Cuba. It’s a country of contradictions, worn away at the edges by time and disuse. Derelict, paint-peeling mansions, their former colour gradually disappearing, sit blocks away from the refurbished European opera house and polished tourist areas. Shiny 1940’s convertibles rattle along the waterfront, held together with duct tape and spewing fumes from a lawnmower engine. Light and noise spills from open doorways on warm evenings as families sit round ancient television sets and music clashes with nearby speaker systems. Groups of people sit silently in plazas peering at cellphone screens, illuminated with the blue tinge of facebook messenger, while posters and murals acclaiming ‘la revolucion’, that success of modern communism, adorn every wall. Tourists eat lobster daily in private paladars next door to local supermarkets straight from the 50’s, the shelves behind the counter empty save for a few cartons of eggs and mayonnaise.
We spent a week traipsing through the streets of Havana, celebrating a non-Christmas in Cienfuegos, and feeling confined by fellow tourists in the colonial bustle of Trinidad. I can’t pretend to know it – in fact, I feel even more confused than when Cuba existed as just a vague idea in my head, rather than a jumbled week of real colours, sounds, people and history. This post is an attempt to unscramble those, along with a few recommendations of our favourite haunts in Havana.
From speaking with locals, it is clear that Cuba has changed drastically in the past five years: with the influx of tourists and their foreign currency, whose numbers are growing so quickly that there aren’t the resources to accommodate them; the advent of wifi hotspots, albeit at a cost of $2 an hour, prohibitive to many Cubans; and an increase in overseas government and UNESCO funding for restoration of certain areas. Since 2008, there’s also been El Paquete – the underground hard drive distributed weekly containing over a terabyte of the latest films, TV shows and music from around the world. No one knows who compiles it – one theory was that it is a government initiative to ‘keep the people happy’, noting that it would be near impossible for any person or group to download that much on regular Cuban wifi.
Though their free medical care and education is often touted as a sign of revolutionary success, it seems that also comes with strings. Connections are necessary to obtain healthcare – otherwise you might be waiting forever, and school fees and book costs can be too steep for a typical Cuban salary. Waste overflows from rarely emptied rubbish bins, roads are riddled with potholes and and forlorn lettuce leaves are sold by the roadside. And that’s not to mention the lack of freedom of speech, or the one-sided, state sponsored media. The only real money coming in is through tourism. Two currencies now operate: the CUC, or tourist currency (matched 1:1 with the euro) and the CUP, or local currency – worth about 1/25th. Needless to say, the CUP doesn’t buy much. It seems, as an outsider, as though the dual currency system is creating tiers in Cuban society – the haves, and the have-nots. Those who work in tourism, and have an income measured in CUCs (private BnB’s and restaurants are similarly priced to overseas), and those who work in state jobs, where the salaries range from $10 to $60USD per month – whether you are a doctor, engineer or street sweeper. It’s not surprising that there has been a mass youth exodus from the country.
If I had just 24 hours in Havana, I would:
- Start with breakfast at your casa particular – standard fare at these private bed and breakfast style establishments seems to be fruit, juice and eggs.
- Take a morning classic car tour: both to orientate yourself, and as a chance to see other areas of the city than the well-beaten tourist tracks around Old Havana. Diplomat row, filled with mansions from countries that have been friends to Cuba, was particularly worth a drive-by (the recently reopened US embassy is located elsewhere). Owning a car is something like a fortune for a Cuban family – their rarity as well as the opportunity to be a tourist taxi driver makes them worth 10 times as much as in any other country. Cars are passed down in families like heirlooms, and often have over a million miles on the clock. Visit Fusterlandia during your tour – the vibrant project of Jose Fuster, an artist who has decorated his house and those around with complex tile mosaics.
- Head to El Dandy, a small coffee shop in old Havana, for caffeine or a cool lemonade as you explore the area.
- Take a tour of the newly renovated Opera House, where Obama gave his speech during his visit to Havana.
- Lunch at El Chanchullero, which offers cheap, giant plates of salads and bread rolls.
- Get a glimpse of the old glamor of party-central Havana over an afternoon mojito at the Hotel Nacional, with views over the ocean.
- Wander the Malecon at sunset, the 8km waterfront boulevard that doubles as a local hangout. It’s also lined by decrepit colonial mansions, in an area that would be prime real estate anywhere else in the world.
- Book 304 O’Reilly for dinner – it was the best food we ate in the country, though the yardstick is a little different. Be prepared to hear “that’s run out” when ordering, as ingredients are sporadic and hard to come by.
Now that direct flights are operating straight from New York and Europe, massive cruise ships pour out foreigners daily, and the impacts of both Fidel Castro’s death and a Trump presidency have yet to play out, Cuba is changing faster than ever. It’s well worth a visit in the near future – my only advice would be to try to learn a little about the history of the revolution and the current realities of living there, and talk to locals about their opinions and lives as much as possible.