The Havana Diaries – The Arrival


cuba flag

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Ahhh!!! The time has finally arrived! I feel like I’ve been planning this trip forever! When I first booked my trip Havana, it was for a few different reasons. One is because about a decade ago, I developed an interest in the complicated history of the country. Another is that the U.S. told me I couldn’t. Last time I checked, I’s free. The last reason was cigars and rum. *shrugs* Now, I’m walking into Cuba to understand if socialism works. I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but I need to see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, taste it with my own tongue.

Getting to Cuba is becoming less and less strenuous for U.S. citizens, although it is still illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba for the purpose of tourism. I had two options for getting to Havana: either fly out of a US city that offers direct charter flights to Havana (like Miami) or fly out of a third country.

I chose the later option by flying out of the New Orleans airport nonstop to Panama City, Panama. Then I flew from Panama City, Panama nonstop to Havana. (Note: I did review the US Treasury guidelines, and it is completely legal to book a flight out of a third country.) Easy enough? I did have to book both round trip tickets separately via Copa Airlines since the US doesn’t allow connecting flights to Cuba yet. Going through Panama was the best option for me based on where I reside, the dates I wanted to travel, the flight times, and the overall cost of the flights.

I arrive in Panama from New Orleans after an uneventful plane ride, Since I booked my flights separately, I have to go through immigration and customs, then check in again for my flight to Havana. I quickly exit customs and take the escalators upstairs to the check-in counter to get a boarding pass for Havana. The woman at the counter asks me if I need a tourist card before I have a chance to inquire, and after a few moments of confusion on her part, she directs me to get it at the gate counter. Fine by me. I head through security and grab some lunch at Air Margaritaville since Panama’s airport doesn’t seem to have any restaurants that are authentic to the region. No empanadas? No arepas? No ceviche? I guess this turkey club sandwich and guava juice will have to do.

After stuffing my face, I head to my gate and ask for a tourist card. The gate agent simply asks for $20 USD, takes the Jackson when I hand it to her, and hands me the card in return.  Right after, they make an announcement about the availability of the card for purchase by anyone who needs it. The required document has two parts – one for when I arrive in Cuba and one for when I depart. I fill it out quickly since it only asks for my name, date of birth, passport number, and country of citizenship. Yet another step to check off the list, and another step closer to Havana!

I’m getting anxiety now. Everything has gone smoothly so far, but I still haven’t arrived. I think I’m just worried about getting around without a map on my phone. I’m dependent on phone data and Google maps for a smooth trip. These things aren’t as readily available in Cuba as it is in other countries, so now I’m regretting not taking more time to find offline maps or buying one from the app store.

On the plane I check out the scenery as we get close to landing in Havana. There isn’t much to see, but I notice that there are several empty roadways. One or two Chevy’s every now and then, but mostly empty. I smile at the thought that I have arrived at Cuba – the one country I’ve wanted to visit for several years.

I was toward the front of the plane on the flight to Havana, so there is no wait at all for me when I arrive at immigration. The young woman’s only question is if I had been to Africa. I tell her no, and she proceeds to take my photo, stamp my tourist card, and send me on my way. I just knew that she was going to ask me about medical insurance or what my intentions were in the country. Nope, no further questions. I was so worried about getting interrogated, I don’t realize she didn’t stamp my actual passport until I look at it later while waiting at baggage claim. Getting that Cuba stamp meant a lot to me, but I didn’t get it!

Disappointedly walking out of baggage claim, I hand over my nothing to declare form and exit into the arrivals hall, I take the escalator upstairs to exchange some euros for CUCs and CUPs. I notice the rates posted on a screen for transparency, and the counter worker is very thorough. She gives me a receipt and points out what I gave her, what she is giving me, and the rate in accordance with the screen. She then carefully counts the CUCs and CUPs for me to verify the correct amount.

At this point, I’m finally ready. I head out to get a taxi. Man, I don’t even want to talk about this bullshit. I call the driver a ladron and an asshole, and overpay for sake of argument when we arrive at the Airbnb. The only good thing about that taxi ride was that I saw the illuminated depiction of Che Guevara at Plaza de la Revolución.​Lodging seems to be a big issue in Cuba. Tour companies are blocking big chunks of dates for hotels. Hotels are overbooking guests and leaving them with no alternatives. It’s necessary to book wayyy in advance, and then still have a “plan b” if using a hotel.

To get an “authentic” Cuban experience, I ditch the hotels and stay in a casa particular in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. I made these arrangements via Airbnb and I was prompted by this message when I booked:

Since you’re headed to Cuba, we need to collect a few extra details before we can send your information to the host.

I had to check a box to certify that I was going for approved purposes under the 12 general licenses, then select which of the 12 requirements from a drop down menu. I’m pretty sure I checked off “support of the Cuban people” by accident because I didn’t realize that P2P fell under the educational category. I couldn’t go back and change it, or I didn’t know how if I could.

​I meet the hostess, whose name I never actually get. She is the mother of the host listed on Airbnb, so I’ll just refer to her from this point forward as Señora. She speaks zero English, so I just know it is going to be a lovely week with my limited Spanish. She gives me a grand tour of the home, which was just like the photos on the Airbnb listing. It actually may have been updated with a paint job. My room comes with a full size bed, a connecting room with a twin bed and refrigerator, and a small bathroom with a hot shower. Most importantly, I have an air conditioner, and that thing blows super cold! I might mess around and use all of this woman’s electricity. The ceilings are high. The mattress isn’t very luxurious, but I’ve read that there’s a mattress shortage in Cuba. Go figure!

The Airbnb has cameras and it takes 3 keys just to get inside the home and into my room. There’s one to enter the front patio, one to enter the home, and another for the room. I don’t know if anyone else has a key to my room, but I still feel somewhat safe knowing there are cameras, keys, and doors that lock automatically when closed.

Another noteworthy thing is that for legal casa particulars, I was required to provide a passport. Before she disappears to her room, Señora records my passport info and has me sign that I am staying there. She asks if I would need breakfast in the morning (for a fee, of course), and I tell her no, but I may take her up on the offer depending on how things go.

I shower, throw on some clothes, say hell no to makeup, and head out to get some dinner. My plan was Decameron, which was a few blocks away, but I decided to save that for another day. Walking down Linea, the street where my Airbnb is located, I find that there’s a restaurant/cafeteria right next door to the casa. I might have to check it out when I’m being too lazy to go somewhere for dinner this week. I walk toward Hotel Melia Cohiba and stumble upon a restaurant directly across the street called HM51, I think. It looks like a cool hangout spot, so I walk over and ask the guy sitting outside if they were open. They are, and I proceed up the stairs to the second floor balcony facing Melia Cohiba. There is a good breeze blowing from the Malecon, and great people-watching. That’s really all I need in this life of sin. I order a sangria, the first of several drinks in the city, along with shrimp in a garlic sauce. It cost me 17.45 CUC with a tip. Very good shrimp. Sangria? Just okay.

cuba food

Young teens stroll hand-in-hand with their mates to the Malecon, old white-haired tourists hop off tour buses and into the hotel in large groups, and middle aged folks head to Habana Cafe. I’m supposed to go as well after dinner, but I’m still peeved about the ladron so off to bed I go instead.

Melia Cohiba

Sunday, April 3, 2016

I try to sleep in, but at some point in the morning, I hear a kid outside my window already awake and enjoying the day. He’s yelling in a rhythm as if a song.

Hey! *Pause* Hey! Hey! *Pause* Repeat 1,000 times.

He must have been next door. Linea is a busy street, so I heard cars and buses speeding by and people walking by as I slept. Light sleepers and those unadjusted to city life would hate it, but I slept nonetheless. I roll out of bed at 8:30 and prepare for the day. I’m not too sure of my agenda, for it all depends on whether Matanzas was still in the baseball playoffs. I dress, and start my walk to Melia Cohiba to access wifi. On the way, I see a bunch of local Cubans walking in and out of a panaderia. You know when in Rome…

I walk into this place called Dulcinea, and see lots of baked goods at a good price. I forgot my water at the Airbnb, so I buy a bottle of water and a ham and cheese croissant for 2.60 CUC. The croissant is nice and warm, so I’ll stick with this as my official breakfast spot.

cuban food

cuban food

I continue to Melia Cohiba. At the hotel business center, I pay 10 CUC for an hour of wifi access, and the sign said that it was 5 CUC per hour for hotel guests. The hotel employee gives me an envelope with a paper inside that has the username and password details. I sit in the lobby and use it for 15 minutes before logging out. It looks like Matanzas is still in the playoffs. A game is today, but there is conflicting information regarding the start time. I decide not to chance it, and I just stay in Havana. Maybe I’ll be able to catch a finals game before I leave.

While using wifi, I also snapshot some Google results about the taxi situation on Havana to make sure I don’t have a repeat situation with the ladron. It wasn’t very helpful, so I decide to walk from Melia Cohiba to Callejon de Hamel in Centro Habana. Callejon de Hamel is an outdoor art space that highlights afro-cuban culture, and it has a weekly Sunday gathering for rumba performances.

I wander along, and it is 12:15 when I run into Luis, who saw a dark brown girl with a backpack and a camera, and knew right away that I wasn’t Cuban. He says his job is some sort of cultural representative (eye roll), and shows me his ID. He mentions that there’s a rumba festival today. I tell him that’s where I’m headed, and he volunteers to show me the way. Honestly, I don’t really know how to get there, so I let him lead the way. We are very close to the event at a good five blocks away. Along the way, Luis tells me he has family in New Jersey. He asks if I’m in a hotel or a casa particular. When I say casa particular, he agrees that it’s the best way to go. More questions, of course. How long are you in Havana? How much is the case? In what neighborhood? What is your city’s population?

We arrive and the place is crowded with tourists and locals alike. A man is soliciting CDs to support the art school for kids at the location (and himself). Luis, who I already know wants something from me, is showing me around and at some point, we reach the bar. He asks if I want a drink, AKA do you to buy you AND me and drink? Honestly, I am dehydrated with only one bottle of water in my system and sweating like crazy so I decline. We then walk out of Callejon de Hamel, and he asks what kind of souvenirs I’m looking to bring back to my family and friends. Of course he knows a place and offers to take me. I say no – not today. I hadn’t planned on buying in souvenirs until my last day because I don’t know how much money I’ll have available, and I can’t access more currency if I need it. At this point, I’m worthless to Luis, so he asks me what’s next. We were only in Callejon de Hamel for five minutes, so I tell him I’m going back inside to enjoy the music. He tells me goodbye, and I’m sure I’ll never see him again. All I have are $20s in my backpack, but I would have and should have tipped him for showing me the way. I watch the performers until about 2:00. A band of female members were getting it. I thoroughly enjoyed.

Callejon de Hamel

Callejon de Hamel

Callejon de Hamel

Callejon de Hamel

I leave to go get lunch and WATER, and meet Manuel on the way out. He notices me snapping photos of the art, and starts a discussion. His eyes lights up he discovers I’m from America.

“I have a brother in Milwaukee!” he exclaims proudly. I smile and tell him that I’ve never been. We chat for a while, and finally get away to find water. On the way, yet another passerby. This time it is a heavy set dark skinned gentlemen walking with two male tourists. He sees me, smiles brightly, walks toward me, grabs my hand, and kisses it.

“We’re going to Callejon de Hamel. Why don’t you join us?” he requests. I tell him I just left, and politely excuse myself as I continue my search for hydration. I sweated so much while at Callejon de Hamel, and now I am in desperate need of water. As I walk the streets of Centro Habana, all I see is soda, but I find a guy selling room temperature 1.5-liter bottles for 30 CUP – a little over $1 USD. Nearby, I enter Paladar La Guarida on the third floor of a former mansion, The hostess asks me if I had a reservation. Ummm, do people really make reservations for one nowadays? I tell her no, and she smiles politely, and ushers me over to one of many empty tables. It seems as though this place gets crowded at night when the overall ambiance is best. I had a daiquiri, bread, lobster with rice, and cafe con leche for 25 CUC with the tip. The only thing I didn’t actually enjoy was the lobster. The daiquiri was weak, but frozen thick so I sipped it like a slush and almost got a brain freeze.

La Guarida

cuban daiquiri

La Guarida

streets of Havana

I finished my lunch, and walked down to the second floor of the mansion to catch the views outside. Centro Habana was buzzing with locals just living their lives. After hanging around for a bit, I continue my stroll down the Malecon. In some areas, the waves are pushing water over the Malecon and into the streets. I find a place where is safe to sit, and enjoy the breeze along with the sound of the water.

El Malecon

I sit enjoying the water and am getting damn-near hypnotized by the waves when I meet another Luis. This Luis is a student a the University of Havana and is studying computers. Homie lays it on way. Too. Thick. He kisses my hand, selects one of my braids, kisses it, and tries multiple times to kiss me. I give him the elbow several times to block his attempts. We chat for a moment before he asks me to take a picture of his Che tattoo.

Che Guevara tattoo

​Then he gets to the point. I’m learning that there’s always a point, but it takes a while to get there. He wants me to go with him to Buena Vista Social Club AKA me pay for everything. Nah, bruh. I’m no silly American girl. I know game – even in another country. He finally leaves, but returns later and says “C’mon, let’s go!” Sir, I’m not going any damn where with you. He asks why in a whining tone with a smile.Boy, bye!

He leaves again and about 15 minutes later, I decide to keep walking back to my Airbnb. The entire journey home, I am constantly stopped and asked about where I’m from, and where I’m staying. There’s a lot of street harassment, but also I lot of general wonder about the girl who doesn’t appear to be local. I get to my casa so exhausted, so I take a nap in the coolness of the air conditioner. I wake up and hang out in the front patio for an hour, then prepare for the evening.

As I was walking to Callejon de Hamel earlier today, I noticed that some parts of the Malecon were blocked off to traffic, and they were setting up a stage in the street. I figured something was happening later in the evening, and I was going to witness it. I pass by the US Embassy along the way, and the security guard strikes up a conversation with me. I met him earlier when he saw me snapping photos of the American flag flying high. He asks why I came here alone, and the location of my boyfriend. I tell me he’s at home, but he paid for the trip, and he laughs and proceeds to ask for my number.

He wants to take me to El Gato Tuerto for a drink when he gets off. “I’m a good man,” he pleads in Spanglish when I deny him my number. “I have a job here working security for the US Embassy!” I smile, wave goodbye, and proceed to the concert.

​My assumptions were correct. There is a huge crowd of people enjoying a band that I’m not familiar with. They are obviously very popular to the people of Cuba, but off my radar. The genre is salsa or something similar, so everyone is dancing. In addition to the concert, there are food vendors selling sweets and liquor. Havana is my type of place, man!

Havana nights

I leave around midnight to find food. I know I ate a shit ton of food at La Guarida, but that was back at lunch, and I’m hungry again. Along the way, I meet a pair of half-drunk fellows headed to the concert. They stop me and try to chat, but the language barrier strikes again. Neither know any English, but I understand most of what they’re saying in Spanish. Intrigued by the American girl, they tell me that there’s a concert in the opposite direction. I just left there, I tell them. They want me to go back with them and buy them drinks. Nevermind the fact that they already have drinks in their hands. One kisses my hand, the other pulls out his phone and starts recording a video as if I’m about to perform. I block his shot with my hand to signal that I don’t want to be filmed, but he doesn’t get it. It’s hard to politely break away from their drunken enthusiasm, so I just start walking away.

And walking and walking. I have a screenshot of a restaurant that was nearby, but I can’t find it. It’s not at the location it was supposed to be, and I look for it on a few other blocks nearby to no avail. After strolling the unlit streets of Centro Habana for way too long, I decide to give up and head home. At this point, my feet are feeling the results of so much walking on my first full day in Havana. I flag down the first taxi I see, and pay 5 CUC to get from Centro Habana to Vedado.


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