Havana is a city riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. It’s a hard place to get your head around, and even though I was there for five nights I feel like I only grazed the surface.
Every day my opinion of the city changed, often several times, as I saw new parts of the city or talked with the locals. To be fair Cubans have had a rough time of it, throughout their history they’ve been fought over and taken advantage of; colonised by Spain the country was even owned by the British at one point, but only for ten days before it was swapped for Florida!
After independence in the early 1900’s it then became riddled with corruption with US gangsters moving into the capital in an attempt to make it another ‘Las Vegas’ and a hub for illegal gambling and prostitution. Next came the revolution, with support from Russia that disappeared after the Cuban missile crisis, leaving Cubans to struggle by due to the US embargo that was put in place.
Changes in Havana
On a more positive note things look like they could improve now that relations between these two countries are thawing and it’s definitely helping the tourism market at least. There’s been an influx of visitors wanting to see the ‘real’ Cuba before it’s ‘colonised’ again, this time by the US, with people expecting to see Starbucks and McDonalds appear on every street corner.
I myself was one of those visitors, but having spent time talking to locals, I really understand their need for these barriers to come down and I hope changes will take place that give them the opportunity to lead more comfortable lives with access to the things we take for granted, but I hope the city doesn’t lose its personality and individuality.
Life in Havana – a city of contradictions
We wanted to understand what life was really like for the locals, but even after a week in the city we still didn’t know what the reality was. Cubans talk about not being able to afford to go on the Internet for more than one hour a month and can only access it in public spaces, often just outside of the big hotels, yet the majority appear to have the latest mobile phones. I’m told by one man that these are picked up via the black market, yet another lady told us there’s no black market in Cuba. Depending on who you speak to, the stories of life in Havana are very different but you can clearly see that they have to live in a way very different from what we’re used to – it’s almost like they have the ‘make do and mend’ mindset that the British embraced during the Second World War.
Everything is repaired or reused whenever possible such as those classic US cars still chugging down the streets, or the use of cannons as bollards in the streets of Old Havana. They also make the most of the food they can access – potatoes can be scarce, but I had the opportunity to try several ‘replacement’ vegetables similar in taste and texture that I really enjoyed – especially loved the plantain crisps!
Yet some things never change
However, just by taking a city tour it’s clear that some things are the same wherever you go. Like every city I’ve visited the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor. In some areas of the city generations of one family will share a tiny apartment, while elsewhere the new rich and those involved in government will live in the mansions of Miramar, an area of Havana built during the excesses and corruption of the 1940s and 50s.
My views on Cuba changed with every passing hour as I saw something or was told something new about the city and its people. I can’t say I ever got my head around it, and I’d be lying if I said I fell in love with the city, but it was beautiful in its own special way.
Havana – how long should you stay?
Travelling with my partner Justin, our trip to Cuba was our first package holiday, so we weren’t sure what to expect. We were recommended spending three nights in Havana and seven at a resort in Varadero, however, we decided to go with five nights at each in order to see more of the city. Were we right?
Well it depends on what you want to get from your trip. For most people coming here for their main holiday a 3-7 day split is probably best. I love my culture and like to explore, but I actually found Havana quite overwhelming. Looking back I think I’d have been better off spending three days there, seeing the main sights before heading off to the slower pace of a resort like Varadero.
Is Havana safe?
Havana is very safe ‘fact’ yet I did feel on edge when I was wandering its streets. At night Old Havana has very few lit streets, something I’m not a fan of wherever I may be in the world, and I think this made it harder for me to relax. Also there are a lot of people on the street who want to offer you cigars, taxis, restaurants, which after a while can get tiring. Rather than embracing the city’s lively spirit I instead closed up a little, which I’m annoyed at myself for doing. So all I’d say is be prepared and go with the flow and you’ll get the most from your time in Havana.
If, unlike me, these things don’t faze you then I can tell you that there is enough to entertain you for more than three days and you might get more from being in the city’s hub than spending your time based at a resort, where everything is a taxi-journey away.
Either way, I’d recommend a stay in Havana. I may at times have felt uncomfortable or overwhelmed but I did love exploring this city and learning about the Cubans tumultuous past and their dreams for the future. And, having got a tiny taste of what life is like for them, I truly hope all those dreams come true.