Cuba 2016 — La Habana

The last time I was in Cuba I got stuck there for 10 days with no money; or at least money in a currency anyone there accepted. I thought I’d be slick by bringing Dominican Pesos so as not to get charged the extra 10% for dollars.  My choppy internet connection in Santo Domingo fatefully went down as I was confirming accepted currencies in Cuba, but I thought to myself in logical “1st world” common sense; “Hey it’s the island right next door, OF COURSE they’ll take Dominican pesos!”

What followed was a 10 day saga of trying every which way to change my Dominican pesos to Cuban currency — Banks, Embassies, Dominican Businessmen—but nada.  Salvation came in two ways; first in the only time I have EVER called my parents for help in over 50 countries (my closest friend had fearfully refused my collect call from Cuba since he worked at a Finance firm). My dad hooked up my checking account to a Canadian credit card which took 10 days to get there.  Our other saviors (to whom I am eternally grateful) came in the form of Maritza y Manolo; the owners of what was then a new Casa Particular in La Habana.  They took enough of a chance (pity?) on us to let us stay for free, and fed us for 10 days until we found a way to get cash.

Fast forward seven years and Maritza Y Manolo are now the No.3 rated Casa Particular on Trip Advisor (they cracked No.1 at one point).  The same level of courtesy they’d shown us had been felt by people all over the world who’d also stayed with them; and after 7 years word had gotten around. Maritza had almost become an industry.  Of course on my return to La Habana; I not only stayed at one their Apts, but brought gifts and took them out to dinner again. Maritza hooked up a nice itinerary for us; I saw some of Cuba last time but now I’d do it right.

We came to Cuba now because Taylor and I are concerned it will soon start to go the way of Cancun.  By that I mean the way untouched Cancun became what Acapulco was; America’s backyard/playground. In succession Playa Del Carmen is now becoming Cancun, and previously untouched Tulum will soon become Playa Del Carmen and so on.  But even without Americans being fully let loose here, it’s already started to happen.

I don’t remember touts in Old Havana the last time I was here. Granted; if you say “no, thanks” they will simply kindly thank you and move on.  And while it is by no means like Egypt and India (who take a bow for the most aggressive touts in the world); there is more of a hustle to the way they will try to get your business that wasn’t there before (Capitalism rearing its head?). Maybe it’s because this time I was bringing a white american woman with me, and could not camouflage as easily.  But even dropping spanish, which will instantly warm up folks in other spanish-speaking countries, I still noticed a bit of a wall. Not the immediate embracing warmth I remember from last time.

Nevertheless between themselves, the spirit of the Cuban people remains as effervescent as ever; in a nice stark contrast to the dilapidated buildings in so much of La Habana.  That’s changed as well; A LOT of the city has been upgraded and fixed up like they do with all the awesome American cars from the 50’s. Especially areas by El Malecon and other highly visited tourist spots.

Our first day there we actually tried running along the Malecon at about 10am. This was a baaaad idea as not only was the sidewalk pretty rough; but the sun is already blasting and blaring by then. We stopped shorter than we’d hoped, but got to see a lot of Vedado that way and more awesome 50’s cars driving along with people looking at us like we were crazy to run in the sun.

Other highlights were finding a rooftop bar on top of the hotel Dos Mundos where Hemingway used to stay at, and being able to see La Habana from up high while getting cocktails that were only $3 US dollars equivalent. While we don’t normally partake in foo-foo drinks; the Pina Colada “Especial” which comes inside of a pineapple; was some next level shit.  As a huge Hemingway fan, Taylor also got to touch one of his typewriters on the way up to the roof and later we also had Mojitos at La Bodeguita; his favorite bar to get them back in the day.  All this took place within Old Havana; which continues to charm with its old plazas.  Further out a Coco Taxi ride away we also found a high rise in Vedado that had a bar on the 33rd floor.  This offered yet another view of La Habana and the sea. But the best ocean-side view was at the Hotel Nacional’s patio area.

We also stopped at the Tobacco factory; where we got to walk around and see how they make Cohibas and others of the best cigars in the world (or so I thought until I had a REAL indigenous Cuban cigar in Viñales, which I’ll explain in a future post). Nevertheless at a shockingly cheap $10 a pop, we picked up a few.

A trip to Cuba wouldn’t be worth it without some music, after all this is the home of Mambo; Salsa’s father and the root of so much music comes from here.  We found out that the Buena Vista Social Club had kinda turned into Wu-Tang, where if even just one member is present, that band/show will get branded as “Buena Vista Social Club” for the tourists even though that original group is not all together anymore.  Instead we went to El Barrio Negro (The Black Neighborhood) where in El Callejon De Hammel on Sundays you can hear some real local shit, some Rumba. It was fantastic. Within the rhythms you could hear the meeting/clash of Africa and Latin America. Much like Cuba, a meeting point between Africa and the Americas; it was all inherent in the music. We stood there hypnotized and moving for a good while.

Paladar La Guarida was our most unique restaurant experience as it’s housed upstairs inside of a dilapidated 20th century palace/building that’s still falling apart but being reconstructed. And regular folks live in other parts of the building.  Here we also ran into a gaggle of Americans who were being bused from place to place in one of those chartered $8,000/person tours that lets you come to Cuba legally.  We quickly separated from them, lest we get swallowed up by the cattle.

This after all is the reason we came to Cuba now, to get here before mobs of my fellow Americans overrun the place, and to do it independently and to see more of the raw Cuba the tours won’t show us.  More of the raw will be detailed next week in the next part of our Cuba trip; Viñales and Trinidad.