This is the 2nd part of my 3 part Cuba trip recap. Click here to read part 1 about Viñales.
It is now the morning of our third full day in Cuba and we were now ready to head into Havana. After our usual breakfast of eggs, bread, guava paste, and tropical fruits, we loaded into the share taxi. The share taxi operated just like a normal taxi except our group of 6 shared it with 2 other couples. While the fare is considerably cheaper, the downside is that you have to wait while the taxi picks up and drops everyone else off. We were the first to get picked up. The second couple wasn’t ready so we had to wait 10 minutes for them to pack their things.
Once we got on the road, it took us 3 hours to reach Havana. Then, we had to drop the other couples off at their AirBNBs (how AirBNB got into and operates in Cuba is an amazing story). This turned out to be a majora struggle since the taxi driver was from Vinales and did not know Havana addresses. After at least an hour-probably closer to 2- of struggling and driving through almost every neighborhood in Havana, we finally dropped everyone else off and checked in to our Casa Particular aka Cuban bed and breakfast in Havana Vieja, the old city. In a stark difference from Vinales, I needed 4 different keys to get into my room.
My first impressions of Havana were awe-inspiring. Never have I seen so many old buildings in a single place. Most were in poor condition. Many were completely ruined. Some were being renovated. There were a few Communist-era structures, but not as many as I would have expected. The roads were in terrible shape. There were also many more old cars than in Vinales- I would estimate that 50-60% of the cars were from the 50’s or earlier. This city must have been the envy of the world in the 20’s-50’s because all the beautiful buildings would have been new.
After exchanging money, I had an hour to wander around before our first activity. I walked over to the Capitolio, which was modeled after the US Capitol building. I also walked over to Havana’s Chinatown, which did not appear to be very Chinese save for a few signs and decorations. Theoretically, there are 5,000 Cuban-Chinese, but I did not see any. Probably after 50 years of isolation, the community either mostly fled or assimilated and intermarried. Other Latin American cities do have thriving Chinatowns. After an hour of wandering, I met up with Roberto and the group in Parque Central, a hotspot for both men to talk about baseball and for gay men to meet up (they occupy separate areas of the park). At the edge of the park was a nice hotel with wifi access.
From Parque Central, we got in a 1950’s taxi and headed to the western part of the city to watch a dance/drum show. The private enterprise is the musical and creative genius of one man. His company works full-time and has performed all over the world including the US. The performance lasted about 30 minutes.
When the performance ended, it was raining heavily so we stalled until the rain died down. We wandered into a clothing store that also turned out to be privately owned. The lady was very nice and explained that she gets her shipments of clothes from people traveling to and from Miami. She lives on the second floor of the building and owns it. She also somehow only pays $8/month in taxes to the government. This sounds like a pretty good gig and is definitely a sign that Cuba is opening up to more entrepreneurship.
We then went to a house owned by one of Roberto’s friends. We walked up to the roof and there was a party set up just for us. Roberto had arranged for professional salsa dancers to teach us salsa dancing that night. There were six girls and six of us, so we each essentially had a date for the night. I lucked out and got to dance with the only girl who knew English. I really enjoyed being able to genuinely communicate with someone about life in Cuba. I definitely improved my dancing skills. We were at the house for about 6 hours until midnight before heading home.
We woke up early and were served a breakfast that was almost identical to the one in Vinales- bread, guava paste, pineapple, eggs, and mango juice. Then we walked over to the Africa House, a museum about Afro-Cuban history, where we joined a conference about the Afro-Cuban hip-hop group, Obsesion who is celebrating their 20th anniversary as a group. The conference was three days. The first part of the conference was the release of a documentary about the group. Obsesion was founded by the husband/wife team of Alexey and Magia. For twenty years, they have been performing all over Cuba and the world and have commented on life in Cuba. While hip-hop is not a very popular genre in Cuba (salsa and reggaeton dominate the scene), Obsesion has still managed to capture both a national and international following. Despite the fame, they still live in a working-class neighborhood in East Havana and perform monthly on the streets for locals to hear them for free. They are very much still in touch with the people, the culture, and their roots. Luckily, the documentary had English subtitles, so I was not completely lost.
The next part of the conference was a discussion about the group and about Afro-Cuban culture. Unfortunately, the discussion was in Spanish, so Roberto suggested I not participate. This gave me almost the entire rest of the day to be a shameless tourist. I decided to take the day and wander all over Havana Vieja, the oldest part of the city.
Havana was founded by the Spanish in 1515, just 23 years after Columbus first “discovered” the New World. Due to its harbor, Havana became a popular shipping destination and in 1592, was given the title of City by King Phillip II, which caused significant resources to be poured into the construction of fortifications and castles. By the 18th Century, Havana was the third most-populous city in all the Americas and the center of all shipping in the Caribbean. During the Seven-Years War, the British seized Havana who then gave it back to the Spanish in exchange for Florida. The Spanish then built a second wave of castles and fortresses to protect the city.
In the 1800’s, the construction of Cuba’s extensive sugar-transporting rail network made Havana the largest sugar-exporting port in the world. This economic boom caused the city to expand to such a point that the city walls of Havana Vieja were knocked down and the rich started to move to new neighborhoods in the west including Vedado, which still to this day is the nicest part of the city.
1898, the USS Maine was sunk in the Havana harbor- the indirect catalyst for the American intervention in the Cuban Independence War and the Spanish-American War. This eventually gave the US control of Cuba, which it relinquished 4 years later. Havana then served as the capital of the Republic of Cuba. During this period, largely recognized as the Golden Age of the city, Havana was an extremely popular destination for the rich and famous from the US including Ernest Hemmingway. During Prohibition, Americans could drink mojitos in Cuba and gamble at casinos and hotels run by the mafia.
Everything changed in 1959, when Fidel Castro overthrew the government in the Revolution and established a Communist state in Cuba. By 1961, Cuba and the US had ended all diplomatic ties and Havana became inaccessible to the rest of the world except for citizens of other Communist countries.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba had a severe economic downturn, ran out of trading partners and was out of money. The government then began to open the country up to international tourism. First, the beach-peninsula of Varadero, then Vinales and then Havana. For nearly 20 years, Havana has been a very popular destination for European and Latin American tourists with over 1 million visitors every year. The Cuban government has been spending a considerable amount of money renovating Havana Vieja, but it is still largely a work in progress because of its size. While Havana Vieja is as old and has a similar feel to Panama City’s Casco Viejo and Cartagena, it is at least 3 times the size of both those cities combined, so the restoration will definitely take some time.
I wandered through a number of the old streets of Havana Vieja including the renovated Plaza Vieja. I then spotted a museum I could not pass by, the Rum Museum. For the steep price of $7, I got a 30-minute tour. While I won’t call the museum a complete scam since I learned enough details about the history of rum in Cuba (via a well-produced 5-minute video) and got to try the Havana Club 7-Year Rum, it was not worth my time. For about half of the length of the tour, the guide was trying to impress the very international group of his knowledge of rum-making terminology in different languages. I’m very glad that he knows the Polish word for fermentation. We also spent about 1/4 of the tour looking at a model railroad depicting a rum distillery and sugar plantation in the countryside. He insisted I take a picture of it because it is one of the nicest model railways in all of Cuba- the parts of the railway were imported from Sweden and France and the trains were from Switzerland. The kicker at the end was in the bar where they had all these really nice rum glasses and extremely expensive bottles of rum including their 15-year, 20, 25, and $18,000 35-year rum. Instead, they gave us the 7-year in plastic cups.
After the rum museum, I met up with the conference for their free lunch at a Chinese restaurant. While they served us wontons for the appetizer, we got the Cuban staple of chicken with rice and beans.
For the rest of the afternoon, I went to about 10 more museums and historic sites. 3 stood out.
- The old president’s house: This museum doubles as a government office building and was essentially the Cuban Mount Vernon during the early 1900’s. I was forced to have a guide- a 30-year old lady who looked like she was my age (there is no taboo in Cuba for women to discuss their age or for men to ask). The guide was flirting with me the entire time. At the end of the tour, she asked for a “donation”, closed her eyes and did a peekaboo kind of motion asking for money. Since the museum was free, I gave her what I thought was a fair price. Despite this weird encounter, the museum had some really cool artifacts.
- Museum of the Revolution: this museum is housed in the home of Bautista, the US-backed president of the Republic of Cuba who was overthrown by Fidel. While billed as a museum of the revolution, the museum actually discussed very little on the fighting and the reasons for the revolution. Instead, it discussed the numerous economic reforms instituted by Fidel. The museum also unceremoniously displayed the rooms where Fidel became President of Cuba and where he held his cabinet meetings. The second floor of the museum had a tribute to Che Guevara, Fidel’s military chief and the face on almost every t-shirt sold in Cuba. More interesting than the facts themselves was the way they were presented- everything was a fact with no room for interpretation or discussion. It reminded me a lot of another Communist museum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam. Overall, this was the most unique museum I found in Havana.
- Castillo de la Real Fuerza: this 16th century castle has a moat and a really elaborate maritime museum. Immediately after entering, a security guard insisted I give her my camera. She then had me pose awkwardly in front of every single item in the first room of the museum before asking for a “donation”. The second floor was quieter and had great views of the surrounding neighborhood.
That night we went to Obsession’s 20th Anniversary concert. It was held in the art museum, which indicates that the group has a high level of support from the government. Everything in the show was in Spanish. That said, I was still grooving to the amazing beats and the flow of the rapping. Backing up the duo was an outstanding jazz band, which got to improvise for one of the songs. I am now a huge fan of Afro-Cuban hip-hop. Oftentimes, they had a hook and asked the audience to sing along, which I did despite not knowing what I was chanting- which brings be back to Hyderabad, India.
After the show, there was an after party at the Arab Union, which is essentially a meeting house for all the Arabs in Cuba. There are hardly any Muslims in Cuba, so I am guessing that these are mostly diplomats and their families. I wandered around a little bit and there was a small prayer room and a wall with pictures of Yasser Arafat and Fidel. In the main room where the party was held, they ironically served us beer and Cuban pork sandwiches (there was a chicken option too). The DJ was spinning a mix of American rap music, reggaeton, and Cuban salsa music. People were dancing and I left around 11 to rally for the next day.