Havana is hot and I’m not talking about mulatas or the weather: from Cayo Hueso to Regla, Cementerio Colón to Ciudad Deportiva, you can’t swing a dead gato around here these days without hitting a tourist. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve seen this many foreigners in Havana since the 2006 Non-Aligned Meeting (see note 1).
There are reasons of course. The Cigar and Young Filmmakers Festivals are going strong as I write this, we’re getting a couple of monster cruise ships docking each week, and all-inclusive packages from Canada are mad cheap (see note 2). But most importantly, Havana’s streets teem thanks to Obama’s rollback to Clinton’s policy whereby US college students and select others can travel “legally” to the island. I’m surprised the effects have been so lightening fast – the new/old regulations were just announced in January – but everywhere I turn these days there seems to be a fresh-faced co-ed in Wesleyan gear or a Teva-shod geek. I hope they all have iPads.
Many of these people won’t end up liking Havana (hell, even I don’t like Havana some times). Starting with poor air quality, negative travelogues grouse about the expense of this place; perceived levels of state control; difficulties scratching below the surface +/o contextualizing their experience; and of course, crappy goods and even shittier services.
The dramatic economic changes happening around here – legalizing 178 types of private business from clown to cook, masseur to manicurist – are altering the travelers landscape (see note 3). So that Here is Havana readers can maximize their visit to this enigmatic city, I dedicate this post to travel strategies designed to get you beneath Havana’s skin.
#1. Talk the talk. There is no better way to maximize an independent holiday here than to speak cubano, with all its chopped off words, odd pronunciation and slang (see note 4). Even if ¿que bola asere? and ‘la heva está enpinga’ isn’t in your repertoire, try at least to dust off that high school Spanish since surprisingly few Cubans dominate English (and many of those that do are unusually accomplished charlatans). Not speaking Spanish doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad time – on the contrary. But it will limit your ability to get information, negotiate, learn and arrange logistics.
#2. Embrace pesos cubanos. As soon as you’re able, get some moneda nacional, also known as pesos cubanos and CUP. There’s a myth out there as tenacious as herpes in a whorehouse and which no amount of posting, commenting, and conversing seems to dispel: that tourists can’t use this ‘local’ currency. Complete rubbish. The truth is, most visitors simply don’t know how to use CUP. I suggest starting your trip by changing $5 of hard currency (24 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.82 USD) into this funny money to use for fixed route taxis, movies, food, condoms, cigars, and stepping out.
#3. Roll like a local. Long-finned Pontiacs, Capone-era Dodges, and other ‘Yank tanks’ leap to most minds when Cuba is mentioned. Undeniably cliché, these cars are everywhere, plying Havana’s streets working as communal, fixed-route taxis. For 10 pesos cubanos (about 0.40 USD), you can hail one of these endearing jalopies (I climbed into one yesterday that had packing tape upholstery and a ceiling lined with old refrigerator boxes) between Playa and Vedado or Habana Vieja, out to Miramar or Marianao. Longer routes – from Habana Vieja out to the Playas del Este beaches for example – will run double. To grab one, just stick out your arm parallel to the ground and ask the driver if he’s going to where you need to be. It helps to be on the right thoroughfare: 23 or Línea in Vedado, San Lázaro or Neptuno in Centro Habana, Avenida 31 or 41 in Playa, Calle 51 in Marianao, or 3ra Avenida in Miramar.
Even lower down on the transportation food chain is the guagua (pronounced wa-wa) – the Cuban bus. A ride literally costs pennies and while not especially comfortable or efficient, riding the guagua gives a real taste of Cuban daily life with all its attendant humor and hardships.
If these options don’t appeal, consider renting a car and driver. Part of the new regulations stipulate that licensed freelance drivers can now be contracted (by anyone, including foreigners as I understand it) to provide transport islandwide. There are no set fares, with rates to be determined between driver and client. Already nearly 6,000 choferes in Havana have applied for the freelance license; 2,000 have been granted. If the market has its way, the increased competition should make for more bargaining power and improved service. At the very least, it provides visitors an alternative to renting a car for $100 a day (which will somehow end up costing more when the agency is done with you). I predict that freelance drivers who speak English are going to do very well under these new regulations.
#4. Make yourself at home. One of the great benefits presented by the new regulations for travelers is the possibility to legally rent an entire house. This means you can shop at the agro (using those pesos cubanos) and cook for yourself, throw a dinner party, or introduce Cuban friends to the concept of brunch. Having your own private space means you can channel surf Cuban state TV (University for All! Little House on the Prairie! Seinfeld!), take mojitos on your porch to the delight of the neighborhood gossips, or stumble in carefree at 4am.
Another idea for a different Havana experience is to take lodging in more off-the-beaten-track places like the beach towns of Guanabo or Baracoa or Cojimar – the fishing village made famous by Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. These are close enough to enjoy Havana but just far enough removed to give a taste of small town life.
#5. Get primped & pampered. The new regulations approve all sorts of services which visitors can now enjoy without any sneaking around. Now your visit can include a 1-hr massage for $20 (really $10, but you might be charged double – the foreigner tax digamos), manicures for $2, and haircuts for $5 (careful with this last however).
If you’re interested to learn if someone – driver, masseuse, pizza maker – proffering these and other goods and services is licensed to do so, ask to see their licencia de cuenta propista. Most people are proud to flash their spiffy new ID cards.
#6. Spread the wealth. Frankly I weary of travelers asking me how they can avoid patronizing state businesses. That’s like asking how to avoid death or taxes. From the moment you buy your $20 tourist card to enter the country, to the minute you’re paying the $25 tax to leave, you’re supporting the Cuban government. What’s so evolved about this place is that paying into government coffers does in turn support the Cuban people (maybe not how or to the extent you’d like, but in my book the Cuban approach is fundamentally better than subsidizing bombs in Afghanistan and spies in Caracas). If you have a problem with this, do us all a favor and go to Cancun.
Having said that, I do recommend spending your hard-earned cash at a mix of state and private enterprises, but how to tell the difference? With eateries, there are some telltale signs. If your server is wearing a uniform or hairnet the place is probably state-owned. If your food descends from a balcony in a bucket it’s definitely private.
With taxis it’s even clearer: 99% of the old Motor City monsters (and many of the Ladas) brandishing taxi signs are privately owned. When in doubt, do like the Cubans do and look at the license plate (see note 5). There’s an entire code for plates here, with the first clue being the color: blue is for state-owned, yellow is private. All hotels, meanwhile, are at least 51% state-owned, but casas particulares (rooms or independent houses for rent) are privately operated. Look for the blue ‘arrendador divisa‘ sign.
If you’re interested in learning more of the Havana ‘mécanica‘ including bus and fixed-fare taxi routes, the best spot for 75 cent whisky shots and $1 lunch, Cuban line etiquette and more, please check out my iapp Havana Good Time.
1. It’s highly doubtful we’ll reap the same benefits however: when Cuba hosted the meeting as is customary for the country holding the rotating presidency, Havana’s main roads were repaved, trees were planted (including many of the trees lining Boyeros every visitor zooms by on their way from the airport) and house facades all along the arrival route were painted up nice and spiffy for the visiting delegations.
2. These 7-day all inclusive deals are oftentimes cheaper than just a Toronto-Havana Cubana flight. Savvy travelers just book the package and stay a day or two at their resort and then travel independently. As an aside, tourism figures for January indicate a 16% increase for the same period last year. Top countries visiting Cuba: Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, and Mexico.
3. I say travelers here instead of tourists because I believe there is a fundamental difference between a person who passively observes a culture and someone who desires to actively participate in it. If you’re one of those disposed to take issue with the tourist vs traveler terminology, I invite you to focus on the phenomenon/philosophy I’m talking about rather than the etymology of the terms used to describe it.
4. Those interested in Cuban slang and phrases should check out this Dichos iapp. I haven’t been able to get it yet (the US government blocks iTunes from operating in Cuba) but am loca to try it.
5. This national reflex is widespread and wild to watch: no matter what type of car you’re in, observe how passing Cubans immediately drop their eyes to check out the license plate. Via the coded plates, they’ll know if your car is from Havana or the provinces, whether you’re a foreign resident or visiting, even if you work for the state, a mixed Cuban-foreign enterprise, a church or an NGO.