In December of 1956, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and 80 other revolutionaries sailed a small yacht called Granma from Mexico to the shores of Cuba. Three years later, the corrupt miltary dictator Batista was ousted from power, which led to a 50 year period of rule under Fidel Castro until 2006, when he stepped down and relinquished power to his brother, Raul. The complicated and often contradictory nature of Cuban history, particularly in the last half of the twentieth century, has left it in what many believe to be a “time-warp,” with dilapitaded buildings running along the shorelines of Havana, and classic American cars rolling through its streets. Yet, Cuba is a vibrant country, filled with some of most open and welcoming people I have met on my travels.
Thanks to the recent easing of travel restrictions to Cuba, Americans can now travel there under 12 categories, one of which includes “people to people- educational activities” and one of which is “professional research”. With the introduction of direct flights from New York, I knew the time to go was now.
Along the Malecon in Havana
After a short flight from New York, we arrived in Havana in the afternoon, breezed through customs, and waited outside for our driver to pick us up. When visiting Cuba, you have two options for accomodations; expensive colonial era hotels, or Casa particulares. Over the last few years, the Cuban government has allowed people to engage in limited forms of free-enterprise such as renting out rooms in their houses, and opening up private restaurants. For around 20–50 dollars, you can stay with a Cuban family and get a cultural immersion experience that would not be available to you if you chose to stay in hotels. Before we had left for Cuba, I had arranged three houses for accomodations through Airbnb, although if you were to just show up, there are thousands of Casas in Havana alone; you would have no problem finding one. Actually, this wound up happening to us as the women I had arranged to stay with emailed me the night before we left to cancel, but arranged for us to stay with her friend, and sent a driver to the airport to pick us up.
As we drove through the outer, rundown barrios that mark the space between central Havana and the airport, with crystal clear, Caribbean skies over head, our driver was quite candid about US/Cuba relations. He told us that since the US and Cuba started to normalize relations, there hasn’t been that much of an increase in American tourism. He seemed frustrated that there still existed any limitations, and told us that if the US and Cuba were to completely normalize relations “everyone would benefit, except for five assholes” alluding to Marco Rubio and other Cuban-American US Senators.
Although I enjoyed our candid cab ride, I was excited when we finally arrived into Central Havana. All the cliches and stereotypes you hear about Havana; old cars, dilapidated buildings, etc, are true, but there is so much more to this aging beauty they call the “Jewel of the Caribbean”
After a little bit of a fiasco with our first Casa, we asked our driver if he could find us a place to stay closer to Havana Vieja; the old, cobblestoned streets of Havana that has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. After many phone calls, he finally found us a room located right on Obispo, a main tourist thoroughfare in the older part of the city.
We were greeted on the street by Daisy, a Cuban Abuela whose daughter, Mary Diaz, rents out three rooms just up the stairs. With a perfect location and welcoming family, we threw down our bags and headed out to explore the busy streets of Old Havana. We made our way over to the Plaza de la Catedral first. Home of the Catedral de San Cristobal, the cobblestone plaza exudes all the old world charm of European colonialism.
After strolling around a bit, we decided to stop for lunch at one of the many cafes with outdoor seating. Trying to avoid an overpriced tourist trap, we opted for a restuarant a block off the plaza. While enjoying a simple meal of chicken and rice, washed down with a mojito, we were suddenly serenaded by one of the local bands that travel from restuarant to restuarant trying to make some cash. As Cuba has two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists, to be able to earn the CUC (which is a one to one conversion rate with the US dollar), is a great way for Cubans to make a little extra spending money. Through their food and healthcare are provided for, free-enterprise capitalism is a long ways off, but the recent opening up of restrictions has allowed some, particularly those in the tourism industry, to make a decent living.
From lunch, we found our way over to La Bodeguita del Medio, one of the handful of bars made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who spent the last few years of his life enjoying the many pleasantries of this Caribbean Jem. Allegedly, here is where Hemingway preferred his mojito, and La Floridita, another touristed bar on the Hemingway trail, is where he enjoyed his daiquiris. In fact, it is said that Mojitos were first invented here in 1942. Yet, Hemingway is not the only famous patron of La Bodeguita del Medio. Infamous Chillean president Salvador Allende also visitied, along with many other famous politicians, celebrities, and writers.
We hopped up to the bar and grabbed two bar stools, just as the slew of day-trippers had to get back to their cruises. Even if the overpriced mojito was not the best I’ve ever had, the atmosphere and history of the place is worth it, if you can get there when there aren’t hoards of Hemingway groupies waiting to get inside.
At this point in the day, and what has become a custom for our first day arriving in other countries, we were starting to get a little sloshed. With no real agenda, other than a list of Hemingway sites I wanted to check off, we strolled the streets of Havana Viega, hopping in and out of bars. Along the way, we noticed that many places were being cleaned up or restored, likely to make it more presentable to the increasing tourism boom that has ensued in the last 10 years.
After strolling around a bit, we walked over to the Plaza de Armas, before stumbling upon the Hotel Ambos Mundas, also known as “the Hemingway Hotel” because he famoulsly penned parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls here on the 5th floor. Feeding my Hemingway obsession, we saddled up to the piano bar in the lobby first, though it wasn’t very interesting or fun. We soon realized however, that one could ride the iron-gated elevator up to the top floor for one of the best views of the city, and oh yeah, there’s a bar up there as well.
After another drink, this time a Cuba Libre, we strolled around some more, taking in the classic American cars and rundown buildings, eventually finding our way over to the Malecon, undoubtedly my favorite place in Havana.
A sea-wall turned pedestrian stroll, the Malecon runs along the Northern part of Havana, with old, faded and worn classical buildings on one side, and Miami just to the North. As we strolled along, with the sun-setting in the distance, 1957 Chevys cruising down the highway, and waves crashing up against the wall, we came across many Cubans fishing, laughing, playing music, and just, simply, enjoyng life.