Dig Baton Rouge

Travel Diary: Havana, Cuba

For decades, Cuba has been the forbidden Caribbean island located 90 miles away from Florida. We’ve heard about Cuban immigration policies in the news, and we’ve seen Cuban food in restaurants, but for most of us the island, its people and its culture were shrouded in mystery. That changed in November when airlines from the US started offering direct flights to the country, and the U.S. Treasury Department loosened its restrictions on which Americans could visit the country. My girlfriend and I decided to check out the capital city of Havana and see for ourselves what life is like in Cuba. The day after watching LSU destroy Louisville in the Citrus Bowl, we got on a one-hour flight from Orlando to Havana’s José Marti International Airport for our first adventure of 2017.

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Arriving in Havana, two thoughts immediately crossed our mind. First, Havana is incredibly reminiscent of New Orleans. The two cities were major trading partners hundreds of years ago, and many of the same people were the first to settle in each location. The architecture is vaguely similar, as well as the joie de vivre. People sing and dance in the streets, and music is a major part of life. Aside from the language being Spanish, it’d be wholly believable to think that we just accidentally wandered into a New Orleans neighborhood near Frenchmen Street that somehow we’d been unaware of.

Secondly, every time you step outside in Cuba, it’s like you’re stepping back in time. The architecture on either side of the cobblestone streets feels like it hasn’t been changed since colonial times, and the classic American cars on the roads transport you to the 1950s. Havana is a blur of different time periods, but it certainly doesn’t feel like 2017.

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Soon after arriving, we learned some of the lessons of living in Communist country; namely, there are lines for everything. Because the United States Government still prohibits all American banking transactions in Cuba, American visitors can’t use an ATM to withdraw local currency. Instead, Americans must bring all the cash they’ll need on their trip and convert it at currency exchange facilities like travelers decades ago did around the world. Of course, we started the day off with waiting for more than an hour outside a Casa de Cambio just to get our currency.

On a brighter note, we also discovered the world of Cuban craft beer. Cuba has two microbreweries, and they serve as a reminder of the heavy government influence in the country; each brewery is only legally allowed to import the same ingredients and equipment from the same brewery distributor in Germany. Unlike the brewing scene here in Louisiana, Cuba’s brewers didn’t decide to be brewers for the love of beer; they were originally chemists, and the government reassigned them as brewers. One microbrewery, with the unfortunately long name Cervecería Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco, was pretty good. The brewery is in an old warehouse that extends over the Havana Bay and provides a beautiful backdrop while enjoying your beer. The second brewery, the more centrally located Plaza Vieja Cervecas y Maltas, fell short of expectations.

The next day in Havana was a bit of a downer: I fell sick. It might have been something I ate, or possible a result of dehydration from walking miles and miles around the city in the hot sun. Either way, I was in bed and not feeling the love. However, in the Cuban way of things, we discovered that the woman who ran our casa particular used to be a doctor. She quit her government medical job when she discovered she could make more money and have less stress by renting out rooms to foreign visitors. She got me back in tip-top shape in no time at all, mostly using local and natural remedies. (However, truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever want to eat papaya again!)
Once I was out of bed again, we decided we should have a pretty low-key day and stay inside. We found the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (the National Museum of Fine Arts), and spent hours exploring the museum. The museum building itself is a piece of art, with ramps connecting floors and the interior and exterior spaces blending together through open passageways.

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The next day I was feeling adventurous again, which meant we were back to exploring the city and to drinking some of Cuba’s famous rum! The day started at El Castillo de la Real Fuerza (the Castle of the Royal Force), a medieval stone castle right in the city of Havana. The Spaniards built the castle in the 1500s to protect the capitol of what was then the fledgling Spanish colony. Almost the entirety of the castle was open for exploration, including the bell tower, which featured amazing views over the bay. We spent the afternoon sipping mojitos made with local rum at one of the bars Ernest Hemingway used to frequent when he lived in Havana.

In between sips of amazing drinks, we debated which seat Hemingway used to sit in, and I of course like to imagine that I was sitting on the historic chair. We eventually dragged ourselves out of the bar to finally see the most iconic sight in the city: sunset from El Malécon, the waterfront promenade. The hype was legitimate, and the sunset was absolutely stunning. The sky blazed purple over the water as locals used the last light of the day to reel in their dinner. It was the best way to end a day!

In the morning, we were greeted by more realities of life in a Communist nation. I needed to use Wi-Fi to get in touch in with someone at work back in Baton Rouge, but using the Internet was a difficult task. The government put Wi-Fi hotspots in various places around the city, and you can always tell when you come upon one by the hordes of people staring at their phones. Theoretically, you bought a Wi-Fi card for one peso, and it would come with a username and password to allow one hour of Internet usage. However, over the course of our trip, we’d never found one of these cards at the proper price.

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We found people trying to see them for up to 5 pesos, and we even found some enterprising gentlemen who had set up an illegal router and would let us use it for 2 pesos but he’d have to type the password in our phone for us (no thanks!). Eventually we caved in, and we ended up buying a Wi-Fi card for 4.50 pesos from the front desk of a super fancy hotel. It was kind of a waste of money, but we considered it like paying “couch rent” as we spent an hour sitting in their lobby and enjoying their amenities while using the Internet. Even on the Internet, though, it was low-bandwidth and government-controlled, so outside of Gmail and a couple of basic apps, there wasn’t much we could do. But I was able to send an e-mail to my coworker, so it was a success!

Ever since we’d arrived in Havana, we’d been walking everywhere we needed to go, but on our last day we decided it was finally time to jump in one of the classic American cars that Cuba is known for. My girlfriend had wanted to ride in a pink convertible, and I was determined to find the best one for her. Luckily, the very first car we happened across was a pink 1959 Cadillac convertible, featuring a built-in bar in the backseat. We hadn’t seen anything like it yet in Havana, and of course we jumped in. Our driver, and the owner of the car, was a nice old man named Victor who was happy to show us around.

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When we asked to leave the city to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house way out in the hills overlooking the city, it took some discussing, but Victor finally agreed. We got a special treat on the way back from Hemingway’s house, when Victor told us he rarely drives up in these hills so he was going to make a quick stop. It turned out Victor’s daughter and granddaughter lived up in the hills, so we got to stop and meet his granddaughter. Back in the car, Victor brought us on a mini-tour of the city and we drove by such sites as the Plaza de Revolucion, the Hotel Nacional, and the American Embassy before cruising back to Old Havana along the waterfront of the Malécon. It was the perfect way to end a trip to Cuba.

So, what’s my advice about Cuba? You should go. Now. It’s so close to the US, and it’s an easy trip, but it’s such a foreign place. The country is also in a tremendous state of flux, based largely on American politics. However, don’t say you want to go “before it changes.” Cuba has been facing an American embargo since the 1950s, which has arguably created some of the nation’s top sights: the classic architecture abounds largely because there isn’t the capital required to build new buildings, and the classic American cars on the road are still running because there were no other cars to import for decades. Former President Barack Obama worked for years to open Havana up to American business, which could arguably cause Havana to lose its charm and become similar to Cancún.

On the other hand, President Donald Trump has been quoted as saying he wants to return to the deep freeze and end all relations with Cuba. Now really is the time to go. However, as many Americans and travelers of other nations want Cuba to stay the same to allow them the “authentic” travel experience, most Cubans are desperate for these changes to occur. It can be extremely patronizing to tell a country not to change when the population is hoping for modern Internet infrastructure and the capital required to import higher quality food. So, I repeat, go visit Cuba now. But be respectful of a culture that’s changing and a country that’s trying to quickly catch up a few decades.

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