Travel can be unpredictable, and if there is anything I learned from my mother's preparations for our family's trips growing up, it is that one should always pack some extra snacks when heading off to unfamiliar lands. I am not entirely sure us kiddos (there were about eight of us, as we traveled as a pack of three families) would have survived our trips to China and India without our lifetime supply-worth of plain and peanut M&M's to munch on as we traveled from sight to sight. Or, at the very least, we would have driven our parents crazy with whining. Therefore, uncertain of whether I would truly like Cuban food (I am ashamed to say this.. I had really not tried it much before I left for the trip), and not knowing what kinds of snacks I would find along the way, I stuffed an absurd number of Cliff bars in my suitcase for our long-weekend journey. It was to be my first trip with Kenjo, one we planned on somewhat of a whim because our timing (mine with school, his with work) seemed to line up swimmingly; and I was not going to whine the entirety of our trip. I was determined to be a pleasant travel buddy. And it turns out, even though I LOVE Cuban food, not a single Cliff bar came back to Los Estados Unidos. Snacks just become essential when, in the frenzy of trying to see EVERYTHING, especially in the humid Cuban heat, you sometimes don't make eating your first priority.
So, Cuba: the most overly-written-about destination of the summer. I'm a bit late in writing this, and should have gotten on it in April. But I think I still have a few insights that many of the travel magazines either miss out on or gloss over. For one, the Polaroid camera ended up being a huge hit, and not just because of the somewhat cheesy (but lovely, worth it) nostalgic effect that it has on the already beautiful nostalgia of Havana. The locals LOVED the Polaroids, because the photos were something they could keep as a souvenir for themselves; something tangible they could hold onto. What I hadn't completely mentally prepared for about Cuba was the fact that it largely does feel like a third-world country: while of course there is a booming tourist industry, and plenty of people come back with beautiful photos of vintage cars and palatial buildings, that world is crumbling, and the people stuck in it have nothing and no means to escape from it.
One of our tour guides, for example, was an amazingly smart and attractive guy, a bit older than us, who spoke perfect English and was a math teacher at the university. He had applied for a visa to work in New York and had been denied. "It's okay, next time," he said, but it seemed like there probably would not be a next time: The government rarely lets people leave their tiny island, and it barely supports them within its confines. This man works as a tour guide on the side so that he can make any real money - the government pays these people essentially nothing at all. Another tour guide of ours, who drove us out to Viñales two days later, told us that he had made only $20 a month working as a nurse and EMT in the government hospital. He had wanted to pursue his dream of helping people by working in the medical field, but he needed to work in the tourism industry to survive. A woman we met and befriended in our few days in Havana seemed so eager to travel: she had picked up several languages from the tourists that she had met coming through and made friends with, and she was so eager to learn about the rest of the world. She asked me to send her pictures from fashion magazines when I got back to New York, so she could see what the trends were in the rest of the world. But the question of whether she will even have the opportunity to travel, with such limited resources and a government that wants her to stay put, remains a question. It is a question for every member of our generation in Cuba; a shocking fact to reflect on for millennials who are so used to Instagram feeds overflowing with exotic travel posts, accustomed to saving up for the next cheap flight to anywhere just to fulfill a sense of wanderlust.
To look on the bright side, Cuba has come a long way in even the last ten years. My boss at Doyle Auction House, Louis LeWebre, who grew up in Cuba and whose immediate family was forced out by the Revolution, has gone back to see family frequently since and has seen drastic improvement in the quality of life there. At one point, he said, people simply could not get enough food, and that is not the case now, for the most part, at least in Havana. The economy is changing, and more opportunity is coming in, slowly but surely.
We had an amazing whirlwind of a time in Cuba. There is a very particular beauty to the crumbling nature of Old Havana. The old cars, of course, are just the most darling, incredible thing. As soon as we got past the airport, the presence of those sexy 1950s vehicles blew our minds. I mean, you see them in pictures of Havana, but you don't get the sense from photographs of their 3-dimensionality, all around you, in all directions. They are everywhere, and you feel like you are on the movie set of Greece or something. And then it's also tropical, and there's Cuban music blasting somewhere in the distance, and you're driving along the Malecón at the water's edge; it's spectacular and romantic in the best way. Then, as the sun sets, the way the light hits the colored buildings and makes them sparkle in their dilapidation: that's the magic of Old Havana, the illusion of luxury, the feeling of it.
The following are the Polaroids we took strolling through Old Havana and on our day trip to Viñales. Recommends for our favorite finds in Havana are below.
Just walking around Old Havana is a powerful experience. You have to just let yourself get a little bit lost and to peak (not too creepily) into people's homes - a lot of their socialization happens with their doors open, right on the ground floor of their casas.
At some point, of course, you have to get a tour in an old convertible - you can drive under the tunnel to the other side of the channel for the best view of Havana.
Café El Dandy is where we discovered one of our very favorite entities on this planet: The Canchanchara. It is a cocktail made of:
- 1 lime
- A large beautiful dollop of honey (which, in Cuba, comes from ground bees and has the most fruity, delicious, cocktail-perfect flavor)
- A lot of rum (white, preferably)
It is the nectar of the gods. We saw them making it right in front of us, as we were sitting at the bar (one of our favorite things, after this experience), and were just like, "What IS that???" And so, the Canchanchara became a part of our lives. We have since made it at home, and, surprisingly, had a lot of success.
La Guarida, in a half-abandoned building, is a picturesque restaurant experience absolutely not to be missed.
On our ride out to Viñales (a 3-hr drive), we learned that convertibles from the 1950s (this one was a 1958 Buick) are NOT actually very comfortable for long periods of time... And then one of our tires blew up at around hour 1.5, so that was an adventure. Luckily, we had a spare, but we were all a little freaked out the entire rest to the drive there and back that ANOTHER tire would blow up and we would be stranded in the middle of the Cuban highway (think horses and buggies and the rare rickety car driving by) with no spare.
The 4-days-in-Havana MUST DO List:
- Café El Dandy
Teniente Rey, La Habana, Cuba
(53) 7 8676463
Just off of a lovely square, where one can observe a decidedly local scene going on, sits Café El Dandy. Owned by a Swedish man, it is a sort of hipster hangout meets traditional Cuban bar meets Swedish coffee shop, and it is one of the coolest hangouts in Old Havana.
El Dandy is one of the best places to do three things. First, it has delicious food -for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Second, it has delicious coffee. And it has a lovely lounge area where, if you’re in Havana for more than a couple of days and can afford to spend an afternoon sitting in a local coffee shop and reading a book, you can do just that. Third, as mentioned above, it has the most magical cocktails. You’ve probably never heard of this one, but after you’ve had your first Cuban Mojito, get a Canchanchara. Honey, lime juice, and rum. El Dandy makes it perfectly. You’ll never want any other cocktail.
- La Guarida
418 Concordia, La Habana, Cuba
+53 7 8669047
Also mentioned and photographed above, La Guarida is an amazing restaurant in one of the coolest buildings we came across on our trip. To get to the restaurant, you have to go up a palatial, old staircase; the interior of the restaurant is no less impressive, and the service and food are terrific (make sure to order to rope vieja). If you don't feel like buying a whole box of cigars on your trip, just buy one to smoke there after your meal on one of the beautiful balconies.
- El Coccinero
Calle 26, La Habana, Cuba
+53 7 8322355
Another incredibly cool restaurant: to get inside, you have to climb up another crazy staircase, this one a tall, spiral staircase leading up a tower. Then, once inside, you are above the city, on a rooftop of sorts, looking at the stars. The food is excellent, and the atmosphere is fun and lively.
- Casa de La Musica
Ave. 20 No. 3308 esq. a 35, Miramar, Havana, Cuba
+53 7 2040447
This, if nothing else, is a MUST do. It is outside of Old Havana by a ways, in Miramar, but more than worth the trip. Our local friend recommended it to us. It is a local dance club where young Cuban musicians perform; the ones we saw the night we went were incredibly talented, and had the whole room salsaing (and us wishing we knew how). We had pictured that kind of Cuban music, fondly, as a group of old man standing around with some instruments singing into microphones, but these musicians, young and dancing all over the stage, blew that image right out of the water. The Cuban music scene is alive and well. Make sure you get there by around 8pm if you want to see the whole show. Cover charge of $15.
Aguacate 162, Habana Vieja, Cuba
On one of the most wonderfully-named streets in Old Havana – Aguacate - up one of the most frightening and delightful old elevators, in an almost forgotten building, exists a super cool night club: Roma. Like most things, in Havana, though, it closes earlier than you might be used to (1am), so get there early.
- Convertible Tour
Find someone to take you for a spin for an hour or two in a pretty convertible. It should cost you around $40-50 for an hour, and then maybe you can negotiate to make it $60-70 for two. It is SO much to take a tour in one of those beautiful cars. If you're planning a trip and you email me, I can set you up with the guy who took us around Havana. He was wonderful.
If you have the time to get beyond Havana, take a day trip to Viñales (though I recommend taking a newer car, not a vintage one, as we did) - we went horseback riding to the coffee and tobacco plantations, and saw an old cave, and just saw a different side of Cuba that we otherwise would not have seen. Of course, I wish we had also had time to see some other cities (like Trinidad, which I've heard is BEAUTIFUL) - if you have the time to take a longer trip, do. But a long weekend in Havana is absolutely worth the incredible culture shock. We learned so much in just four days.