Cuba: Havana

Our trip to Havana could be seen as a bit of an interlude. Not entirely Caribbean, like our exploits in the Lesser Antilles of weeks prior, nor entirely Central American, like our upcoming trip to Mexico. Instead, it stood as an icon of its own in the Caribbean Sea, between our origin and our destination, and a spot we had long wanted to visit. We suppose the desire to visit Cuba “before it changes forever” due to increasing American influence is a common sentiment, but the Trump administration may have bought would-be tourists some time with its newly-enacted policy. There is certainly no shortage of tourists in Havana, even American ones, but the real draw, perhaps, is its lifestyle.

Typical street scene in Havana.

We touched down in Havana on our direct flight (the one weekly occurrence of such a thing) from Guadeloupe and headed out into the city after procuring a bit of the local currency (well, the one aimed for tourist use, at least) we had exchanged from euros. Currency conversion is rather easy, since the tourist currency is pinned to the US dollar so that one dollar equals one CUC. The locals use their own currency, the peso, but those rarely fall into the hands of a tourist.

It’s a tangibly different world as soon as one enters it, eerily reminiscent of faded photographs from some time in the middle of the 1900s. Not immediately relatable by those of our generation, yet indirectly identifiable; something like stepping onto a familiar midcentury film set.

Vintage cars, and a couple non-vintage ones.

The roads were quiet, and much wider than they needed to be. The only cars in sight were a 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne, an early ’50s Oldsmobile 88, and a Zhiguli from the late ’70s: perhaps the smallest sample size of cars required to definitively identify the setting as Cuba. Where else, after all, can you see a Biscayne idling next to a VAZ-2104?

New year’s rooftop party with a whole spit-roasted pig.
Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market.

We were dropped off in the center of town, right in front of our accommodation. We used Airbnb, which some enterprising Cubans are using to leverage their vacant properties. Jorge was waiting on the curb to help us inside. He knew a few words of English, we a few of Spanish; enough of a repertoire to exchange the keys and give us some basic information about the apartment. We dropped our bags off and headed out into the night to find some food.

Havana Skyline.

The streets, on the surface, were less than inviting. Countless groups of young men were loitering in the shadows, just out of sight. Packs of stray dogs ravaged the trash-lined streets. The open doors to many a street-level apartment displayed dimly-lit living rooms, a group of cigar smoking men playing dominoes, or yet more swilling back a lowball of rum. After a few minutes of seeing a cross section of so many lives being played out in the streets, we grew comfortable with it, and started learning that Havana is actually a remarkably safe city. We hardly garnered a second look while walking streets that felt on the surface completely alien. Cuban rhythms poured from every opening in every house, with groups of people spilling out of their front doors to dance salsa on the streets.

🎵 Havana ooh na na 🎵

Due to Ian’s reliance on a decent Internet connection for his work we were more or less limited to Havana, and it was hard enough there. There is one Internet service provider in Cuba, and a vast majority of homes have no connectivity at all. Cellular data costs an arm and a leg, and foreigners have a hard time getting a SIM card. The next best option is the “WiFi parks” supported by Etecsa, the solitary ISP. There are a few parks around the city where people congregate to get access to the Internet, which involves buying a token card for a pre-allotted amount of time. The cards are meant to be sold by government offices, but in practice there are dozens of hawkers selling grey market ones in the parks themselves. 2 CUC gets you an hour of time. The connection itself can be surprisingly decent from a few of the parks, but it’s certainly hard to rely on.

WiFi park.

The week itself was largely uneventful. We relaxed, we walked quite many kilometers, we drank daiquiris and mojitos, we played dominoes, etc, etc. One of our friends from Utila lives in Cuba as well, and we met up with her a few times which was lovely as well. We bought a nice little humidor and some cigars, which we suppose is something that most visitors to Cuba do, at least the cigar part. Cigars in Cuba are an absolute racket, and it’s very easy to get utterly ripped off by buying purportedly authentic cigars from less than trustworthy sources. Buying them in the shop isn’t much better, and you’ll spend a hefty sum doing so. The best option is finding a trustworthy source, which is usually somebody who has connections in the factories, and is able to pocket a few here and there. Fortunately we made such a connection, and bought a box of Partagas Serie D No 4s for a not outrageous sum of money, plus a couple of Cohibas to fill out the newly-purchased humidor. Finding distilled water in that part of the world was a different matter altogether, but we eventually did find some a few days later in Mexico. Humidors, for their part, can be a racket too, with tourists paying dearly for a shoddy one hardly worth its weight. We did our research, and spoke with several people better-versed in that sort of thing than we, and ended up getting ours at a very affordable price from a merchant at the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market.

The goods.
A bar.
One of the trendier streets in Old Havana.

We also celebrated new year’s eve in Havana, which was a bit more boring than we were expecting. Our Airbnb host invited us down to one of his ground floor apartments to celebrate. Apparently that apartment had guests too, which had been turned into party hosts for the night without really knowing what they were getting into. We spent much of our time watching reggaeton music videos on a giant projector in the back. The food, which our host’s family cooked, was quite good, and there was no shortage of it. We ventured out into the night with another party guest, who was the Belgian friend of the Belgian brother-in-law of our Airbnb host, in search for a continuation of the night’s events. The streets were still fairly lively, but the partying was largely confined to private spaces, and the one or two bars that were still open were packed to the gunwales. We settled on a dimly-lit salsa club with eight or ten other people. It proved not particularly exciting, so we left, and ultimately headed home around 2am. The following day we switched accommodation to the casa particular of the Belgian brother-in-law. It was a considerably nicer place for cheaper, and with a more personal touch than the Airbnb.

New year’s party with our new Belgian friend.
Party time.

On another night we caught a glimpse of an actual local bar, frequented by locals. The power went out at our casa, and Ian was working from the park, so we convened at the unassuming bar across the street. The tile floor was dirty, with decades of wear. The other patrons were under varying degrees of intoxication. The bartender had several bottles of one type of low end white rum, and nothing else, so rum in a glass was all you could get. It was certainly cheap though, with the bill for some twelve drinks coming in at a little over $2.

Nameless rum in an unknown bar.

At any rate, we came, we saw, and we absorbed a bit of the much sought-after culture and lifestyle of Cuba. It was fun, and we could certainly imagine ourselves spending a bit more time some place a bit farther off the tourist trail than Havana, but we’ll have to save that for next time.

Palatial regalia.


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