Cuba

Instead of spending Christmas in wintry Wellesley with my parents at the house where I was born, I usually travel farflung with my brother Ray and friends Adriene, Lee, and now Ruben. This year’s trip planning foundered in the fall on the rocks of their inertia, my unemployment, and overall ennui. We did pull together a last minute getaway to Cuba, harder because Cuba is still unwillingly stuck in the 1950s with neither banks nor internet for Americans.

I flew out December 17th via Fort Lauderdale to Havana for ten nights in Cuba. For the first full two days, we got our bearings in the old part of Havana (Havana Vieja), a crumbly mess of five centuries of plunder, colonization, and cocktails. We stayed at Ramon’s house hotel in dilapidated, but earnest Centro, dodging piles of masonry and piles of trash. It wasn’t all cheap, as we did dine in Havana’s two best private restaurants, San Cristóbal and La Guirida, the former frequented by Obama and the later enjoyed by Beyoncé. For most of the days, we wandered into churches, drank rum cocktails, and poked our heads into cigar and craft shops. We toured the Cuban art museum (awesome) and learned about the 1950s and 60s Castro-led revolution (not so awesome) that ushered in communism to Cuba and commenced the US economic embargo.

Ruben landed, found us at the hotel, and joined in our 1960s car ride three hours east to the beach island of Varadero. Although mega resorts have taken over the east side of the island, we stayed in a beach house on the west side with room enough for board games, more rum, and strong morning coffee. We had one pleasant afternoon swim and one evening of torrential rain. Late one night, Ray and I wandered 5km of full-moon lit sand and waves back to our beach house. In spite of the mega resorts, Varadero was less built up than expected, more Cape Cod than Miami.

Next, we got on a bus to take us from the north coast of Cuba to the south coast where we decamped in the cute, colonial, cobblestone city of Trinidad. We hiked a hill to see the view out to the ocean, smoked cigars (bleah), and drank some cheap beer. The same evening, we danced until 3am in a club, for tourists and locals alike, situated underground in a limestone cave.

Rush, rush, rush, back on a bus, returning to the big city for the last three nights in a rooftop apartment with a view over the modern section of Havana called Vedado. Although lacking the Hemingway bars of Habana Vieja, Vedado is where Habaneros currently live and play, so we followed their lead with living at revolutionary tower monuments and squares, and playing at an amazing Factoria de Arte Cuba, situated in a converted oil factory, as well as at a performance of 1950s singing and dancing (salsa, rhumba, and tango). We might not have seen all of Cuba (I’d like to go again but far east to Baracoa for its African-influenced food and culture) or even Havana, but I have a much better sense of this forbidden country.

I assumed Cuba would be dangerous, full of grifters, and slummy poor. Compared to San Francisco, Havana felt refreshingly safe. A few touts tried to upsell us into different restaurants or bars, but we’re savvy enough to resist gentle swindles. Likewise, I assumed difficult returning to the US through immigration. Except for a question of whether I was bringing in food, I was whisked promptly back into the airport terminals with no notice of my Cuba excursion.

For better or worse Cuba is still stuck in the 1950s for American tourists. Old cars, fabulously restored, like Bel Airs and Cadillacs, cruise as regal taxis all over Havana and throughout Cuba. Due to the embargo, neither our credit cards nor internet access functioned. We parsimoniously budgeted out our Canadian cash, fearful we would run out of money in Cuba. I returned home with twenty-five cents and a bottle of rum as my only souvenirs.

Cuban food is quite tasty, but rather a uniform medley of meat and starch. I missed the heat of Belizean cuisine or the corn in Mexican cooking. We ate a lot of fresh fish, ropa vieja, and pork cutlets. The high-end restaurants were refreshingly different from the usual slog of beans and rice, but neither paladar was San Francisco-level challenging to the palette. Still, a thirty-dollar meal in Cuba is extravagant. One could enjoy an appetizer, big entree, dessert, and two cocktails easily for twenty dollars. After a week of travel, we sought out the different, lunching Christmas Day ironically in an Iranian cafe, and finding in Trinidad the one quasi-Indian restaurant for a tasty rogan josh.

Alcohol rules in Cuba. With the massive sugar industry, rum is practically free and locked up by the Havana Club brand. You can buy a decent half-liter bottle of dark rum for five dollars. At one highway rest stop the expensive pina coladas, served in pineapples, came with an uncapped bottle of rum and exhortation to add as much as we liked. Cuban cocktails, such as the mohito, daiquiri, cuba libre, and pina colada, may be the cheapest in the world. Fortunately, drinks aren’t terribly strong and I suffered few hangovers.

My usual trip metric holds: no one got hurt, nothing got stolen, no one got terribly sick, so it was a good stay. Cuba may lack scenic grandeur, but the humid living is easy, cheap, and atmospheric. I’d recommend three quick nights in Havana for anyone who knows Spanish well and wants a bender on the cheap.