“I live in Cuba because I love Cuba — that does not mean a dislike for anyplace else. And because here I get privacy when I write.” Ernest Hemingway, 1965 interview.
With Obama’s Cuban embargo lift in spring 2016 I joined the crowds of American travelers eyeing flights to Havana. I grew up hearing things about Cuba I vaguely understood: Cuban missile crisis, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, Cohiba cigars, Havana Club rum, and Hemingway’s haven. Even after buying a plane ticket to Havana I still found legal entry tricky. It’s just now easier for US passports to travel since Kennedy’s 1962 embargo. Thanks Obama.
Here’s what I learned during a long weekend trip down from DC. First step: getting there and not getting arrested or sent home.
There’s no direct flights yet from DC so my group transferred in Charlotte, where we picked up Cuban visas by a kiosk before boarding the plane. Getting visas at the airport to me is like buying a car before you have a driver’s license. Luckily it’s a smooth process. While the US still prohibits American ‘tourists’ to Cuba, you can get an “Education Visa”, one of the 12 allowed categories of travel.
Travel blogs recommend showing a tight itinerary of museum visits, cultural excursions, or people-to-people outings during our trip. For me, I handed them my credit card, paid $100 for the visa–let your bank know beforehand about a Cuban purchase–and was told to put away my itinerary after barely a glance. If you transfer from a non-US city visas are around $20.
Travel expecting no ATMs or wifi access. I live in fear of losing cash, so this was a strange concept. Still, I took out cash for the weekend and exchanged it for euros in downtown DC’s Treasure Trove. US dollars currently get a worse exchange rate in Cuban dollars than other currencies, not that it mattered much after two exchanges.
Planning for no wifi/email access/snapchat connection/instagramability for four days also gave me a millennial panic attack, but we printed a few maps and downloaded the handy map app Galileo Pro. The app uses a phone’s GPS to pick up your location and make finding restaurants, historic sites, and AirBnbs easier. Fundamental Spanish apps help too.
Our AirBnb (highly recommend AirBnb over other sleeping options!) arranged to pick us up at the airport and take us to the apartment in Old Havana. Collectively our five-person group had about a high school senior’s knowledge of Spanish, which made communicating tricky but got us from A to B.
Stepping off the plane and into a 1955 buggy gave me my first thrill on the trip. The rumor of old colorful cars driving along the streets is very accurate. “You’ll see a lot of pink taxis,” one taxi driver told us. “Tourists love pink convertibles especially.”
Of four car trips while in Havana, the newest car model was built in 1957. With decades of limited new cars entering the island, grandparents pass their cars down to grandchildren and mechanics learn to be patient and creative. We were surrounded by classic Fords and Cadillacs during the half hour drive from the airport.
On seeing Havana Vieja, Old Havana, came the second thrill. Tall Spanish-styled buildings line the narrow streets, many crumbling after years of use and no money to restore them. I smelled cigar smoke, heard someone playing a trumpet on a street corner, and was dazzled by the variety of painted walls and urban decay. We passed their domed National Capitol.
“Washington, DC? Your capital has one too,” our driver said. “But ours is two meters taller.”
After settling into our apartment, we spent the afternoon getting to know the neighborhood. The city was founded in 1519 by the Spanish and picked for its excellent location between the New and Old World. During its heyday nearly 3,000 baroque and neoclassic buildings rose with the prosperity of Havana. Time, revolution, and poverty eventually took their toll on much of the architecture, despite a section of Havana Vieja being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We could have happily spent days exploring every alley, garden, and street in Old Town. But we focused the evening on tracing the steps of Ernest Hemingway. The American writer moved to Havana in the 1930s while working for Esquire and lived downtown for over eleven years.
“My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita,” the writer once said, so we followed his suggestion. Floridita is a crowded tourist attraction with “expensive” drinks costing visitors $6. I thought the restaurant still had an elegant touch in the back dining area, with velvet seats and roses on every table.
Bodeguita’s bar feels smaller and more intimate, and they churn out mojitos by the dozens as visitors press in to see Hemingway photos along the wood paneled walls. I looked for signs of the establishment’s other visitors, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nat King Cole, but the signatures covering the walls are too many to distinguish.
We turned in for an early night, falling asleep to the sounds of street singers and guitars.
On the first full day in Havana, Saturday, we met up with a recommended guide named Isbel to tour the city’s highlights. Bel, who practiced the phrase “Google it” without exactly knowing what Google is, covered all the Havana basics. Revolution Square, the Cigar and Rum factories, Morro Castle, Cristo de La Habana, Hotel Nacional (“Where Obama and American gangsters slept”), and numerous squares and cathedrals.
Bel also introduced us to the best iced coffees we’ve ever had at Plaza Vieja’s Cafe El Escorial. Think espresso blended with coconut ice cream.
We cruised in a 57 Bel Air to cover ground fast and get a decent lay of the land. To Havana travelers I say the $40 tour makes up for years of world history you’ve somehow missed in school.
For dinner we waited in line at what was recommended as a “hipster-Cuban, in a good way” restaurant. The hole in the wall El Chanchullero is only distinguishable in Old Havana by the line forming outside it. Mojitos go for 2 CUC ($2 USD) and the ropa viega entre is 4.50.
A few tapas and mojitos later we strolled to the waterfront and Avenue Del Puerto. Every night at 9 pm you can see and hear a cannon firing across the water. You can bring your own bottle of rum (public drinking is allowed as long as you’re careful about glass) and have an evening of people watching.
Sunday we rose early again and walked to the Museo de Bellas Artes. If you plan to see at least one museum on your “Education Visa List” this should be the one. The international exhibitions have English translations and the art is housed in a beautiful building once used as the Supreme Court of Justice.
You can spend some hours here, then walk or taxi to the Callejon de Hammel, an artist’s alleyway with live music and Cuban dancing on Sundays from noon – 3 pm. We walked back to Old Town along the Malecon, the seaside road, and spent our afternoon at Hotel Ambos Mundos. The 20th-century styled building has a great rooftop view with iced coffees. Coincidentally it’s also where Hemingway rented a room while living in downtown Havana.
By morning three we only had time for breakfast at our Airbnb before catching a taxi to the airport. Here we double checked to make sure we had the legal limits of souvenirs. Americans can bring back up to 10 cigars and $100 worth of goods.
“It’s good you came now,” our driver told us. “Habana is changing. People are coming. My daughter? She listens to Canada’s Justin Bieber.” He laughed and turned up the new cd player installed in his car. “Myself, I like Maroon 5. You can Google them when back in America.”