“The Time is NOW!”: Pre-Departure
“Now’s the time to go!”, my friend urged me during our conversation. She had casually mentioned she was going to Cuba in a week during our conversation and was persuading me to go as well, although admittedly I did not need much convincing. Her mention of taking off to this recently-opened Caribbean island had piqued my interest, so I began to research.
Sure enough, the time to visit Cuba is sooner rather than later. As the borders have become more lax and businesses cater to more tourists, I fear the industrialization and commercialism that inevitably goes hand-in-hand. Havana was, at the time I ended up visiting, prepared for tourists–used to them, but not “in-your-face” touristic. The city was still for the locals, which allows for an authentic experience. I’ve been to disgustingly touristic cities before, like Rome, and it wasn’t even enjoyable due to the amount of relentless and rude solicitors, high prices, and people trying to scam you at every corner. In Havana, this “tourist effect” isn’t as pervasive…yet.
Havana was, at the time I ended up visiting, prepared for tourists–used to them, but not “in-your-face” touristic.
So I began perusing the interwebs for blogs on Cuba travel, airline sites for flights, and general tips and advice. Research is powerful. Always always ALWAYS research a destination thoroughly before traveling. It gives you the upper hand in negotiations on prices, locations of sites, and certain faux pas to avoid. Knowledge truly is power, and my research came into play multiple times during my stay. Although I was looking at some flights for summer, I knew that spring break was the perfect time to go to avoid the rainy season and excessively high temps. The caveat: break was a week and a half away. I found a flight through Air Canada for a very competitive price ($320 round trip for a direct flight!) and called to book. After booking the flight, all the nerves began to set in. “What am I doing? This is very spur-of-the-moment!” Given the impulsive nature of this trip and my Type A personality, I admit I was a little nervous. I had never planned a trip so last minute.
I didn’t even have a camera yet!
Luckily I have some great connections, and a friend of mine who works at a camera shop hooked me up with the whole package. I got a nice DSLR starter camera to play with and practice using before my departure. He even included a bag and memory card which was very helpful.
Here We Are!: Arrival
Fast-forward about a week and it is finally the big day! I catch my flight from Toronto, and after a brief, 3-hour flight, I have arrived to a tropical island. I am greeted by my pick-up service and lead to the currency exchange counter. I exchange my U.S. Dollars for the Cuban Convertible Peso and then grab my taxi to the casa particular in which I am lodged. I am flattered when the taxi driver says he cannot even hear an English accent when I speak. A casa particular is a homestay option which is a very popular and economical option for tourists. It gives you a more personal experience, saves you some dough, and helps out a local family. The running rate is about $20-$35 per night. My house stay was very comfortable and it was owned by this really sweet older couple. They helped me out with organizing day trips, a taxi back to the airport during my red-eye flight to Toronto, and gave me valuable advice. I stayed in El Vedado, which is a residential neighborhood outlying the city’s center.
The City is my Oyster: Day One
After a good-night’s rest and a hearty breakfast, I started out to explore the city. I used my offline map app I had downloaded beforehand to help me navigate some tricky spots, and walked along the peaceful Malecón on my way to Old Havana. The Malecón is a long, seaside wall bordering the Caribbean Sea, and is a popular spot for walking, jogging, fishing, or simply lounging around with friends. Here I met some interesting characters and admired the beachy breeze and sounds of waves crashing against the wall.
Unfortunately, with me being glaringly white and sporting a camera slung around my shoulder, I stuck out like a sore thumb to locals and was constantly being talked to or catcalled. However one guy I talked to was very kind and funny, and told me that Havana was a very safe city with no gangs and a low crime rate. He assured me, “Our only crime is salsa music and mojitos”. Eventually, I had found my way to Old Havana. The first site I saw was the very first battle fort of the city, made of stone. I snapped some pictures of the turrets, eroding walls, and cannons on it, overlooking the coast.
He assured me, “Our only crime is salsa music and mojitos”.
Just outside the fort was the Plaza de Armas, a quaint and historical plaza dedicated to war history and armory.
Later on I walked over to the Capitolio, the capitol building and the Plaza de José Martí, their national hero. Surrounding these attractions were dozens of classic cars called boteros, which run as a rudimentary taxi/bus system. Each have one of two routes they take and you pay 50 cents to hop in and then jump off at a stop closest to your destination. Yes…50 cents! You must know where you’re going to hop off though, so there’s the trade-off. Tourists don’t know this and often are charged $5-$10 for a trip. Spanish is invaluable in the fact that it saved me so much money on transportation alone!
“Boteros” are the classic cars you see in all the pictures, and run like a bus system. Each have one of two routes they take and you pay 50 cents to hop in and then jump off closest to your destination.
The capitol building area was brimming with life and energy under the hot sun. Guys were playing handball against the central fountain, people bustled around, and taxis circulated in search of paying passengers. This is classic car central! At this point, I decided to purchase a ticket for a hop on, hop off bus tour to give my feet some much-deserved rest. The two-story bus visited all the major sites of the city and helped me familiarize myself with the area while hearing some background information on each site we passed. Plus, the breeze on the top floor felt fantastic.
After one time around on the bus, I stopped at a bar/restaurant for a little snack and met a photographer from Seattle. We chatted for a while and I admired his super fancy camera. Someday, Erika. Baby steps. He recommended that I go to Viñales, a bucolic town three hours away by car renowned for its tobacco plantations, diverse geographic landscape, caves, and small villages. I had been toying with the idea of visiting and his enthusiastic push set it in stone for me.
When I left, I took the bus tour again as a means to arrive back to my homestay and called it a day.
I’m Getting the Hang of This: Day Two
My second day in Havana was spent exploring more nooks and crannies of the city. I started the morning on the rooftop of the apartment building, watching the city awaken as the sun gently peeked up over the horizon. The soft murmur of people heading to work crescendoed into lulled conversations and eventually raucous discussions as the concentration of traffic also increased. A rooster crooned a couple buildings down. I had a full breakfast complete with freshly pulsed guayaba juice and chopped papaya, two tropical fruits which are quite uncommon in my frigid climate.
The casa particular owner accompanied me to the Hotel Cohiba which was two blocks away, where we made travel reservations for a Viñales day trip the following day.
I started back into the city once more, always with a route in mind, but always being lead astray. One woman encouraged me to drop by the Callejón de Hamel, an artsy, musical alley overflowing with a rich, Afro-Cuban culture. Recycled art, colorful paintings, and quotes saturated this tiny street in the center of Havana and rumba rhythms radiated throughout.
I made my way to the Paseo del Prado, a long pedestrian promenade in the middle of the main road which is lined by green foliage, marble benches, and important buildings. It acts as the dividing line between Central Havana and Old Havana and was the first paved street in Havana.
Near the Paseo was the Museo de la Revolución, the Museum of the Revolution. This was a nice stop for the beginning of the trip because it gave a historical background and put everything else into perspective, giving me valuable insight into the Cuban Zeitgeist. I was able to tour the inside of the old Presidential Palace which displayed the bullet holes from the 1959 rebel ambush. Just next to the palace was the Granma Memorial, which included a grand glass building which held the Granma yacht. This yacht transported Fidel Castro and other revolutionary figures from Mexico to Cuba. There was also a number of taken down spy planes, tanks, and missiles from the same time period.
The Museo de la Revolución was a nice stop for the beginning of the trip because it gave a historical background and put everything else into perspective, giving me valuable insight into the Cuban Zeitgeist.
After my history lesson, I headed down to the Plaza de San Francisco, a 500+ year old cobbled town square famed for its cathedral, fountain, used as a marketplace and bay for many years.
Nearby were the muelles, or docks, complete with an assortment of boats and ferries gracefully bobbing around in their anchored spots. By the bay was also a Feria Librería, where I discovered a conglomeration of stands selling old books. I found a comic book style retelling of the revolution based on Che Guevara’s tale for $5, which was a steal.
During my aimless wanderings, I also stumbled upon Havana Club, a high-brow cigar and rum shop. The stoic, suit-clad clerk informed me about the different brands of cigars available as I perused the available selection. Having never tried a cigar before, I wanted to pick up a good one for my friends back at home. I managed to get a few of the Cohíba brand, the most well-known name in all of Cuba.
After a tiring day of touring and many applications of sunblock, I decided to call it quits for day two and head home. I wanted to be refreshed for my day trip to Viñales the following day!
Escape from the City to Viñales: Day Three
Onward and upward to the lush and rural villages of Pinar del Río and Los Viñales. I catch my early tour bus at the hotel where I booked the excursion and we are soon on our way. The guide explained some details about the region and talked about the locals who were hitchhiking to work, a very common practice in these pastoral parts. Two hours later we arrived at a small town called Pinar del Río. There we went to a tiny rum factory called Guayabita del Pinar, known for a little plant which resembles a guayaba, but it is much smaller, hence the “ita” suffix. These little fruits age with the liquor in oak barrels so that the alcohol takes on the guava flavor. In the end you are left with tons of berries saturated with a pungent rum taste. Our tour group each got to try one, and boy were they strong! The aftertaste was more bitter than the first bite itself.
Inside the one-room fábrica, workers in an assembly line filled bottles and meticulously placed the brand stickers onto them. Our guide passed around two samples for each person to try, one more sweet than the other. Both were delicious, but I actually enjoyed the sweeter version more, despite my tendency to prefer more bitter beverages.
The next stop was a local cigar-rolling factory, where hundreds of Cuban cigars are hand-rolled daily. Lamentably, cameras were forbidden so I will do my best to paint the picture with words. When you first walk into the warehouse, there are a dozen rows of connected, cubicle-like wooden desks spanning to the back of the room. Each worker has a station where they work, with a small rectangle tray connected to the part of the desk nearest them to hold all of the tobacco leaves. The windows are cracked open and fans are running while a radio plays some popular music. Rollers are gabbing away merrily as they aptly carry out their day’s work. They are required to roll 100 cigars per day so many employees forgo their hour-long lunch break in favor of an earlier finish time. As I strolled down the side observing them roll the leaves into another larger tobacco leaf, I get some insight on the process. Once they have been rolled and cut they are places in what look like ice cube trays, but with long tubular molds for a cigar shape. These trays are filled, stacked, and then compressed by a vice, which a worker strains to turn as tight as it will go. Seeing the careful work that goes into this handcrafted export behind the scenes was rather eye-opening.
After this stop, we traveled for an hour more until we arrived at the entrance of the Cueva del Indio, a cave inhabited by natives upon Spanish conquistador arrival and rediscovered in the 1920’s. The line was rather extensive at the moment we arrived so we decided to eat our lunch beforehand at the restaurant next door where we had reservations. The traditional lunch did not disappoint. We started with crispy bread rounds, a beverage, and a cooled vegetable salad, and soon the entrees were delivered one by one. A flavorful rice and bean dish, boiled potatoes, savory, tender ham, and fresh fruit were laid out onto our table on platters to be served family style. Our group engaged in light-hearted conversation while live salsa music played beside our table. Lunch was finished with fresh espresso and a custard-like pudding with caramelized apples sprinkled with cinnamon.
Our group walked over to the Cueva del Indio and we descended into its cavernous depths to survey with wonder the distinct formations within. Given the backlogged situation due to the influx of tour groups, we waited for a while inside to get to the boat portion of the journey. Luckily, it was a nice opportunity to tinker with the manual settings of my new camera while chatting with a new friend from the tour group.
Alas, we had reached the boats which they loaded with passengers. I boarded and we were soon on our way, spelunking through the grotto. The guide pointed out different formations in the rocks that looked like people, animals, or objects, reminiscent of cloud gazing as a child. Many of the shapes in the cathedral-style ceiling were quite amusing.
Alas, we had reached the boats in the cave which they loaded with passengers. I boarded and we were soon on our way, spelunking through the grotto.
Our penultimate stop of the day was to another cigar rolling house named La Casa de Benito. This was located right on a farm and overlooked the rolling, auburn landscapes. At this location we were allowed to take photos so I made the most of this opportunity, filming the rolling process to boot.
As it turns out, they actually take out the stem of the tobacco leaf which contains the majority of the nicotine and then they toss it. When the worker was done demonstrating, he gave the cigar to the only smoker in our group to sample. He said it was good, so I’ll take his word for it! La Casa de Benito had the cheapest cigars I found throughout my entire trip, at a mere $10 per roll of 10.
We were exhausted after a long day of exploring the Cuban countryside, but there was still one stop to go: El Mural de la Prehistoria, a giant mural painted on a mountainside from 1960-1964.
A zebu was there to greet us as well.
The ride home was long but soothing, as I caught glimpses of locals finishing a long work day, children playing soccer in fields, vintage cars driving into the sunset, and horse-driven carts filled with produce like pineapples. The provincial lifestyle was charming and redolent of simpler times. I practiced using my camera a bit more, trying to capture at least some semblance of the breathtaking setting sun over the horizon. I somehow managed a few decent shots.
I Don’t Wanna Go Home Yet!: Day Four
I awoke in disbelief that today was my final day in the beautiful, sunny Cuban capital. I wanted to get an early start due to my early departure the following day which necessitated an early bedtime. Therefore I seized the day, leaving before the sunrise to walk down the Malecón one last time. To my back was the full, white moon by high rise buildings and ahead of me was the gradually rising sun.
The waves crashed defiantly against the stone wall and birds chirped in the distance. Joggers panted past me and fishermen carried supplies to their favorite niches on the stone wall. I captured a few moments of the slowly descending moon paralleled by the rosy glow of the sun facing it.
Today I was determined to fill in the gaps of the travel experience by visiting all of the places I missed during my previous days. The first place I stopped at was the Plaza Vieja, or “Old Plaza”, which was established in 1559 as a hub of entertainment and communion among locals. I snapped some photos of the spot as well as some scattering birds around the fountain. I enjoyed a breakfast for only $6.00 at a restaurant on the corner of the street with a view of the plaza called La Bohemia. It was accompanied by some freshly-squeezed mango juice which was so delicious I can’t believe it’s not illegal. It was probably one of the best things I’ve tasted in my entire life..and that’s really saying something!
The next place I visited was the neighborhood of Casa Blanca, which was a 5 cent ferry ride away. Here you could see the Cristo de la Habana, a giant statue of Jesus overlooking the city of Havana, as well as Che Guevara’s house.
In addition, you could scale the hill further to see another collection of military equipment and to wander around the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, a formidable fortress marking the entrance to the city with its lighthouse. I traipsed around Casa Blanca, getting some nice panoramas of Havana from above and sampling a lusciously smooth and refreshing piña colada in the blistering heat.
Once I was content, I returned to the city’s center and found a well-priced eating establishment for some quick grub. I tried a medianoche which is a panini-like sandwich with a number of different filling options. I opted for the chorizo and cheese one, which was so filling I saved the other half for later. Of course this was accompanied by a Cuba Libre.
I walked around for another two hours in full tourist mode, taking pictures of all the sites and attractions before taking a botero back toward the El Vedado neighborhood where I was staying. When I got into the car, I asked the driver if he was going down the route which would take me closest to my casa, which was Línea A. He was surprised I knew about this, and to take it a step further, I negotiated the “locals only” price before getting in–a puny 50 cents. The driver smiled and asked me, “¿Dónde lo aprendiste?” (Where did you learn that?) I smiled back coyly and replied, “La gente habla.” (People talk.) We gabbed on while he headed onward, picking up other passengers headed in the same direction. I asked about the car and the year of it. It was from 1956, a common time period for the cars down there.
In the classic car “taxi”, I negotiated the “locals only” price before getting in–a puny 50 cents. The driver smiled and asked me, “¿Dónde lo aprendiste?” (Where did you learn that?) I smiled back coyly and replied, “La gente habla.” (People talk.)
When we approached my stop I let him know I’d be getting out and I paid the fare. My very last stop was a well-known restaurant called El Cocinero, as per request of my friend who went just a week prior. She told me to try the chocolate cake, which was a sort of ice cream cake. I paired it with some fresh espresso and enjoyed the rooftop terrace and jazz music in the shade while reflecting on my trip. Of course, the cake did not disappoint.
I walked back to my homestay and started gathering all my things and getting my affairs in order for my morning flight. I chatted for a bit with the casa owners about travel and language and they said they would miss me–they don’t often get quiet tenants like myself! We exchanged contact information to stay in touch then I continued to finish packing up.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
My overall impression of Cuba was exceedingly positive. Havana was much cleaner than other foreign cities I had visited, and the people were genuine, welcoming, and friendly. I felt very safe there, but I obviously used common sense and wasn’t too trusting of others.
The absence of advertisements was refreshing, as well as the lack of wi-fi at times. It forced me to be more present in the current moment, even though sometimes I automatically wanted to look information up at times. I’d have to find things out the old fashioned way: by asking around! This made me engage with the locals, which is one of the best parts.
The cuisine in Cuba wasn’t much to write home about, mostly due to the absence of many authentic eateries (without pizza) to begin with. However, what I DID try was fantastic. In fact, the lack of convenience stores for basic necessities like bottled water grew a little frustrating, so I found myself buying up multiple bottles whenever I had the chance. Being very pale, I applied sun block religiously and only burned in one spot I must have missed. Overall, the heat wasn’t unbearable when I went in mid-April.
The prices were very reasonable almost everywhere I went, and if you look hard enough you will most certainly find the perfect little trinket to take home with you or bring back to loved ones. Stock up on novelties like coffee, rum, and cigars here because the prices can’t be beat. I enjoyed Havana’s historical atmosphere and sites, and hope to return one day to see the other small villages and coastal towns like Veradero and Cayo Coco, with their white, sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. Thank you, Havana, for showing this traveler a wonderful time.
To the Reader…
Have you ever visited Cuba? If so, what was the experience like for you? How did it compare with mine?
If you haven’t visited yet, are you more inclined to go now?
Where would you prefer to spend the most of your vacation: Havana, Viñales, or Veradero?