Experiencing Havana

Experiencing Havana

 

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.

The Havana skyline.

The Havana skyline.

Looking up Passeo de Marti at the National Capitol Building Havana.

Looking up Passeo de Marti at the National Capitol Building.

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!

Life in Havana - just your average train parked up on the side of the road!

Life in Havana – just your average train parked up on the side of the road!

On the edge of Chinatown, Havana.

On the edge of Chinatown, Havana.

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.

Washing dries in a dilapidated building which also houses La Guarida paladar.

Washing dries in a dilapidated building which also houses La Guarida paladar.

View of Havana from across the bay.

View of Havana from across the bay.

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Keri

By day Co-Editor Keri is a freelance journalist and copywriter, but spends most of her free time either travelling or planning her next trip!  A complete travel fanatic, she has a love of tropical climates, wildlife and afternoon tea (hence the creation of her Global Afternoon Tea Challenge!)

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14 Comments

  1. January 27, 2016 / 9:30 am

    All your comments sound very familiar… we went to Cuba at the end of 2013 and really felt like we had been transported to another era. We had lots of mixed comments from locals, but there was no denying the huge divide between the reasonably well off and the very, very poor.
    Staying in casa particulars during our whole 2 week trip we felt like we had a good insight into what life was like with those trade barriers but it wasn’t until we reached Santa Clara and had no toilet paper that it truly hit home!

    • January 28, 2016 / 2:42 pm

      We stayed in the larger hotels, so I guess you got a better grasp of what’s really like than I did. We had heard things were bad for the poorer folks though and things we take for granted can be hard to find. With that in mind when we came over we brought packs of pens & pencils, which we donated to a local school as we’d been told they can be hard to get hold of.

      Lets hope these issues end soon, eh?

  2. January 28, 2016 / 1:50 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this post and seeing your take on it Keri. You’ve captured the contrasts beautifully with your words and photos here. I can relate to a lot of it and can see why you found it overwhelming. We were warned a lot before we went about how much people constantly get hassled for cigarettes, taxis etc so went there expecting the worst and I have to say, we actually found it a lot less of a bother than we had expected BUT that is after spending many a trip to Asia visiting family in my childhood and younger years and finding the harrassing more intrusive there on the streets than I found it in Cuba. We did 4 nights Havana and 3 on the beach but with a bit longer, I’d have loved to seen Trinidad and Vinales.

    • January 28, 2016 / 2:44 pm

      Thanks Shikha, that means a lot! It was odd how I felt uncomfortable there – I’ve travelled a lot in SE Asia and wasn’t so bothered by the hustlers, but in Cuba I felt like they were on every corner. Odd, huh?

      I’d have liked to have seen Trinidad too, but would have had to give up 2 days of our holiday to get there and back and then not even have much time there to explore. Perhaps I’ll return and visit a different part of Cuba, but for now I’m sticking to my comfort zone of Asia…

  3. January 30, 2016 / 8:00 pm

    What an interesting post, really insightful – I’ve not been to Havana but it’s really great to read what you thought of it. Thank you for sharing! x

    • January 31, 2016 / 3:15 pm

      Thanks so much Priti, that’s really nice of you to say. Is it somewhere you plan to visit in the future?

      • February 2, 2016 / 3:31 am

        I’ve thought about it – I’d love to experience the Cuban culture and it looks like a really interesting place to visit but I’m hesitant about it from things I’ve read and seen, I’m still undecided at this point! Really enjoying your blog btw 🙂

        • February 2, 2016 / 5:39 pm

          I do think it’s worth visiting – even though at times I felt uncomfy I’m glad I went to see it as it currently is. Don’t rule it out! Thanks for your kind words btw, lovely to know people are enjoying what I write! 🙂

  4. February 3, 2016 / 3:07 pm

    all the ruggedness makes Havana so interesting! Never been there, would love to one day.

    • February 3, 2016 / 5:03 pm

      Yep I have to admit it’s ruggedness is really part of it’s charm…

  5. February 18, 2016 / 1:55 pm

    What an interesting post, I really enjoyed it! Havana is really high on my bucket list, partly because it’s kind of challenging place to visit. I really hope I will make it there before it changes!

    • February 19, 2016 / 5:48 pm

      Thanks Kami, that’s lovely to hear! It’s definitely an experience, I have to say. I think changes are likely to happen very slowly, at least that’s what the cuban’s are saying, so you’ve got time, but tourism’s really going up, so I think the sooner you can go the better!

  6. October 17, 2018 / 9:54 pm

    I’m considering a quick trip to Cuba with my kids, and since we’d only be there a few days, we’d likely stay in Havana the whole time. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Keri
      Author
      October 19, 2018 / 7:56 am

      My pleasure Catherine, hope you enjoy it!

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