I’ve been putting this article off for a while. Not because I did not want to write it, but more because I did not know how. Havana, Cuba left such a tremendous impact on me, and I still do not know how to put it into words. Havana just has a certain oomph to it that knocked me off my feet. As the first stop of my 23 days in Cuba, Havana launched itself at me full-throttle.
Day One in Havana, Cuba
With a backpack and no plan other than where I’d sleep the first night, I stepped out of the Havana airport into the Cuban heat and was practically smacked in the face by the heat and humidity. The old VW van I shared with a few people from my flight gave me my first glimpse of Havana. Colorful old American muscle cars whizzed by us with Cubans hanging their heads out the windows smiling and waving. Lush green fields set the backdrop for the ride into the city. It was a strange feeling to step out of the van and climb the stairs of the building where I would be staying in the upscale Vedado neighborhood. The only plan that I had for my entire 23 days was to stay with Manny, a friend of a friend that my mom knew from the YMCA.
I turned out to be tremendously lucky to be staying with Manny. He is a serious Cuban history buff, specifically about US-Cuban relations. It was very interesting to hear his side of the story as someone who was growing up in Cuba during the hard times between our countries. He had worked on the film crew for the popular documentary Cuba: The Forgotten Revolution. The guy from the YMCA that put us in contact was the director of the documentary (P.S. it’s on Netflix and it’s really good!).
Manny’s family is very fortunate and well-off compared to most Cubans. He has family members abroad that are able to send money to him and his family used to own large sugar plantations in Cuba. The nice home in the Vedado district that he was left has been in his family for a long time. That is pretty much the only way to own a home nowadays in Cuba. You have to inherit it, because it is basically impossible in the Cuban economy to save enough to buy a house. Although everyone in Cuba is guaranteed good healthcare, education and other basics, their economy can only support an extra $30 per month for the average person.
Sitting down at a wicker table overlooking the National Hotel, I immediately picked Manny’s brain about how to travel on a budget in Cuba. Where to eat, public transportation, how to find places to stay for cheap, we covered everything. After gathering up all the advice that I could fit in my head, the only thing left was to give it a go. So I found a cheap bite around the corner at ‘La Roca’ (one block from the Hotel Nacional) then walked and walked and walked some more.
I always love the first day of exploration in a new country. Everything is new and exciting. Never has this felt more true than in Cuba. The cliché of experiencing Cuba as a time machine is absolutely true. The cars, buildings, lack of decent internet, the amazing salsa music. Right away I knew this place was the real deal.
After struggling to keep my jaw attached for a while, I was eventually approached by one of many jineteros. Jineteros are what Cubans call scammers. He offered to walk me around the city for free to show me some secret spots. I told him I really didn’t have money to spare, but that I’d be happy to walk around town with him. I did not know what a jinetero was just yet. After all, this was my first day in Havana. So I simply thought I met a really nice guy that wanted to show me his city. He really did take me to some cool spots. Most notably, he took me to the famous Callejón de Hamel, where Santeria is on full display as Afro-Cuban singers and dancers perform their hearts out. We walked and talked together for about half an hour before the scam even started.
I thought I lucked out with a free tour guide until he finally said that he “knew of a place where one could buy cigars straight from the Cohiba factory for a very good price.” He insisted on showing me. I followed him into a small home where a woman was sitting at a table with a blanket on top. She pulled the blanket off to reveal boxes and boxes of different types of Cuban cigars. It all really did look very legit, and I met many people who shelled out lots of dough buying from jineteros. Some people got lucky and got real Cohibas, most did not. Not knowing what to think and feeling like this may be a scam, I told them that I would have to pass, but thank you. After trying and trying to push me into buying, I shook my free tour guide’s hand and walked out the door.
That night was one of many where I found myself watching the sunset at the Malecón (a barrier protecting the city from the ocean) alongside Cuban fishermen casting into the golden horizon. I always met new people at the Malecón. People in Havana were always excited to strike up conversations with someone from the U.S. that spoke Spanish, so I never had a hard time making friends or finding things to do.
That first night, I was invited to a reggae club. I walked for miles with two Rastafarians from the Malecón to the reggae club. When we got there, I grabbed my first Cuban Mojito from the bar and then found a big surprise. In this little reggae club in the middle of Cuba, all of the performers were singing songs about police brutality against African-Americans in the US. One performer was actually an American that came down for the weekend. His music was in all English. Although I may have been the only other English speaker there, everybody seemed to understand his powerful message and become energized by his passionate reggae-rap. Apparently this little hole was actually a very famous reggae hang out. I did my best to dance on my completely exhausted feet before eventually insisting that I needed some sleep. Little did I know, worn out feet and late nights are a big part of life in Cuba.
Worn Out Feet
Cubans walk and walk and walk. My new pair of shoes had holes in them after two weeks in Havana. Once again, the reason for this isn’t so glamorous. Cuban people simply don’t have money for luxuries like taxis. So unless you’re lucky enough to hail down a cheap colectivo or to be on a public bus route, walk it is. It took me a few days to accept the laid back pace that this mandates, but simply slowing down and just taking in the culture and small details of one’s surroundings is the best thing that one can do in Cuba.
Many More Late Nights
I would spend most nights in Havana out too late, enjoying too much rum that goes down like juice and constantly having my mind blown by the level of musical talent found everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re spending the night in the hottest club in the city or if you’re headed to the middle of a run-down neighborhood in Havana where a small band has decided to hook up some musical equipment and shut the block down. You will be absolutely knocked off of your feet by the musical skill that you’re going to hear in Havana. The music is mesmerizing and it’s impossible to leave once you start watching and listening. Earn yourself some cred with the locals and get those tired feet dancing! You’ll probably look like a fool compared to Cubans, who they say “learn to salsa before they learn how to walk,” but they’ll try to help you out and you’ll have a great time!
Havana also happens to be one of the safest places in the world for a tourist to be out late at night. That’s because people who mess with tourists can kiss their free lives goodbye in Cuba. That is a sad reason, but being carefree in the middle of a historic city at 4 a.m. certainly was fun. Especially one where open container is no problem.
The Cuban People
Of all of the amazing things that I had to leave behind in Havana, nothing was harder than saying goodbye to all of my new friends. The first time that you meet someone in Cuba is like meeting a best friend. After that, any other time that you see them is like reuniting with close family. As quickly as I met my new family members, I had to say goodbye to them. I had to say goodbye to Manny and to our great talks out on his balcony where he’d remind me to always be a warrior like Ché. I had to say goodbye to his caring wife and generous family. I had to say bye to my new friend and brother José, who saw me struggling to pick out the best mango in the market one day and decided to give me his opinion. Over the next two weeks he went on to become one of my best friends, showing me awesome clubs, beaches and great juice shops all over the city. I had to say goodbye to the funny door man at the building where I stayed. I said goodbye to his taxi driver friends that hung out outside the building with him. That was a shame because after the hundredth time of me responding “no thank you, I have feet,” they had finally learned to stop asking me if I wanted a ride. I said goodbye to all of the amazing people who worked at and frequented the Cubans-only food stalls that I managed to get my way in to. I said goodbye to my wild Rastafarian friends. I had to say goodbye to the people who made up La Habana, the place that cemented itself as a strong part of me forever.
But I will most definitely be back. I will be back many times over.
Here are some photos of some of the great people who I spent time with in Havana, Cuba: