When I was younger, I hated old things. My immigrant parents had to make every hard-earned dollar go far: our apartment was entirely furnished with yard sale finds or free castoffs found on the sidewalk, my clothes were mostly secondhand but of the non-stylish variety, I played with old toys, we drove old cars. I wanted new things so badly, even cheaply-made and ugly new things that were sold in the mall. Now that I’m older, I came around to seeing the value of old things. Old things have stories, old things do have style, old things are the counter-culture movement against the hyper-speed consumerism of today’s society. And, I realized after I visited Havana, old things are a way of life.
To say that Havana is like a time capsule from the 1950’s would be inaccurate because it did not feel as if time stood still–on the contrary, the passing of time was even more perceptible in the rusting cars and crumbling buildings. But Havana is like a pair of Chucks, the more worn down with age it gets, the more stylish and beautiful it looks. Some buildings and cars have new and bright paint jobs, helping to evoke the vibrant and rich city that Havana once was. But most of the buildings are covered in faded and flaking paint and balconies are decorated with drying laundry. It’s hard to picture these fancy old mansions in their former glory; they are now filled with the clamor of kids and everyday life of average Cubans. They remind me of an old house I once saw in Mexico where a tree was growing out through the door and when I peeked inside through the cracks I saw that nature has completely taken over and that there was nothing left of the house except for its walls and facade. There is a bit of sadness in the sight, but the beauty of new life was breathtaking.
Perhaps no one takes greater pride in their old things than Cubans, especially in their cars. It’s still amazing to me that they are able to make those cars run on 60 year old parts. It’s almost more amazing after riding in one, like riding inside a rusted out steel cage with the foam poking out of the seat cushions, cringing as I hear the gears grind as they shift, and then miraculously, we were rolling forward in a cloud of exhaust fumes. All of these old cars are tricked out in new radios with surprisingly powerful stereos that blast reggaeton music all over town. Riding in these cars forever cemented my impression of Cuba as a nation of resourceful, fun, music-loving, and friendly hustlers.
Yes, hustlers. But hustler is not a bad word. When we were walking around Havana we were constantly approached by friendly Cubans who wanted to know where we’re from, but eventually the chit-chat will end with them offering us a taxi ride or trying to get us to go to a restaurant. But a few were just genuinely interested in getting to know us. It did bother me a little at first, but then I decided that a country full of hustlers is a good thing, because people are motivated to earn more money and do better. There is difference between poverty and misery. Misery is something that is horrible to see, where people are so beaten down that they’ve lost all hope. Cubans are poor, but they have spirit and happiness and a lot of pride in what they do have. And that is heartening to see. So, keep hustlin’ compatriotas, keep hustlin’.
Cuba Travel Tips
As of 2017, going to Cuba doesn’t require much paperwork and is relatively hassle-free. When purchasing your plane ticket, you fill out a form and check a box indicating your reason for visiting Cuba. There are 12 government-approved reasons like “Educational Activities” or “Support for the Cuban People”. The other thing that is required is a Cuban Tourist Visa which is purchased at the airport before you board the plane. We paid something around $120 per person for the visa, but it varies by airline (we heard Southwest is the cheapest).
The major currency in Cuba is the CUC (pronounced kook) or Cuban Convertible Peso. You can exchange US Dollars when you arrive in Cuba at the airport. The exchange rate is technically 1:1 but the USD is penalized with a 10% subcharge in additional to the 3% transaction fee, so the real exchange rate is $100 = 87 CUC. USD is the only foreign currency with the 10% subcharge, so if you want to get the best rate you can try exchange your dollars into Canadian dollars before you go to Cuba.
The other currency that is used in Cuba is the Cuban Peso or CUP. It can be useful in paying for really cheap items like street food or taxis. However, we’ve exchanged some CUP but almost never used it and it was a hassle to try to spend it up before our trip was over. One thing we were told to be careful about is to make sure when you receive change back you don’t receive CUP in place of CUC because the CUP is worth significantly less (unless they’ve properly exchanged the CUP and gave you the equivalent amount).
We decided not to get a SIM card in Cuba because Cuban SIM cards have no data. What most of the locals do to get online is go to the local parks or town squares where there are wireless hot spots. It’s pretty easy to guess where the hot spots are when we see a bunch of locals all holding glowing screens in front of their faces. Someone will come up to you and offer you the password for a negotiable price. The internet speed is predictably slow, but we still managed to FaceTime Ellie who was staying with my parents in LA.
Where to Stay
You have the option of staying in a state-run hotel or a private family home called “casas particulares”. Casa particular listings are really easy to find on Airbnb. Since we were there for educational purposes, we decided that the best way to get to know the Cuban people is to stay in a casa particular.
For location, I recommend considering the neighborhood of Vedado instead of Old Havana. Vedado is a mostly residential neighborhood that has a rich history and a surprisingly rich modern day art and music scene. Vedado, meaning “Forbidden” in Spanish, used to be a closed-off military defense zone used by the Spanish colonizers. Later the area was developed by rich sugar cane plantation owners who built the stunning mansions that are characteristic of this neighborhood. We loved our stay in a beautiful old mansion that was owned and lived in by a young Cuban couple.
Vedado is also home to “La Fabrica”, which our hosts highly recommended as the best all-in-one spot for food, art, and music. It is only open Thursdays through Sundays, so unfortunately we weren’t able to see it during our stay. Our Airbnb was walking distance to the famous Plaza de la Revolucion and a short taxi ride to Old Havana.
Taxis are cheap and probably the easiest way to get around the city. You can also buy an all-day bus pass for something like $1.50. Always haggle the price for the taxi ride. After asking our hosts how much a typical taxi ride would cost from Vedado to Old Havana, he told us never more than $5. The taxi drivers all started off demanding $10 or more! So safe to say, you can cut their asking price in half when you haggle, or at least try to.
Google maps doesn’t work in Cuba, but the Tripadvisor map surprisingly does. It won’t give you directions without Internet, but it will indicate your current location on the map along with the surrounding restaurants or attractions which is super helpful.
The best restaurants are the paladares or privately owned restaurants as opposed to the state-owned restaurants. The national dish Ropa Vieja and national drinks Mojitos and Cuba Libres are on every restaurant menu and you probably shouldn’t leave Cuba without trying them. Some of the newer restaurants have more experimental menus.
We especially loved O’Reilly 304 and Havana 61.
The best ice cream joint in Havana is Helad’oro. We had to go there two days in row just so I can try more flavors–the winner was the creamy guava in case you were wondering.
We really wanted to try a lot more restaurants, but we found out the hard way that it was almost impossible to get a table at any of the popular restaurants in Old Havana. The trick is to go there early in the day and make a reservation in person. But even that didn’t work with the #1 Tripadvisor restaurant: Restaurant Van Van. Make reservations in person for the night.
Expect to wait a really long time for your food. The service is just next-level slow everywhere in Cuba. There is no use complaining about it, just order a few more mojitos and try to enjoy the slow dining experience (we were just really glad we didn’t have Ellie with us for this part).
Lobster is really cheap and delicious!
Museum of the Revolution
I saw this saying written on a wall in Old Havana: Todos los hechos tienen tres razones, la mia, la tuya y la verdadera. It roughly translates to “All facts have three reasons, mine, yours, and the truth. I think that basically describes all history as we know it. I think somewhere in between what we’ve learned in US History class and what we read in this museum is an inkling of the truth.
National Art Museum
Probably my favorite art museum ever. I discovered the work of Manuel Mendive here. His colorful, hypnotic, and playful style often depicts really dark periods of Cuban history such as the slave trade and colonialism. I could have spent the entire day looking at his art alone.
Recurring motifs in Cuban art also include revolutionary leaders and Cubans most beloved poet: Jose Marti. Che’s face is definitely the most favored among Cuban artists, even more so than Fidel’s.
Of course, the museum isn’t the only place to see great Cuban art. There are lots of alleys, streets, and even neighborhoods that have been taken over by local artists. These are a few that we were able to check out.
This place was literally like stepping into the world the Dr Seuss. Crazy spirals and staircases and platform make up this artists home. Every surface is covered with tiles forming beautiful pictures themed around love and peace. Many people said it reminds them of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, which I haven’t seen yet. It reminded me of Watt’s Towers in LA, but at a much grander scale. He also decorated all the houses in his neighborhood, including an epic wall mural that showcases every Latin American country. We loved this place so much, we ended up buying an original Fuster piece to take home with us. This place is a bit out of the way from Old Havana, but it is definitely worth the taxi ride to see it.
Callejon de Hamel
A colorful alley decorated with poems and murals by another local artist, Salvador Gonzales. I loved the art installations made using recycled materials. A friendly guy introduced himself as a tour guide to us and led us to the bar where we bought some over-priced drinks. Just something to be aware of as some other tourists have had similar or worse experiences there. Sunday afternoons are the best time to go if you want live music and dancing.