Hitting the Pavement in Habana, Cuba
Waiting for my friend Cait in the airport, I realized how much Americans take internet and cell service for granted. I wasn't sure if she had boarded the plane, I had no way to contact the cab driver who had been sent from the Airbnb. I only had the hope that all would work itself out. When her arrival time was near, I made my way downstairs and began looking for a sign with my name on it. Over 20 minutes passed from the time I told the driver to meet me, but at last I saw a man appear with a sign reading Alexandra Kahn and Caitlin Herman. With a small sense of relief, I had to remain hopeful that Cait would also arrive. Another 20 minutes passed and finally I saw the familiar face walk through the arrival gate doors. I was so excited and grateful for her presence in this strange place that I ran at her, enveloping her in a hug.
The drive to our new place only took 25 minutes and it was a great way to tour part of the city. It was early evening by then, so we settled into our new rooftop digs in the quiet, nice area of Vedado and watched the sunset over the ocean from the sun nook. Although we had prepared a list of sights to see and brought a printed map, we hadn't thought to make markers on the map or include addresses on our list. This was a huge mistake, as internet is rare, expensive and slow. Luckily we both spoke a enough Spanish to constantly ask for directions. As our host prepared us each a mojito, one of the main cocktails of Cuba, we discussed things to see and locations of each. We asked our host, who lived in the other room, where we should have dinner in Old Havana and she suggested a specific spot we had never heard of. Apparently we were the only ones to have not heard of it because when we arrived we were told "reservations only" and learned that some of the folks waiting had reserved a month ago! Who would have thought!? We explored the restaurant, which was two floors and resembled something in Soho, NYC, before heading back to the streets to find something close by. We were starving by this point. Locating the nearest restaurant with a free table, we ate a good dinner compared to most I had experienced in Cuba and decided to call it a night and head home. One thing I observed in Habana and with traveling in general is often times nothing goes to plan and in order to enjoy each experience, you need to be open to drastic change or unexpected experiences and people. Walking back to the plaza to hail a cab, we heard beautiful Cuban jazz playing from a colorful bar. Having no real reason to go home early, we stopped into the bar, drank a piña colada and listened to the live music.
The next day we woke to clouds and rain, a first for me in Cuba. Knowing it was one of two full days we had in Habana, we packed umbrellas and made the best of the situation. Our first stop was a nearby cafe where we could get good coffee and breakfast. We sat on a covered deck and had a leisurely morning as a hummingbird made constant visits to a nearby feeder.
Not knowing where we were going in Habana in general, we walked along the Malecón with a horrible print out map of Habana Vieja. Our current location was Vedada and central Habana still stood between us and our final destination of Habana Vieja. The overall distance was further than we had imagined and the drizzle was getting worse. There are various forms of public transportation in Habana, everything from official taxis, collectivos, old cars for hire, small 3 legged vehicles, and bicyclists with covered seat carts attached to the back of their bikes. A bike transport took pity on our lost expressions and offered to help, in Spanish of course. Many “no entiendo’s” were spoken on our part and he got so frustrated that he gave us a deal of 10 CUC to take us all around central and old Habana to see each spot on our list. Seeing that it was raining, we decided to forgo the walk we had originally intended and hitch a ride. This was a great decision as we were able to cover a lot more ground and find out what was worth revisiting on foot on the way home as well as the following day. He also pointed out many things not on our list and even took us to a friend's house to buy black market cigars- something that turned out to be quite popular in Habana.
The first stop on the tour was Callejón de Hamel, which was closest to our current location. It's an alleyway all created by a local Cuban painter named Salvador to raise money for the local children's art program.
We even got to meet Salvadore himself!
The only other spot we wanted him to take us was the San Jose market because it was at the complete opposite end of town. The ride was great and took us through China Town and other cool streets in old Havana which we returned to on foot when we walked home. The San Jose market was the best part of the trip. A massive covered market divided between painters and shop keepers. Painters painted live, men sold coconut water, others sold products of wood and leather. There was so much life and we each purchased a painting and some other trinkets.
Walking through the city, street art is everywhere. Here are a few of my favorites:
After a long day of city exploration, we watched the sunset from the rooftop of Hotel Saratoga while sipping overpriced, but strong mojitos.
On our second day, we took to the streets earlier, deciding to see as much of the city as we could on foot. Habana is a city that looks like it is suspended in time with horse carts, vegetables carts, wild animals and children playing in the street.
I observed that Habana, like Vinales, was teeming with pets and farm animals, most alive, but some dead! A group of men roasting a pig persuaded us to stop and take a spin at it.
Cait was determined to purchase some Cigars for her brother and although during our bike tour of Havana we had been taken to a sketchy house and bought some cigars on the black market for a good price, she wanted to purchase another brand. We walked to the Tobacco Factory to compare prices and buy a few Montecristo's in the beautiful shop.
That night we decided to stay in Vedado for dinner and then find some local bars where we could listen to salsa or jazz. Our host recommended a place not far away but again, we were without reservations. Fortunately after 40 minutes of waiting we finally got into Idilio and ate two nice seafood dishes. Walking around Vedado, every bar was empty, no music was playing. It was a Thursday and we were shocked that Wednesday had provided such a livelier evening. After walking a few miles around the neighborhood and finding nothing worth our time, we paid a cab to take us right back to the bar from the previous night, only there was no music playing and the place was empty. Luck was not on our side but we had a drink to make our journey more worthwhile and then retreated to bed somewhat early.
The next day was our last full day and we decided to head back to a few of the spots we had rushed through in order to relax and take in the culture more. I walked each street with my camera out and ready.
We returned to Callejon Hamel with some extra time, checked out El Morro, walked the Paseo Prado from the Malecon, and returned to Calle Obispo and surrounding roads for lunch and additional purchases. We peaked into the Rum Museum but figured the price of the ticket wasn't really worth it. We opted to not see any museums or other tourist stops except the Tobacco Factory because real Cuba and the real people of Cuba were on the streets of Havana, not in the museums. We knew the history and could see the history of the city through the street art, juxtaposition of fancy and crumbling, and the overall struggle of the people. We talked to the locals and explored as many streets as we could, revisiting China town and central Habana. We explored one of the markets in Vedado and located the famous jazz club we had heard about.
In an attempt to experience the new "trendy" Habana for our final night, we went to a restaurant/bar called El Cocinero, and it was by far the coolest place we went. Everything about this place was unique, from its history of starting as an old factory, to the staircase and bar built into the smoke stack, to the platforms that hung in the air over the restaurant where we waited for our table. I would recommend making a reservation, because we were lucky enough to get a table after a 40 min wait, but this is not often the case. The food at El Cocinero was the best of the trip, and the drinks were also great. The main reason for coming here, however, is the ambiance. Yes, it is not in anyway an authentic Cuban place with Cuban food and more than likely you won't see any Cuban people, but what I quickly realized was that all the restaurants lacked local Cuban diners because they could not afford it. In a country where the median salary is $28/month and restaurant prices are similar to back in the states, there is no way the average Cuban person can afford to go out to dinner. Once you realize this fact, and that going out to eat is the one time you won't interact with the local people unless they work in the kitchen, you stop seeking authentic and you start seeking unique. El Cocinero was cool, beautiful, and fashion forward. Its neighbor, La Fabrica Des Artes, is an art gallery/bar/dance club and from the second floor of El Cocinero I could look through the large windows into La Fabrica.
Since it was our final night and we had seen all we wanted to see in the city, we decided to make the night a bit of a party and we went to a series of fun places before finally collapsing into bed the next morning. With our remaining time in Cuba, we had breakfast at our casa (very overpriced and not as good as something you could find in a cafe on the streets), went for a walk, packed our bags and headed to the airport. We were told to give ourselves 3 hours and I'm very glad we did. The lines for the currency exchange spread through the airport on both floors and I regrettably decided to not convert my remaining 50 CUC back into USD. However, as soon as we went through security into the terminal, there were two currency conversion stations with NO line- so this is the way to do it after all. We purchased some water at duty-free and marveled at the prices of the rum (buy anything you want in Habana and NOTHING at the airport) and waited for the plane to board. Cait had purchased a painting and brought it in a visible carry on bag and was stopped at security and forced to pay a fee. Note- either pack all art in your checked luggage, conceal in carry-on luggage, or lie and say the value was $5. They are looking for a piece of the pie- but can you blame them? I would be too.
After nearly missing my connecting flight, making friends with some Colorado folk, and hitching a ride with one of them home since I missed the bus, I finally piled into bed at 1am, happy and ready to be home.
- research restaurants and make reservations. write down the locations and mark them on your map.
- bring plenty of Euro (better exchange rate and you cant get more money from an ATM when you are there)
- mark all the things you want to see on a map and get addresses for each of them (research what types of things you are most interested in)
- tell your family and friends you most likely won't be in contact
- bring comfortable walking shoes, an umbrella and a backpack (you will buy things and always want to carry water)
- don't drink the water from the sink and either be prepared to always buy water or bring a Lifestraw bottle and you CAN drink the public water
- leave space in your suitcase for things you will want to buy and bring home
- plan to check a suitcase so you can bring back things without worrying about talking about them during security (you also might want to bring rum home)
- brush up on your spanish ***
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