Cuba is the hot destination right now with thousands of travellers wanting to witness this Caribbean island before the detente in relations with the USA transforms the country irrevocably.
While outsiders want to capture the magic of a destination where time seems to have stopped in the 1950s, the locals are desperate for progress. They’re fed up with the ‘old guard’, the rules and restrictions, the crumbling buildings, the lack of food, services and resources.
Not to mention the queues, for everything: food, money, transport, rations.
As our guide joked to us, there’s a reason the country is called ‘Queue-ba’.
We’d come to Cuba to explore Havana and do a cycle tour through the western countryside. My travel partner JJ had visited once before, 10 years ago when tourists were a lot thinner on the ground. He’d loved it then and was curious to see how much things had changed.
Welcome to Havana
We’d barely touched the ground at Havana airport before we had to remind ourselves to keep our expectations in check. This was Communist Cuba after all with surly immigration staff, super slow baggage handlers (we waited over an hour for our luggage to arrive despite being the only plane to have arrived) and a super long wait at the one and only operating currency exchange at the airport.
By the time we got on the road it was close to 1am. When our taxi driver dumped us in what seemed like the middle of nowhere two blocks from our ‘hostal’ we were hot, tired and less than impressed.
We couldn’t see at night but the streets around our ‘hostal’ were all dug up and completely impassable by car, part of the ongoing restoration and rebuilding of Havana after decades of neglect. When we finally lobbed into our apartment, up 3 narrow flights of stairs, behind 3 security doors and 4 keys at the back of a block with no openable windows and no visible fire escape, we were more than a little unsettled.
Hot, hip, happening Havana
Thankfully it didn’t take long for hot, hip, happening Havana to work its magic on us. Stepping out into brilliant sunshine the next morning, we toured the city in one of the fabulous old vintage cars straight out of the 1950s.
We drove down the famous Malecon, the 11-kilometre-long promenade alongside the harbour, through the upmarket streets of Miramar where embassies and the wealthy reside, down through the vibrant Vedado and the Parque Almendares, a popular recreation park for locals. We scooted past the historic Colon Cemetery, stopped at the famous Revolucion Square, where Fidel Castro addressed hundreds of thousands of people in his legendary political rallies, then headed down into the old part of the city, Vieja Habana.
It’s a rather surreal experience walking around old town Havana, a strange mix of beauty and decay. While the beautiful, colourful old buildings are slowly being restored, there’s still much that is decrepit and literally falling apart. Some of the big old town squares are almost empty of people which adds to the feeling of abandonment.
Wander around the smaller streets though and they’re buzzing with activity, locals going about their business, hanging out, chatting, observing, shopping at markets where there’s not actually a lot of food on offer.
The Cuban food ration system
We were surprised to learn that the population of Cuba is still on rations and at ration stores throughout the city Cubans line up for their monthly allocation of staples such as flour, rice, beans, sugar. For westerners, it’s fascinating and incomprehensible.
But what’s a source of wonder and astonishment to outsiders is a source of frustration and dissatisfaction for Cubans.
A typical monthly salary for Cubans is about 25 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos), equivalent to $USD25 or $AUD33. A worker in a tobacco factory is required to create 125 hand rolled Cuban cigars a day, cigars that are coveted worldwide and sell for up to $USD50 a piece.
While health care and education are free for Cubans, incomes aren’t high enough to afford much.
The growth of tourism in Cuba
In recent years tourism has opened up people’s eyes to what’s possible. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which devastated the Cuban economy (the USSR was Cuba’s main trading partner), the government has allowed people to run their own businesses such as private restaurants (paladars), private homestays like bed and breakfasts (casa particulars), shops and taxi services, to earn extra income from tourists.
We stayed in casas particulares for most of our 10 days in Cuba and it was a great way to meet locals and get an insight into Cuban life. Some of the casa owners have established very successful businesses which are enabling them to purchase their own homes and properties.
It’s turned Cuba into a country of haves and have nots and these days everyone is out trying to make an extra buck from the tourists. Everywhere we walked around Havana we felt harassed by locals, with the ‘Where are you from?” a great prelude to asking for something – come to my restaurant, visit my shop, take a taxi ride, contribute to the band playing music – and by the time we left we felt like everyone wanted an extra piece of us.
It didn’t make us love the country any less but it will be very interesting to see how things change in the coming years.
Where to stay in Havana
In Havana we stayed in three different locations: Old Havana, Central Havana and Vedado in the Habana Libre Hotel. We’d recommend staying at a casa particular in Old Havana. Some of the old hotels which have been restored are stunning buildings and would be fabulous to stay at but many of them are very small with very few rooms and they’re not cheap.
We loved Tamara y Chen – great for couples and Tamara is wonderful. We were very sad we were only here for one night.
Hostal Peregrino – hostel accommodation that would most suit young, single travellers.
Hotel Habana Libre – formerly the Hilton Hotel where revolutionary Fidel Castro established his headquarters for three months after taking Havana in 1959. While the rooms are large and have great ocean views, they’re functional and pretty tired, desperately in need of an overhaul. The hotel has a good rooftop bar.
Where to eat and drink in Havana
La Guarida was by far the most expensive paladar we went to. It’s a well-established restaurant in Central Havana – the Rolling Stones ate there on their recent tour – and you’ll need to book well in advance. There’s a great rooftop bar here also with good views over Havana and out to the ocean.
We really loved O’Reilly 304 in Old Havana. The tapas was delicious, the atmosphere vibrant and fun and the funky-flavoured mojitos (watermelon, passionfruit) went down a treat.
We went every day to a cute little patisserie off Plaza de la Catedral, La Bianchini as it was so tasty and also cheap. Good coffee, good quiches and drop dead delicious chocolate mousse cakes.
And have a drink at the beautiful of Hotel Nacional – it has a wonderful terrace and garden overlooking the Malecon.