We've compiled all our Havana recommendations into a printable map and guide.
In March, we ventured out of the capitalist world for the first time and into communist Cuba. Steph had wanted to go to Cuba for years, ever since she edited stories about Cuba as part of her first job. As with Berlin, she was fascinated by a place with so much living history. She wanted to see how U.S. policy had shaped Cuba and to understand how Cuba was changing as it slowly liberalized. Cuba wasn't necessarily at the top of my destination list, and we weren't thrilled about sneaking into Cuba illegally, so we initially prioritized other destinations. But when Obama announced the loosening of travel restrictions in 2015, we knew that we had to go.
|Plaza de la Catedral in Habana Vieja|
|Streets in Habana Vieja|
After we arrived at our casa and I tried to pay the $25 CUC, he of course claimed he had no change for $30, and just wanting to get out of his car, we didn't argue. (Fortunately most of the other drivers we dealt with afterward were much more savory.)
Some time before we arrived, the ceiling-mounted A/C unit in our room broke off its mount, so we were put in a smaller room for the first night while it was repaired, sharing the owner's bathroom by night and crawling (literally) through the workers' scaffolding in the afternoon.
We had made a reservation that first night at O'Reilly 304, a very highly-recommended paladar (privately-owned restaurant). It turns out they have two locations across the street from each other, and we had unknowingly booked the newer one, a terrace on the second floor of a building with no signage at all on the front door. The food was excellent: we ate gazpacho, lobster risotto, seared tuna with teriyaki, and mojitos and daiquiris with generous proportions of rum.
painting of a coffeepot), the Plaza de Armas with its used book fair (full of biographies of revolutionary figures and some cocktail recipe books). The Museo de la Ciudad was unfortunately closed for renovation. (Likewise with the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions.)
|Restored Museo de Arte Colonial in Habana Vieja|
Leal reinvests half of the profits in new preservation work and half in social programs, such as establishing health clinics, schools and senior living centers in the old city. ...
He is keenly aware of a paradox at the center of his life’s work: The tourism that is saving Old Havana could destroy it. A familiar pattern in tourist meccas around the world is for waves of comparatively rich visitors to overwhelm and distort local culture. Leal’s solution is to preserve people as much as buildings; he is trying to create an infrastructure for daily life to continue.We walked down Calle Mercaderes (one of the beautifully restored streets) and ate lunch at NAO Bar, another of the city's privately-owned paladares. The food was pretty decent, with black bean "hummus," fried yuccas, deep-fried "malanga" fritters (a Havana staple), gazpacho, and coffee over ice. There was a 2010 edition of the Moon Cuba guide in our second casa, and it described how a few years prior, there were 600 paladares, but only 40 left in 2010. Today there are again hundreds, many of them excellent, but it highlighted the wild swings in Cuban fortunes.
|Afternoon beer at a "microbrewery" in Plaza Vieja|
He took us to a bunch of places we wouldn't have thought to go as tourists, like the Parque Almendares on the western side of the city, where we watched a real Santeria ceremony and he explained the voodoo dolls strewn around the grounds (and lamented the lack of resources to keep the park clean). See photos from Parque Almendares.
We walked through the banquet halls of the Hotel Nacional – notorious for hosting, in 1946, the largest gathering of American mafia bosses in history – with walls covered in photos of celebrities and world leaders that stayed at the hotel. Obama stayed at the same hotel later that week — maybe his photo will be up the next time we visit. We saw crews setting up the stage where the Rolling Stones were scheduled to play two weeks later. We drove through the neighborhood where foreign diplomats live, and past one of Fidel Castro's former homes. (For the last twenty years or so, Nacho has been a freelancer, making a living with photography, musical event planning, and tour guiding.)
|View of the street from our casa|
We checked out the Almacenes de San José craft market. Some of the paintings were cool and original, there were some interesting wood pieces, but for the most part the wares were repetitive and not that appealing.
|Sunset over the Malecón|
|Hotel Nacional, host to the largest gathering of American mafia bosses in history in 1946|
So when we tried to buy a calling card, the clerk said $10 CUC (=$10 US), and we were about to pay when the clerk asked us which countries we wanted to call. "Just to Havana" - "oh just Havana! then you don't need this card, you want a local card" - for $10 moneda nacional (40¢ US)!. But there was a catch-22: We didn't have any MNs, and they wouldn't accept CUCs for the local cards; but the cadeca at the airport wouldn't give MNs to foreigners. As we had this dialogue, a man in the adjacent line pulled out a $10MN bill from his wallet and slid it across the counter toward us. (And he wouldn't take CUC in exchange for it!) So we had a calling card, which proved to be very useful. (And we never needed MNs again for the rest of the trip.)
The huge differential between the CUC and MN economies isn't just a result of the influx of tourist dollars - Cuban exiles in the U.S. are sending a lot of money back to their families (the first casa we stayed at seemed to be run in some kind of partnership with relatives in Miami), and the locals running successful private businesses are earning incomes in CUCs (a casa particular room costs around $35 CUC), so that money recirculates. There is talk of Cuba unifying its currencies and only using MN. With the U.S. embargo (which is essentially a global banking embargo) starting to come down, and foreign money flooding in, it's going to be fascinating to see how the Cuban economy handles the transition. Will there be millions of people unable to afford basic goods, resentful at government layoffs and foreigners pricing them out of their neighborhoods? Or will government workers smoothly transition off the public payroll as more industries open to private enterprise? Will a flood of foreign cash cause excessive inflation, as tourists start filling the cheap eateries previously only intended for locals? Or can the Communist government foster a sustainable growth rate?
|Six lanes of traffic along the Malecon and no crosswalks|
After lunch we went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and enjoyed six centuries of paintings of the Cuban countryside and people. The top floor was "post-Revolutionary" art, and it was actually hard to tell if a lot of the pieces were pro- or anti-revolution. I would have assumed the former, because it's a state-run art museum, but they sure didn't look pro-Communist. Like one piece depicting workers having their brains removed certainly looked like a dig at Communism to me. Or maybe it was a dig at capitalist workers. Or maybe the artist was messing with everyone, who knows. Anyway, the museum was definitely worth the visit.
The Old Man and the Sea (written in Havana and about a Havana fisherman) and Steph read Telex from Cuba, about Americans in Cuba during the revolution.
|Fidel, Che, and Camilo|
Our dinner plan didn't go so well either. We had made a 9 p.m. reservation at Ivan Chef Justo, recommended online as one of the best in Havana. We got there at 8:55 and were asked to wait 25 minutes. OK, no problem. After 30 minutes or so, we asked if we could get drinks at the bar while we were waiting. (Their bar was more of a station for mixing drinks to bring to tables, rather than to sit at, but we made it work.) We were finally seated after 10 p.m. The menu was on a chalkboard with titles and no explanations. The waiter rattled off descriptions in Spanish and immediately asked us what we wanted to order. Um, how about a minute to think about it. 15 seconds later, he's back trying to upsell us on a bottle of wine and asking for our order. Steph ordered the paella, and was informed it would take another 45 minutes to prepare. At this point we were pretty annoyed - this was supposed to be one of the top paladars in the city, not a crotchety government restaurant - so we just left. Quite hungry by this point, we were saved by O'Reilly 304 (where we had eaten the previous night at their "terrace" across the street) - this time we lucked out on the last open table at their main location, and ate another fantastic meal. There was even a jazz trio playing a set, a long and very well-improvised jazz rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't she lovely."
Continued: Havana, part 2
- Ben (photos by Steph)