; it feels so real. Nothing felt staged, nothing felt brushed under the rug to save face for the tourism industry. Life was on full display everywhere you went and it was beautiful, filthy, and exhilarating.∗
What You Should Know Before You Go
Restaurants, bars, things to do, and tips
Top Restaurants & Bars:
- Castas & Tal: This was far and away my favorite place we ate. There aren’t many traditional Cuban dishes but their Ropa Vieja was unbelievably great. Served with plantain chips and a side of squash, rice, and beans.
- 304 O’Reilly: Sounds like an Irish pub, right? Well it ain’t. We had awesome ceviche and fish tacos here and super delicious, super cheap drinks. Two plates of ceviche, two plates of fish tacos, two mojitos, and two glasses of wine was about $38 USD. This place is quirky as hell and fills up very quickly every night. You either need a reservation nor need to get there at 5pm and expect to sit at the bar, which only has 6 seats.
- Dona Eutimia: This wasn’t my favorite meal but they definitely pour the stiffest drinks and the atmosphere alone is worth it. You sit outdoors and it’s wedged in the corner between an artist’s colony and five or six other restaurants. Great people watching and right by the big Cathedral which is also worth a quick visit.
- Mediterraneo Havana: This was about a 10 minute drive out of the old city, past the US Embassy, and into a local neighborhood. Very pretty restaurant, probably the most modern design on the inside of any we visited and definitely the cleanest. The food wasn’t spectacular but there’s a lot of it and the drinks were delicious, though a little touristy (big bowls of mojitos instead of a simple highball glass).
- The bar next-door to Fabrica de Arte Cubano FAC: We really wanted to go to the FAC which is Havana’s ultra-hip modern art museum/gallery/restaurants (yes, plural)/bar/live music venue but didn’t have the good sense to look up the hours before we went. They open at 8pm and we arrived at 3pm. Fortunately the rooftop bar (on top of the factory) was open and I’m super glad we stopped in. This was the most normal feeling place we went while we were there. Simple small plates, cheap beers and cocktails and immaculately clean. Really enjoyed it.
Things to see and do:
- Fabrica de Arte Cubano FAC: We really, really wanted to go here. It’s a massive factory leased to a group of artists by the Cuban government, which with the understanding of how the Cuban government works currently vs. how it used to work not all that long ago, is a pretty incredible circumstance. This is a complex filled with galleries, restaurants, bars, and tons of great music. Definitely off the beaten path but worth the visit. See above for one of the bars were were able to get into.
- Habana Vieja & Nueva: This was the main thing we did. Walk around the old and new parts of the city. You’ll notice that the old city is in much better shape than the new portion due to it’s standing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Definitely more touristy than the new part so if you want to see modern life for an average Cuban, head to the new city. There’s tons of stuff to see in the old portion including original castles and battlements to protect the city from attack by sea.
- National Museum of Fine Arts: This building was constructed by the Russians and definitely shows it. It’s a nice art museum with a good but not overwhelmingly large collection of modern and classical artworks. Primarily paintings with some mixed media. No photography.
Other important notes:
- For Americans, CASH IS KING. American credit cards and debit cards will not work. Exchange your money at the airport. Do not bring USD into the country as they’ll tax you an additional 10% on top of whatever you change over and this goes for Mexican Pesos as well. We brought in Euros that we picked up at a bank in the US before we left. There are two currencies, the “tourist convertible currency” and the local one. We stuck to the tourist currency and everywhere we went that’s what was preferred. It’s a 1:1 conversion but you’ll find that things like beer or cocktails cost between $2-4.00 so your money will go far here.
- Water is incredibly hard to come by so when you can drink it, get the bottles and chug it. We purchased about 3l from our hotel every day and this was barely enough but only cost around $6. Bottled water is rationed so is subject to availability.
- English is a second or third language for almost everyone here. Don’t expect people to understand you or your feeble gesticulations.
- The cool vintage cabs cost more than the regular shitty ones.
- Only buy your cigars from a government run store, which every major hotel in the city has. You can bring up to $100 back with you but you must have a receipt. We avoided all of this by not declaring anything and had no issues.
- Internet is not a right. You might purchase time and look like you’re connected but not be able to load anything. This is life in a developing nation. If you’re on at peak hours, you won’t get connected.
- If you feel like you might be getting ripped off, you probably are. Be travel wise and know when to say no.