A year ago, Cuba was not on our radar. But here we are, back from nearly a week in Havana, reflecting on one of the most unexpected and fascinating places we’ve been.
We participated in a People to People Cultural Exchange through the Cuban American Friendship Society and Kids on the Ball Cuba – two humanitarian organizations who seek to strengthen the bonds of friendship between our two countries.
You’ve heard it before – on the surface Havana seems a city frozen in time. From the brightly painted 1950’s classic American automobiles that cruise the pot-holed streets, to vintage Rat-Pack era hotel lobbies, to the omnipresent face of Che Guevara, staring out from signs and murals everywhere, Havana is like a romantic, vintage postcard. But frozen in time it’s not. The streets of Havana are lively and colorful and bursting with life, art, music, enterprise and change.
Cuba’s population enjoys a 96% literacy rate, and despite enduring great poverty, food shortages and rationing, the Cubans we met were warm, quick to smile and engage us in a bit of curious conversation. Tourism is exploding in Havana, and with it comes money, enterprise and an almost frantic impulse to seize whatever economic opportunities may present themselves. As a result, small private businesses are springing up, like tour companies, guest-houses and restaurants that cater to well-heeled tourists. Still, we were told that most restaurants are out of the financial reach of the average Cuban, a protein centered meal of pork or chicken, costing more than a month’s salary. Paladars, small home-cooking restaurants, often in private homes are becoming popular with locals and tourists alike.
Food choices are very limited and food distribution is rationed using a system of coupons which allows each person a limited montly supply of food staples. Interestingly though, the produce you are served is likely to be organic. The reason? When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s, Cuba lost virtually all of its Russian petroleum imports. The country was plunged into an economic crisis that paralyzed industry, transportation and agriculture. Meat, dairy products and other proteins became scarce and malnutrition was rampant. With no access to petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides, organic agriculture and sustainable farming was mandated by the government. And with the demise of industrialized farming and high protein food imports, the Cuban diet became centered on organically grown, high fiber produce and fresh fruits. Proteins and processed foods are gradually making a comeback in the Cuban diet and currently Cuba imports 70-80% of the food it consumes. Only about 30% of the land in Cuba is used for agriculture, but for the most part, the food produced on the island is still grown organically, and Cuba’s population is purportedly among the healthiest, with an average life expectancy of 78 years.
The city itself is a stunning mix of architectural styles, most notably ornate Spanish Colonial buildings with terra cotta roofs, elaborate balconies and crumbling balustrades, many literally falling to the ground and in ruins. But what beautiful ruins. Driving past these magificent monuments of another, more prosperous age, it’s hard to imagine what life must have been like for the residents of these once grand estates.
Today, people carry on with their daily activities on decaying balconies and under sagging roofs – in buildings disintegrating to the point of near collapse. Attempts are sometimes made to spruce up the exteriors with potted plants and brightly colored paint. Colorful laundry hangs from almost every balcony.
Air quality is definitely not one of the best parts of Havana. Not surprising in a city full of 60+ year old cars, most of which have been re-built, patched and re-painted many times. Automotive handiness (or at least the ability to improvise an alternator fix using a paperclip) is clearly a required skill. Everybody in Cuba is a mechanic.
Our group traveled around Havana by little yellow school bus. Check out the headlights. Che is everywhere.
Street life is colorful and art is everywhere you look.
The beautiful and storied Hotel Nacional (below) is considered a Cuban national monument. Historically, a destination for the rich and famous including Hollywood celebrities, writers and world leaders, it was also the location for a famous organized crime Mafia summit in 1946. The hotel was nationalized in the revolution of 1959, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the hotel served as headquarters for Fidel Castro and Che Guevera- complete with ramparts, tunnels and Soviet anti-aircraft guns installed on the lawn (the remnants of which can still be seen today).
The Malecon (below) is an esplanade that runs along the waterfront. It’s called Havana’s “great sofa”, a place where people of all walks of life congregate and socialize until late into the evening.
At this time, the US embargo does not allow Americans to travel independently to Cuba on a tourist visa. One must be part of a licensed group that falls within one of 12 approved categories, including educational/academic programs, religious activities, sporting events, performance groups and people to people exchange groups. Once your group’s itinerary is set and approved, you will be expected to adhere to that schedule- in other words, going off to explore on your own is technically not allowed.
There are a few important things to consider if you travel to Cuba. Internet access and wifi is extremely limited, as is cell phone connectivity. It is not safe to drink the water, brush your teeth with tap water or consume ice that does not come from a filtered water source. Most large tourist hotels will have filtered water, but be sure to ask first. That said, even using the utmost care, many tourists do get sick within the first week. Credit cards are not accepted anywhere, so bring enough cash for the duration of your stay. You can change it into Cuban currency (called Cucs- pronounced “kooks” ) at your hotel. At the moment, Canadian currency is given the best exchange rate.
For more info about traveling to Cuba, check out the New York Times link below: