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In 1960 President Eisenhower instigated a trade embargo against Cuba, virtually isolating it from the US despite the two countries being separated by a mere 90 miles. Only in March 2016, when Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in 80 years, did there begin a thaw in their frosty relations and a door opened to trade and travel.
On the 28 November 2016, American Airlines became the first approved US airline to start regular scheduled flights to Cuba, with a direct path from Miami to Havana. This seems poignant given the death of Fidel Castro on the 25th of the same month. The question on everyone’s lips: after the loss its revolutionary leader, can Cuba retain its unique character in face of the inevitable advance of Americanisation?
Not wanting to miss the opportunity to experience Cuba before the ingress of Starbucks and McDonald’s, I travelled to Havana in October 2016 along with photographer Anita Watson, to try and capture the essence of this amazing city.
You know it’s going to be an interesting trip when your airport taxi is a 1974 Fiat with no seat belts and a windscreen sticker that appears to be holding the spider-webbed piece of glass together. Cuban cars are near iconic, so you can imagine our disappointment at not being picked up in a 1950’s vintage Oldsmobile. But landing in a foreign country with no way of paying – cash, card or otherwise – we were grateful for any car at all.
To explain: the Cuban Peso is a closed currency. You can’t buy it outside the country. To make matters worse, credit cards are hardly accepted anywhere, including at the casa de cambio (money exchanges). Cash is king and thus for most Cuban tourists the first two hours of their visit is spent queuing to change money at the airport. It was a great relief when our taxi driver and host for the trip Alejandro told us, in broken English, that he knew a place where we could change money enroute to our casa particular.
Hotels in Cuba are very expensive. A better alternative is to stay with a Cuban family in their house, a casa particular. It guarantees a memorable trip, too; you’ll feel more like a welcomed houseguest than another nameless client in a hotel.
As we neared the city centre, we were greeted by an array of vintage American cars so often associated with Cuba, most dating from the Fifties, a throwback to the pre-revolution era. Between the Chryslers and Cadillacs, its feels like you’ve slipped back in time. They’re enchanting. Occasionally we would see one that looked like it had been renovated but the majority may as well have been held together with string and chewing gum. Every few miles miles we’d spot one at the side of the road with its hood up and a pair of legs sticking out from underneath. The cavernous interiors and huge bench seats can – and often do – accommodate entire families.
Casa Hilda y Alejandro is just inside Old Havana, near the Museum of the Revolution. As we approached along the famous Malecón seafront drive, once magnificent colonial residences crumbled in a state of desperate disrepair.
Safely at our casa particular, Alejandro’s wife Hilda briefed us on the do’s and don’t’s of Havana. First was the subject of the money. There are two currencies in Cuba. The CUP (Cuban Peso) notes featuring revolutionary figureheads are used almost entirely by Cuban residents. The CUC (Convertible Peso), on the other hand, depicts Cuban monuments and is used by tourists and visitors. Confusing? It is. One CUC is worth 25 CUPs. Be careful to check your change.
Hilda then annotated a photocopied map of the city with places to go, restaurants to frequent, where to get on the internet… By the time she had finished it was quite difficult to discern much of the original map, but the information was far more than any hotel concierge would likely impart.
Havana is unlike any city I have ever visited. The first thing that hits you is the music. It emanates from cars, street corners and open windows. The irresistible strains of salsa tunes fill the air. By far the best way to experience it is in one of the many bars hidden among Old Havana’s maze-like streets. Double bass and conga drums provide the foundation for guitars, keyboards, flutes and the occasional saxophone, all layered with magnificent Spanish vocals. Traditional percussion instruments such as the guiro, claves and maracas combine to captivating effect, as we found out on our first night at La Bodeguita del Medio.
This is one of Cuba’s most famous bars, once the favourite watering hole of Ernest Hemingway. The venue is so small and that customers spilled onto the street outside. The salsa band itself occupied a quarter of the floor space. Patrons crowded next to the musicians, each drinking mojitos, smoking cigars and moving to the rhythm. The place looked as though it had not changed since the Fifties, the names of hundreds of visitors carved into the furniture. There was no menu; the options were rum, beer or mojito, which the bartenders would prepare ten at a time – no measures used.
Another feature of La Bodeguita – and almost every other bar for that matter – are cigars. It’s unsurprising in country where tobacco is one of the main exports. Sitting in a Havanan bar, it seemed almost natural to select a Cohiba from the humidor and get a light from the bartender.
As you walk around the streets of Havana, taxis and cigars are constantly on offer. Almost every man with a car is a taxi driver – and those who aren’t know someone who is. There are three types of taxi: bicitaxis are like pedal powered rickshaws, cocotaxi’s are more akin to motorcycles with yellow fibreglass shells for three passengers and there are normal cars, either of the modern or vintage variety. Whichever type you ride, fix your price before setting off. It is not unusual to get halfway to your destination and the driver decide you owe them twice as much as the agreed price because there are two passengers. Hilda was adamant. If this happens ask to see their license and say one of you will wait with them while the other goes to find a policeman. They’ll almost certainly start driving within seconds.
Be wise with cigars too. Don’t buy them from people on the street. If someone offers you a Montecristo for a tenth of its normal value, you can be pretty sure that it is not all going to be tobacco.
One place that you can get genuine cigars at a huge discount is at a cigar factory… but not in the way that you expect. At Partagas Cigar Factory, the tobacco growing process is explained as you watch a small army of men and women rolling cigars by hand. Trailing near the back of our group, I looked across the factory floor to see one of the workers holding up a huge cigar in one hand and a sign saying ‘5 for 20’ in the other. Later, having asked our tour guide if there was a gift shop, we were hustled into a store room where she produced a large array of her own knock-down contraband. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, we departed with a handful of Montecristo No. 2’s for 5 CUC (£4.50) each instead of the usual £20 that they retail for in the UK.
As with any emerging tourist destination in an inherently poor society, minor scams and rackets are an expected hazard for unsuspecting visitors. At John Lennon Park there is a statue of the former Beatle, sans his signature round spectacles. As you sit next to it, a man appears with one pair of glasses for the statue and another for you. But you only have to get stung once or twice by the local jineteros (hustlers) to wise up, though it may cost you about 5 CUC.
Despite this, the vast majority of Havana is an extremely safe destination. You can explore the city in a vintage convertible, on open top buses or even by horse-drawn carriage. We opted for a beautiful 1957 Ford Fairlane Skyliner. Its purple-and-white livery and huge tail fins made us feel like movie stars as we swept through the streets of Havana.
Another irrepressible feature of Havana is art. Like the music, it’s everywhere, from people selling sketches on the streets, to incredible murals throughout the city. Unsurprisingly the main subject of the said murals is Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, one of the key figures of the Cuban Revolution. Indeed his image is so iconic that the one enterprising street seller was flogging 3 CUP notes carrying Guevara’s image for the equivalent of £1 – a mark-up of 800 per cent.
Havana’s wealth originally came from its harbour, where gold, silver and countless riches plundered from the New World were traded and exported to Europe. Though the old splendour of Havana is obvious everywhere, the majority is now in a state of extreme dilapidation. Generations of families live in a single crumbling colonial-style apartment.
Yet this lack of development is what makes the city so amazingly unique. In Old Havana mall, cobbled streets wind between plazas each bustling with performers, lively restaurants and even livelier bars. Travel to the Central district and you will find yourself in an area of more desperate poverty. Groceries are bought at hole-in-the-wall type shops, each of which may only sell three or four different items. Doing a full shop can take a whole day as you trail around streets to find the items – and that’s without counting the hours you’ll spend in queues. Everywhere mobile data is limited; the internet is not permitted in private homes throughout the country. Though who needs the internet with Hilda’s know-how?
It’s this charming backwardness of Cuba that is thought to be threatened by a new wave of tourism. The country has the chance to grow and to develop, but can it do so without losing it’s character? I would argue that this is possible. The Cuban spirit is inherent not in the rules of governments but in its vibrant culture: it’s in the music and mojitos, in the vintage cars and cigars and together, in the sensory onslaught they create around each and every corner.
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