A hop, skip and a jump from Cancun takes us to Cuba, gateway to the Caribbean. Cuba is an interesting holiday destination, the combination of its rich culture, unique political history, and continued survival through ongoing economic hardship makes it one of the more interesting places we’ve visited. First, stop Havana.
Havana is visceral but yet incredibly sensual, its people are strikingly beautiful with a mix of Spanish and Afro Caribbean Creole. Havana has largely been frozen in time in the wake of the 1959 Revolution. Decades of economic crisis and shortages have left much of it in a sense of severe decay and decomposition which is where it is so alluring in its fallen beauty. It is also characterized by the acrid smell of ever-present diesel fumes which competes with the pungent scent of humanity but thankfully, the salty and refreshing sea breeze blows through the barrios to refresh the quality of the air often enough. We stay right in the heart of historical Havana itself in a casa particulars called Habana Lourdes. A few years ago the government passed regulations allowing its citizens to rent out rooms giving them with the opportunity to subsidize their daily subsistence. It is also a great way to get to know and interact with locals outside the standard hotel experience. Habana Lourdes is run by an elderly couple in their 60s who are fabulous and help us navigate our way around this place.
As Havana has been so isolated for so long, it is refreshing to walk around and not be assaulted by the presence of in your face globalization on every corner. We are glad not to see a McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks or TGIFridays anywhere in sight. However, we are starting to see signs of capitalism and commercialization creeping in with the emergence of several small boutiques. The young locals cluster around these windows looking longingly at these luxury goods, as the growing tourism provides locals an opportunity to afford more. On the flip side, there are also more people begging now than ever before with the increasing number of tourists.
We are glad to be here now before the trade embargoes are lifted by the US which they estimate will bring in approximately 10 million tourists into Cuba (currently there are about 2 million). We still feel as if we have much of this to ourselves and enjoy the authenticity of its experience. The number of colonial buildings in Havana is over 900, most of it is in various states of dilapidation but none the less retains much of its charm. That and the sight of the quintessential 1950s style American Chevys, Dodges and Cadillacs all over the city add to the feeling of being transported into a time warp. There are of course bon mots dedicated to both Che and Fidel all over the city on buildings, posters and even in homes.
On our first day in Havana, we wander through the streets close to sunset and are struck by the sheer number of artists in residence painting in their open studios. We pop into quite a few and they engage us openly in conversation about their art, the development of their paintings, the muses which inspired them and what political or social messages they are expressing. We meet a lot of painters, photographers and artists over the course of our days here and also collectors of revolutionary paraphernalia from the 50s and 60s in mint condition. We enjoy hearing about the historical events in which the posters were produced, the social impetus that was present at the moment a picture was taken or the tipping point at which a mass social movement began.
Standing in these cramped, small rooms filled with history all around you on walls, benches, and corners, you cannot help being caught up in a part of Cuba’s narrative. We buy a limited edition poster of Che which was produced 10 days after he died to which there only 200 images are ever produced.
We end our first night in a bar called El Floridita which was one of Ernest Hemingway’s local haunts. What is so marvelous is that this place looks just like what it did 60 years ago judging by the pictures on the walls. One can also smoke in places like this still and Peter happily obliges this custom. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is how amazing Cuban music is yet. It’s that heady mix of Cuban jazz, reggae, salsa and Afro Caribbean soul. There is music everywhere we go, in squares, restaurants and on the streets. It is sexy, energetic, infectious, toe-tapping kind of music that makes you want to dance until dawn. At El Floridita we are treated to music by a fabulous band headed by a lead singer with lusty soulful vocals, It makes for an incredibly enjoyable night as we head back to our digs happy but slightly tipsy.