For many years, my wonderful nephew, Matt, and I wanted to visit Cuba. (And yes, we wanted to see it “before the change”) With President Obama, the House of Chanel, and Carnival Cruises all making their way to the jewel in the Caribbean crown, we decided there was no time like the present. It was a fantastic trip, made all the better by our delightful traveling companion and Matt’s good friend, Andy. In addition to drinking a lot rum or “ron” as the Cubanos say, we saw much of the unblemished Cuban countryside, swam in the Caribbean’s most pristine waters, and had a lot of laughs. As much as it was fun (how could traveling with two adorable, twenty-something gents not be fun?), our trip was also profound. Cuba’s storied relationship with colonialism, capitalism, and communism was always in the background and “the change” seemed both right now and very far away.
Let’s get back to the fun. Press play to begin.
We arrived in Havana on a sunny Saturday afternoon via Mexico City. Traveling to and from Cuba was surprisingly stress-free. I even had my passport stamped! I recommend traveling with AreoMexico. AeroMexico was highly organized and had decently-priced tickets. Perfect for the American Turista.
For most of our time in Cuba, we stayed in casas particulares. These are Cubans’ private homes and apartments. They are inexpensive and for $3-$5 more a day provide breakfast (generally the best meal going in Cuba). They also offer the tourist a tiny view into the life of the average Cuban. We arranged our casas via ReservasCubas, a booking agency run by Katia Ferrer. Katia was excellent – helpful and reliable. The apartments we stayed in were clean with private bathrooms, air conditioning, and (mostly) comfortable beds.
NOTE: When you book with Katia, be sure to ask for the nicest accommodations and private apartments otherwise you might end up staying folks you don’t know and, even worse, sharing a bathroom with them – something the CCC cannot abide by on vacation!
For first-time tourists, Old Havana or Habana Vieja is the place to stay. The neighborhood is centrally located and it’s easy to get everywhere on foot (a good way to experience Havana). It’s also a neighborhood in transition. Old Havana’s long neglected architectural beauties are slowly but surely being restored and revitalized. This revitalization is the brain child of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian of Havana.
In 1994, Spengler founded Habaguanex as a private holding company to earn hard currency through tourism and re-invest those funds in historical preservation and urban regeneration efforts. Habaguanex took advantage of the Cuban government’s renewed interest in tourism after the fall of the Soviet Union and during the “Special Period in Time of Peace” – a period that was neither special nor peaceful for the Cuban people. Today, Habaguanex’s annual income, from its 20 tourist hotels and 30 museums, is approximately US$160 million. The company divides these funds between social projects, like schools, and continued restoration efforts, like Habana Vieja.
On my next trip to Havana, I am planning to stay in one Habaguanex’s beautiful hotels, like the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. So much for the casas particulares 😉
Havana Old and New
Yes. You must take a ride in one of Cuba’s ubiquitous vintage American asphalt boats. It’s kitschy tourist fun but also profound as you, once again, collide into Cuba’s past and present. After Castro’s communist revolution in 1959 the US initiated an embargo against Cuba. El Bloqueo as it is known in Cuba is the longest running trade embargo in modern history. If one owned a car pre-Bloqueo, one could keep it. Otherwise no new cars for Cuba. Owning a car in Cuba is critical as public transportation is inadequate nationwide. When used as a taxi, one’s 1951 Chevrolet provides an important source of income and access to the peso convertible or CUC – the currency used by all tourists and pegged to the US dollar.
Cubans employed by the government, like physicians and nurses, are paid in the peso cubano or CUP and earn about $30/month. The CUP is worth much less than the CUC (1 CUC=25 CUP; 1CUP=0.40USD). There are stores that sell goods using the CUP but many consumer goods like computers are priced at the CUC making them inaccessible to most Cubans. That’s life in a two-tiered economy where a taxi driver can make more money than a doctor.
There is a light at the end of this two-tiered tunnel, as Raul Castro, who assumed power from his brother in 2008, slowly and steadily modernizes the Cuban economy. In 2010, Cubans were allowed to own private businesses like taxis, casas particulares, and paladares. In 2013, Cubans were allowed to purchase foreign cars. Additionally, Raul Castro is working towards doing away with the CUP.
And you thought you were just going for a silly ride in a kitschy car. It’s the two-tiered tourist experience of Cuba: fun and profound.
In Alejandro’s Chevy along el Malecon.
We found our vintage kitsch and most charming driver, Alejandro, at the Plaza de San Francisco. We negotiated a price of 20CUC for a 45 minute ride. When I mentioned something about Jose Marti (it helps to speak a little Spanish and to know who Jose Marti is), a 45-minute tourist jaunt turned into a 90-minute personalized tour of Alejandro’s Havana.
Alejandro also let us drink Bucaneros (Cuba’s answer to malt liquor) in his precious automobile. Cuba, may you never discover open-container laws.
While vintage cars are a direct link to Cuba’s past, La Fabrica de Arte Cubano is a pathway to its future. Founded by X Alfonso in a former cooking oil factory, La Fabrica is a massive space where Cuba’s artistic and youth cultures coalesce and where the American tourist can marvel at it all. My recommendation is you go the first week-end of your trip (it’s open Thursday through Sunday), get there early (it opens at 8pm), and stay late (it closes at 3am). It’s a cultural party you don’t want to miss.
Havana Eating, Drinking, and Smoking (well, really just drinking and smoking)
We heard it’s getting better but the food in Havana and Cuba in general is not so good. However, it is fun to eat at a paladar and witness Cuban enterprise, industry, and creativity at work. One of our favorite spots was Cafe Laurent, a beautiful penthouse transformed into a restaurant. Located in Vedado, a tony neighborhood where American gangsters once lived and played (among other things), Cafe Laurent served up pretty good albondigas, even better mojitos, and a knock-out view.
I am not just saying this because I am the California Cocktail Camper but the best way to experience Cuba is through its rum, coffee, and tobacco with lots of live music thrown in. One of our favorite places was the Hotel Conde de Villanueva (where I want to stay on my next visit). The hotel is home to the one of the world’s most famous cigar shops, La Casa del Habano. It’s a perfect place to sit, drink, smoke, talk, drink, smoke, talk, sit. They also had very decent ladies room.
NOTE: Public restrooms in Cuba. Hmmm…Not always the cleanest, you have to pay to use them (usually just a peso), and they are often short on the amenities like toilet paper. The CCC’s recommendation: always carry kleenex, small change, and hand sanitizer in your bag.
An excellent book on the history of Cuban ron is Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten. Recommended by Andy, Gjelten tells Cuba’s history by way of the Bacardi family and its rum empire. It’s great preparation for your trip to Cuba and you will certainly learn who Jose Marti is!