Cuba. It is famous for many things…. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Classic Cars and Big Cigars. Often when you have certain iconic images and idealistic nuances of how a place will look, it can disappoint. It’s almost inevitable. It’s like going to Lapland expecting to see elves.
In my idealistic mind, I would walk into Havana (in an off the shoulder dress and fedora hat), where I would see a swathe of 1950s cars marinating the streets. Old men would play dominos and on every street corner bands would play Spanish music and take your hand as you walk past to dance with you in a charmingly Cuban way, while holding a cigar in their mouths.
Right?…..Now imagine how surprised I was when this was my EXACT experience on stepping into Havana…
It is every inch the stereotype. As you walk (with an adopted Cuban swagger) down the streets, the music will change almost every 15 steps as different bands play their repertoire and charm the tourists and locals into a dance or at the very least a twirl.
When there is no band, there will be someone facing their home speakers into the street just to ensure that the air is always filled with music (and faint cigar smoke).
The next thing you’ll notice is the colour… it is SO colourful and bright that everything seems that bit more beautiful and enticing. Even residential streets look like a Lichtenstein coffee table book.
The most recognisable of these quintessentially iconic things are the cars.
If you ever want to feel like Sandy from Greece (or Rizzo) and Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde fame simultaneously, then this is your city.
Teacher time… pay attention class. In the 1950s when Castro hoofed out the Americans, he seized all of their cars and houses. He then gifted each Cuban person with a car and house. Leadership vs Dictatorship? Inconclusive… Permanent Problem solver? Unlikely. While this was a very generous gift, it effectively saw the end of import from the US, meaning that these same cars are the same that they use today and the houses are the ones still lived in by the 3 generations since.
Cigars. You HAVE to get one. Listen, I am no connoisseur. While they were trying to fob me off with some dainty ladylike cigar, I wanted one that was all bells & whistles and looks like you’re smoking a rolling-pin, because let’s be honest… no-one ever smokes the whole thing and after the 30 second novelty had worn off, I was done. Even people (uncles of mine) that do smoke the whole thing… well, I mean, it could take hours, or months… I don’t know but the point is, who has time for that sort of commitment?
While you have a picture of Cuba, what you probably haven’t heard about is their food… It is (for the most part)… not great. However, it is important to explain why…
I need to stress just how restricted this country is in access to things. Before flying, I had read a tip to buy boxes of tights and packs of colouring pencils. These might seem of little consequence, but due to import embargo from the US, they cannot get things like these and the currency is so weak against others that they would not be able to afford to buy them exported (from export approved places like China). In less populated areas, children run out of their houses or shelters to ask for anything you might have. Money, toothpaste, footballs and so tights and pencils were more than well received. So when it comes to spices and ingredients, they are way too expensive.
Across Cuba, the national salary (every working person has roughly the same) is 20-25 CUC (18€) per month…. let me say that again…. 18€ PER. MONTH, which shows just how limited their possibilities of providing are. There are food rations allotted per family and people work multiple jobs and rely on tips/tourism to provide a better income. They have only had wifi for a couple of years and their access to uncontrolled outside news is slim.
So they must be unhappy?…. Absolutely not! Havana had some of the happiest, most generous people I have met and live life to the fullest. Our guide who lived in Italy (before having to return within 2 years or be exiled) said that she loved everything Cuba stood for, even if it meant that she, (with 2 degrees & 4 languages), worked 3 jobs and lived with her grandparents… Because while they “don’t have 3G, they have happiness”
… That really stuck with me.
People appreciate life. Havana Nanas gather outside the steps of the grand square church to catch up and socialise, on a Sunday and live a life that they see as content, family oriented and full.
I guess that’s the point, it’s all about your perspective and I definitely felt the importance of enjoying life while I was there.
Locals seem to have a “la vida es bella” ethos and an effortless viveur, fortune tellers read palms, or tea leaves or crystal balls. Musicians sing in the streets.
However, for good food, there are a couple of restaurants you should check out: My favourite El Cocinero (in an old factory) is super cool… If you are looking for Cuban authenticity, this is not your place, but if you are looking for good food and young fun atmos, this is your bag.
Next door is Fábrica de Arte Cubano which is an art gallery / night club.
Then there is La Guarida… famously featured in Love & Chocolate and known as the best food in Havana.
For “50’s celebrity Havana”, check out Sloppy Joes… If you grew up in NW London like me, you’d say… “Its a little like TGI’s”. However, it is quite iconic with great cocktails and every 30s 40s & 50s bigwig you can swing a cat at has been here (Sinatra, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and other stars I definitely couldn’t name on sight).
Rooftops. To see the city from above, the best way is via rooftop. (Sorry, I just re-read that and cannot think of another way…) The Iberostar Parque Central, The new Kempinski and Hotel Sevilla all have great views and the Sevilla has a super charming waiter who loves a salsa with guests.
For something a little more traditional, check out The Hotel Nacional. It has an amazing sunset view deck.
While there is very European. tourist focussed/made luxury, this is a far reach from that of the local people. These are patriotically proud people and for a country that is not considered financially wealthy… they are INCREDIBLY generous people.
I absolutely LOVED Havana and cannot wait to go back.
So to plan ahead, if you’re thinking of emailing and getting a response…. dream on. This is Cuba, not Silicon Valley. Pick up the phone and embrace it.