Havana is alive on a Sunday night at 10 p.m. Old Havana Plaza feels energetic. A lanky, young Cuban guy walks around with a buzzed shuffle and a mostly-full bottle of Havana Club in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The sexy rhythm of salsa music is the only thing anyone can hear. It’s a live band, and they’re tucked in a corner, in front of a brewery and behind a few potted plants. The lead singer sounds like Celia Cruz in her younger years.
There’s one old, skinny Cuban guy dancing—plucking girls from their seats for a few steps and a twirl. He’s dancing alone for most of the time, but he’s good. His hips follow his feet and sway freely from right to left, front to back. We take a seat at an outdoor table. It’s my first night in Havana, and it already feels surreal. I’m drinking a Cuba Libre in Cuba with Cubans and listening to the Celia Cruz-esque lead confidently make her way through a Cuban son montuno—live! And I’ve only been in the country for three hours.
Two of those hours were spent at the airport. My carry-on had been deemed too big, so I was forced to check it in Miami—a major bummer because baggage claim in Cuba is known for its lack of efficiency, speediness. We land in Havana, and I’m prepared. I have all my four customs and immigration forms filled out. I wait in line for checkpoint #1. Cleared. Wait in line #2 to hand off a form. Cleared. Then wait in line for my bag. It comes in about 30 minutes. Wait in the money exchange line. The next 30-45 minutes are spent in lines. Waiting. We’re finally ready to leave the airport, about 2+ hours from when we landed. It’s another 45-minute drive to Old Havana. The major highways are reliable, but dimly lit.
We reach our casa particular, a b&b. It’s an apartment. It’s gritty. It’s rustic. It’s three flights above cement stairs that are crumbling at the bottom. But we arrive. There’s air conditioning, a complete bathroom with a hot shower, and a refrigerator with cold beers and bottled water. It’s perfect, and it’s our home for three days.
The colors—they’re everywhere. Pink, neon signs, old cars in candy-apple reds and bright-yellow buildings are only a taste of the tonal atmosphere of the city. Devoid of popular gray interiors, white subway tile and trendy stone flooring, Cuba takes a stance where the more shades in one house, the better.
Beyond that, it’s the people. Eager to help without a handout, a taxi driver will drive in circles until you spot your casa particular and not charge you an extra cent. A neighbor will guide you to the nearest wifi spot for a smile and genuine “muchas gracias.” And a shop owner will let you dig through their private records for a good word (I know this because my husband is an avid record collector).
Everyone is always dancing. And they’re all so good at it, too. There is always a live band playing salsa music. And they’re record-label-worthy awesome. Everyone smokes. Even the eldest Cubans enjoy the warm, sunny weather and a smooth Cohiba. With some of the smartest doctors in the world and exemplary healthcare, Cuba is filled with a zest for life from both young and old.
I was intrigued to experience a trip in a communist country. Not knowing much about communism besides the basics, I was interested to see what life was like under the Castro regime. Besides the difference in currency, here are some of my most notable observations on a communist Cuba.
I didn’t see any grocery stores in Havana. We found one guy who sold drinks out of his house, and we bought our bottled water through him. Instead of grocery stores, there are butchers and small storefronts where locals go to get their rations of food and meat.
I didn’t see any kids begging for money or selling candy on the streets. It’s something that you’ll see often in places like Mexico, Costa Rica or South America. But in Cuba, I didn’t see any kids doing anything more than what kids typically do—playing soccer, going to school, hanging out with friends.
All the food served in government-owned restaurants tastes the same. A ham-and-cheese sandwich served in Restaurant A will taste exactly like the ham-and-cheese sandwich served in Restaurant B. Instead, go to paladares (privately-owned restaurants) for a tastier meal and to help support the Cuban people.
The famous Coppelia ice cream parlor in Havana has two sections—one for tourists, one for Cuban nationals. The one for tourists regularly offers about two flavors of ice cream. On our visit, the options were peach or vanilla. And the tourist section is outside of the flying-saucer-like building. The Cuban nationals are allowed all of the building, and offers more than 5 flavors of ice cream.
Internet access is very scarce. And while visitors enjoy the luxury of connecting to a network at free will, many Cubans are still not allowed Internet access. For those that are allowed, their activity is highly regulated and strictly monitored.
People take such good care of their cars. Yes, it’s true. There really are a lot of old American cars in Cuba. And everyone seems to have one, and they’re all in such good shape. I don’t know where they get gas, but they can be relied on to take you from Havana to Varadero in two short hours.
I felt super safe. I think we saw police just one time during our one-week trip, but there was never an instance where I thought there needed to be a greater police presence. Walking to our casa after dark wasn’t scary. People are still out and about until all hours of the night. From what I understand, there are strict consequences for any crimes committed against visitors.
My Takeaways on Havana, Cuba
Cuba is gorgeous, and everyone needs to go at least once in their lives. I understand that communism is bad. I get it. People are oppressed. People are unjustly accused of crimes they didn’t commit. Cubans face a life of labor camps for the most trivial infractions. Any opposition to the government is a serious offense. Everyone is poor. There’s no McDonalds. There’s no grocery shopping. Nobody’s carrying Louis Vuitton or Prada or Celine.
While I believe that everyone deserves to live in a democratic society, where you can fulfill your dreams and live in a free world, I also believe in helping and caring for the poor, the elderly and the sick. While I live in a modern society where every little unnecessary want is just a click away, it’s liberating to not have access to any of it. No TV, no news, no social media, no commercials, no gossip magazines.
It was the best trip because it didn’t “allow” me to unplug, it “made” me unplug. It made me get rid of all the noise I’m so used to dealing with on a daily basis. I was able to truly experience the country. I was able to sleep so well. I was able to go outside and do things. I was never bored because there is so much to explore—on my own and without the handholding of a formalized group tour. Go to Cuba. Help support the Cuban people. Help their small businesses thrive. As you work on your own, help them live out their hopes and dreams, too. It’s an exciting time for the Cuban people, and just being there fills you with so much energy, optimism, natural joy and a complete love of any music that makes your hips sway—my favorite souvenir of all of my travels.