When it was announced Fidel Castro was stepping down in February this
year, after almost half a century in power, Cuba travel panic set in.
“Quick, get there before it all changes,” everyone seemed to be saying,
as though a McDonald’s might fall from the sky and stomp out the heart
of the island. It was good to see, then, that Havana was still
everything a tourist might wish for — a cocktail of happy, rum-soaked
Wanting some shade from the sun, I leave the Malecón for the backstreets of Havana Centro, walking past guys hunched over the bonnets of ancient American cars (revealing the secret to their survival) and doorways bursting with Latin rhythms. I find refuge in a bar only to be bullied out of ordering an orange juice.
“In Havana we drink mojitos in the morning, daiquiris at lunchtime and cuba libres in the evening,” says a man at a nearby table. There’s no arguing with rules like that.
Fuelled by a mojito that had a healthy dose of Havana Club, it comes as a surprise when I turn a corner off San Rafael and find myself in Washington DC. El Capitolio, Havana’s former seat of government, is a replica of Capitol in America. The last time I visited the original, there weren’t too many kids using the grounds as a baseball pitch, though.
This is the stately face of Cuba — with the Gran Theatro, a string of elegant hotels and the Prado (officially known as the Paseo de Martí), a broad boulevard stretching from Parque Central back to the Malecón. Skip off to the right and you’ll find the airy oasis of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and, opposite, the scrappy but interesting Museo de la Revolución. Check out Granma, the yacht Castro used to kick-start the revolution, and a room dedicated to his second in command, Che Guevara.
After the military paraphernalia, the softer charms of Havana Vieja are even more welcoming. In the past 20 years the old town has undergone serious renovation to bring the colonial plazas out of a state of decay and make them tourist-friendly. The work is still ongoing but it doesn’t ruin the effect of the four main squares — the leafy, alfresco book market of Plaza de Armas, the squares Catedral and San Francisco de Asis that are both dominated by towering churches, and Plaza Vieja, the largest of the four, where chairs and tables spilling from cafés barely make a dent.
On my first visit I was so taken by the happy bustle — the Buena Vista Social Club-style bands in cafés, the hidden art galleries and assorted museums such as the Havana Club Museo del Ron and Ernest Hemingway’s room in Hotel Ambos Mundos — that I didn’t notice something missing. On my second visit it clicks. As I sit having a coffee in Plaza Vieja I look around and realise, thanks to a collection of fancy cameras and guide books, that everyone is a tourist.
Back in Parque Central, above the din of local men shouting about baseball, a young Cuban called William tells me he’s come from Cienfuegos to Havana to visit relatives. Today he’s on his way to the old town. “I love walking round Havana Vieja,” William says, “but just to look. It’s too expensive for anything else.”
In Cuba there are two currencies: pesos and convertible pesos, the former used for staples, the latter used for luxury goods and tourism. At 28 pesos to one convertible it’s way too expensive for most Cubans to spend money in the convertible-only tourist areas. Head from the elegant squares to the crumbling backstreets (some buildings so derelict you can see through them), and you can’t spend your convertibles. So as much as you can soak up a wealth of Cuban clichés, buying Che T-shirts, saluting the Plaza de la Revolución and drinking cheap mojitos until they come out your eyeballs, it’s hard to break through to the real Havana.
You can peep over the barrier by staying at a casa particular (a homestay), or eating at a restaurant in someone’s house, known as a paladar.
Perhaps the closest I got to seeing the other side of Havana was at one of the legendary Sunday rumba sessions on Callejón de Hamel. Tourists and locals mingled in the crowd, dancing to the beat of copper plates as they welcomed in the week ahead. But there was a distinct difference, according to the man mixing the mojitos: “The tourists are the ones with drinks in their hands.”
It took me back to the bar on my first morning, when I asked Ronaldo, the man who laughed in the face of my orange juice, what might change now Fidel’s brother Raul is president. “It’s stricter under Raul,” he said, looking furtively about the bar, “but in about five years’ time there will be changes for the better in Cuba, people think.”
While I was there Raul lifted the ban on Cubans staying in hotels, renting cars and buying mobile phones. Since then he’s scrapped the cap on wages so it looks like Ronaldo may be right. And in five years’ time if there are a few less classic cars and a few more chain restaurants, it will surely be worth it if William can grab a coffee in Plaza Vieja.
» Amy Adams travelled to Cuba with Intrepid Travel on the eight-day Classic Cuba itinerary. The trip costs £350 plus a local payment of CUC$195 (approx £100). To book call Intrepid on 020-7354 6169 or see www.intrepidtravel.com.
Learn the lingo
asere = mate/buddy
baro = dollar/buck; eg ‘dame un baro’ means ‘gimme a buck’
la luche = the daily struggle
coger lucha = get stressed out
no cojas lucha = don’t get stressed out/take it easy
coño = shit/damn
empatasse = to get it on with someone romantically or sexually
fula = US$, now CUC$
yuma = foreigners
papaya = used as commonly to refer to female genitals as it is for the fruit
¿que bolá? = what’s up?
¿que pinga te pasa? = what the hell’s up with you?
jinetero = male tout who hustles tourists
Escape the city
One-horse town of Viñales
It’s not actually — if you sit on a rocking chair in front of one of the pastel-coloured houses that line the main street of Viñales you’re bound to see more than one horse and cart pass you by. But Viñales has a sleepy, rural feel that hasn’t been disturbed despite most of the town’s one-storey houses doubling as casas particulares.
After the hectic pace of Havana, take a few days out here — hiking round the National Park, checking out the nearby caves or making a day trip to the beaches of the north coast. Leave some time to explore the town that might be quiet but certainly isn’t apolitical. You can barely walk 10m without seeing a memorial to ‘the five’ — five Cuban nationals currently imprisoned in the US on charges of spying.
ead up to the Hotel Los Jazmines for beer over a game of dominoes and views of the sun setting behind the valley. Later, Polo Montañez is the place to be. It’s where you’ll find nightly dance performances and locals stalking the floor offering impromptu salsa lessons.
Coffee and cigars
In the valley of Viñales, chunky wedges of limestone rock known as mogotes rise from a smooth bed of coffee and tobacco plantations. On a tour of the local area we escape the tropical heat by ducking into a casa de tobacco — one of the large, tent-shaped huts dotted about the plantations, where the leaves are hung out to dry. In the cool, tobacco-scented shade we find two guajiros (farmers) doing the same, their blue eyes glinting under their battered straw hats as they puff cigars and chat quietly.
At his kitchen table, another local farmer Geraldo shows us the next stage of production, nimbly rolling the dried leaves together, before selecting the best leaf to finish and neatly slicing off the ends. As we sample the smoothest, freshest cigar of our lives, Geraldo’s mother Clara comes in from feeding the hens. She chucks peeled coffee beans on the stove, puts the roasted beans through a grinder and, pouring hot water over a filter, serves up a thick, gritty coffee that has us buzzing for the rest of the day.
Robinson Crusoe, kind of
When we told casa owner Elisa our plans for the day, her answer was simple. “Cayo Levisa? Ah Bonita!” she cried, elaborately kissing her fingers. A short drive from Viñales and a 35-minute boat trip from Palma Rubia, this secluded beach couldn’t be better described. The 3km of ivory sand absorb the small number of day-trippers and hotel guests so you can splash in the turquoise waters, wander round the headland or laze beneath a straw umbrella, all the while pretending you’ve discovered your own tropical paradise. Legend has it that the American writer Ernest Hemingway originally found this corner of Pinar del Río for tourists while staying on the nearby island Paraíso in the 1940s.