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

Cuba: Havana, part 2

May 3, 2016
Driving through Habana Vieja

Read about our first few days in HavanaWe've also compiled all our Havana recommendations into a printable map and guide.

Thursday morning we went to the Museo de la Revolución. Watching the movie Che before the trip had given us some prior context. I was particularly fascinated by the Bay of Pigs exhibit – in U.S. history it's presented as a ridiculous operation with no chance of success, probably intended by the CIA to fail so Kennedy would be forced to order air strikes and Marines. But the way it was presented in the museum (and probably the way the Cuban government actually saw it at the time), it was a large-scale invasion by foreign-backed troops and an existential threat. There were battle memorabilia, maps of troop movements, and lists of the dead. (Crazy fact: the CIA devised and/or carried out 638 assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. He wasn't wrong to be paranoid.)

Another interesting lesson from the museum: quite a few years passed between the revolution and the implementation of full-scale Communism. Initially the revolution included a variety of anti-Batista factions, including many people who thought they were fighting to restore democracy. Castro played to these hopes with his rhetoric, while cementing his power and purging the non-Communist elements in the early 1960s. (Factions of his guerilla forces actually continued to fight against his regime after he took power.) It wasn't until 1968, for example, that Castro nationalized all the small businesses in the country.

Bullet holes at the former presidential palace, now the Museo de la Revolución

And unlike the Soviet Union, Cuba did not eliminate private property. In fact, most Cubans own their homes, after 1960 and 1984 reforms converted tenants into owners, but apart from limiting "exchanges" of homes, buying and selling homes has only been legal since 2012. Cuba has built very little new housing since 1960, and now has a deficit of 1.5 million homes. This was one of the ways the Cuban people were stuck in time for decades – if you happened to be renting a good place in 1961, you (and three generations of your family) stayed there for 50 years, and similarly if you were assigned to be a sugar farmer in the countryside in 1962, your kids and grandkids are probably still sugar farmers in that town.

Exiting our casa in Habana Vieja
Bicycle taxis

We went back to our casa particular (in Habana Vieja) to check out and move to a different one (in Central) for the rest of our stay. With my large backpacking pack propped on my lap, and Steph carrying a smaller backpack and shoulder bag on hers, we took another bicycle taxi across town. The bicycle taxis there are all constructed basically in the same way – rider in front of a two-passenger bench, fixed-gear, no brakes (slowed by counter-pedaling), covered with a tarp pulled over a welded frame – but some are more decked out than others, with side mirrors, bells/horns, music, etc. Other than our slight liberal discomfort of having another person pedaling so hard to move us around, it's a pretty good way to get around Havana.

Cubans have been allowed to rent out rooms in their homes for decades, and given the lack of hotels in Cuba, it's the primary accommodation option for most travelers, especially independent travelers. We decided to hedge our bets by booking two different casas and we're glad we did. The hosts at our second casa were much friendlier, the decor was much nicer, and we enjoyed staying in Habana Central, the more residential and less touristy neighborhood west of Habana Vieja. Breakfast at both our casas was similar and pretty good: coffee, guava juice, a plate of fruit (pineapple, guava, papaya, and banana), eggs, little pancakes or ham and cheese sandwiches, and bread with butter. Neither place offered consistently warm water for a shower, but that's typical in Havana.

Another interesting face of Cuban-style Communism is that, while individual apartments are privately owned, the shared spaces in a building are owned by the state, which lacks the incentives a private owner might have to keep the place maintained. In our second casa, for instance, the apartment, on the fifth floor, was modern and beautifully decorated inside, but the stairs were uneven, there were no stairway lights, the electric box by the front door had exposed copper wires snaking all over the wall, and the water pipes visible on adjacent roofs looked ancient. (Part of the generally decrepit state of infrastructure is also the result of the U.S. embargo making it very difficult to import building materials.)

El Capitolio, modeled on the U.S. Capitol
Thursday evening, we walked down the Malecón, the picturesque boardwalk along the coast. Nacho had told us it was nicknamed "the longest sofa in the world" for all the socializing and canoodling that it invites.

We stopped for cocktails at La Torre, a bar/restaurant on the top (39th) floor of the FOCSA Building, Havana's tallest (built in 1956 – other than government buildings, there weren't many, or any, skyscrapers built in the city after the revolution). As expected from online reviews, the drinks were just OK, and we skipped the food, but we did get a cool nighttime view. We passed the Hotel Nacional again, and the parking lot was full of SUVs (Chinese-made Jeep clones), not a common vehicle type in Havana, probably for the press and Secret Service that would be escorting President Obama on his visit on Sunday.

For dinner we went to Cafe Laurent, an excellent seafood restaurant. (At a table nearby were a dozen Americans visiting for a bachelor party. We appreciated that we had made it there before that becomes ubiquitous.) Then we went to a jazz club and listened to some really great music.

On Friday, we went to Viñales, a tobacco-growing and cigar-rolling town 2.5 hours' drive from Havana. (Stay tuned for more on that day.)

That evening, we met up with friends we had met on our Viñales tour. We tried to see a salsa show at Casa de la Música, but decided from the line that the scene was too much of a "meat factory," and went instead to Gato Tuerto ("one-eyed cat"). The music was not good, but we shared a cigar and a bottle of Havana Club rum and had a good time. (In Cuba, people order bottles of rum to the table the way we order a bottle of wine. Somehow, even at 40% ABV, we weren't that drunk afterwards.)

On Saturday night, we went to the Fabrica del Arte Cubano, a former cooking oil factory turned into an incredible multi-media art/club space. It feels like one continuous flow of art exhibits, but the walls are nearly soundproof, so you can walk out of one music area, into a theater (playing a Cuban art film), through hallways of art, into another music space, and with each portal the setting completely shifts. (The schedule for the week we were there is still on their website.) My favorite performance was by an incredibly talented band, Jazz en Trance, led by the saxophonist Denys Carbo, who engaged the audience in harmonizing with the musicians: he would have half the room learn a little riff or clapping rhythm, and the other half learn a different one, and would cue the choruses with his hands, sometimes back and forth, or together, or fading one into the other, in sync with the musicians on the stage. The show was actually recorded – you can see me in the audience at 10:54 (in the white shirt), and singing with the crowd at 12:27:

One of the installations featured 50s-style photos, simultaneously retro and futuristic, of the Havana skyline with corporate logos superimposed on buildings and billboards – Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Google – like any other Western city, but surreal in a place where no such advertising exists. The photos made you wonder: Do you miss it? Would it be better? There were definitely many tourists in the crowd, but it was mostly young Cubans. We waited in line outside for an hour and a half to get inside, and it was well worth it.

From the exhibit "Hotel Havana," by Nelson Ramirez and Luidmila Velasco
On Sunday, our last day, we went to the Castillo de los Tres Reyes (Castle of 3 Kings) fort across the harbor. It was built to defend Havana from pirates, who threatened Spanish shipping, and sacked the city several times over the centuries. It wasn't particularly interesting, or well-maintained, but the sea was choppy that day, and the city was right across the water, which made for great views from the ramparts.

View from Nazdarovie
President Obama was due to visit that afternoon. We didn't know exactly when he was arriving, but we expected him to drive along the Malecón to visit the U.S. Embassy. We went to a Soviet-themed restaurant Nazdarovie for lunch and ate Russian food on their terrace overlooking the Malecón. We did see a motorcade of several black Mercedes (among the very few modern luxury cars we saw in the whole city) with a police escort driving to the embassy, but it wasn't him (maybe the ambassador or others in his large entourage). The weather had been dry and hot up to that point, but it started to rain, a drizzle at first, then pretty hard, so we went back to our casa. Air Force One landed a little later (in a torrential downpour), and we watched on Cuban state TV as the Obamas disembarked and went sightseeing.

(Back home, I watched the press conference that Obama persuaded Raúl Castro to participate in the next day – the first open-question press conference Raúl had ever done, reportedly – and it's quite a thing to watch.)

A playground near our casa in Habana Central
For dinner that night, our last in Cuba, we had tried to make reservations at five restaurants and they were all closed or booked. Fortunately, there is a wide selection of excellent restaurants in Havana now, and we got a table at a place called Starbien, where the food and service were both excellent. A review we read online had complained about the flourescent lights, but they seemed to have replaced those, and anyway we sat outside on the terrace, under an awning to shelter from the rain. At the table next to us were a bunch of Italian journalists in town to report on Obama's visit. We finished off the evening with glasses of rum and smoked a cigar we had bought in Viñales.

The former stock market building
Bomb shelters on the lawn of the Hotel Nacional
Steph had researched the customs regulations very carefully. They may have changed again, but at the time, we were allowed to each bring home up to US$100 of alcohol and tobacco. So of course we had filled up a box (labeled Ron Santiago de Cuba) with $199 of rum (for ourselves) and cigars (for Steph's father and grandfather). (Our luggage consisted of a hiking backpack, so we couldn't put it in our suitcase.) Despite the new legality, we were a little worried that it wouldn't make it all the way home: Maybe a Cuban airport employee would take it, or a baggage handler in Cancun or SF; or maybe the U.S. customs officials wouldn't know the rules and give us trouble; or maybe, despite wrapping them in newspaper and clothes and labeling the box "Fragile" all over, a bottle would crack. We met another American at the airport who took one look at our box and said "Well, looks really sketchy." It all turned out OK: no one stole our box, U.S. customs didn't even look at it, and we now have a great selection of 6-12-year aged Cuban rums. Back home, we taste-tested them against Bacardi (which used to be Cuban but moved to Puerto Rico when their factory was nationalized in the revolution) and El Dorado 5, and they're all comparable in quality. But we paid a fraction of the American retail price for the equivalent products.

This was our first trip in years (except backpacking in the wilderness) where we were completely offline. The internet in Cuba is still scarce, slow, and expensive. Very few if any casas particulares have wifi. There is cellular infrastructure that offers limited mobile internet, but roaming with our American phones would have been prohibitively expensive, and it didn't seem worth the hassle of buying a Cuban SIM.

Before we left, we (mostly Steph) put together a very comprehensive custom Google map of Havana landmarks and restaurants. Our plan was to bring an old iPhone, keep it in airplane mode, and load the maps offline. The Google Maps app supports this for most of the world – but if you try to download maps of Cuba, it says "This area is not available offline."

So we converted our high-tech maps to low-tech paper: we numbered each marker, printed the list of titles and descriptions (Google Maps' printing feature doesn't include descriptions, so this involved a little code to convert KML to HTML), sliced up the maps into 8 printable sections, and wrote the numbers on the maps by hand. This took up most of the day before we left, and all our maps and research filled a manilla envelope. How anyone did this before the internet – hand-annotate huge fold-out maps? Wander around aimlessly? – is a mystery.

One consequence of traveling offline – and of the dearth of newspapers in Havana (the state-published ones like Granma are more propaganda than news, and there are certainly no foreign papers for sale) – is we were, for the first time in months, completely disconnected from the U.S. presidential campaigns. The Florida and Ohio primaries occurred while we were away, and we had no idea what happened. We didn't really miss it, except my cellphone-fueled habit of constant news- and Facebook-checking is like crack, so it was unsettling to go cold-turkey.

See you soon Cuba

Continued: Viñales
See also: Parques de las Almendras

- Ben (photos by Steph)

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