As the illegality of visiting the island slips into history, I thought I'd enjoy it before everything changes

June 6, 2015

"Next year let's do Havana," Bryan said in the living room of our New Orleans Airbnb. "I hear it's fantastic, and there's music everywhere." After this fifth straight year of traveling to Jazz Fest, we were ready to try something new. Plus Cuba was exotic, exciting, and, for some in our group, illegal. If four middle aged guys are going to take a vacation from their lives as usual, shouldn't they choose something a bit adventurous?

image00I didn't know that much about Cuba. I had always been fond of Afro-Cuban jazz, enjoyed pan con lechón at my local Cuban restaurant, and been fascinated by the photos of old American cars in Havana. But the Cubans I knew anything at all about were few: Fidel Castro, Desi Arnaz, and my son's favorite, Yasiel Puig. Not the best exemplars. So I read the web and watched YouTube to get educated.

I learned that since Raúl Castro came to power, the totalitarian control we knew under Fidel has begun to ease. For example, he lifted restrictions on some independent business, allowing Cubans ways to earn more than the typical US$30 monthly salary. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported Cuba's economy by overpaying for sugar, Cuba's revenue has come mainly from tourism. Despite these potential sources of prosperity, poverty and poor living conditions remain pervasive. Economic changes are only widening the gap between rich and poor. The thawing of US relations could open up Cuba to a flood of new investment and tourists at any time. For now it remains a unique travel destination.


We went through Cancun, losing a day in the process (and in touristy, bland Cancun that loss was total). Following a short Cubana de Aviación flight, Cuban officials ushered us through passport control. I overheard some of the agents asking travelers for proof of travel insurance, and had mine at the ready. Those that didn't have it got through anyway, with little argument. In Cuba, it seems, the rules come with exceptions. I answered the ebola screening question correctly and was allowed entry. At baggage claim, the many boxes of perfumed laundry detergent tumbling out among the suitcases gave me the first clue that items we take for granted are hard to come by in Cuba.


We booked all four rooms of a casa particular in Old Havana by email. These private residences are government licensed to rent rooms and must meet certain standards. And at around US$30 per night, the price was less than a hotel. Staying at a casa particular gave us the opportunity to interact with the Cuban owners, who lived next door and offered plenty of help and good advice.

They arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport. As the first taste of many minor inconveniences, he needed to drop us off a block from the casa due to piles of construction rubble in the streets of Old Havana. The casa's bedrooms were neat and air conditioned, but the common spaces remained uncomfortably hot during the day. From our street-facing balcony we had a view of adult social interactions by night, children playing in the evening, and street repair all day. It is good to ask when booking whether you should expect jackhammering each morning at 8. Despite the daytime noise, it was a great spot, lacking only for dish soap, a sponge, and decent napkins. These are some of the everyday things it can pay to bring with you.

First Impressions

image04After getting settled we took to the rubble-strewn streets of Old Havana by foot. In the muggy afternoon heat we passed a 24-hour bakery, which offered only one style of flavorless but edible bread, at just four cents per loaf. Our small local store, exactly like all the others we saw, had items like dry pasta, canned vegetables, boxed fruit nectars, soft drinks, rum, and cigarettes. There wasn't much to choose from. You would surely go nuts from the lack of variety after a month or two . On other streets we found butchers, produce vendors selling from pushcarts, and bodegas offering sugar, rice, and beans. Most Cubans can't afford a meat centred diet, but the government provides them staples at bodegas in quantities just sufficient for survival. Anything beyond that they have to afford themselves.

Many of the large government buildings in our neighborhood were scaffolded and under renovation. This included the Capitolio, which is due for completion in 2017. The rehabilitation of many other structures seemed long abandoned, with scaffolds hidden by the unchecked growth of thick, woody vines. There was no advertising anywhere. The only billboards we saw monumentalized Fidel, Che, or the revolution. Aside from construction debris, the streets were mostly clean and unlittered. Either ordinary Cubans are doing their part to not dirty the city, or there are plenty of civil servants to clean up after them. Other areas we saw in Havana included Vedado and the wealthy suburb of Miramar. Their buildings are more modern and the streets less populated.

We dined that first evening at Kilómetro Zero, as recommended by our host. The meal was enjoyable, the music good, and the dancing by patrons entertaining. We stopped at the store to get rum, cola, and juice. Back in the casa we turned on the old portable record player and enjoyed the hiss and pop of mambo records from the fifties.


image06Of Cuba's two currencies, we generally used the CUC (Cuban convertible peso), whose value is matched to the US dollar. Converting from the US$ to CUC costs an additional 10% above the 3% exchange fee, supposedly due to the US embargo. So you get 0.87 CUC to the dollar. The hit is smaller if you instead buy Euros at home and converting them to CUC in Cuba. You can find ways to avoid the 10% fee if you ask around discretely at the airport, but do so at your own risk.

Prices in a typical bar or restaurant are a bit cheaper than in the US. In one restaurant the menus first provided had prices three times as high as those posted outside; after a bit of an argument the waiter cleared up the confusion by providing menus with more favorable prices. This scam can be hard to detect. In most shops frequented by locals the prices are in CUP (also known as the Moneda Nacional, MN). In these places prices are very low, like a 20" pizza for US$2, or a shot of coffee for US$0.04.


State your destination to a Havana taxi driver and, unless it is the Hotel Nacional or the Malecón, expect him to ask how to get there. We got the feeling that many taxi drivers are just ordinary citizens with cars, and have no special knowledge of the city. Many of Old Havana's roads are torn up for improvements, which forced our drivers to ask locals how to navigate the maze of blockages. I recommend downloading searchable Havana maps on your smartphone.

image05Be ready to bargain. Start by asking the fare before entering the taxi (lesson learned the hard way). Then pick a lower number. If they ask for 10, offer 7. You'll save a couple of bucks from the quoted price with no hassle. Bargaining worked well for us even places you might not expect. For example, we visited the Morro lighthouse for 10 CUC through negotiation, down from the original 32. That it was nearly closing time probably didn't hurt. Taxi drivers were businesslike, but not all were perfunctory. Being hungry returning home from a venue at 3AM one night, we asked the taxi driver if he could find us some pizza. He took us to a busy spot, and chatted for nearly half an hour while we waited and ate. At that time of night, he said, there were no other fares to be had anyway.

While all those classic cars may look original in the photos, under the hood it's a different story. "Toyota diesel" was the unanimous reply of taxi drivers when I asked about their engine. From the loud exhaust noise and fumes in the cabin, I'm guessing the exhaust systems are custom and ill-fitting. Interior door handles and window rollers were often absent or not working. Don't think a driver is being polite when he opens the door to let you out; it's probably because the inside handle doesn't work and you can't reach the outside one through the stuck window. While these rides weren't always pleasant, especially during the heat of the day in slow traffic without air conditioning, each was its own little adventure. Some beautiful examples of these cars can be found waiting for tourists outside the nicer hotels, but those rides cost more than your typical taxi.


Havana is not a prime food destination. While there are some great dishes, like arroz con pollo and Moros y Cristianos, much of the cuisine was overcooked and underseasoned. It is generally best to choose a dish which is meant to be long-cooked, like Ropa vieja. This is not to say that all food is uninteresting; just don't expect to find the subtlety and attention to detail we are now used to in the US. So stick to basics like rice, fricassé de pollo, and maduros fritos. One consistent weakness was anything dough based, including bread, pastries, and pizza. At some of the state restaurants you can eat a perfectly good meal for 1 CUC, so it pays to seek those places out.

One of the more popular spots is Paladar La Guarida, recently made even more prominent by Conan O'Brien's visit []. The dining area occupies the impressively designed third floor of the building. It was one of the better meals we had in Havana, but truly special is the beautiful rooftop bar with city skyline vistas. It shouldn't be missed.


image10We read good reviews of the cigar lounge at the Hostal Conde de Villanueva. It's upstairs from a central courtyard dominated by a vocal pair of peacocks. The three room air conditioned space had a large selection of cigars (including some hand-rolled on the premises), a well stocked bar, and comfy chairs. The staff were friendly and helpful in recommending cigars of varying strengths, which they expertly cut and lit for us. The price for two shots of rum, a great cigar, and a couple of hours of prime relaxation isolated from the midday heat was just 20 CUC.


image08Contrary to our expectations, we didn't find music everywhere in Havana. Some good musicians stroll the Malecón, but there was otherwise little to hear on the street. Night clubs were universally disappointing, with bands that were not particularly good. We had better luck in bars and restaurants, where we saw a number of talented groups for the price of a drink and a tip for the performers. Outside of Havana, in such towns as Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba, the music scene is said to be more pervasive.

Bringing gifts

Many online forums say that Cuban schools are in need of supplies (not so differently from those in the US these days), so I packed some. Walking near the Obispo, I came across an elementary school classroom whose door opened to the street. The children wore sharp burgundy and white uniforms. I hope they enjoyed the baseball and Tootsie Rolls, and that the teacher made good use of the pens and erasers. But she was interested most of all in the canvas Trader Joe's bag I carried them in. An everyday convenience for us is often a valuable commodity in Cuba. May it serve her well. Musicians are also in need of things like guitar picks, strings, and reeds, so bringing these items will make you popular.


I didn't feel unsafe in Havana, day or night. Violent crime is reportedly low in Cuba. Men would often approach for a minor hustle, such as selling below-grade cigars ("¿Puros?") or offering a personal escort to the "best paladar" in the city. On one occasion a guy walked alongside me, talking up a restaurant that no doubt had a nice commission waiting for him. Within two blocks he was pulled aside and detained by a police officer, who asked to see his papers. Because they support the economy, tourists are a protected class in Cuba. People will only mess with you so much to avoid harsh justice if caught. The best solutions to unwanted attention is to either say "no, gracias" or to simply ignore them. Most people offering you help will be expecting something in return, usually too much.

Outside Havana

A 20 minute taxi ride took us from Old Havana to the Playa del Este. This clean, fine sand beach with its cleansing 80 degree waves was a perfect contrast to gritty Havana. Between ocean swims we sat at a shaded table in the sand, ate seafood, drank beer, and were serenaded by a wandering guitarist. It turned out to be spring break for the local high school kids, many of whom were also at the beach. But it was not Justin Bieber-esque disaster you might expect. They didn't shout, play loud music, or get sloppy drunk. I saw community in them, not entitlement. Leaving the beach, we passed a team of three machine gun wielding officers overseeing the beachgoers through binoculars from a wooden platform. One of many periodic reminders that we were vacationing in a communist police state.



Wanting see the countryside, we hired a driver (arranged by our host) to take us on a day trip to Pinar del Río province, about 100 miles southwest of Havana. Fortunately the air conditioning in his old Lada sort of worked. The trip afforded us a small taste of Cuba's beautiful scenery. We stopped at nature areas, a tobacco drying house, the cute town of Viñales, and its kitschy "prehistoric" mural. The mural was uninteresting, except for the fact that all sightseeing locations in Cuba seem to have bars. At this one ordering a Cuba Libre meant getting an ice-filled glass of cola and lime together with a bottle of white rum to pour as liberally as you pleased.


We got our best feel for Havana's youth culture at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. It is an old warehouse that has been converted to an art gallery, bar, and live performance space.


image03Most of the patrons were in their 20's or 30's and waited patiently in a long entry line. Bryan intended to bribe our way through the short VIP line, but we were instead simply ushered in. One of the art curators later told us that, as foreigners, we were likely considered candidate art buyers, and given priority. The night we visited featured provocative photographs by local artists such as Enrique Rottenberg. This engaging multi-level space had five bars, two DJ's, and busy dance floors. Drinks were inexpensive, and the crowd energetic. This venue well deserves its prominent position at number 11 in TripAdvisor's list of 166 things to do in Havana.

Cubans seemed interested in talking with us. This may have been genuine curiosity, the fact that we were walking piggie banks, or something else entirely. With the hustlers the motivation was clear, but at least they often had humor about it: "¿Quieres chicas?" "No, gracias. Soy casado." "Ah, eres loco." One night we dined at the seafood restaurant Dimar, next to a table with three drunk middle aged Cuban men, their twenty-something lady friend, and a pile of empty beer cans. The men came over in turns, pulling up their drink and a chair to chat at our table. One told us how much he loved our country, alternating praise for Obama and Putin as his memory swayed as to which country we were from. Another worked at convincing us to join him the next night for an even better seafood dinner at his house, for a fair price. If not, then could we at least find a way to get his amazing baseball pitcher of a son into the US? They were actually entertaining, so the young lady's apologies for their behavior were not needed. Instead of day jobs, each appeared to have business enterprises which would not be revealed in detail, though small-time hustling of tourists was a part of it. Despite many opportunities to engage with locals in various illegal activities, we were never approached about drugs. Nor did we ever see evidence of their use: no syringes in the gutters or even marijuana smoke at the clubs.

After midnight we brought a bottle of rum to the Malecón, the five mile long northern sea wall where people gather day and night. We found a spot to sit and passed the bottle among ourselves and to appreciative neighbors. Soon a quartet of young musicians approached, and performed traditional songs for us on guitar, drums, and precise two-part vocal harmony. Perhaps it was a just typical tourist experience, but it was also beautiful and memorable.

This trip gave me an enjoyable first appreciation of Cuba. But I have been advised to see much more of the country if I want to get a feel for all its offerings. I will aim my next visit toward the south of the island, perhaps starting at Santiago de Cuba, home to many of the Buena Vista Social Club's performers. Moving westward, snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs comes recommended, as does the city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although next spring the four of us will again be enjoying Jazz Fest in New Orleans, a return visit to Cuba will not be far off. By then relations with the US will hopefully improve, and with them economic and social conditions for the Cuban people.


Photos Copyright 2015. Used by Permission.