Cuba: the very name evokes a social and political history that can fairly be called unique in the Caribbean, a history of revolution and defiance, of pride and pain and victory and more pain. It has stood unflinching against the greatest power in the world, and has suffered the consequences in countless ways — yet has somehow kept its sense of nationhood intact. Cuba, as one bus driver told me, is “una maravilla”!
Many of the country’s hard realities can be ascribed to the infamous US embargo (known locally as El Bloqueo), which has crippled Cuba’s economy and development for more than half a century, forcing her inhabitants to develop a resilience and an ingenuity seldom seen elsewhere.
Snubbed by the United States after Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army took control of the government on 1 January, 1959, the new administration turned to socialist Russia for support, and the rest was — sometimes very scary — history. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the sugar-daddy relationship that had kept Cuba afloat also crumbled, and the fledgling nation found itself facing very difficult times indeed.
Castro, always ready with a fine phrase, dubbed this time of deprivation the “Special Period.” The Cuban people, with their own wry humour, refer to it as “Los años de la vaca flaca,” the years of the thin cow. Basic foodstuffs were in short supply, and not only the cows were thin: it is estimated that the average Cuban lost about twenty pounds during the Special Period.
The solution was inevitable: Cuba — a beautiful island with some magnificent beaches — turned to international tourism in a desperate quest for hard currency. A society that had long been shut off from the Western world was suddenly courting visitors from Canada and Europe. Americans were legally banned (by their own government, with the threat of severe penalties) from travelling to the island.
For years, Cuba’s tourism was restricted to the all-inclusive hotels in places like Varadero and Holguín, as the government attempted to safeguard the purity of its socialist revolution by keeping such crass capitalist enterprises in-house. But, under the table, a few people were still finding a way to skirt the rules, albeit on a very small scale. I recall my first visit to Cuba in 2006, when a local man approached me furtively and asked if I’d like a good home-cooked meal. My hotel’s food was uninspiring, to say the least, so I agreed — and had to follow him two steps behind so the ever-present police wouldn’t catch on.
It was all very cloak-and-dagger, and, thankfully, no longer necessary. In the last decade, necessity and common sense have led to a loosening of these strictures, and the system of casas particulares — rentals of rooms in private households — and paladares — privately owned restaurants — came into existence. The casas now offer a budget-conscious way to visit the island, as well as a far more authentic cultural experience for those who believe that travel is more than just piña coladas and salsa lessons on the beach.
Cubans have leapt onto the capitalist bandwagon with a gusto that must have made Castro’s revolutionary heart sink while he still lived. Anyone with a passable spare room can apply for a licence to put it up for rent. The resulting income has greatly improved the homeowners’ quality of life, and no doubt benefited the government’s coffers as well, since the rooms are highly taxed.
As is always the case with tourism, this change has been a mixed blessing: in heavily marketed tourist areas such as Varadero, Viñales, and Trinidad de Cuba, almost every house is either a casa or a restaurant (or both), to the point where the town is nothing more than a tourist playground, all authenticity lost. And, increasingly, people are leaving professional jobs because they can make more money renting out their guest room. Who can blame them? The official Cuban salary is exceedingly low by Western standards: anywhere from the equivalent of US$15 per month at the low end, to US$60 or so for doctors, for example. Meanwhile, the basic casa room rents for US$20 to 25 a night, and up, depending on location and facilities.
And for a first visit to Cuba? The capital city is still the place to start.
I love Havana: it’s a dynamic place, full of contrasts, frustrations, and rewards. But it takes time, and a certain mindset, to fall for this city, which was once the pride of the Spanish empire. It is a streetscape of beautiful historic buildings, and — right next door — crumbling ruins. The crippling of the Cuban economy by El Bloqueo left little money for maintenance, and magnificent buildings have literally fallen down.
In 1982, UNESCO — describing the city as “the most impressive historical city centre in the Caribbean and one of the most notable in the American continent as a whole,” with “many buildings of outstanding architectural merit” — designated Old Havana and its fortification systems a World Heritage Site. That in turn triggered significant restoration works in the intervening years.
Today, you will find lavishly restored buildings in some parts of the city (usually the tourist areas) and absolute squalour in others. Visitors with bemused faces stumble along on the erupted sidewalks, skirting piles of rubble and rubbish, trying not to look aghast. Yet, even on the worst-looking streets, this is the safest city I know, day or night. And the Cuban people, hands down, possess the most irrepressible warmth and joyfulness of spirit in the world. I wouldn’t say this if it wasn’t true. Any salsa club will bear me out.
The trick to Havana is to ignore the grunge and seek out the culture. (Or, you could just stay in the Old City and down mojitos — that works too.)
Museums abound, some large, some eccentric — like the Museum of Playing Cards, or the Museum of Firemen. Be aware that most of the documentation will be in Spanish, with no translations — a particular drawback in the culturally important Museo de la Revolución, where almost all of the exhibits need to be read. Other displays, such as the Museo de la Ciudad and the Museo Napoleónico, are more accessible, and worth a visit, if only because of the splendid buildings that house them. And anyone interested in art will be bowled over by the splendid collection of paintings in the Cuban arm of the Museo de Bellas Artes (situated right behind the Museo de la Revolución).
In music and dance, too, Cubans are extraordinary. Some of the most exciting jazz to be heard anywhere can be found at La Zorra y el Cuervo, a nightclub on Avenida 23, any night of the week, starting at 10.30 pm. For salsa, the Casas de la Música (there are more than one, in different parts of the city) serve it up live and hot, and the locals take to the dance floor like superstars. For traditional Cuban music, the intimate Patio de la EGREM (on somewhat sketchy Calle San Miguel, if you can find it) swings to the rhythms of son, salsa, or rumba every evening at 6.30 pm, ending at 8 — and again, it’s a dance party where all are welcome. For the uninitiated, private salsa lessons abound in Havana — it’s the new growth industry. Take a few, then head to EGREM or the lovely Hotel Florida on Calle Obispo to show off your shoulder-shimmy.
On Saturdays at 3 pm, check out the rumba jam at Calle 4 #103, hosted by the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional, and note that Cuban rumba is not that tame stuff you see on Dancing with the Stars. On a more classical note, the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company is world-renowned, and can often be found at the Gran Teatro on the Prado, but tickets go fast. The Gran Teatro is next door to the Capitolio, where the national government carries out its affairs. (The Capitolio was inspired by its Washington, DC, namesake, but — Cuban one-upmanship — its dome is twelve feet higher! It has recently reopened to the public, after eight years of restoration.)
Meanwhile, the Teatro Nacional, near the Plaza de la Revolución, is where you’re most likely to find classical music, while the Teatro Melia, on Linea, offers a varied programme of popular performers and contemporary dance groups. Its garden patio is often the scene of live music and dancing.
Those are the formal attractions. But much entertainment is to be had just sitting on the Paseo de Prado and watching the world go by. The wide eyed visitors; the young (and not so young) Cuban girls in skin-tight clothing; the young men dressed head to toe in dazzling white; the noisy knot of older men arguing over sports at the top of their voices. The live music wafting from the sidewalk terrace of the historic Hotel Inglaterra; the crazy traffic circus of cars, buses, taxis, bici-taxis, and horse-drawn carriages, all competing for the same space. And in the background, the line of fabulous vintage convertibles, pink and yellow and blue, like a flock of exotic birds —high-finned Chevvies just waiting to whip you off on a tour of the city, racing down the Malecón with the wind in your hair. Yes, Havana can make this secret dream come true.
The Prado is the promenade that delineates the entrance into Old Havana, where music and mojitos await on every corner. The Plaza Vieja, once the heart of the original city, has been splendidly restored with UNESCO’s assistance, and boasts what might possibly be the most eccentric piece of sculpture in the world, and certainly one of my favourites: a life-size bronze woman, naked except for thigh-high boots, seated on an oversized, um, male chicken (you understand my hesitation), and carrying a giant dining fork. You’ll have to journey far to beat that one! Other popular streets in the historic area are Calles Obispo and Mercaderes. Artists’ studios, legendary bars, and street musicians abound, and the architecture is frequently splendid. The cathedral is also lovely, if you’re lucky enough to find it open.
Behind the Capitolio lies Havana’s version of Chinatown, possibly unique in the world, in that there are virtually no Chinese people, and — apart from an ostentatious arch at the mouth of Calle del Dragón — very little indication of Chinese culture. Apparently, there used to be a flourishing little community, but the word “socialist” in Castro’s revolution acted like magic. Bags were swiftly packed, and all that remains today is a small alley with two or three Chinese restaurants and caged songbirds for sale.
Getting around Havana can be overwhelming to the newcomer. There are municipal buses, which the locals call gua–guas (“wah-wahs”) because of their noisy diesel engines in the old days. They cost next to nothing, and are usually jam-packed. Avoid them, unless you really know your way around. Then there are the almendrones, which are the rattletrap old American cars dating from the 1950s, held together by faith, love, and duct tape. These are collective taxis (common in the Caribbean) which run particular routes within the city. They are very cheap, but again, you need to know your way around, and have a certain amount of patience, since they run at will. For the casual tourist, taxis or bici-taxis are the best bet, and quite reasonably priced.
To get to other parts of the island, the best option is the Viazul, the national bus line designed for tourists. Unlike the local gua-guas, these are large, comfortable coaches with padded seats and purring engines. They leave and arrive pretty much on time, and are priced very reasonably. However, it is advisable to purchase tickets at least a day or two in advance. Other options are long-distance collective taxis, or renting a car. There is a rail network in Cuba, but it comes highly dis-advised by Cubans themselves. As they point out, there are no toilets on board!
A common mistake made by visitors to Cuba is to think it’s “just a little island,” and try to visit too many places in a limited time. Cuba is actually quite big, and journeys take longer than you would expect. It’s more rewarding to slow down and explore Havana in depth than to spend only two days there and then rush off to Viñales or Cienfuegos or Trinidad or Santiago. Allow yourself to open up slowly to this esoteric island. Allow yourself to be surprised — and, ultimately, enchanted.
Some Cuba dos and don’ts
Cuba is a very special place, but unexpected things can lessen your enjoyment. Here is a short list of practical tips.
- Don’t, a big don’t, travel with US cash or credit cards. You will be charged a hefty (ten per cent) premium on cash before the actual exchange rates, and US-based credit cards like American Express are not accepted, even in banks. Blame it on the Bloqueo. Canadian and European cash and cards are fine.
- Do change a small amount of your cash into Cuban pesos, a.k.a. Moneda Nacional, which is the local currency used by most Cubans. It is useful for buying small things, like street snacks, fruit, and bici-taxi rides.
- Don’t expect to find wi-fi everywhere. It’s still a work in progress. Your host or hotel can help you figure it out.
- Don’t visit Cuba if you are physically handicapped, unless you have a lot of personal support. It is largely inaccessible to anyone with mobility issues. And washrooms will present insurmountable problems.
- Speaking (generally) of washrooms, do carry a stash of your own toilet paper at all times.
- Do, also, carry a plastic bag or shopping bag if possible. Many shops and groceries do not offer them with purchases.