Havana, then and now..
I'd longed to visit Havana for a long time for several reasons. With its history including piracy, mobster conventions and the revolution, this city ignited a big sense of fascination, mystery and intrigue. Its tropical location just added to the case. #thankyou
In May 2019, a decade after my first visit to the Caribbean, I made it back. I had fond memories of my first trip, including the smell of coconuts and piña coladas, water as blue as the sky and the sound of steel drums playing the little mermaid soundtrack.
Cuba, however, is another world on its own. I'd never felt the true isolation of an island before, but in Cuba it feels like a blessing and a curse at the same time.
In order to understand Cuba, there is no way around its history, which isn't always clearly described on site. So let me give you a 5-min update.
500 years of history
The year of 2019 marks the 500th birthday of a city with a history so rich, time had to stand still for a while to catch its breath. Cuba is widely known to be the pearl of the Antilles and Havana, as the capital, has always been the center of the action.
Havana was founded by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. After relocating the city twice, it found its final resting place in November 1519.
Due to its' strategic location, at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, Havana has seen many visitors come and go. Some better intended than others.
In 1538 the city was almost destroyed when it came under attack of French pirates and local slaves. In order to protect themselves from further attacks, two forts were built on both sides of the port entry, La Punta and El Morro. And although most unwanted visitors could be kept out, Havana was not prepared for Spain's Seven Year War with Britain. The British held Havana for 11 months but control was regained by the Spanish a year later in exchange for Florida.
After the occupation of Britain, Spain allowed Havana to open up their trade in 1765, starting a period of unseen wealth for all landholders. Cuba boomed under the export of sugar, rum, tobacco and coffee. Unfortunately, due to a society based on slavery, the divide between rich and poor grew stronger and unrest was once again brewing in the country. Although Havana was spared from the wars that broke out in 1868 and 1895, the post-war period brought new American rulers to the city.
In the 20th century a massive number of Americans came to Havana, in an attempt to flee the Prohibition era faced by the U.S. Havana became a haven for booze and 'good times'. During this period of wealth, famous buildings such as el Capitolio saw life. Unfortunately, besides the growing wealth, Havana had succumb to corruption as well. In 1933, this resulted in a military revolt, led by sergeant Fulgencio Batista, which ended in a shooting war between military factions in Hotel Nacional.
Sadly corruption didn't end after the siege of Batista, who is said to have conspired with the North American Mafia.
The Mob had plans to make Havana the next den of depravity and gambling paradise, calling it the new Tropical Las Vegas. In 1946 they held a conference at the infamous Hotel Nacional, to elaborate their plans.
During that period, the Vedado neighborhood grew out to be the central district of all the action and large Mob-owned hotels and casinos were built. Batista let this fly under the radar in exchange for a charitable percentage of the profits.
All this corruption and depravity, sparked a new revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1959, who aimed at removing capitalism and introducing socialism to Cuba. After taking power, all casinos were closed down and hotels were reallocated as homes for the poor. All the wealth was redistributed and Havana's time of growth had come to an abrupt stop, which in many ways stopped time itself.
The new direction Castro's government was taking, to a state of communism, led the U.S. to oppose Castro. This resulted in several actions against his regime, among which an economic blockade prohibiting the import of goods to Cuba, starting an era of huge scarcity for the Cuban population. In an attempt to protect Cuba from U.S. threats, Castro found a new ally in the Soviet Union, giving Cuba a pivotal role in the Cold War, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Even after the death of Fidel Castro, Cuba's relationship with its' neighboring country remains difficult. Despite efforts done by president Barack Obama, new restrictions made by the Trump administration make it again difficult for Americans to freely travel to Cuba, keeping an enormous source of income from the Cuban population.
(Travel, however, is not impossible, more information can be found here).
The combination of those periods of great wealth, communism and its' associated embargo, gives Cuba it's unique sense of traveling back in time. In stead of replacing the old rich colonial houses with new ones, they were kept "in tact". Old cars from the 50's and 60's have been maintained as there was no way to import new ones. Thanks to the listing of Habana Vieja and its fortifications as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the restoration of the old city is ongoing and hopefully the beauty of Havana can be kept in tact.
As you have read now, the capital, Havana has always been in the center of all the tumult, so starting your journey in Cuba there will give you a great deep dive into the lives and long history of the Cuban people.
(More detailed information on Cuba's history can be found here.)
Modern day Havana
We prepared for Cuba more than any other country we'd visited. The lack of easily accessible internet released the control freak in me and made sure everything was planned before leaving. We even started learning Spanish a couple of weeks prior to departure (which BTW is way too late) #duolingo. At least I was able to say "I have an apple" #yotengounamanzana and "a dog and cat" #ungatoyunperro should it ever come up.. (All jokes aside, the app actually helped a lot!).
Arriving in Havana we had a pretty smooth transit to the center. Our luggage didn't get lost, an ATM awaited outside right the terminal (you can't order Cuban CUC from banks outside of Cuba) and the first taxi driver approaching us offered a price that was actually within the expected range (20 CUC). #lookingup When the cab driver dropped us of at our first casa particular (the Cuban Airbnb), Gustavo 456, our driver even got out of the car and waited until our host opened the door before leaving us on the street. Our first interaction with the Cuban people went smooth.
Soon after however, jetlag and heath stroke caught up. Coming from 4°C weather, the heat really fell on us and the many impressions on the street were hard to process with our lack of sleep. Still, we went for a quick dinner on el Malecón, which we had to cut short thanks to some stomach issues, and decided tomorrow would be a better day. #buenasnocheslahabana
As my first impression of Cuba I clearly remember a lot of duality everywhere. First of all you have a double currency, CUC for tourists and CUP for locals. Second, there seems to be an significant shortage of food in general but that disappears when you see the huge portions you get ordering in restaurants. Next, all Cubans are very proud to be Cuban, but agree that life is hard. The city of Havana feels busy, but the people in it don't. The culture seems macho, but women are often dressed in tight clothes and short dresses, giving me a sense of security somehow as a woman to dress however I want. Castro is adored abundantly in the streets for bringing equality, but there is disagreement on the way the country is run now. Education and medical care is free, but in order to study you need to "pay of your debts" by working for the government on a salary too low to survive. Cuba clearly has two sides to every story. Which might just be the thing that makes it so intriguing.
In order to make more sense of all this, we booked a guided tour with a local guide for the next day Leandro, giving us insights into the way Cuban people live. He took us to parts of Havana, we probably wouldn't have found in our guidebooks.
Our first day, a guided tour "Is it hard to live as a Cuban?"
We booked our tour through Airbnb, and started in a small neighborhood of Havana dedicated to art and religion, Callejón de Hamel. This street is covered with murals by a painter called Salvador and filled with statues that are dedicated to the African-Cuban religion called Santeria. This is when we first learned that many Cubans, uphold more than one religion. Even though lots of them are Catholic, a heritage of the Spanish conquistadors, just as many people (also) believe in African gods, brought to Cuba through the introduction of slaves from the African continent (another duality).
Side note: If you see people dressed fully in white, these are people who are going through an initiation phase of Santeria, where they dress in white for a whole year. This initiation can be done at any age.
The remainder of our tour we walked along local markets, entered a real Cuban home, where we tasted coffee containing 50% coffee and 50% mixed chickpeas. We took a ferry to another part of Havana called Ranchita La Regla, to visit a local church. And ended our day at the biggest souvenir/art hangar in the city, Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market, where we tried a typical drink with Rum and coconuts. All in all, we had a rich day filled with new insights into Cuban life thanks to our guide #thankyouLeandro.
Check out his account cubanphotosociety for his photography and info.
DAY 2 - The mob-life: Cemeteries, mobster hotels and cigar lounges
The next day we were out on our own. The guided tour was great for introducing us to the culture, but we were still tourists after all, so we went hunting for those #touristtraps. We headed out , must-see-lists in hand and decided to strike off three items: Cemetery of Cristobal Colon (UNESCO), Vedado neighborhood and Hotel Nacional. Fully motivated we set-off on foot ("it wasn't that far"), got sunburned, got scammed by a local into buying him 18 CUC drinks, sweated our hearts out and found solace in a mobster den. Quite another eventful day in Havana.
El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón
The Colon Cemetery, is located in Vedado, a neighborhood built in the 19th century. It is one of the most important cemeteries in the world and known-for its elaborate sculptures and architectural masterpieces. It houses over 800,000 graves and 1 million interments. Plots were assigned according to social class and wealth, and many of the mausoleums are an architectural masterpiece.
As much richness the cemetery showed in the 1800's, many of the graves now are abandoned and dilapidated, due to the exile of a lot of families, giving the cemetery an eerie feeling despite its' use of all-white stones.
An oasis of peace and quite, Hotel Nacional
After our cultural visit during UV peak hours, we decided it was time for a cocktail and some chilling. We started to walk (and regretted it almost immediately (3.7km)) to Hotel Nacional for some sea breeze and a cocktail. After being honked to by every passing car, we arrived at this, although busy, quiet hotel. It marked yet another contradiction that a place once used as a shootout location for a military coup and a mobster meeting center, had turned into a very peaceful escape from a busy city.
Conde de la Villanueva
Once we were filled up on frozen daiquiri, we hopped into a Coco taxi and headed out to Habana Vieja to visit Gustavo, our host, in Conde de la Villanueva, where we experienced yet another part of Cuba.
We spent an amazing afternoon in a dark air-conditioned, smoke-filled cigar lounge, hidden from the public eye, talking to a group of American teachers who were in Havana for spring break. Gustavo made sure we were introduced to all of Cuba's finest export products: rum, coffee and cigars (not necessarily in that order).
Conversations with our host were both interesting and honest, as we learned about Cuba from yet another perspective. The whole afternoon was refreshing and relaxed, part of what we learned was "the Cuban way of living".
Los Nardos and El Capitolio
Thanks to our new found American friends we learned about a restaurant called Los Nardos right across from El Capitolio, which supposedly was great for dinner. So we headed out.
Upon arrival we noticed that although it's quite a big restaurant, the entrance is easy to miss. Inside we enjoyed a good dinner (lots of choice) for a good price. Honestly probably one of the best meals we had in Havana. We had yet another rum cocktail, some good food and finally decided to call it a night and take a taxi back to our Casa Particular, back to Gustavo!
DAY 3 - Havana Vieja, Morro castle and hipster factories
On our last day in Havana we realized we hadn't really seen the "real" city center yet, just strolled down quickly to find Gustavo. So we headed out again to Havana Vieja. Although this part is called 'old Havana' in Spanish, this part of town is actually cleaned up the most (probably for tourists). We had a nice stroll and drank some cocktails (again) with a view on Plaza Vieja.
Next we headed out with the ferry to Casablanca to see the Cristo de la Habana and Morro Castle. We decided to do the walk by foot, but needed a taxi in return since the sun isn't friendly and the walk isn't particularly spectacular.
Cristo de la Habana
The Christ of Havana is a large sculpture of Jesus overlooking Havana. It was sculptured by an artist called Jilma Madera in the 1950s. It's made out of Carrara marble which is the same white marble used for many tombs and statues in Colon Cemetery. And the statue is visible from many places throughout the city. According to the locals the sculpture symbolizes Cuban culture depicting a cigar in the right hand and a mojito in the left.
After a short break with Jesus we rejoined our pilgrimage towards Morro castle.
Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro
Morro castle is a fortress built in 1600s in order to protect Havana from invasions. Today you can visit the castle (for about 6€ pp) and learn more about its history. Although Havana is "free" of foreign invaders these days (excl. tourists), the building is still used to keep watch over the port as it provides excellent views over the harbor. And even though the castle dates back to the 1600s, the lighthouse, which is prominently present, was only added around the 1800s.
If you visit Morro Castle around 9PM in the evening you can even hear/see them fire the canons. (We were long gone before that so no way of telling you whether it's nice or not).
We stayed in Morro Castle for a few hours, looking around and recharging, after which we headed over to hipster paradise, el Fabrica de Arte, for dinner and drinks. A place where art in all its forms (music, painting, photography etc.) is combined with food, drinks and a queue a few blocks long (if you arrive after 8PM). #earlybirdeatstheworm
A perfect place for us to end our trip to Havana and head over to the calm countryside of Viñales the next day.
Before flying home we stayed one more night in Havana in villa Teresa. An old majestic house rebuilt to former glory a little further from the center. The rooms were amazing and so were the views from the terrace on top. #silentstorm
Hope you enjoyed this little bit of Havana, then and now! Please comment with remarks, questions or any other info!