havana pt 1. | april 2017
Cuba has been on my to go list for a very, very long time. You know when you're a kid and you're told you can't do something but it really just makes you want to do it more? Yeah, like that, because unfortunately, as an American, up until recently traveling there hasn't really been an option. When the travel ban to Cuba was finally lifted not too long ago, I knew I had to jump on the opportunity (#thanksobama). I couldn't wait to check out the culture and take a step back in time, before we (Americans) had a chance to go in there and build everything up to make it unrecognizable (as we're known to do). Although tourism has been a thriving industry there for the last 50 years, with the reintroduction of Americans back into the mix it was clear that the city has already started to change. Brand new luxury hotels have started to pop up everywhere, appealing to the US tourist looking for comforts similar to home, comforts not necessarily typically found in Cuba. Although tourism from the US technically still isn't permitted under the current travel restrictions, I found rather quickly that it's most definitely possible. After friends started flocking down there for long weekends, I knew I had to get a flight booked ASAP.
Just a quick trip down, I was immediately enthralled with the place. I haven't spent much time in underdeveloped or developing countries, much less any that have been closed off for the last fifty years. Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed was the language barrier, as I (shamefully) do not speak a word of Spanish. Fortunately, the Cuban people have nothing but patience. Some of the kindest people I've encountered on my travels, none of them seemed to judge me for not understanding them or being able to hold conversation (lookin' at you, Paris). To be honest, although frustrating at times, the language barrier didn't end up being too much of a problem throughout the weekend. There was an exceptional amount of piecing sentences together and using maps and hand gestures, but really, the most challenging part was just getting dropped off at a random square in Havana and being told our Airbnb was "that way". With the help of a few kind citizens, it was eventually found, and it was perfect. In case you didn't know already, I'm a huge advocate for Airbnb. I've found that there's really no better way to experience a city than to feel like you actually live there and are participating in daily life. Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for a nice hotel with all the things every now and then, but you're never quite getting the same experience. Although, for obvious reasons, a Cuban Airbnb might not come with all the comforts we're used to, having space to make yourself at home and being in the heart of things is absolutely worth it.
Anyways. Finally finding the Airbnb and getting settled in, it was time to explore. Perfectly located in Old Havana, venturing around to find a place for lunch was easy. Warned that the food might not be amazing, I have to say we were pleasantly surprised by almost everything we came across. Looking to take advantage of the beautiful (hot) weather and the gorgeous sights, we found a place on Plaza Vieja with outdoor seating, cocktails, and food, and I was introduced to the glory that is a mojito especial (aka a mojito with a beer in it). Yes, please. A couple of those later, the early morning flight and excessive heat was forgotten and we were free to explore the city.
Wandering through Havana really is like taking a step back in time. Both beautiful and decrepit at the same time, it's not hard to imagine the city as a thriving international hub. Buildings adorned in bright colors and gorgeous wrought iron doors, second floor balconies boasting cafe tables and daiquiris, salsa music emanating from every corner cafe and bar, abundant outdoor seating among the meandering locals - it exudes a laissez-faire, Latin American vibe, both beautiful and slightly sad at the same time. The happiness of the locals is palpable, but it's hard not to observe from a place of privilege, wondering how the people truly feel about their home, economy, politics - and in turn wondering if we would be happier without the constant pressure to want in a capitalistic society.
Due to an import ban in the 50's, the streets are lined with classic cars in bright colors, driven by enthusiastic tour guides ready to show you their home. Look closely and you'll notice the "convertibles" aren't actually convertibles at all, but hard top cars with their roofs cut off to appease the tourists looking for a cooler ride. Ask the locals and they'd prefer them to have the top still on to block from the burning sun, but hey, they make for a good Instagram photo now don't they? Look up and you'll see laundry hanging from every balcony, crumbling facades with no structure behind them, pastel color blocked homes. Listen, and you'll hear everything from reggae to salsa to American top 40, emanating from every open window and door. Walk through the streets slowly, and you'll notice the overwhelming sense of community that comes with lack of television and wifi - friends actually meeting to hang out in the streets, children playing soccer in the square, families enjoying each others company over a cold beer. Spontaneous dancing might break out in the street. Stop for a picture with a woman dressed in traditional Cuban clothing, but don't forget to tip. Find the nearest bar with open doors and air conditioning and cool off with a daiquiri. Avoid anywhere Hemingway went if you want to avoid the crowds. Stroll, walk, and wander through the winding streets, taking in the vibrant sights and contagious care free vibe. Leave your phone at home, it won't work anyways, and just enjoy.
Havana truly is a magical place, from the culture to the people to the architecture to the food and drink, and I honestly can't wait to return.
Stay tuned for my full list of recommendations on where to stay, what to eat, the best places to drink, some not to be missed sights, and a few tips for travel.