It’s 7 a.m. and already uncomfortably warm. I stand at the edge of our balcony overlooking a city that resembles a mix between the set of Jumanji and Ancient Rome. Children dressed in shorts with no shirts or shoes emerge from their disintegrating homes to convene in the streets and take up a game of kickball. Fruit vendors parade the neighborhoods with bright faces, peddling plantains, guava, mango, and papaya. Women begin their daily chores, keeping what’s left of their homes as clean as possible and tossing the mop water into the streets. A typical morning in Havana, and yet I am mesmerized.
We arrived in Havana the night before. After landing at José Martí International Airport, we hopped into the first taxi we spotted — a vehicle straight out of 1950s Americana. Julio, our driver, winds his mint green beast of a car through the city and shoots out onto the Malecón — an evocative and soulful five-mile-long seaside drive and the hub of the city’s social activity. I sink into the white leather seat. Seeking the fresh sea air, I try to roll down the window, until I feel a slap on my hand and a finger shaking “No.” Owning a car in Cuba is like owning a business in the U.S. Cars have been passed down from the older generations and for most families are the sole source of income.
“Está roto.” He says, pointing to the window crank. “Broken,” I confirm.
His 1959 Bel Air is a mishmash of auto parts, but is no less a beauty. When we pull up to a nondescript building in the Habana Vieja district, Julio asks incredulously, “Here!?” I shrug and exit the car. My three friends, Scout, Devin, Amanda, and I look at each other with wide eyes and curiosity smeared across our faces. We have absolutely no idea where we are or where we are supposed to be, but that’s quite all right with us.
Left standing in the middle of the street with our luggage, a bright blue door flies open and a woman appears. She’s hollering to us with a welcoming smile and all we can make out is “mi hermano,” as she points down the street. This is Norma. We had booked a room in her home, known as a casa particular, and although her rooms are full, her brother Ernesto is eager to offer us the extra space in his apartment.
Norma and Ernesto are among the lucky Cubans who have additional room in their homes to rent out to tourists. Like owning a car, the income they can generate from renting out rooms can be up to 50 times that of a Cuban working for the state government. They each ask $30 per room, per night, while the typical state wage is a slim $30 per month. It’s this economic disparity that helped spur The Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, overthrowing the Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista, and creating a society that blurs the lines between socialism and communism.
Donning glasses and a pleasant grin, we meet Ernesto as he strolls down the street toward us. Although the rooms in his home parallel a church dungeon, his gentle, sweet disposition has us completely satisfied with our accommodations.
After a few moments on the balcony, watching the city start its day, we sit down to a generous breakfast of meats, cheeses, fruits, eggs, and a caffeine overload of café con leche, prepared by Ernesto and his wife. Having absolutely no itinerary for our trip, we set out to explore Havana. We stroll through Centro Habana, near El Capitolio. It’s early November, almost a year after President Obama announced normalized relations with Cuba. There’s a sense of pride still lingering in the air and optimism in the streets.
We continue past the capitol building to the area called Vedado and find refuge from the sun at Paladar Café Laurent. Before leaving for Cuba, we had been warned to stay away from state-run restaurants and to seek out paladares. This was probably the best advice we received. Paladares are in-home restaurants legalized in the 1990s. Through the additional income tourists bring, these restaurants are able to buy supplementary ingredients to create fascinating dishes. Some owners even travel outside the country seeking ingredients not found in Cuba, like sea salt.
We treat ourselves to the overwhelmingly refreshing frozen mojitos and surprisingly un-refreshing Cuban bottled water. Although the atmosphere is trendy and the music is melodic, the comedic translations on the English language menu, such as “crap sticks” instead of crab cakes, happily remind us that we are in Cuba. We leisurely spend the afternoon on the covered patio overlooking the city until hunger strikes and we partake in one of the best meals any of us have ever had; the house roasted pork with a red-wine tarragon sauce, lemon grilled fish in thai curry, cumin braised chicken, and shredded lamb prepared with a garlic-mint reduction, each served with traditional rice and beans. Most of our meals throughout our nine days in Cuba were exactly like this.
Meals are not taken lightly in Cuba. Since the country is on a food rationing system, there is no quick run to the corner store for a bag of chips or a doughnut shop on every block. To our surprise, no snacks! Each Cuban is supplied with a monthly stipend of food — including rice, cooking oil, bread, eggs, beans, chicken or fish, spaghetti, and sugar. Like most Americans, I have taken food for granted, assuming I’ll always get what I want, when I want it. This is not the case in Cuba, meals are planned and food is never wasted.
For entertainment, our evenings were spent learning to salsa at Hotel Florida — if you want to dance with the locals, this is the spot. Don’t expect to walk into a salsa club and not be lured to the dance floor, it won’t happen. Wallflowers beware, the Cuban men make sure every woman is asked to dance and declining their offer is not an option.
Opting for a cultural experience over a beach vacation, we spent half our time in the city of Havana and the other half in Viñales, a peaceful, romantic village in the heart of the Pinar del Río province. Viñales is a culturally rich landscape enriched by old-fashioned farming methods and traditional village architecture. Here, we stayed with Fernando at his casa particular called Fernan 2. Our Spanish skills lacking, we missed the pun and throughout our stay pronounced Fernan 2 as “Fernan Two,” and always wondered where Fernan One was. Until our last day when we realized the correct pronunciation was Fernan Dos... as in “Fernando’s.”
Viñales offered a break from the entertaining city and a chance to relax among the countryside. We spent our time riding through the tobacco fields on horses, exploring the landscape on scooters, and playing music in the square with the town locals till late into the night.
Cuba is a country that has been through many hard times, both politically and economically. And yet, the people are the most endearing, lively, and spirited of anywhere I have ever traveled. A culture rich in tradition and an environment unmarked by big-box stores and fast food franchises, Cuba is a unique gem in our world of capitalism and consumerism. If you have an opportunity to visit, do not hesitate, GO!