Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Cuba: Havana

May 1, 2016
Strolling along the Malecón in the evening

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
There are still no direct commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba, so we first spent a night in Cancun to allow for not-unlikely delays and left for Havana the next morning. As the plane entered Cuban airspace, the flight attendants sprayed the cabin with a scented disinfectant, with a vague explanation and assurance that the spray was not harmful. The passport control lines were long – each visitor had their photo taken – and the lines we picked kept stopping due to outages on the agents' computers. Eventually we reached a station where we were asked to fill out a health declarations form (we mistakenly said we had come through Mexico; most of the other passengers said something else and skipped this step). The next step was the cadeca (abbreviation for casa de cambio) to change our Canadian dollars to Cuban convertible pesos, aka CUCs (pronounced "Cucs"). (We used Canadian dollars because there was a conversion penalty on USD.)

Streets in Habana Vieja
Our casa particular had arranged a taxi for us (for the same standard $25 CUC as getting one ourselves), and the car was modern by Cuban standards, a beat-up but still probably 21st-century Chinese sedan. Like all the cars we rode in Cuba, there were no seat belts. The driver drove like a maniac (creating a third middle lane in a two-lane highway) and shouted on the phone the whole ride. The road from the airport to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) was full of propaganda billboards, with slogans such as Patria o muerte, ¡venceremos! - "Fatherland or death, we shall overcome!" (There is no advertising anywhere in the country, except the signs on stores themselves.) At one point the driver made an extended gas/pit stop. He left the doors closed, and the window handles were missing. It was 80 degrees outside and humid, so we opened the doors. The wind against the open doors caused the car to start rolling backwards into the street... I reached forward and pulled the hand brake.

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.)

The casa where we stayed for the first three nights wasn't very good, but the location in Old Havana was great. It was on the third floor of a semi-restored, five-story building. Each floor had two apartments, with the front doors leading to open walkways off of which were several rooms. Over the walkway's waist-high railing (which you didn't want to lean against too hard), one could look across to the other apartment's walkway, or down the building's open center to the ground. (The structure makes sense for a hot climate before air conditioning.)

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.

On that first evening, after putting down our bags, we went out to explore. Like many in the neighborhood, our street was being renovated and was full of ditches, some 4x4 feet wide and at least that deep. Only the narrowest cars could maneuver around these, and we narrowly skirted their edges in bicycle taxis over the next few days. Our street also had a disproportionate number of jineteros, hustlers who surrounded us offering "help" of all kinds. No, gracias.

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.

On our second morning in Havana, we covered some basic tourist sites: the Plaza de la Catedral, the Taller Experimental de Gráfica (artists' workshop, where we bought a small 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
The colonial section of the city founded in 1519, Habana Vieja is a neighborhood of fascinating contrasts — decrepit buildings stand next to artfully restored colonial palaces and cobblestoned walkways intersect with rubble-strewn alleys. A few years after the Cuban revolution, the government planned to pave over a street when one of the city's preservationists, Eusebio Leal, lay down in front of the trucks to save it. Over the following decades, Leal saved hundreds of landmark buildings in Habana Vieja and restored them to their former splendor. From a very interesting article about the Havana Historian's Office:
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
At 2 p.m. we had scheduled an "Old Car Tour" in a 1955 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. (Because where else would we be able to ride a beautiful antique like that?) Supposedly the only Eldorado remaining in the country, the car was in pretty great condition. The speedometer ironically had markings up to 180 MPH, but the driver drove very conservatively. I wondered if the motor was original – it sounded very smooth, unlike most of the other cars on the road, but having never driven a 1955 Cadillac before, I had nothing to compare it to.

The novelty of the car itself wore off fairly quickly, but the tour was fantastic. Our English-speaking tour guide, named Nacho, had been an interpreter for the government years back, and had some amazing stories, including organizing a 1992 summit to review the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and escorting and translating for Robert McNamara. As we looked at a bunker next to the Hotel Nacional, he recounted how people partied in bomb shelters during that month with U.S. warships on the horizon — if the world is about to end, might as well enjoy it.

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
Wednesday morning, we went to a bank to change more Canadian dollars to CUCs. It operated like a normal bank, with a short line for the tellers, and we were in and out in 15 minutes. (European tourists we met were able to use their debit cards at ATMs; the U.S. banking embargo still prevents Americans from doing that.) Next we went to an Infotur office (one of the state tourism agencies) to inquire about a few things: First, we wanted to know if it was feasible to visit the tobacco-growing town of Viñales without staying overnight (we ended up booking a tour, more on that below). Second, we had heard about several contemporary dance troupes in Havana and wanted to see a show, but being offline and not seeing any newspapers for sale, needed some help finding schedules. We were unlucky on this front: they all either had no shows that week, or were performing ballets, which didn't interest us.

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
We did take advantage of the ETECSA (state telephone company) branch in the building, however, to buy a local phone card, for making dinner reservations. This was an interesting interaction that involved Cuba's two currencies, which reflect its dual economies: government salaries and services for locals (like food shops for staple goods) use moneda nacional (US$1 = MN$25) and generally involve very small sums, but any service that might cater to tourists is transacted in "convertible pesos" (aka CUCs), which as of this month is back to a 1:1 peg with the U.S. dollar. For example, a piña colada cost $3 CUC, a taxi ride between $5-10, a meal at a good paladar at least $10 CUC per person (and the best ones much more), while the stats still say the average Cuban makes less than $50 US equivalent per month, in moneda nacional.

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
For lunch we took a bicycle taxi to El Chanchullero — which the guidebook described as a small, clamorous, graffiti-ridden dive-bar serving up fresh food and well-made drinks — but it was closed for renovations. Instead we walked to La Terraza, overlooking the Capitolio building (modeled on the U.S. Capitol building), which was recommended for BBQ. We enjoyed delicious ribs and ceviche (and of course more rum cocktails). Below us on Paseo Marti (aka Prado Blvd - confusingly many streets in Havana have "old" and "new" names, used interchangeably), they were paving the street, to look fresh for President Obama's visit in two days.

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.

It was another very hot and humid day that called for ice cream. This was surprisingly hard to find in the neighborhood around the Capitolio (we've since been told that there is a private ice cream shop called "Lo dulce de Italia en Cuba," at 23 between 6 and 8 in Vedado). There is an apparently-popular state-run ice cream company, Coppelia, which serves two flavors, chocolate and vanilla. (We tried both later and they were very mediocre.) Anyway, in lieu of ice cream, we relaxed in the lobby of the Hotel Sevilla. I read Hemingway's 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
Later, we passed by the Museo de Chocolate, recommended in our guide book, and figured that was close enough to ice cream. It was absolutely awful: we ordered an "aztec chocolate" drink and a "cold cocoa" — the former had no spices at all and was nearly tasteless, the latter was just terrible, so after two sips of each (to make sure) we paid and got the hell out of there.

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)


  1. Wonderful account and pictures for just 6 days and your first trip!

    Just a few comments. Hope you don't mind:

    Jinguero? Sure you mean “jinetero”.

    The name of the Cathedral Square in Spanish is just "Plaza de la Catedral", the “San Cristóbal” bit don’t know where you got it from.

    San Cristóbal has NOTHING to do with Christopher Columbus. A quick "google" will tell you the story of the “real” saint...

    I understand you were in Cuba before that, but nowadays, Eusebio Leal doesn't operate hotels nor restaurants or bars. Now the FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias) are doing that.

    It's not "Parque de las Almendras", but "Parque Almendares" (the name has to do with the Havana river, not with almonds).

    The "official" name of Prado is not "Paseo San Martí", just "Paseo Martí". So far, José Martí is the national hero, not a saint...

    Yes, you can find private ice-cream shops in Havana. Next time try "Lo dulce de Italia en Cuba", at 23 between 6&8 in Vedado.

    Ivan Chef Justo restaurant defines itself as a “seasonal fresh market cuisine”, not Spanish.

    Starbien is not a government owned restaurant, but a private owned “paladar”.

    Great job you two! Thanks for posting!

    1. Hi fillaprodiga, Thanks so much for commenting and for the suggestions. We enjoyed our trip and enjoyed trying to capture the experience of visiting Cuba. Thanks for reading.


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