Cuba has changed, inevitable of course, 13 years is a long time, Fidel is no longer top dog and rumours abound of his fragile state and impending demise. Brother Raul is in charge and has been implementing some pretty progressive ideas into this Caribbean socialist experiment. But it’s not only Cuba that has gone through some monumental modifications, obviously my take on the world over the course of a decade is clearly different, and unfortunately, I have no photographs from which to make reference to since my camera was thieved either in the airport in Guatemala in 1999 or as I arrived in Havana, no idea which.
In 1999 I was living in Guatemala and finishing my third year abroad for my university course, I am now resident in Colombia, living here, married, have a business and working as a journalist. My knowledge of Latin America is now in its 13th year. My memories of Cuba are ones that largely revolve around penny pinching as a backpacker in his early 20s, trying to find place to eat and probably drinking too much rum. It was however an eye opening trip and made me appreciate the spirit of adventure travelling solo in a place that seemed so foreign.
This time, the holiday only spanned a week but I brought my Colombian wife Alba out here to get to know a little more of the region. Through a friend we stayed with the most wonderful Cuban family in Vedado and were thoroughly entertained and looked after by hosts Carmen and Andres.
Days included just wandering the streets soaking up the atmosphere of the decaying architecture, watching Cuban life develop before our eyes, conversing with locals, eating well, visiting museums, enjoying live music and mojitos everywhere.
What struck me the most was the number of restaurants that had sprung up all over the place; I can only recall struggling to find food last time. I have been since informed that over recent years a decree was put in place to enable competition between private restaurants and the state run ones. This has been a godsend for the tourism industry; the result is dust settling on the counters, tabletops and ovens of the state kitchens since they have been bested by the private enterprises.
Alba and I made a rapid trip down to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Trinidad for a night; this was of particular interest to us since we have a hotel in the similar town of Mompós here in Colombia. This was another opportunity to talk to locals from different backgrounds and see something beyond Havana. But, in five days there’s precious little one can really get out to see.
So, back to Havana. There is substantial restoration taking place to buildings, but nowhere near what is needed. Clearly there is no money that can possibly stretch this far given how large the republican era buildings span in the city. The city is captivating, compelling, romantic and seductive but at the same time from some angles resembles photos of Dresden circa 1945.
What I couldn’t help thinking was how the city might have been had there not been a revolution. It’s not something I care to answer since I cannot come to a clear and defined conclusion. Would it be like Cartagena with only a small protected area left in the hands of the incredibly wealthy and then with misery beyond the walls? Would security be so bad (it’s currently excellent and one feels no threat in historic Havana) that busloads of tourists are shipped in to snap photos of the cathedral, buy the ubiquitous cohiba and then be shuttled off to the security of an all-inclusive compound…oh wait there are hundreds of these people on a daily basis.
We can condemn the revolution, I can write criticisms of everything and talk about my personal gripes with the political situation, but it’s all be done before and will be discussed for aeons. It’s not my place to make bold statements, I just wanted to enjoy a five day break with my wife in a different location, and that’s exactly what we did. Our family in Cuba were open and honest with us and for that I am eternally grateful.
So, while I pull my thoughts together here’s a few tips for visiting Havana.
- Havana is safe, just like in any city, avoid unlit and empty streets at night
- It’s paramount that you stay with a Cuban family in a Casa Particular; you will be welcomed in as one of their own and will learn far more about the country this way.
- Dance and enjoy the live music everywhere.
- Budget your money making exchanges of foreign currency in the Cadeca offices every couple of days to ensure your cash lasts. Should the Cadeca be closed the larger hotels will do exchanges. Banks are an option too.
- Bring Canadian dollars and Euros, not US dollars as you will be charged an extra fee.
- Jineteros are everywhere and will approach you to advise on restaurants, bars, tours and so on. Be formal and polite and keep walking and they will leave you alone.
- Try and travel beyond the capital to see rural Cuba. Trinidad is a good start.
- Transport has improved immensely; intercity buses for foreigners are decent and relatively frequent. Remember, distances are large in Cuba, plan ahead.
- Negotiate your taxi fares within Havana. For the most part a journey within Vedado and the Ciudad Vieja should cost 4 or 5 CUC.
- Cuban Spanish is not the easiest to understand, but hang on in there, you’ll catch on soon enough.
- People will talk about politics. Be respectful of the country and their views. Enjoy the artistic propaganda on the walls and buildings and revel in the lack of mainstream multinational billboards!
- Try and take a journey in the 1950 era boat-sized cars, just don’t breathe in the fumes.
- We did not use a guidebook but did download the excellent Havana Good Time app.