Old Clothes (Ropa vieja) 🇨🇺
A long overdue post on my trip to Cuba… I visited Havana on the week that Fidel Castro died on November 29th 2016, with much of the country in mourning. In real life nobody seemed to care, but in practice it meant that all the music on the street was gone and no bars were open. It made for occasionally boring times, but I survived by visiting some hotels which were able to serve alcohol.
Pro Tip: Bring a LOT of cash to Cuba if you are an American citizen. You will not be able to make any ATM withdrawals, but you will be able to exchange your US Dollars for Convertible Pesos.
The journey to Havana of course begins in Mexico City, where it’s immediately clear that you are embarking on something that’s about to be just a little different from what you’re used to. You’re first required to obtain a visa from the Mexican authorties at the airport. A fairly simple process that costs $20. You’re issued a piece of paper, one half gets stamped on entry, and other half gets stamped on exit. This way they avoid stamping your passport. God help you if you lose the other half though, so make sure to safeguard the visa more than your passport or your money.
Pro Tip: Ask the immigration agent not to stamp your passport, in Spanish, just to avoid any trouble with the increasingly megalomanic US Customs and Borders people.
My apartment was situated in the “center” of the city. An old portion of Havana where it’s only locals, no tourist attractions and widely reported on the internet as being unsafe (lies!).
I loved every minute of being in this old part of town, El Centro, as it felt authentic, without the hustle and bustle of people and nobody trying to sell me anything, trying to scam me. People simply left me alone, and at the end of the day long day after being harassed to buy this or that all day, that’s all I wanted. If you have a chance to visit Havana, please make sure to visit and stay in The Center.
Pro Tip: Always make sure that you find out if the price is in Pesos Convertible or Pesos Nacional. In addition, make sure that the price is not meant to be in cents instead of full bill. For example, I almost paid 20 CUC ($20) for a ferry ride that I thought was 20 CUP ($2), and when I asked it turned out it was 20 CUP CENTS (maybe a penny? I can’t do math).
They have rolling blackouts in this part of town at night and I got caught going out for food in one of those. I didn’t bat an eye, I pulled out my iPhone 7, turned on the flashlight and used it to make my way to the restaurant in total darkness. People walking around me, kids playing, other talking. If anyone wanted to hurt me in any way this would have been the opportune time. I made it there and back again without any issues.
Almost every night on my walk through the city late at night I would be playing music on my iPhone speaker, often times Enrique Iglesias and similar. Again making myself a target for any crime really, but instead what I found was people dancing to the beat and enjoying the music instead.
Pro Tip: Bring all toiletries you need and plan to leave them there for your host family. These things are prohibitively expensive, if they can even be purchased in Cuba.
I think many times it can feel scary and unsafe to be in Havana but it’s good to remember that the laws protecting tourists are absolutely strict in the country. If you say “no” twice to a street hustler and they continue to harass you after that, you can simply call the police and they’ll be taken away. In fact they know this and they will always stop after the second “no” you give them, because the consequences are severe. I found it unnecessary to even mention the word police. Nobody will steal from you, but they will try to rip you off.
Pro Tip: If you’re gay, Cuba is safe and the place to hang out is on the Malecon and Avenida 23. Mixed in among them are escorts, so make sure to make some good friends there so they can help you avoid those. If you don’t want to avoid them, you’ll find them on Grindr.
Walking around Havana you’re always face to face with either a) incredibly beautiful people and b) incredibly beautiful architecture. My one takeaway was that even a small amount of external investment could make this incredible city into a world-class destination. It saddened me to see the impact of the misguided sanctions and how they’ve hurt the people as a whole. It was eye-opening to me to see how much love Cubans in general have for America and Americans.
Pro Tip: You will find a lot of beautiful (and price inflated) artwork in Havana. But the place to go get affordable art of almost any kind is at the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market.
This permeated their culture in things like their Capitol which was modeled after the US Capitol in Washington. Behind the El Capitol in Havana you’ll also find a nice park with a statue of none else but Abraham Lincoln… Let that sink in.
Food left a little bit to be desired. There were in total 3 restaurants where the food and drinks simply blew me away.
La Guarida — very high end international food, exceptional. Three stories, rooftop bar with breathtaking 360 view of Havana.
O’Reilly 304 — affordable tapas, incredible drinks
Paladar Doña Eutimia — best Cuban food I’ve had hands down. Best Sangria in Havana and outside of Spain.
I glazed over many details from this trip, but in summary I must say it was a simply unforgettable experience and one I can’t wait to repeat some day. I have made friends in Havana. I got to know the city on a level most tourists do not get to experience. It also completely broke my apprehension in speaking Spanish. Because there was no internet, it meant I could not count on Google Translate working for me. In turn, this meant using all the Spanish I knew to get the things I wanted. Unsurprisingly, people responded very positively each time I ordered in Spanish or asked for menus in Spanish rather than the easy English option (if it even existed).
Pro Tip: Internet hotspots are in most parks and in almost all hotels. You can also buy your internet card in most hotels.
Pro tip: When buying internet access cards always ask for the 5 hour ($10) cards rather than the 2 hour ($5) access cards everyone will try to sell you.