HAVANA — This could have been an average, muggy night in Brooklyn. I had a late rooftop dinner at El Cocinero, a cooking oil factory that had been converted into a chic restaurant and cocktail bar.
There was a party next door at the Art Factory, a multilevel industrial building where a hoard of 20- and 30-somethings gathered in multiple rooms to view films, art, and concerts. A mix of hipsters in skinny jeans and art sophisticates in cocktail dresses squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder everywhere in the complex’s many bars and galleries. It was delicious sensory overload. I left around midnight, a friend stayed until 6 a.m.
But this was not a hot and sticky night in New York. It was very much Havana. When I scanned the skyline, it was squat and mostly dark. At night, much of Havana is eerily dark and quiet. On this particular evening, the Art Factory was the rare exception. But there are no illuminated signs, no billboards, and no exuberant squares in the city bustling with night life. The quiet can be almost unnerving.
Just a few blocks away, buildings once grand and now chopped into small apartments, are crumbling from more than 55 years of neglect. I was told by the guide I hired for the week that an average of three buildings a day fall to rubble. I spotted a full-size tree growing out of the facade of what was once a beautiful colonial home. That was in the city center.
I spent days in Havana neighborhoods that have been spruced up, patched, and painted for the growing number of tourists. But at night I walked through quiet streets where grandmothers in housecoats sat outside and fanned away the summer heat while 10-year-old American TV shows — “Prison Break” is currently popular — blared from sets in tiny, sweltering apartments. Kids gathered on street corners or lingered on the Malecón seawall to escape the humidity.
This was more than six months after President Obama announced he was easing travel restrictions to Cuba and just before diplomatic relations were formally restored in July. Hearing of my trip, the universal response from friends and colleagues was jealously, followed by comments about how they want to go before the country is overrun with American tourists, Starbucks, and Sandals resorts.
They saw Cuba through a romantic, soft-focus lens as a frozen-in-time utopia of 1950s American cars, sherbet-colored neoclassical architecture, and Buena Vista Social Club musicians on every corner.
I hate to be the one to do it, but I have to erase that misconception. It’s a country that has been under a communist dictatorship since 1959, and the Cubans I spoke with are not particularly keen about their lack of technology and glut of old cars. They are making do, not deliberately presenting a Disney-style yesteryear exhibition.
Havana is truly a hodgepodge. The most pristine 1950s American cars are primarily rentals or taxis. There are more Korean, Russian, and Chinese cars, with older models belching thick exhaust. Those restored UNESCO World Heritage site buildings are stunningly vibrant in shades of canary and bubble gum. But more plentiful are the crumbling gray buildings that look as if they have been bombed.
There is music and art everywhere, but it’s not all traditionally Cuban. Among my favorite musical memories was seeing a group of Cubans writhing to Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and my cab driver singing along to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” US pop culture dominates. One very enthusiastic action-adventure fan asked if I liked Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Sylvester Stallone.
Perhaps the only correct stereotype about Cuba is that the people are mostly quite lovely and kind. As an American, I encountered no animosity.
So when I came home with bottles of Cuban rum, jelly fish stings, bedbugs, and a lot of wonderful, colorful memories, I had the unenviable task of answering the oft-repeated question, “What did you think of Cuba. Was it amazing?” It’s a little more complicated than a cocktail party answer full of superlatives and exclamation points.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A TOURIST IN CUBA
When I landed at the airport in Havana, I met with a guide and immediately peppered him with questions. I wanted to know about the government, about what it’s like to live in Cuba, what Cubans think of the embargo and of the stampede of Americans expected shortly. He gave polite, vague answers and then under his breath, so the taxi driver couldn’t hear, told me that we would talk more once we were alone. This was my first reminder that although things are changing in Cuba, decades of government oppression are hard to forget. Neighborhood watch groups once existed to report people who spoke ill of the government.
But Cubans were remarkably open with me about their situation. They love their country but not the food shortages, housing shortages, or low incomes that require many, including doctors and architects, to need second or third jobs. There is a brain drain, as professionals fresh out of university flee Cuba. This is what my guide, Jaime (I’ve changed his name to ensure his privacy), tells me as we have drinks atop the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana.
From there I could see both the candy-colored restored buildings and the cramped and crumbling residences. It’s the same view Ernest Hemingway had during the seven years he lived at the hotel, though I imagine it has changed dramatically since the 1930s.
Dinner that night was at Paladar Dona Eutimia in Old Havana, “paladar” being the term used for restaurants operated out of houses. I had always pictured dining at a paladar involving sitting down with a family as a doting abuela served rice and beans. But like everything in Cuba, paladares are rapidly changing.
When the government first allowed these private restaurants in the mid-1990s, there were restrictions on the number of patrons, who could work there, and what appeared on the menu. Those restrictions were mostly lifted around 2010. The paladares I visited all felt like restaurants, not family homes. Some were incredibly chic. I had lunch at Cafe Laurent, where the breeze stirred walls of billowing white curtains. It was like dining on the set of a Celine Dion video. This brings me to another stereotype that needs to be addressed. I had often heard that Cuba is not a great destination for food. While it’s true that a lack of variety and quantity of food can make things challenging for chefs — and there is far too much deep frying going on — I had some pretty fantastic meals at the paladares.
The alternative to paladares are state-run restaurants, but each time I saw one, it appeared empty, a bit gray and sad.
When I first started going to the private restaurants, I was disheartened because they were filled with tourists, not locals. I thought that I was picking all the wrong places. But the paladares are filled with foreigners because many Cubans don’t go to out to dinner. They can’t afford it. It’s the same with nightclubs. The performers and servers are Cuban, but many of the patrons are foreigners attempting to dance to Latin rhythms — and having a swell time.
There’s no easy way to explain the monetary system in Cuba. Confounding rules and regulations are a recurring theme. There are two currencies: Locals use pesos, foreigners use the Cuban convertible peso, called the CUC. The CUC is roughly the same as the dollar. The Moneda Nacional peso is what locals use. As a tourist, you’ll use only CUCs. There’s a hierarchy that goes with these currencies, but if I tried to explain it all, this story would take on the length of a Hemingway novel. Just know that you’re paying more than locals, but for the most part, prices for tourists are reasonable.
I had heard that more businesses were accepting US credit cards, but I didn’t encounter any such business. I also couldn’t find a bank where my ATM card worked. The lesson is to make sure you bring enough cash, and if you do, you’re better off bringing euros because the exchange rate is better.
Also perplexing are the travel rules to Cuba, and this is where I’m always pressed for details. But the truth is, they’re still not exactly clear, even after having traveled there. I’ll do my best to explain what I know. (Please try to follow along carefully, because it is about as clear as well-muddled mojito.)
It is illegal for you to travel to Cuba as a tourist. This doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to go to Cuba, it just means you’re not allowed to enter the country, find a beach resort, and cover yourself in coconut-scented sunblock. You and your trip must fall into one of 12 categories, some of which are family, business, religious, or educational purposes.
The most popular category for US visitors has been the vague “people-to-people” category. This essentially means you’re coming to Cuba to interact with the locals and engage in some sort of cultural exchange. Before you arrive you should have a full itinerary of activities to show that you intend to properly mingle.
This is why many people, as I did, go through tour operators or group tours. Unless you’ve done this a few times, it can be confusing. The basics to get in: You need to sign an affidavit swearing that you’re going in under your selected category. You also need a visa (you can fill it out at the airport), and you need to buy medical insurance from the Cuban government that will cover the duration of your stay. All of these are easy to obtain and don’t cost much.
If you go through a tour operator or a cruise line (I used Anthropologie Consulting Journeys to buy my plane tickets and Esencia Experiences to plan my exhaustive itinerary), the company will provide these documents.
You can take a direct flight from New York to Havana on JetBlue. That flight is run by a charter company called Cuba Travel Services, so you purchase your JetBlue ticket through CTS. They can provide you with most of the documents you need.
You can also now book a room in Cuba through Airbnb, rent a car, or book a hotel. Beginning next year, you can also take a Carnival Cruise ship to Cuba.
There are dangers to going DIY on your Cuba vacation. The Internet is still a rarity there, so tour operators, rental agencies, and smaller hotels are not easy to contact. You could arrive to find that your reservation was never confirmed.
Before you start packing the Guayabera shirts, you should know that many places in Cuba are booked solid, particularly when the season starts in December. Remember, you’re not the only American aching to get down there.
“There really isn’t the infrastructure to support the number of tourists who want to come to Cuba right now,” Jose Pineda of AC Journeys told me. One tour operator I spoke with from Cuba Cruise said visits to the company website have increased 700 percent since the restoration of diplomatic ties.
Many Americans on group tours stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba or the luxurious Hotel Saratoga in Havana. I was trying to save pesos to pay for drivers and guides, so my hotel was in a lovely location, but there was a healthy dollop of black mold on the ceiling, plenty of cobwebs, and dust bunnies frolicking under the bed. But I wasn’t bothered by it. (OK, I could have done without the mold.) I was in Havana to explore, not to watch dust bunnies.
My first evening I had an opportunity to lollygag along the Malecón. When people think of Havana, they think of this seawall that stretches for five miles. People fish, drink, kiss, or just chat here. It’s the heart of the city. I always felt perfectly safe in Havana and was fortunate to have time by myself to ramble. Even if you come with a tour, I encourage you to sneak away and just walk, listen, or prop yourself up on the old wall and watch the sunset.
That first night I found a charming bar called El Dandy. The bartender encouraged me to flip through a crate of vinyl records and put my favorites on an old record player. I sipped mojitos and listened to a scratchy, crooning Nat King Cole.
I started getting the lay of the land with a tour that took me to the four plazas of Old Havana, Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco de Asis, Plaza Vieja, and Plaza de la Catedral. My guide was an architect who left his job because he could make more money giving tours, specifically from tips. This was a common theme. The man who guided me to the Hemingway House that afternoon was a former linguistics professor who left his job because he could make more from tips.
The UNESCO World Heritage buildings and narrow surrounding streets reminded me of Old San Juan. But this district was quieter than other parts of the city, where most of the population lives. That night I had dinner at the must-visit La Guarida. The restaurant was featured in one of Cuba’s best-known movies “Fresa y Chocolate” (“Strawberry and Chocolate”). It’s a surreal experience. The restaurant is at the top of a dilapidated tenement that looks as if it was once a grand mansion.
After a fitful night back at the Black Mold Hotel (I’m too polite to give the real name), I woke up excited to check out a bit of Cuba’s art scene. Sure, I discovered I had been bitten by bedbugs, but such is adventure travel. Sadly, there was nothing to help me with this problem in the first aid kit I packed. Could I suffocate bedbugs with gauze?
ART AND MUSIC
The more I saw of the art, the more I marveled at the city’s exploding cultural scene. The Havana Biennial, a monthlong celebration of Cuban art, finished just as I was arriving. But I still had an opportunity to see some of the public art, including an outdoor ice skating rink and temporary beach.
I visited with Sergio Marrero Gonzalez and Lisandra Isabel Garcia , a pair of artists who turned a home into a gallery to show their works. Hers are self-portraits rendered in all mediums, his are clever ways of looking at art as mathematical equations.
That afternoon I spent time with Kadir López, an artist who, among other things, is restoring pre-Revolution-era neon signs. But he’s not just restoring them — he’s superimposing photographs of pre-revolutionary Cuba over them. They sell for tens of thousands of dollars, but they’re also a public art project. Lopez has been getting permission from building owners to hang the signs in otherwise empty corners.
“You now have these dark corners that are lit up with this art,” López said at his studio, a room filled with 1950s neon signs. “Older people can’t believe they’re seeing these again. For young people, they’re something completely new.”
You can hire art specialists to take you on studio tours, and I highly suggest you make time to do so. Cuban artists, despite a lack of proper materials, are enjoying the international spotlight – and brisk sales – thanks to a unique, somewhat isolated point of view and the current focus on the country. The massive art museum, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, is also a necessary stop. You’re not just looking at paintings, you’re looking at a country’s history rendered in mixed media.
I liberally indulged in one of Cuba’s best-known art forms: music. Jazz clubs are most popular with foreigners looking to hear traditional Cuban tunes. I went to La Zorra y el Cuervo to hear one band, and ended up with a new cadre of Cuban friends who started asking me about Americans coming to Cuba.
They were antsy to club hop and invited me to join. Leaving with a group of strangers in a country I barely knew could have ended badly, as there are hustlers in Cuba (called jineteros) waiting to take advantage of tourists. But I thought about the question for about a second and then ignored any advice my mother or guide book had ever given me.
Most of the clubs were actually house parties. My new friends only knew a few words of English, and I speak Spanish like a toddler, so this was a challenge. When we got into cabs, or near people of authority, I was instructed not to speak. The assumption is that the Cubans would be taking advantage of me, or they might be considered prostitutes, because they were hanging around with a foreigner. They were neither, so I left with my wallet and my dignity intact.
My night of parties did not fit the standard definition of people-to-people tourism, but it was still my favorite cultural exchange of the trip.
I ventured to the countryside on what I learned is a fairly standard tourist route. I went to the beautiful, hilly Viñales, continued on to the seaside town of Cienfuegos, and then to Trinidad, which is known for its historic architecture.
I sat in a car for hours looking at nothing but fields, trees, and more fields. Undeveloped land stretched endlessly along the highway for hours. There are no suburbs outside Havana, no big box stores or malls. The only billboards promoted Fidel Castro and the Revolution.
The farther we traveled outside of Havana, the more I felt as if I had been transported back in time. At times, there were more horses and buggies on the road than cars. The hills of Viñales were stunning and the sunset cast colors I had never seen before. I made an obligatory cigar factory visit and spent an evening at a farm exchanging verses of the song “Quizás, quizás, quizás” with an earnest young singer who put up with my terrible voice. In exchange, I gave him 10 CUCs for a copy of his homemade CD.
Cienfuegos is a sleepy little town that was frequented by yachts before the Revolution. In the 1950s, it was a seaside getaway for Cubans. When I visited, its squares and promenades were quiet, but you could see in the midcentury architecture that it was once a place of leisure and wealth. I ended up eating dinner at a small paladar with some locals I met, and after getting through the standard questions (Me: “Have you seen more American tourists?” Them: “Do you think the new political policies will stay in place?”), I heard stories about housing shortages and relatives who escaped to Miami.
Trinidad was my final stop before heading back to Havana. It was there that I learned more about food shortages. My guide explained that it’s often difficult for him to find his first love — peanut butter. The shelves in most stores I visited are depressingly empty.
By this point in the trip, I was exhausted from my people-to-people itinerary. I had been stung by jellyfish when I went to the beach, bitten by bedbugs, and was developing a strange rash on my legs. It was time to go back to Havana.
I decided to skip the moldy hotel where I stayed my first nights, and instead opted to stay in a casa particular, a space rented in a private home. I stayed in a suite at the Artedel Luxury Penthouse, with a private deck overlooking the city where I watched the pale orange sun set over the decaying buildings.
I left Cuba with a heavy heart. It was a thrill to be there. I ate at cosmopolitan restaurants, watched the country’s first-class ballet troupe rehearse, and walked around beautiful museums. But I also saw a country that has been cut off from the world for more than 50 years. A country with so many shortages that I had to bring a bottle of vitamin C to deliver to a friend’s cousin. It’s a place where people are still afraid to speak openly in front of others.
This is why it is hard to offer up a quick answer when friends ask “What did you think of Cuba?” I show them photos that are both beautiful and heartwrenching. I tell them about the great places I ate, and then about the guilt I felt about leaving any food on my plate.
I suppose my answer to “What did you think of Cuba?” is “a lot.”Christopher Muther can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.