Trinidad is almost too pretty. If such a thing is possible. Pink, yellow, green colonial houses line the cobbled streets where children play baseball, and old weathered men sit on doorsteps plucking melancholically on a guitar. No car ever drives faster than a horse and cart could carry you, and in the heat of the day, it wouldn't be surprising if the whole sleepy town ground to a happy halt.Read More
Our Girl in Havana
I didn't go to Caibarién on purpose. My bus pulled into Remedios where I had planned to disembark. But when I looked out the window at yet another gorgeous colonial town: pristine multi-colored houses, sandy streets, wide-open plazas and the scent of flowers in the air - it left me dead. After months of postcard perfect colonial vistas, I had become inured to it. So I simply stayed on the bus, a sense of adventure in not knowing where it would take me to next.
It terminated in Caibarién, somewhere I hadn't heard mentioned on the traveler trail. It had once been a thriving fishing port but had fallen into disrepair, becoming a comatose place, decrepit, frail and gloriously offbeat. Like the one-time plaything of a colonial princess, who had grown tired of her pastel-hued toy town and left it for the grander thrills of neighboring Remedios. The piers had sunk sadly into the sea and the mills no longer turned sugar to riches. On many of the streets, just the skeletons of houses remain with bones half broken, or else the stone sags like an old man's tired paunch. The buildings stay upright from the force of history alone.
When I got off the bus, I wasn't hounded by people waving pictures of their casas with promises of Continental breakfasts, omelettes and aircon. Instead I was greeted with a series of curious but friendly nods, and directed by the shopkeeper to the wonderful El Carretero casa of Fernando and his wife, who looked after me like family. I was the only tourist. I didn't see any other foreigners the entire time I spent in Caibarién.
Forty kilometres east of Cayerias del Norte, you would think cash-strapped travelers would use this as a jump off point to explore the white sands of Cayo Santa Maria or Cayo las Brujas without having to pay the all-inclusive prices for the hotels there, but somehow, this is the place tourism forgot. Granted, the cayos are a drive away (accessible by a new causeway with toll payable), and there isn't a great deal else by way of attractions: the museum of sugar industry with its sketchy history; a municipal museum celebrating Caibarién's short lived glory days; a scrappy public beach; and the giant crab statue, which greets you as you arrive and leave.
But you don't come to Caibarién for sightseeing. You come to experience a town that hasn't been preened for your pleasure, an authenticity verging on the surreal. This is a world where horse and cart is still the most viable method of public transport, and the quiet is punctuated by the shout of "Cabello, cabello, cabello," and the clip clop of hooves. After 11 a.m. it's almost impossible to buy a loaf of bread, with the shelves near empty, as a conscientious shopkeeper sweeps the sandy floor. Beyond open doorways families gather around TV sets watching illegally rigged cable while outside their chickens run amok. It feels trapped in a sticky time warp, as if the long lost sugar fortune had turned to treacle and now the days stretched beyond their allocated 24 hours into the far reaches of another time frame altogether. Perhaps that was why I loved this place so much; a combination of the sleepy serenity and the surreal made it feel a far superior escape from reality than any lazy beach idyll ever could.
Underground restaurants may be a relatively new trend in the United States, but they’ve been happening for decades in Cuba. Paladares or ‘home restaurants’ have long served the best food in the country, and are now at the heart of Cuba’s newly invigorated dining scene.
Paladares didn’t always exist, and for several years the culinary culture of Cuba was arguably in decline. In 1968, the state assumed governance of all restaurants throughout the nation and many of these were a success. However, in the hard years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s main economic partner following the Revolution – and during the Special Period that followed, the country suffered from serious food shortages. Naturally, the priority was to meet the ‘basic needs’ of the people, not keep state-run eateries in good stock. Equally, for the average Cuban, dining out was a luxury they could no longer afford, and many of these restaurants closed down. Despite the rich culinary heritage of Cuba, the country gained a reputation amongst outsiders for poor cuisine.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that this situation began to improve. In 1993, amongst a wave of other reforms intended to boost the economy, Fidel Castro announced the legalization of more than 100 self-employed positions, such as in the food sector. Some paladares had probably existed illegally before, but now they were legitimate they could be taxed and regulated. In the mid-nineties, the first wave of official paladares opened up – small family-run operations with a government license to sell food to Cubans and tourists alike. Hosted in family homes, with the law stipulating that staff must be relatives, each paladar offered a completely unique dining experience: the wedding photos on the wall; the abuela rocking in a chair in the corner; and the kids occasionally peeking in from the kitchen or helping to wait tables. From tourists previously only seeing a state-sanctioned view of the food culture of Cuba, these paladares gave an insight into real Cuban life. More importantly, it offered Cubans the chance to supplement their state salary and run their own business legally and with a degree of independence.
Most paladares were simple mom-and-pop affairs serving up delicious comida cubana while some were more adventurous or glamorous. However, they were subject to certain conditions such as a limit on the number of seats and ban on ‘luxury’ foods such as beef and shellfish, reserved for the ongoing state-run operations.
It wasn’t until Raul Castro’s 2011 reform program again loosened the laws on private enterprise that the restaurant scene could truly flourish. In the months that followed more than a quarter of a million entrepreneurs applied for licenses, an estimated 22% of which were in the service industry. By 2012, new ventures were opening up every week, and today, there are close to 2,000 private restaurants.
Paladares have come a long way from simple family-run operations. Restaurants like Le Chansonnier with its high design interiors and chic French-inspired cuisine could compete with its Parisian counterparts and Casa Miglis could well be the only Cuban-Swedish fusion restaurant in the world. In the last few years, the dining scene has completely revolutionized to rival its capital city counterparts without losing its distinctly Cuban foundations. Better still, it is largely Cubans benefitting economically from these improvements, despite ongoing issues over taxation and bureaucracy. But there is further change on the horizon, as more than 20 state restaurants are about to become employee-run cooperatives, as part of a pilot experiment, with hundreds more to follow if successful. The pace of change in Cuba, in the dining scene and beyond, doesn’t look set to slow for some time.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading experts in people-to-people travel between US and Cuba.
Most men I meet in Cuba say the same thing to me: “Why are you travelling alone? Where is your husband?” I vary my answer just to make it more interesting; I have a whole harem of imaginary husbands now. Us solo female travelers are a rare breed here. Predominantly, this country attracts couples lost in the romance of it all, solo male adventurers fulfilling their Che Guevara motorcycle fantasies and touring groups. But that’s not to say it isn’t a good country for women to visit alone.
To start with, Cuba is incredibly safe with the lowest crime rate in the Western Hemisphere. Violent incidents are rare and even petty crimes like pick pocketing or mugging are not common. Use the same sense you would in any city: take care on the unlit streets; make sure someone knows your movements; use taxis late at night and sit in the back seat; be aware of where you’re going. The chronic lack of street lighting and frequent blackouts is discomfiting, but often the cities are buzzing even after hours, with families sitting out on their step to enjoy the cool night air and neighbors mingling. A lot of socializing in Cuba is done on the street by night.
Walking around Habana Vieja or other tourist areas, you’ll be stopped every few steps with the shout of, “Friend, where you from?” This applies to men as much as women, but female travelers can seem an easy target for touts or hustlers, of which there are many. It may feel like bad manners to ignore people, but most often, these ‘friendships’ lead to offers of cheap cigars or the promise to take you to the ‘best’ mojito bar in the city, for which they gain commission. It’s easy to end up on a goose chase out of sheer politeness, but never feel obliged to part with any money. At times it can feel like you're set upon from all angles - getting off buses especially - but do keep in mind this is a country with scant opportunity to earn a decent wage: one night's custom in a restaurant, one night in a casa, a small commission a tout may make, these all can make a huge difference to the $20 the average Cuban earns a month.
This country has done much work to improve gender equality, with women well represented in parliament and the work force. A woman’s position in society is respected, though that doesn’t stop men from catcalling girls at every opportunity, as in most Latin American countries. As my Spanish improved, so have my retorts, and any exchange usually ends in easy laughter. There is no malice in this kind of attention.
Many women have children at a young age, and some local bars can feel like intimidating hives of testosterone. Being hit on is something we all know how to deal with, but what was harder to fathom were the jineteros. These hustlers target both men and women, and are the key purveyors of sex tourism. This is sadly rife in this country for a wide range of socio-economic reasons perpetuated by an unscrupulous minority of the tourist trade. Sitting at a bar on my own, the occasional man would dribble adoration in my ear. “You’re the most beautiful woman I have ever seen - where are you going? Can I come with you? I’ll go anywhere you want.” Out of sheer naivety, the intensity and frequency of these come-ons baffled me at first.
Sometimes they’re after a straight up financial exchange; others are happy to spend a few days being nicely looked after with drinks, meals and gifts. A few are just looking for a foreigner to befriend who might be able to send assistance from abroad to improve their own often low standard of living. Some might have thought I was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. Either way, this was probably the greatest nuisance I encountered. It can be difficult at times to distinguish genuine advances of friendship – which you will encounter everywhere you go in this joyously friendly and open country – from someone hoping to benefit from it. This is true of anywhere you are out of your cultural context, but in Cuba it can be a complex dynamic to grasp.
But, as far as I’m concerned, I refuse to forego the pleasure of having a cold beer in a bar on my own just because of a bit of unwanted male attention. A firm refusal usually does the trick.
As published on Insight Cuba, America’s leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba
For many years, there was as a divide between locals and tourists in Cuba. There were Cuban bars and there were tourist bars. There were Cuban pesos and tourist dollars (the convertible peso). When you went into a restaurant, you would be handed a tourist menu, different to the menu handed to Cubans. And similarly, there were private tourist beaches and public Cuban beaches. Ever since Raul Castro’s reforms of 2008, the law does not enforce these divisions – for example, Cubans were granted access to enjoy beach resorts and hotels – however, at times it feels a hangover from these days remains, albeit in the process of fading.
Access to many of Cuba’s beaches is prohibitively expensive. The most famous and arguably most stunning, often touted as the Caribbean’s best beach, is Playa Pilar, which is really only accessible if you’re staying in one of the all-inclusive resorts on Cayo Guillermo or Cayo Coco. While the white sand and clear turquoise waters have a undeniable daydream charm, it also feels somewhat devoid of the what makes a place distinctly Cuban: the people.
I’ve chosen the below beaches because they are all regularly used by local families, as well as tourists, and are affordably accessible to all.
Playa Maguana, Baracoa
This is a beautiful beach in its own right with golden white sand, lined with mangroves, and warm calm waters, protected by a coral reef. But, with a small village here as well, it also gives a lovely chance to mix with the welcoming community. Old men play dominoes in the mottled shade of the trees and kids play with the piglets, running wild. Located 22km from Baracoa, it’s a 45-minute journey either via collectivo (5 CUC) or in a taxi (25 CUC). The road is incredibly bumpy, but the scenery is splendid, passing by the majestic Rio Toa with the grand mountain range in the background, and offering glimpses into family life on the campesino. As you sunbathe, you may get offers of lobster lunch, craftwork or even salsa classes, but these are always polite. Make sure to find out the time of the last truck home, though there are worse places to be stranded.
Playa Las Salinas, Villa Clara
Part of the hundreds of small keys that make up Cayerias del Norte, Las Salinas remains fantastically rugged and quiet, and as a public beach, is used by holidaying locals. This is one of the more recent development projects by the Cuban government, and it has been more delicately executed than in other areas, with care taken to protect the local flora and fauna here. The long strip of white sand is dotted with a few tatty palm leaf shelters and backed by thicket and dunes. At the rocky headland you’ll find the resort of Villa las Brujas, where you can get lunch and drinks if needed. The beach is accessible via El Pedraplen causeway (there’s a CUC 2 toll), and 65km drive from Remedios.
Playas del Este, Havana
Just 18km from Havana’s city centre, is a seemingly endless stretch of palm-fringed white sand. There are numerous resorts along the 15km, but walk just five minutes away from them, and you can find a sand dune to nestle into, as if it were your private Caribbean beach. Santa Maria del Mar is the most popular, and has a party vibe every summer weekend, as the whole city decamps here. But head to the village of Guanabo, the furthest point, when you get hungry. This ramshackle little town is home to El Picolo, serving the best pizza in the city.
Playa los Cocos, La Boca, Cayo Santa Lucia
My favorite beach of them all, this little village is decidedly local, home to the many Cubans who work in the imposing all-inclusive resorts lining Playa Santa Lucia. Accessible from there by foot, bicycle or hitchhiking (it’s 7km from the nearest resort), the beach here has golden sands with sheltered water (as long as you don’t swim too far out) to one side and the Laguna el Real to the other, dotted with pink flamingoes. You can snorkel to the reef just metres from the shore. The best thing about this beach is the neighbourhood: local holidaymakers roast pigs on the beach and drink rum in the shallow waters. Make friends with the charming Kiki on the snack stall, and learn about life in this tiny village.
As published in Insight Cuba, America's leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba
Eating my ice cream at Coppelia, I can’t help but think of the striking first scene of Oscar-nominated 1993 Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate. The title refers to flavours of ice cream, one representing the gay and creative while the other represents the straight in both sexual and political terms. In that opening scene, Diego eats his strawberry ice cream with all the innuendo available to him, while attempting to seduce the straight David at Havana’s most famous ice cream parlour. You can visit Coppelia yourself, which at peak times has queues around the block, and they still only have two flavours of ice cream, at best.
Fresa y Chocolate is Cuba’s most famous and internationally acclaimed film to date. Part of the film’s success was in its daring critique of the Cuban government and the confrontation of the country’s ingrained homophobia, but for international audiences it was as much about the magical way in which it conjured the chaos and beauty of Havana life.
Many visitors to Cuba made the pilgrimage to the apartment of Diego - fabulously played by Jorge Perugorria - wanting to walk through the towering wooden doors into the airy colonial courtyard and to see the room itself, where the bulk of the action takes place, as crowded with antique bric-a-brac and religious iconography as with the chemistry between the two men. In 1996, the enterprising owner turned part of the building into paladar La Guarida (www.laguarida.com), which for years offered the best meal in town.
In Vedado, they also opened up a bar in homage to the film. Fresa y Chocolate is a hip hangout for local film students with red director chairs and film paraphernalia plastering the walls. In the adjacent Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) headquarters, you can also pick up film posters, rare DVDs and see exhibitions. Located on Calle 23, this is cinephile central with the Cine Charlie Chaplin opposite (one of the biggest art house cinemas in Latin America) and the small cinema Calle 23 y 12, which screens just one Cuban movie a day.
Fresa y Chocolate is just one in a long line of art house movies created with the assistance of ICAIC that has made Cine Cubano famous world over. Established in 1959, it was part of the government’s programme to educate Cubans and support Latin American cinema. In its heyday, it nurtured acclaimed directors such as Humberto Solás and Fernando Pérez. Increasingly however, Cuban films are independently financed and digitally filmed to avoid the political limitations imposed by the institute.
Cuba is also home to the Havana Film School, which lists Soderbergh and Spielberg amongst its fans. The initiative of director Julio García Espinosa, novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Fidel Castro, they wanted to create, in Garcia’s words, a “factory of creative energy.” Designated a non-government organisation, it does not actually count as Cuban soil, therefore Americans can bypass the travel ban and study here too. I met dozens of American film students in the city, and sometimes it feels like every young person in Havana is a film fan or critic.
For any lover of cinema, a fantastic time to visit is during the annual Havana Film Festival (www.habanafilmfestival.com). For the first two weeks in December, the entire city is gripped with film fever, and the often dilapidated and sweltering art nouveau cinemas are packed day and night hosting screenings of the best cinema Latin America has to offer. Those visiting outside the festival, should go to the prestigious Ludwig Foundation (www.aflfc.org/eng/whoweare/ludwig) to discover the emerging art scene of Cuba. They host a daily exposition with talks from every discipline including film.
But anytime you wander through the city you’re likely to stumble into a film event, a home cinema hosted in a local’s front room or just a group of friends discussing the classics over a cafe cubano.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading providers of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens
People are always surprised when I talk of the thriving art scene in Cuba. They assume the strictures of the socialist regime suppress any form of expression until only a bland diet of state-sanctioned work remains. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With an utterly unique and peculiar socio-historical context, Cuban art in many ways stands alone.
Furthermore, it’s everywhere; from private homes turned into open studios and small street galleries to lurid Afro-Caribbean murals on city walls. In addition to free education, there are multiple government programs assisting the arts. Castro’s 1961 dictate - “Within the revolution anything, against the revolution nothing” - still stands, but artists find multiple, subtle and stunning ways in which to negotiate and undermine this often discovering even greater creative depths.
But nowhere outside Havana seems such a hub of creativity as Camagüey, home to many of Cuba’s most celebrated artists. Located in the middle of the country, Camagüey feels different to its neighbors, though with its history of defiance - it has nurtured revolutionary poets and thinkers - this comes as no surprise.
They say the city’s twisted layout was designed to confuse and disorientate the pirates and pillagers who frequently ransacked the city. I purposefully lost myself in the labyrinthine streets imagining these gallivanting marauders and cowering citizens. With low rise brightly colored houses, it feels distinctly South American. As the third largest city in Cuba, it is decrepit in parts, but the beautifully restored historical center was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2008, the 9th Cuban city to achieve this.
Emerging at Plaza del Carmen, I met a gathering of life size sculptures of everyday Camagüeyanos: a man reads a newspaper sat on a bench; a pair of lovers embraces and a gaggle of women gossip over coffee. There was a spare chair amongst the women so I joined them, becoming part of the art. These characters feel distinctly Cuban: familiar scenes you’ve seen all over the country depicting the strength of community, the passion of the people.
There were also giant clay pots, called tinajones. Known as ‘the city of tinajones’, the residents once used them to collect rainwater to stave off drought. Now the pots have become the city’s trademark.
Just off the square, an open door invited me into a studio with vivid paintings many addressing issues of women’s rights. The artist Martha Petrona Jimenez was hard at work and I learnt they were her famous sculptures in the square. We sat in her leafy courtyard and talked about the arts in Cuba. She extolled working in Camagüey, saying this square in particular was home to many artists. She also told me about UNEAC, The National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. This organization has headquarters in every region and is a great place to start when on the hunt for talent. They host free events, talks and exhibitions, and often have a bar - a great place to meet with the local art community.
Martha pointed me towards Joel Jover and his wife Ileana Sanchez (above), two of Cuba’s most prodigious contemporary painters. Their home in the center of Camagüey functions as both gallery and a bona fide piece of art with every surface covered in work. Ileana greeted me, warm and welcoming, despite it being the end of the day.
She talked me through their work. Her paintings were a celebration of color and glitter while his were darker, some reminiscent of Egon Schiele in a palette of red, white and black with religious undercurrents. They have collected antiques for 20 years – they married in 1971 - and every surface is covered in vintage toys and oddities. Ileana told me how her inspiration changes from day to day and how she feels deeply privileged to be able to make the art she wanted in this country. The implication I gathered was that not all others were so lucky.
Censorship is still rife and testing the boundaries a potentially dangerous endeavor. But, for us visitors, talking to artists and hearing their stories firsthand offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand this country and the complex realities of those trying not only to live here, but create something of beauty and value.
All Photos: Tyler Wetherall | All Rights Reserved
As published in Insight Cuba, leading providers of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens.
I arrived to dancing in the streets. There was an all-women conga line proceeding down the dusty road, circling back on itself and returning to the small hall where it had started, a bottom-shaking, whooping caterpillar. As they wound past me - sweating under the weight of my rucksack - they beckoned me to join in. With just a moment’s thought, I threw down my bags and joined the party. That set the tone for my entire experience in Baracoa.
Located on the far eastern tip of Cuba, an area known as the Oriente, this is Cuba’s oldest and most unique city. Surrounded by verdant jungle covered mountains, it was cut off from the rest of Cuba for hundreds of years. This was where troublesome revolutionaries and outcasts were exiled, though Siberia it is not. With an abundance of natural resources like coconut, cacao, bananas, yellow sand beaches, and a tropical climate; I would happily take exile here.
This partial isolation accounts for the unique culture with excellent local cuisine and a Caribbean party spirit. In 1964 they constructed La Farola, a 55km road cutting through some of the most dramatic scenery in the country, which suddenly opened up Baracoa to the rest of the world.
Dance is intrinsic to this place. The women on my first day were predominantly mothers who danced while the kids were in school. One afternoon, on a walk up to Museo Arqueologico to see the burial chambers and petroglyphs on display here, I came across El Ranchon. By day this popular hilltop disco hosts classes for school kids to learn salsa. Pairs of ten-year-olds twirled and twisted in the afternoon sunshine, and I realized why everyone here dances so well.
On my first night I headed to El Patio, a small, busy bar with live music and a labyrinth of dancers every Thursday and Friday night. After refusing the first three offers, I finally was dragged onto the crowded floor feeling embarrassed. My partner, a local nicknamed Pequeño and an incredible dancer, somehow led me in a semblance of salsa despite my malcoordination, occasionally saying, “Just listen to the music.” This wasn’t very encouraging, but each time I got a little better, until finally I would accept any offer of dance that came my way.
Every evening, the square outside the Casa del Trova fills up with locals and tourists, a band plays on the steps, and soon dancers gather in number and pace, a starlit spectacle. Every Saturday night here is Carnival. The street is cordoned off, food stalls roast hogs and chickens, families congregate around the al fresco tables and giant sound systems blast out from windows above. The youth of the city is out in full force, and everything revolves around the dance floor. Salsa threesomes form with the most impressive dancers creating a stunning complication of limbs, utterly mesmerising to watch.
Anyone with an interest in dance and music should come here. But no matter how shy you are or how many left feet you have, this is somewhere to knock back some rum and coke with the locals and don your dancing shoes.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading provider of legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens
It was my third day of attempting to send an email. I had scrapped my original plans of keeping a daily blog, realizing that I would spend so long trying to get online that I would probably have nothing to write about anyway. All I wanted now was to tell my family that I hadn't passed out on a Cuban pavement in a rum stupor (that would probably be their first suspicion, before thinking I was in any type of trouble.) The first day, I asked at Hotel Telegrafo. I thought the name was a good omen for communication with the outside world. Clearly not.
"We've run out," the receptionist said.
I thought I had misunderstood her Spanish.
"Yes, run out. Try tomorrow morning."
She gave me an exasperated sniff, and went back to work.
I didn't know it was possible to run out of internet. I have limited technological nous, but I was pretty sure that the World Wide Web was not turned on or off like a tap.
Again I was mistaken. We were in the midst of what you could call an internet drought, though people in Cuba call it everyday life.
When I returned the following lunchtime, and again they had run out, I quizzed her. What I understand -- correct me if I'm wrong -- is that each day the hotels are only given a certain allocation of internet codes -- like they do in internet cafes -- with which guests can log on to the web. When they run out, they can't give out any more until the next day. All three hotels in the area were in the same predicament.
I wasn't particularly enamoured with the idea of sitting in a stuffy lobby anyway, so I resolved to try later and went off exploring. But when on the third day, I was told, that although they had enough codes, it wasn't working, I realised I needed another tactic.
"No connection today," another receptionist told me.
"How about if I try later?"
She shook her head with a grimace.
Finally, a little bit late I suppose, I learnt about telepuntos; shops in which you can use the internet, make long distance calls or top up your mobile. State-run telecommunications company Etesca has the monopoly over all internet access in the country, and there are telepuntos in most big cities, though your chances of finding internet elsewhere is limited.
I headed to Calle Obsipo, and I knew I was approaching by the furor outside. Multiple lines tangled together in an incomprehensible scrabble of a system. I called, "El ultimo?" to find out who was last in the queue -- standard queuing practice in Cuba -- and took my place in the shuffle. There appeared to be no due process. Occasionally someone would break formation and talk closely with the security guard, but I hadn't yet seen anyone allowed through the hallowed gates.
After 30 minutes, a kind lady tapped me on the shoulder, and indicated I should go talk to the guard. I approached tentatively, unsure of the ettiquette here, and explained I needed the internet. He waved me straight in barely listening to me.
In the air-conditioned sanctuary of the telepunto, I felt like a cheat, a queue scoundrel, a deserter. I looked out the window at my former queue companions, and they were utterly unperturbed. I realized I had never been in the same line as them anyway.
It seemed apt that this porthole to the outside world was one of the few places in Cuba that had a chilly calm air of exclusivity, like a first-class departure lounge.
I asked for the internet, and the receptionist gave me what looked like a scratch card for CUC 6 (roughly $6). I had to provide my passport and sign. Cubans aren't allowed to use the internet without a government-issued license, so the telepuntos always ask for ID. Licenses are granted to students, researchers or anyone who can justify it for their line of work, but even then, access it is severely restricted and monitored. According to official Cuban statistics, in 2011 only 3% of the population had access to the web, the lowest figure in the western hemisphere. The isolation of Cuba exists in the virtual world as much as the real. Despite the proliferation of opinion about Cuba, Cubans themselves are woefully under-represented on the web in blogs or comments, at least Cubans still living in the country.
Logging on, it took about 10 minutes to load my Gmail. That made it an incredible $1 per page. In some hotels they charge up to $12, which has to be a contender for the most expensive -- and slowest -- internet service in the world. Surfing the Cuban web was akin to using the internet in the '90s. I sent the one mandatory "I'm alive!" email, before frustration levels were insurmountable. There were far better things to do with my time than stare at the screen. I do enough of that in London.
Later on I met a young Cuban, who told me about his illegal (unlicensed) casa for $15 a night -- half the usual price -- and boasted of his hijacked internet connection. This has become quite common. The lack of access has led to an enormous black market in illegal internet, so it is almost impossible to estimate actual internet usage. But it testifies to the truth that no matter what barriers -- real or virtual -- are erected in their path, people will always find a way to reach out to others.
Drinking in Havana generally seems to been done out of a bottle of rum sat on the doorstep on a balmy evening watching the cinema of street life pass by. Or, if you're feeling more sociable, taking to the Malecon, dancing on the wall as the sea crashes behind you while salsa seeps out of an old stereo. After all, a bottle of Havana Club will set you back less than $5, and the view is free. That makes it a pretty appealing option. For the first few weeks of my stay, the only alternative I found was taking a table at the tourist-driven bars, forking out for their over-priced mojitos and money-in-the-hat bands. La Bodeguita del Medio, the former haunt of Hemingway, is beleaguered by bad service and cruise-ship crowds, while places like Dos Hermanos or El Tocororo have a nice atmosphere, but in that charming, grown-up way.
La Bodeguita del Medio | Tyler Wetherall
I wanted to find my bar. The bar that I would return to again and again; I would have a favorite drink; I would know the name of the barman; and every time I went, I would walk away with either interesting stories or interesting friends. If I had lived my life in Havana, it would be the bar where my tribe would congregate.
La Bodeguita del Medio | Tyler Wetherall
The closest I had come to finding that was Fresa y Chocolate (Calle 23, e/ Calles 10 y 12) in Vedado, also headquarters of the Cuban Film Institute. Named after the Oscar-nominated film of the same title - the movie about forbidden homosexual love began to turn the tide on institutional homophobia in Cuba - the bar naturally attracts a liberal-thinking, chilled-out crowd, with occasional live acts or gallery launches. Monday nights are particularly fun.
Next up, some friends took me to Cafe Madrigal (Calle 17 #809 altos, e/ 2 y 4), one of a boom of new bars to open thanks to the effects of Raul Castro's 2010 reform program kicking in. Inside a 1919 Vedado mansion, it's packed with film memorabilia - I particularly liked the sound umbrellas for light shades - and kitsch artefacts from the life of owner, Rafael Rosales. An intellectual, arty haunt for young, hip cinephiles they meet to discuss the latest art house flick while sharing a platter of tapas. They have plants growing out of the sink, antique lamps and bare brick walls, in that trendy mix of kooky and vintage that wouldn't look out of place in New York.
Tyler Wetherall | Cafe Madrigal
It was at Cafe Madrigal a friend tipped me off on what would become my favorite bar yet, Bar Zorba. It's one of those places I didn't know if I should write about. These come along rarely. A google search later, and it seems no one else has wanted to share it either.
All I had was a name and a vague area, so with no other leads, I jumped in a taxi. The taxi driver hadn't heard of it, but was on board with my mission of tracking it down, so we ended up driving around, as I occasionally got out to ask directions.
Three false starts, one embarrassing misunderstanding involving suspected breaking and entering, and I was ready to give up, until rolling down a quiet side street, we came across a handsome young man stood outside a gate. Giving it one last go, I asked if he knew the way, and lo and behold, we were there. I tipped the cab driver generously for his efforts, but when I tried to enter, the handsome gatekeeper told me it was a private party. It was only with a lot of pleading and a dramatic retelling of my battle through the night to make my way there, that he agreed.
Tyler Wetherall | Cafe Madrigal
Walking under a canopy of trees, a tiki hut style room emerged decorated with fake flowers and buddha statues, which opened onto the green, tropical gardens, with ponds and leafy alcoves, perfect for cocktail drinking and canoodling. Young, cool habaneros filled the bar and dance floor. Mainly university students and arty types, the bohemian, party vibe was in full force. It was like discovering the secret party garden.
It was kitsch in its tiki aesthetic, but that sort of kitsch that just encourages you to be a little bit silly, to dance a littler hard and behave a little more outrageously. It was one of those parties you imagine will keep going into the following morning, only getting more fun, and that every time you return, it will be there waiting for you, which it was.
Sadly, the owner asked me to keep it on the down low, which means you'll just have to track it down for yourself.
"I've only got two weeks in Cuba; what should I see?" This is a question I get asked from a lot of holidaymakers wanting a taste of the country on a limited time schedule. So I thought I would share a recent itinerary I devised for one such traveler, which incorporates city, culture and beach. Days 1-3: Havana
Habana Vieja | Tyler Wetherall
Base yourself in Centro so you can just as easily explore the stunning colonial architecture of the old town, as you can head into Vedado, where you will do the most fulfilling eating, drinking and playing. Check out the best of your accommodation options in my previous blog here.
Spend at least a day getting lost in Habana Vieja, dodging bici taxis and cat calls to ogle the beautifully restored buildings of Calle Mercaderes and Plaza Vieja. I recommend the Preservation and Social Programmes Tour with San Cristobel travel agency (Calle Oficios #110 bajos, e/ Lamparilla y Amargura) to learn about the way funds from tourism are channelled back into restoration and social programs. This includes a visit to the Convento y Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belen, a former ruined 17th-century convent turned active community center for the needy, which is always a moving and educational experience.
Castas y Tal | Tyler WetherallEat at any one of the many new paladares currently forging a contemporary Cuban culinary culture out of the previously dire dining scene. Castas y Tal (Calle E #158, e/ 9a y Calzada) and San Cristobel (Calle San Rafael # 469, Lealtad y Campanaro) are two of my personal favourites.
Music pulses through these streets, rattling out of vintage car radios or streaming from open windows, and you need to spend at least one night dancing till your eyes sting with sweat. Go for Miramar's El Diablo Tun Tun (Calle 20 esquina a 35, upstairs from La Casa de la Música) -- especially on a Thursday -- to get your hips swinging to the sweet beats of live salsa, though the dance floor gets hot with hip-grinding when the reggaeton starts up.
There are many potential sights, but the Cuban part of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artesgave me another perspective on Cuban cultural history through artists I had never encountered before, such as the deeply moving work of Antonia Eiriz.
Day 4-6 Trinidad
Trinidad | Tyler Wetherall
There are more casas here per square kilometer than anywhere else in Cuba, so you can have your pick of colonial residences, most dripping in antiques. Spend one day exploring the cobbled streets and churches of this 19th-century Spanish colonial settlement -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 -- ending with an evening drinking mojitos at Casa de la Musica. I woud take another day to explore the lush surrounding countryside of the Sierra del Escrambray diving into waterfalls and hiking up overgrown trails, or, for those with a higher tolerance for tourists and touts, do the beach bum thing on Playa Ancon. Make sure to dine at the hidden gem La Ceiba (#263 Pablo Pichs Giron) at some point during your stay.
Day 7-8 Santa Clara
Casa Hostal Florida | Tyler Wetherall
If that intellectual revolutionary has always fascinated you, come here for mass indulgence in Che hero-worship. With a museum dedicated his life's work, his mausoleum and the site where he ambushed an armored train in 1958, you'll come away with a better understanding of the man himself, or at least his legacy.
Santa Clara also has some of the country's most interesting and edgy night scenes thanks to the many students here. Although taking to Parque Vidal with a bottle of rum is just as satisfying: sit beneath one of the mighty palms, listening to a man strumming his guitar and watching the youth of the town dance their modern day courtship. Book into the Hostal Florida, one of the most beautiful casas in Cuba. If you can't get a room, have dinner in the on-site paladar located in their overgrown tropical garden terrace.
Day 9-13 Cayo las Brujas
Momo on Flickr | Some Rights Reserved
There are countless beaches full of tourists brandishing their all-inclusive wristbands, who spend their holiday in the air-conditioned sanctuary of tour buses or the sanitized resort bar. No matter the beauty of the beach, I find it an uncomfortable pleasure, and would much rather somewhere shared by locals. While you really need to get further afield, away from the well-developed, state-controlled cayos to find such a beach, Cayo las Brujas is one of your best options within reach of Havana. Public beach Playa Salina is little more than a strip of white sand, with wind-battered tattered palm shades, under which Cuban families on holiday enjoy picnics and loved-up honeymoon-ers splash about smugly in the shallow, turquoise waters, while at the other end is the average yet affordable Villa las Brujas.
Caibarién | Tyler WetherallI chose to stay in Caibarién, a study in precarious architecture and surreal small town idiosyncrasies. This is a place where horse and cart is still the most viable form of public transport, and by the afternoon you can't purchase a loaf of bread in the supermarket. It was an hour's drive to the beach by day, but by night we got something closer to real-life Cuba.
An alternative to Cayo las Brujas is to head back towards Havana through the Viñales region, and check out the lesser-explored coast of the Pinar del Río province such as the three kilometers of sandy beaches on Cayo Jutias or the more developed Cayo Levisa.
Although, as much as you plan, it's the unplanned adventures -- hitch-hiking along dusty streets in the midday sun, barbecuing freshly caught lobster on the beach, getting lost and finding yourself somewhere completely unexpected -- that makes any trip to Cuba worth taking.
‘Antique’ doesn’t have quite the same significance in Cuba. There is an abundance of antiquity in this country for many reasons, but certainly years of economic hardship and trade constraints contributed to a make-do-and-mend culture that has kept everyday items in circulation longer than in other places. Fifty-year-old American Buicks are passed down through generations patched up with Chinese parts and perfectly preserved dinner sets from the 1800s are still in daily use.
While the young of Cuba hanker after newer cars and faster electronics, for visitors it creates a unique aesthetic. The heavy Victorian furnishings stand somewhat staid and sober against the world of bright Caribbean colors and the constant stream of music. People call this country a time warp, but it’s unlike anything that’s come before.
The houses of ordinary people, surviving on a modest state-controlled income, may have a chandelier hanging above the dining room table that could be worth thousands of dollars back home. Not that it would do them much good - a ban on exporting antiques has preserved the country’s colonial stock from foreign pilfering with amazing efficiency.
With the tourist industry in the country booming, naturally proprietors and restaurateurs are aware of the appeal of their abuela’s best china, and nowhere is this more apparent than Trinidad, known as the Museum City. Like the Disneyland of Cuba, this picture perfect spot plays up to all our Cuban daydreams. The rows of houses are brightly painted, the streets are cobbled and by night, as the sunsets behind the palms in the church square, musicians take to the steps of Casa de La Musica to play while visitors and locals dance.
After amassing a sugar cane fortune in the 18th century, the town grew fat with grand mansions and decorative squares. But when the trade collapsed, it was abandoned, and remained a sleepy outpost until UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status in 1988. This saved it from the decay seen on the streets of Havana, and you can now lose yourself in a historical fantasyland.
The houses here are famous for their antique-laden rooms and there are more museums than anywhere else in Cuba. The former homes of the sugar-rich aristocracy have become shrines to the colonial heyday of the city, such as the impressive 18th century Palacio Brunet. Now housing the Museo Romántico, it was originally named after the daughter of Don Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron, one of the richest men in Trinidad responsible for much of the city’s finery.
But shelves of antiques can bore even the most enthusiastic. Eating amidst them is another matter. Restaurant Sol Ananda (#45 Frente a la Plaza Mayor) is a veritable museum in itself. Run by the same people behind famous paladar Sol y Son, they spent five years restoring a 1850s mansion - once home to the governor of Trinidad, I believe - to its former glory and packed it full of original European antiques. Eat at one of the two tables in the bedroom, and make believe this is your boudoir. They curated the entire building with incredible attention to detail down to the 1920s shoes stacked on the shelves of the wardrobe.
Another restaurant harking back to the city's illustrious past, Museo 1514 (#515 Simon Bolivar), will make you regret not packing your long gloves or top hat. The long dining table in the courtyard is especially atmospheric, and every place is laid to perfection.
But all of this can, at times, feel like a flight of fancy. A whimsy far removed from reality. As travelers we want to be part of the beating heart of any city we explore. So, go sit on the stone steps leading up to Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad on Plaza Mayor in a fading sunbeam; as the sky is slowly stained red, people will gather around you; a few musicians will start to play; and then the dancing will begin and will continue late into the night. This happens night after night, and has happened in one guise or another for aslong as people can remember.
All photos: Tyler Wetherall | All Rights Reserved
As published in Insight Cuba
"You're American?" a German woman asks my two companions, eyebrows raised in surprise. "How did you get in?" We're in a lift on our way down from the top floor bar of Parque Central Hotel in Havana where we had accidentally gate-crashed a well-to-do drinks reception. Yes, well-to-do drinks receptions do happen here, especially in bars of international hotels, and the German woman's question is always the first to be asked of anyone wielding a U.S. accent.
"Well, we just sailed right in," they admit, proudly. "We're crewing a boat from the Caribbean."
"Is that legal, then?" a young girl in front of us turns around to join the conversation.
"You're American too?" I ask.
It turns out another gentleman in the lift is American as well. In fact, all the Americans I have yet met in Cuba are in this one elevator. Four of them in total, well, four-and-a-half including me. It would seem improbable, but we happen to be in one of the suavest international hotels here, which with its internet access and bona fide Coca Cola (as opposed to the Cuban own-brand Tu Cola) is something of a tourist haven.
For the short time we are in the lift together, there is some strange sort of camaraderie between the four-and-a-half of us, like we're all part of a secret club, which the other 300 million Americans don't know about yet. We're the ones who found the door to Narnia and opened it.
"So how about you?" I ask the young girl. "Student?"
"I just jumped on a charter flight from New York," she replies.
"How does that work? Won't you be hassled getting back in?"
The bell chimes for her floor.
"Who knows what will happen," she says nonchalantly as the doors close behind her, and then she's gone.
I wish I had stopped her to find out exactly what she meant; Cuba has been under a US economic embargo for a preposterous 50 years, and just hopping on a flight to Havana is not an option. She had a point, though: Who knows what will happen? It seems to be the only sensible answer to speculation about the future of a post-travel ban Cuba.
It is equally hard to say when that time will come. President Obama's policy change may have eased restrictions, resulting in the Treasury Department once again allowing so-called "people-to-people" licenses facilitating cultural, religious and educational travel to Cuba, but whether this is indicative of the proximity of a total lift of the travel ban is a subject for much debate.
So, what is the situation for Americans wanting to travel to Cuba now? While it is not technically illegal, US citizens are prohibited from spending money in Cuba, which is tantamount to the same thing. A great many flout the ban and travel here illegally, flying to Mexico or Canada from where they can buy a ticket to Cuba. The chance of getting caught is slim. The Cuban authorities do not stamp your passport, instead issuing all travelers (not just Americans) with a 30-day visa on a separate piece of paper, which is stamped upon exit. Lose it at risk of entering the theatre of the absurd that is Cuban bureaucracy, but that peril aside, unless you march up to U.S. Immigration and announce you had a great time in Cuba, it is unlikely they will ever find out.
You don't have to break the law, though. Up until now only scholars, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others with legal reason to travel to Cuba have been able to get licenses to spend money here, but Obama's reintroduction of "people-to-people" licenses has opened the window of opportunity, albeit only a crack.
There are now a whole host of official cultural programs on offer from travel companies licensed under new rules passed in 2011. These are not typical rum-glugging, cigar-smoking, beach-bumming Caribbean packages. The emphasis has firmly been placed on learning about the Cuban culture, and the itineraries are packed with educational activities from art tours to music programs. I'll write about these in more detail later.
The result of these changes has seen legal travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens rise, though the effect of this is yet to be felt on the ground with Americans a scarce sight. They still have a certain novelty factor here, and each conversation begins with the question of their arrival.
Americans are as universally greeted with friendliness by Cubans as any other nationality. What many people don't realise is not only the huge curiosity here about the world outside of Cuba -- travel beyond Cuba is not a possibility for most Cubans -- but also the open-arms policy for tourists, who represent the greatest opportunity for financial stability.
One taxi driver summed up the attitude you will most likely receive here very well; he shook my American friend's hand, and thanked him for taking the risk of coming to experience the country for himself to make up his own mind.
I stood on the edge of the road, the neon glow of a gas station behind me. It was three in the morning and I was somewhere in Camaguey province. Beyond the small spotlight in which I stood, the night was black. The rain was falling fast and hard, and my wet clothes clung coldly to my skin.
I was focused on one thing only: I was getting on the next damn truck that passed by.
I generally don't recommend solo female travelers to stand on street corners hailing down trucks by night. But if you're trying to get around Cuba on a budget, sometimes there just isn't any other option.
Three weeks previously, I had started off my journey from Havana in the lap of luxury: scooped up by two American sailors in their private car to go for a jaunt on their yacht. That was verging on the absurd. Next came Víazul -- modern air-conditioned buses intended primarily to ship tourists between key destinations. They were just lovely apart from the crowd of jineteros (hustlers) and touts that ambushed you every time you stepped off.
The deeper into Cuba I explored, the more obscure and death-defying were my forms of transport: squeezing into the back of a beat-up Cadillac convertible with eight not-so-skinny people; going far too fast in a former American yellow school bus (no seat belts); manning a bicycle taxi myself while the driver sat in the passenger seat; nearly falling off the back of a horse-pulled cart.
But if you want to get off the tourist trail you have to master the camion. Camiones -- trucks -- traverse the island from one side to the other stopping in every little town, village and obscure outpost. They're often trucks with makeshift containers on the back and desperately small windows cut in the side. Sometimes they're flatbeds with a canvas roof. They're frequently packed to bursting with bottom-busting benches welded to the floor.
Officially, foreigners are banned. At least, this is what some people told me. "I'm sure they would not allow a foreigner to use this mode of transportation as this was designed for Cubans," one official explained. Another said, "It's Cuba! Everything's illegal!" Other people said this was no longer the case. I am yet to find a clear consensus. But the tourist offices aren't about to start telling you how to catch one.
After an excruciating six-hour bus journey from Santiago de Cuba through the bucolic mountains into Baracoa, I didn't want to leave the way I came (a travelling tick of mine). So I went to the tourist office -- where you buy bus tickets - to ask about my options.
"There's only one way out of Baracoa," he said firmly.
"That can't be true. There must be another road?"
"No, there is only one road. The road you came in on."
"What if people want to travel north to Moa?"
"If you want to go north you have to take that bus to Guantanamo, and change."
"That's crazy. Are you saying I have to travel six hours in the wrong direction in order to get anywhere else?'
You get the picture.
I just didn't believe him, so I asked around. The people at the bus station told me about camiones, but insisted I was prohibited from traveling on them. The lady in my casa agreed, but told me to have a go anyway. So I went and stood on the roadside heading north. Bicycles with girls precariously balanced on the handlebars hiccuped happily along leaving clouds of white dust. A group of men stood waiting in the shade of a fruit stall nodding along to some tinny tune. I asked them how to get north, and they indicated a passing truck.
And so I waited with them. In silence. It was that sweltering time of day when even speaking is a struggle, like your tongue dries up in the heat. I was full of that anxiety of not knowing what I was doing or how to go about it. A truck came, and after some confusion, a little miscommunication and a lot of laughter, I payed in moneda nacional, and jumped on.
That first time was the easiest. I was lucky the right camion came along. The destination is not negotiable; they follow set routes and you jump off closest to where you want to go. This can be very confusing if you're unfamiliar with the system or the country. It's not like they have timetables or maps at the stops, or even any indication of where the official stops are.
A lot of travelers I met used the camiones without any difficulty, jumping on and off like any other Cuban. Many travelers, especially holidaymakers, hadn't even heard of them. For a long time, the system was a complete mystery to me, seemingly based on the kindness, whim or avarice of the driver rather than any logic.
So, fast forward three weeks to Camaguey. After jumping off one truck to catch another, I'm on a roadside in the torrential rain, and for whatever reason not one camion would stop and pick me up. After three hours, I'm a rage of indignation that a political ideology that purports equality could create a system in which a traveling writer can't get a bloody ride.
The first camion out-rightly refused to take me. The second wanted to charge me 15 convertibles, about 25 times as much as everyone else had paid. Arguing with him as I felt the water drip down the back of my neck, a dozen faces stared out at me from the dry sanctity of the truck, and no one said a word. Finally, the third camion accepted 20 pesos cubanos to let me on. Soaking wet, I took a space in the corner, my rucksack between my knees, feeling cold and sorry. I suffered from that very particular sort of traveler's guilt: I had got myself into this situation because fundamentally I didn't know what I was doing.
At night they close up the truck with tarpaulin to stop the wind blowing through that small gap to the outside world, and it plunged us into darkness. I could feel the shift of uncomfortable bodies all around me and the sticky air of too many people breathing in too small a space. I had three hours until we reached the coast.
As the sun began to rise the truck turned a hazy shade of gray and I could see through sleepless eyes out of a small gap in the corner of the tarpaulin to the world outside. Between the trunks of the palm trees a pink dusky fog had settled, and horned cows grazed. I could smell the sea somewhere not so far away, and knew by the time the sun was up, we would be at the beach, and that would make the whole thing worthwhile.
Eating a freshly made breakfast from antique porcelain plates beneath a teardrop chandelier in an old colonial house while being treated like an old family friend would be considered an experience possible in only hotels of the rarest kind. In Cuba, however, it's practically normal. Similar to a bed and breakfast, casa particulares were created in 1997 when the government changed the law to allow Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists as an additional source of income. All other forms of accommodation -- at least until the recent changes to the laws on private enterprise -- are owned by the government, and while some hotels are incredibly glamorous, you won't get the experience of real Cuba that you have when living with a Cuban family.
Casas -- as they are shortened -- vary hugely. Some are very basic room and board. Others feel like you've returned to a long lost relative, and you eat with the family becoming part of their daily life. The minority are run more formally like mini-hotels. Whatever type of casa you want, you can probably track it down. Just remember to look for the official sign on the door -- two blue triangles on a white background -- which means the household pays an annual tax and possesses a license. Prices vary between $20 to $60 and normally include breakfast.
The prevalence of antiques is a happy accident, which some savvy casa owners have come to capitalize on, knowing it appeals greatly to outsiders. Due to the limitations on imported goods, there is a "make do and mend" culture, and everything from crockery to cars are passed down through the generations. Even low income households are likely to have some interesting items whether it's the 1950s china or turn-of-the-century kitchen fittings that, while common here, are a rare sight in the U.S.
In general, your casa family are your most valuable source of local information, who will warn you about the perils on the street and welcome you home after a long day exploring. Here I've highlighted three of my personal favourites in Havana.
Visually stunning, historically fascinating and wonderfully welcoming, Casa 1932 is the sort of place every traveler hopes to end up in Cuba. Enter through the stained-glass doors, into this Art Deco haven, and then wander the rooms traveling in time through the objects around you. The leafy courtyard is an ode to '50s Americana with old tin advertising signs on the walls, while the sumptuous dining room goes further back with art deco lamps, a table laid with 19th-century china and cabinets full of treasure, such as the gambling chips from the Havana's last casino. While the house has been in owner and interior designer Luis Miguel's family since 1932, hence the name and many antiques, he is a magpie for all things old, especially those with a story, and he'll happily regale you with anecdotes about his collection. The breakfast is excellent, but it's worth booking in for dinner one night. The chefs are incredibly skilled, and Luis makes the most charming host. The large bedrooms are all elegant, but the newest room, although the smallest, was my favourite for the attention to detail and atmosphere. Casa 1932, Calle Campanario #63, e/ San Lazaro y Laguna, Centro Havana; +53 (7) 863 6203; Price per room: $30
This casa has so much going for it. Occupying an early 19th-century townhouse with the decor to match, the central location couldn't be better for exploring the cobbled streets of Havana Vieja with Plaza Cathedral and Plaza Vieja a hop and a skip away. The bedrooms have high ceilings, large windows with original green shutters overlooking the interior courtyard and are decoratively charming. But it's the friendly vibe here that makes it stand out. The leafy roof terrace is a social hub, as guests enjoy a mojito from the bar while watching the sun set over the rooftops of the city. Casa Habana, Calle Habana # 209, e/ Empedrado, y Tejadillo, Habana Vieja; firstname.lastname@example.org; +53 (7) 861 0253; Price per room: $35
Julio y Elsa Roque
The home of this lovely couple is everything that is best about staying in casas. Their main room is overflowing with ethnic finds from around the globe, old photos of Cuba hang on the walls and the shelves are stacked with books and oddities. The kitchen has that cluttered bohemian feel of a lived in house that makes you feel instantly at ease, especially when sharing breakfast family style around the big table. The rooms are clean and simple, but you don't come here that; you come for something more elusive. Julio and Elsa take care of their guests. They will sort out your taxis, reservations and any issues that come your way, but do it all with that easy charm that comes from genuine warmth. Consulado #162, e/ Colon y Trocadero; email@example.com; +53 (7) 861 8027; Price per room: $30
As originally published on The Huffington Post
You don't come to Cuba for the food. Well, you never used to come to Cuba for the food. Strict rationing, food shortages and far more serious issues on the collective plate for the last fifty years than fine dining led to the slow demise of culinary culture, and Cuba's reputation for serving up some of the lowliest fodder in the name of food. But last year, after Raul Castro opened up the laws on running private businesses such as paladares - home restaurants - a new generation of gastronauts emerged, and currently leading the pack are the men in white hats behind Havana's Café Laurent.
Even its physical presence is elevated. On the top floor of a Vedado apartment block, I spotted the twinkling lights long before I reached its door, though I never anticipated the problems I would have getting in. There was no visible sign street level, but a young smartly-dressed man with a clipboard asked if I was looking for Café Laurent. I nodded.
"Do you have a reservation?"
"No, do I need one?"
He made an apologetic face, and told me they were fully booked.
"It's only me," I said feeling disappointed and hungry. "I'm happy to sit at the bar."
We spoke for a few minutes about options, and then he recommended I try another restaurant around the corner. But Café Laurent was high on my list of tips to review for the GuidePal Havana City Guide I am working on, and I had little interest in going elsewhere. I explained the situation to him, but he wouldn't budge.
"You see, this other paladar is run by the same management. The food is just as good, so it's the same experience. Really atmospheric, authentic..."
As he spoke, he was encouraging me down the street with a persistant press in my lower back that made me instantly uncomfortable. It was that, as well as his eagerness to leave his post outside Café Laurent that made me realise what he was doing. He was clearly on commission from the other restaurant to poach Café Laurent's customers by pretending they were fully booked.
I politely declined, and walked away feeling foolish, while he returned to his perch just outside the gate. Scoping him out from the other side of the street, I was now certain he was a jinetero - a Cuban hustler - and I just needed to find a way past him to get to my dinner. Short of a run and barge tactic, I had no idea how to achieve that. Entering a restaurant doesn't normally require an exercise in subterfuge.
At that moment an elderly gentleman in uniform appeared from inside the building. He exchanged friendly words with the young man, and I wondered if I had judged him unjustly. They certainly looked like colleagues. I felt a momentary guilt for having slandered him, and nearly went to eat elsewhere, before deciding I had to trust my instincts. I approached the elderly gentleman.
"Excuse me, your colleague told me you were fully booked. Can you check there isn't space for one more?" I asked feeling deeply uncomfortable that the young man was stood right there listening.
"Fully booked? Not at all. Come with me!"
As he spoke the young man skulked away into the shadows, and I shot him an evil glare over my shoulder while making my way inside, victorious.
"Do you know he's trying to hustle your customers?" I asked once inside the adorable antique elevator.
The old man shrugged. "What can I do? If I tell him to go, others will come. Customers will get in or they won't. It's just what happens."
I was bewildered by his nonplussed attitude. I wanted incredulous outrage. But here in Cuba jineteros are an omnipresent part of every interaction, which might possibly involve foreigners, or more precisely, foreign money. They are Havana's mosquitoes; the daily irritant that buzzes about you incessantly.
Four floors up, the doors opened, and instantly I was brought out of the fugue of contemplating the dismal downsides of life in Cuba as a foreigner, because from the jaws of a jinetero, I had escaped into the most enticing of Cuban restaurants, like nowhere I had yet seen.
You read about cozy mom-and-pop paladares with home-cooked arroz y pollo or stiff government-run restaurants with tablecloths and soggy spaghetti, but not boutique Basque bistros buzzing with beautiful people.
Café Laurent has that bohemian chic aesthetic so in vogue right now, or something close to it. The 50s furnishings and walls papered with old newspaper cuttings gave it a retro vibe, and with the corner home-style bar and casual atmosphere there was a definitive dinner party atmosphere, especially on the terrace, full of raucous group parties.
The lighting was warm and atmospheric, the music trendy yet melodic, and the service superb placing it clearing in high-end territory. But then there were red herrings, like the bathtub in the toilets - a remnant of its former guise as someone's home - and the comedy translations on the English language menu such as fish strips instead of fish cakes, which reminded you happily that this was still Cuba.
I opted for a tall stool in the bar area, which looked out over the night lights of Vedado, and ordered myself a mojito to celebrate my perseverance. The menu has a strong European influence with a leaning towards Spanish cuisine in the jamon serrano starter or pargo con almejas y gambas en salsa verde (red snapper with clams and shrimp in green salsa). It was ominously all-encompassing however, stretching from meatballs to russian salad via tuna carpaccio, which goes far beyond the remit of what is possible in Cuba. This is a country in which finding ingredients is an exercise in miracle-making. I had my doubts.
I opted for the waiter's suggestion and had cordero lechal a la tabaca - lamb slow-roasted with a garlic, cream and mint reduction. It arrived perfectly presented with swirls of green, white and red over a lamb castle with a decorative crisp protruding at a jaunty angle. It had all the elements of nouvelle cuisine, just twice the size. The lamb was perfectly tender falling away from my fork, and the flavours complemented each other deliciously without being over complex. I struggled to finish the plate, which at CUC 11 seemed like a good enough deal.
A collaboration between Lorenzo Enrique Nieto and José Figueroa, their previous management of Havana Vieja's one time star paladar El Templete fades in comparison to what they've done here, with a lot of thanks to chef Dayron Aviles Alfonso, who has worked in both San Sebastien, Spain and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Every table was full with the stylish, dining-set of Havana, and no doubt tourists will be hot on their heels. With the gastronomic trend well in motion, since Café Laurent's opening last year, dozens of other paladares have followed in their path, testimony to the culinary revolution currently sweeping the city.
Cafe Laurent, Calle M, e/ 19 y 20 # 257 Penthouse, Vedado; Daily, 12noon - 12midnight; +537 831 2090
I arrive to the soundtrack of Charlie Parker's jazz crackling out of a rigged up car stereo. The music is punctuated by the syncopated shake, rattle and roll of a beat up old Chevrolet hurtling along beside my taxi. All I needed was to be handed a cigar and a mojito and my stereotype of Cuba would be complete.
I have come here to work on a new Havana city guide for GuidePal. We make travel apps for smart phones, which feels somewhat ironic in a country in which Wi-Fi is still the stuff of the future. Luckily the app functions offline, but the country's out-of-date technology highlights what is a frequent complication here: the needs of the present, impeded by the problems of the past.
I am staying in a casa particular; these are private homes with rooms to rent for tourists. Cubans must be granted a license in order to run a casa, and while it is getting easier to start a private business, the red tape and fees associated with it are enormous and deter many from attempting it. Nonetheless, there are thousands all over the city; mine is in Vedado, the more modern heart of local nightlife and dining.
With a heavy old wooden front door and grand towering rooms, this is the home of a wonderful little old lady, Jessie, who has probably smoked a million cigarettes in her life and now only talks in a whisper. Like everything here, time has stood still even within the walls of the apartment. No books on the shelves are dated past the '50s, and all have turned a dusty shade of brown. The bathroom is that fabulously vintage color combination of coral and mint, and the walls are adorned with kitsch decorative plates.
I spend my first day on foot. I walk along the Malecon -- the seafront boulevard that runs parallel to Miami's Ocean Drive just over the water -- but there the similarities end. The street life here is of a very different order. Pelicans dive into the dark waters, as wizened old men sit fishing on the rocks. Waves crash over the wall splashing couples promenading arm-in-arm. A group of teenagers gather around a stereo and dancing erupts on the street. The pavements may be pockmarked, the once magnificent neoclassical buildings battered by the sea and the walkway cut off from the water by a highway that is more likely to kill you than anything else in this city, but it is the heart of Havana: an open-air theatre of Cuban life.
I stop for my first mojito at the infamous Hotel Nacional, to prop up the bar where Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and naturally Ernest Hemingway all once drank -- not to mention every 1950s U.S. mobster. Elevated on a great rock, the Nacional looms imposingly over the vista. Tourists drink their cocktails looking out to sea as peacocks strut around their tables, insulated from the chaos below. It costs $4 -- twice as much as a local bar -- but its worth it to follow in the wobbly footsteps of great drinkers before me.
Moving on, I walk inland. The buildings around me are a not only a study in Old World colonial architecture but also in the logistics of keeping a structure upright using precariously balanced sticks and stones. Everywhere you walk, balconies threaten to collapse above you and below, the pavement could cave in beneath your feet. The facades have chipped away and the glass in the windows is shattered, but there is a faded beauty both melancholy and alluring in the desolation.
I know I'm reaching Havana Vieja, the old town, as the houses start standing-up straight and the colors brighten. The Office of the City Historian has done incredible work in restoration. Celebrated the world over and with ongoing projects city-wide, they are well on their way to saving what was a crumbling slice of history. It is sensational.
It isn't just the buildings that make it so; they form the backdrop to the cacophony of street life here. Salsa streams from the windows of the tumbledown houses, slickly dressed boys catcall every passing girl, bicycle taxis hurtle down the cobbled roads and the cries of street sellers hawking their wares echo between the buildings. There is color and noise and sensation at every turn, all ramped up to full volume. And then there are the men sat forever on their step with a bottle of rum just watching the world pass by.