My wife and I wanted to go to Cuba because the most interesting places in the world are the ones which are on the cusp of great change. And few places fit that description better than Havana.
Being in Cuba is like being stuck in a time warp. There is just no place like it. Definitely one of the coolest & most interesting places I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.
Getting down there is really not tough at all. Even before the travel restrictions were eased again last week, Americans could always go through Mexico. We had no problems getting there (aside from having $200 stolen from us). But getting back was another story.
We stayed for a week in a private home overlooking Plaza Vieja. Airbnb had just opened up in Cuba, and we were only the third or fourth people to ever use it there.
This is the morning view from our balcony. The owner’s friend made us breakfast every morning…mix of sounds & smells coming from the plaza below – coffee, cigars, exhaust, maybe a little bit of sewage = beautiful.
Because there is essentially no development, everything is “preserved”, but not everything is well maintained. Plaza Vieja is a big exception.
In terms of how they feel about Americans, I’d say most Cubans are somewhere between receptive & curious. They haven’t seen many of them before, but with the surge of tourism lately, they are certainly starting to.
There are two currencies on the island: One for the locals, called “moneda nacional”, which is worth close to nothing, and another for tourists, which is seemingly fabricated out of thin air and somehow pagged 1:1 to the US dollar.
Nobody accepts US currency because they can’t do anything with it American bank/credit cards are useless, and worth nothing more than the plastic they are made from.
You need plenty of physical cash, because once you’re on the island you will be totally unable to obtain cash from any machine, bank, or anywhere else.
On the island a single can of paint costs the equivalent of about $300. Painting your car/house is one way to show off your wealth.
“Wi-Fi Square” in Centro Habana. The Internet is incredibly scarce in Cuba. The gov’t has recently begun blasting WiFi from a few public squares in Havana. These are literally the only places to get online for 99% of Cubans.
The network is weak and usually overloaded. On good days you can stream YouTube, on bad days you can wait 90 mins for Facebook to open. The irony of a public square turning into a place where everyone stares into their phones is interesting.
But what’s even more interesting is that since everyone needs to come here to get online, the place has sort of become a party zone – a place to hangout even if you aren’t going/can’t get online.
Everyone wants to go to Cuba because it has so little American influence. But the real reason to go is because it has so little Internet. Really, there aren’t a lot of westernized/urbanized countries you can say that about. The former will take a while to change. The latter, not so much.
There are very, very few places in the world that look like this. No cruise ships, no ads, no billboards, no McDonald’s, no marketing allowed anywhere. (There’s actually one McDonalds on the island. In Guantanamo bay. Hooray.)
The future is here, but you wouldnt know it being in Havana. It’s stuck in time, just a world away from everything else. Forget going to a museum – the city is a museum.
The poverty is all around you. There is no escaping it. This cannot be stressed enough – the place is magical, yes. But it could also use a MAJOR injection of capital.
But anyone who thinks this place is going to look like America anytime soon is wrong: It’s going to take a loooong time. Cubans are on the up & up when it comes to preservation.
I’m fairly confident that even with the embargo coming down, Cubans will prevent their island from looking like every other goddamn place in the world.
Something is coming. It seems like they are waiting for what happens next. But the fact is it’s already happening. Everyone can feel it. It smells like freedom. It’s a good thing.– Anthony Bourdain
One of my favorite car shots. That’s the old Palace in the background, now the Museum of the Revolution.
Havana Club Máximo Extra Añejo Rum. Aged 50 years. The best rum in Cuba, and therefore the best rum anywhere
Everyone wants to go to Cuba because there’s no American influence. But I’m telling you – the real reason to go is because there’s no Internet. I swear to god, one of the things I loved most was how there was no Internet.
You go to restaurants and everyone is actually looking at each other and talking and singing and dancing instead of staring into their phones… It’s just mind-boggling, because it wasn’t that long ago, but I already forgot what that was like.
Aside from the “Wi-Fi squares”, the only other places to get solid Internet are outside of hotels. They’ll kick you out if you’re not staying there, so people crowd around the entrances to steal as much as they can.
Rural Cuba is so simple. No corporations, no KFC, no bed bath & whatever the fuck, no sprawl, just countryside. And poverty. Lots of that, too.
Before Hershey decided to make the world’s most disgusting chocolate, he had a sugar plantation outside Havana. It’s now a pretty cool nature preserve.
In terms of access, Cuban healthcare is among the best in the world. Hospitals & nurses everywhere. And of course it’s free.
Getting home was an absolute disaster. Cubana Air is like if the DMV ran an airline. Pilots show up whenever they want, flights are routinely delayed for no reason at all. It’s gotten to the point where travel insurance providers won’t even cover you if you fly with them.
At the end of the day, I’m cautiously optimistic on Cuba. Don’t get me wrong – Americans/US corporations investing in Cuba will be a good thing. In fact, it will be a really good thing. But will they lose their free education & healthcare? Will they lose their identity? Will they lose what it means to be Cuban? I dont know if its gonna come soon or take a while, but it will be really interesting to watch unfold.
Get down there while you can. I can’t wait to get back there, explore some more & see what’s changed.