Category Archives: travel writing

Havana: some questions answered

A few tips for getting the most out of Cuba’s spectacular capital city…

 

IMG_1292

 

I’m going to Cuba. I’ve heard Havana is noisy and dirty, and the beaches of Varadero are the place to be. Should I bother visiting?

Yes, you should. The palms and piña coladas of Varadero ain’t got nothin’ on Havana. It is dirty and noisy, though. Get excited!

 

Where should I stay?

If you want to soak up the colonial charm of the old town, find somewhere in Habana Vieja. It’s lovely just to be able to wander around, and after losing a couple of hours in this maze you’ll be very grateful for a nearby refuge. However, culture vultures or those wanting to escape the madness should head for the wide, green boulevards of Vedado. This district is my favourite – cinemas and theatres abound, and you’re never far away from a world-class music venue.

Re accommodation: I heard recently that with the recent surge in tourism, Cuban hotels are all booked up forever and ever. Whether that’s true or not, don’t let it put you off. If you want the real deal, stay in a casa particularthese private homestays go from experienced family businesses to couples just renting out a spare room. They tend to be cosy, clean and serve delicious meals, including generous breakfasts. TripAdvisor and MyCasaParticular have plenty of recommendations. Book in advance in high season, but don’t stress out – somebody will put you up.

However, if you prefer the backpacker vibe, I stayed in Casa de Ania (Calle Jovellar y San Francisco) near Vedado, which I would definitely recommend. Hostels are pretty new on the scene in Cuba but this one strikes the perfect note, with several shared and private rooms and a nice common area to meet fellow travellers and drink rum not on your own.

 

How long do I need to get to know the city?

Probably a lifetime, but three to five days will do if you’re on a whirlwind tour. You’ll have time to scamper around and see all the beautiful sights, but still have a moment or two to stop and stare, sip a daiquiri in an old Hemingway joint, and watch life at its liveliest on the Malecón.

IMG_1221

How do I get around?

Those world-famous American cars, or máquinas, aren’t just there for show – they keep Havana moving all day and night. They’re essentially shared taxis that travel fixed routes. The key to getting one is not being shy. Stick your arm out and indicate how many people you are with your fingers, and when someone stops, just tell them where you want to go. Try and get a good map so you know which side of the road to stand on, or ask your hosts if you’re not sure! A short ride should cost about 50 cents, or 1 CUC for longer journeys. It can be confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s definitely the quickest way to get around.

Alternatively, use your feet. There is so much to see and take in that if you’re feeling energetic, this is the perfect way to roam. Wear sensible shoes, and take plenty of water.

IMG_1297 

I’ve heard that communist states have a pretty miserable cultural life. What am I going to do with my time in Havana?

Even a quick visit will put paid to this myth. I’ve never been anywhere as exciting and culturally rich as Cuba’s capital, and even in the hardest years of economic crisis, the country has been a very good place to be an artist or dancer. Whether it’s cutting-edge modern art you’re into, or the catchy melodies of traditional son (think Buena Vista Social Club), you’ll never exhaust what Havana has to offer.

For those interested in Cuba’s revolutionary history, the Museo de la Revolución (Calle Refugio 1, Monserrate y Zulueta) is not to be missed – the palace is a sight in itself, and the collections are fascinating. Other great museums include the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (San Rafael, Monserrate y Zulueta) – look for Wifredo Lam’s abstract sugar canes and the bright canvases of Amelia Peláez. Lots of small, contemporary galleries are dotted around Calle Mercaderes in Old Havana, and are definitely worth a look around. The Centro Wifredo Lam (Calle San Ignacio, cnr. Empedrado) is a fantastic (and free!) exhibition space and always has interesting displays on.

Havana boasts a world-class ballet at the Gran Teatro (Paseo del Prado) – pop in and see what tickets are on offer. The classical concerts every Thursday and Sunday at 6pm at the Basilica San Francisco de Asís are also terrific (book the day before). Check LaHabana.com for current listings of loads of musical and cultural events.

It might get dark at some point, but Havana never sleeps. If you don’t want to either, start off by sipping mojitos in one of the million bars in Habana Vieja or Vedado. Or do as the locals do – buy a bottle of Havana Club and head to the Malecón. If you like jazz, head to La Zorra y el Cuervo (Avenida 23, N y O) – you enter through a mysterious red postbox into the underground club. Entry costs 10 CUC and includes two drinks, and listings are posted outside – if Miguel Herrera y Joven Jazz are playing, you would be mad not to go. Later on, La Gruta (next door to La Zorra) does good salsa nights on Wednesdays, and the hybrid bar/club/gallery Fábrica de Arte (Calle 26, cnr. 11) promises an otherworldly experience and, obviously, excellent music.

IMG_1735

I’m hungry.

Not to worry – Havana isn’t famed for its food but there are some very decent cheap eats and more upmarket paladares. La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207) does very good traditional fare. El Chanchullero (Teniente Rey, 457a bajos) is shamelessly hipster and always full of tourists, but the food is great and the mojitos strong. For cheap peso restaurants, Los Primos (Calle 23 y H, Vedado) is very good – the mango batido (milkshake) is delicious.

In general, fish is always a good shout, but steer clear of the pizza (except in Don Giovanni, #107-109 Tacón y Mercaderes). Vegetarians can usually get huevos fritos (fried eggs) with the staple beans and rice, even if it’s not on the menu.

 

What should I take?

Clean, cool clothes and sensible walking shoes, and whatever essentials you can, as finding provisions in Cuba can be fraught (tampons, always remember tampons).

A good book – try Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana or Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (not for the faint-hearted).

It’s best to take money with you, which can be exchanged for CUCs in banks, but there are lots of ATMs throughout the city as well.

IMG_1319

Any safety concerns?

Havana’s pretty safe, so no need to worry at all. However, like in any capital city, it pays to keep your wits about you. Hold on to your bag and watch your pockets, especially in crowded places. Sometimes things are snatched by someone on the back of a motorbike, so make sure you fasten your bag securely around you or wear a money belt. Look out for scams, too – a common one is somebody chatting you up and taking you to a bar, then the waiter bringing you a hugely inflated bill. Cubans are friendly, but keep an eye out for people being too friendly.

 

Do: drink overpriced cocktails at the top of the Habana Libre hotel for the stunning view, even if only once.

Don’t: … not dance salsa. You must dance salsa.

IMG_1346

Useful resources and things to read:

Lonely Planet is a reliable guide for the main sights, and a great guidebook to buy is Christopher P. Baker’s Moon Guide.

The Huffington Post have a great series of articles on Cuba at the moment, including David Latt‘s excellent travel tips. I also enjoy the in-depth pieces on Havana by Guardian Cities, especially Oliver Wainwright‘s latest insight into the changing world of tourism.

Contact me with any questions or suggestions!

¡Buen viaje!

Walking tour: Havana’s best ‘piropo’ spots

Piropo: Untranslatable word. Term used fondly to describe the whistles, hisses, kissing noises and comments any woman should expect as she steps out onto the streets of Cuba’s capital. Commonly mistranslated as ‘chat-up lines’, since the last thing solicited is a chat. It’s more a game of action and reaction, subject and object, predator and prey. For aficionados of everyday sexism, this is a must. Here follows a guide for the best places to experience this intriguing phenomenon first-hand.

Throw yourself right in the deep end if you really enjoy being hassled and head straight to the wonderful maze that is Habana Vieja. Getting lost in these streets should provide a comprehensive introduction to the practice of piropos, especially if you only have a few days in Havana. Listen out for the distinctive ‘Psssst!’ or occasionally ‘Hey lady!’ and try not to recoil visibly at the kisses and winks. Examples of personal comments heard include ‘chica linda’, ‘bonita’, ‘muy sexy’; but there is a wide range of derivatives. You’ll never be bored.

If you’re with a man, forget the whole tour. As someone else’s property you’re officially off the market and no longer fair game for piropos, and so you may run the risk of being well and truly left alone. If you’re lucky, somebody might jovially offer your companion to swap you for his girl, and you can all have a good laugh. But this is the extent of it, so try to stick with women to guarantee that the comments are completely unrelenting.

And as we all know from playground bullying, you will always get the most attention when on your own. This is the best way to really get a feel for it. You’ll probably be offered a lot of sex and, if you’re lucky, maybe a few relationships. ‘¿Te falta un novio?’ (Do you need a boyfriend/ are you missing a boyfriend?) As a woman without a man beside her, a part of you is missing – so apparently it’s a free for all.

Next stop is Centro; the busy roads of the centre. Walk past large groups of men for the best results, although comments from people on their own are pretty common as well. Interestingly, they often come just after you’ve passed, so be patient. This way, since you can’t return the gaze directly, it becomes much easier not to treat you as a real human being – any form of social interaction is cut off.

Venture out to the leafy boulevards of Vedado only if you have ample time in the city. There is a danger of having real conversations with people on these streets, so exercise caution at all times. Still, you’re never far away from a degrading remark or sexual proposition.

If you still don’t feel quite like a sexual object, end your trip on the Malecón. Simply sit down and people will come to you. Read a book, enjoy a conversation – look as preoccupied or uninterested as possible. Be sure to tell people to leave you alone several times, because no seems to mean try harder in the world of street harassment. In the more secluded parts, very occasionally, men masturbate as women walk past. But this is slightly off the beaten track.

None of this is to suggest that women do not face this kind of treatment everywhere. Street harassment is a worldwide problem that may be worse and is certainly more threatening in other cities. The term machismo is perhaps misleading as a culturally specific term that confines inequality to the region of Latin America.

Relatively speaking, Cuba is a very good place to be a woman. Statistics place the country highly in world rankings of gender equality. 50 percent of students in higher education, 60 percent of doctors and 48 percent of high government are women. Childcare is free, as is birth control assistance. Men and women are guaranteed the same salaries. It all looks great on paper, hence why a stroll in Havana can be quite a sobering experience. Equality is quite an empty term if you are reduced to a sexual object the second you venture out into public space.

Havana is one of the most culturally rich and exciting places I have ever been. This makes the constant reminder that, as a woman, you are somehow less entitled to actively enjoy it, a real shame.

Viñales on horseback

The stunning countryside surrounding Viñales, in Cuba’s western province Pinar del Río, makes for a wonderful and relaxing few days. When Havana takes it out of you – and it probably will – the area provides idyllic peace and quiet. Covering about 150 sq km, the Parque Nacional was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, and for good reason. This is the world of coffee, tobacco and sugar plantations. Hard at work all year, this is where the guajiros drive the nation’s economy behind the scenes.

Prehistoric Cuba was a great limestone plateau that rose out of the sea, and this was gradually eroded by water to leave sheer, mountain-like formations called mogotes (haystacks). These awe-inspiring features give the countryside an unparalleled beauty.

image

No better way to experience this than on horseback. After days of trampling around Havana’s dusty streets, it was a wonderful relief to get off my feet, even as a very inexperienced rider. The horses, bred everywhere here for transport, are well-behaved and visibly much better fed than those lugging tourists around the capital.

A guided tour across the aptly named Valle del Silencio offers a brilliant morning before the punctual afternoon downpour. Excursions trot leisurely into the valley via a rustic tobacco farm. It’s not currently the season (the seeds are planted in October and harvested in March-April) but it was interesting to see the way the leaves are dried and the cigars are made.

After a quick tour of the finca and a complementary cigar dosed in local honey, the tour continues through fields of rice and maize, banana plantations and a small coffee centre. We passed by trees laden with oranges, avocados, limes and almonds, and colourful orchids adorned the path.

The trip wasn’t really improved by all the stops, which were little more than tourist gimmicks selling overpriced produce. An optional walking tour through the caves (although they were impressive) was probably not worth the additional cost – I have a pretty bump on my forehead from the unforgiving rock face as a big group of us squeezed through narrow crevices with no torch, ni nada. Careless tourists or careless guides, either way this was an unnecessary add-on to an otherwise spectacular morning.

image

The town of Viñales consists of a few streets packed with restaurants, tour agencies and a million brightly painted casas particulares – almost every resident family rents out a spare room. What was once no doubt a sleepy agricultural village is now a tourist hotspot, but this hasn’t entirely rid it of its charm. The less-frequented Café Mogote, a block north of the main plaza, is worth checking out for its delicious cocktails and beautiful views of the valley (it also has a teeny tiny kitten!!).

complementary kitten

complementary kitten

Live jazz plays in the centre from early evening, and the salsa kicks off not long after dark.

The Hershey Electric Railway

The method of transport everybody tells you not to bother with in Cuba is the train. Slow, hugely unreliable and subject to schedules changing at the last minute, the national rail service Union de Ferricarriles de Cuba is not recommended for those with limited time or patience.

But in the case of the old Hershey Electric Railway, the journey is a beauty not to be missed. It takes four uncomfortable hours (experienced locals bring cushions) to complete the 90km journey from Havana to Matanzas, but the experience is worth every minute.

image

The train was built in 1922 by the US chocolate mogul Milton Hershey, to connect his remote sugar mill to the two cities. The factory was nationalised during the Revolution and renamed to commemorate the rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos, but the train continued chugging along, still known informally by its former name.

We caught the 12.21 from Casablanca (a short ferry ride from Habana Vieja) and sat down to a no-frills carriage filled with Cuban families, for whom our adventure was the run-of-the-mill slog home from the capital. The train stopped and started numerous times to allow for latecomers before we eventually set off, rumbling along the tracks in no hurry and pausing at a very tiny rail-side village for passengers to hop on and off.

Sometimes the ride was leisurely and peaceful, but more often we gripped out seats nervously as the carriage swung precariously from side to side. The roar of the engine precluded all attempts at conversation, and all we could do was gaze out at the surroundings.

Certainly nothing to complain about. The journey begins in the suburbs of Havana, literally passing through people’s backs yards and starkly displaying the ‘real’ Cuba – a life of hard agricultural work, but at a slower pace than in the exhilarating capital. Cattle and goats graze in the fields, and banana and sugar cane plantations abound. Occasionally a tractor makes its rounds, but more often a horse and cart.

image

Lush green countryside is scattered with sky-high tropical palms, and the rolling hills seem like they go on forever, despite the knowledge that a few miles north is the Atlantic, and – not much further – Florida, worlds away from this rural part of the Caribbean. Come 3pm (true to form in hurricane season), the sky darkens and the palm branches blow threateningly in the wind.

The train at last grinds to a halt a few hundred yards before the platform, and we all jump off onto the rubble-strewn tracks to walk to the station. The sky opened as we arrived in Matanzas, and stayed that way for most of our time there. But it was the journey that was the real gem.

image

A reflection on ‘women travellers’ …

Cuba, perhaps surprisingly, has been hailed for many years for its record in women’s rights. In 2013, it came 15th in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report, above both the US and the UK. 50% of university students are women, 60% of doctors, and 48% of high government. Equal pay is guaranteed by law: the Cuban Family Code demands that men share household duties with women, and every female gets free birth control assistance. Needless to say that complete gender equality is an ongoing process rather than a reality, but it is one that the country is taking very seriously.

What I have found interesting while preparing for my visit to Cuba is the way different guides and resources treat the problems that female travellers are much more likely to face than their male counterparts. Most guidebooks include a section on ‘Women Travellers’ somewhere near the back, often given the honoured position at the end of an A-Z (no corresponding section on Men Travellers, unsurprisingly).

I don’t mean to suggest that this section shouldn’t be included – quite the opposite. My time in Cuba will inevitably be filtered through my experience as a solo female traveller. I think it is hugely important to research what to expect and be wary of, and how to overcome the challenges you might face. The advice travel guides give is practical and encouraging, especially in the case of Cuba – a ‘dream location’ for women, according to Lonely Planet. The consensus is that machismo still exists in daily life, manifesting itself most obviously in the perhaps annoying but ultimately harmless piropos (come-ons, whistling, etc.) that women are bound to receive. But in general, we can feel safe, comfortable and respected.

So it is not the mention of these issues that is problematic, but rather the way they are squashed into a little paragraph – a small addendum to refer to, if need be, on the off chance that you might be a woman. ‘Women Travellers’, along with ‘Gay and Lesbian Travellers’, and often ‘Senior Travellers’, are all lumped together in a way that suggests vulnerability and departure from the norm. The main body of the guide represents this norm, catering for the default user – the white, heterosexual male.

Some guides are conscious of this danger – the excellent Moon Guide on Cuba, by Christopher P. Baker includes a clear and detailed analysis of women’s rights in Cuba, and places practical information for female travellers just after the paragraph for men. Some might argue that this belittles the problems that women have to deal with, aiding and abetting that delusional argument that we all live in a happy, equal, post-feminist world where things can be tough for men too, you know. I see it differently. I believe this suggests that it is just as legitimate for us to belong to the world of travel as it is for men. We are no longer a special case.

This is important when it is still seen by many as a challenge for women to travel independently, and specifically for women to write about travel. Historically, men have been associated with public space, able to move freely around a globe that is theirs to document and possess, while women have been confined to the static realm of the home. I recently read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memoirs of his youthful journey on foot from Holland to Constantinople – an amazing read that definitely deserves its place as a classic of travel writing. But I was struck by how subversive the work would have been if it had been written by a woman, and how different her experience would have been. Leigh Fermor was definitely buoyed on by his tireless zeal for different cultures, his aptitude for languages, and his care for all the people he met – but he was also deeply dependent on his gender. He could turn up alone at the homes of strangers and introduce himself to anyone he met without thinking twice. He might camp out under the stars or walk for miles in the dark alone, and on meeting any other travellers or locals, he would simply say hello and perhaps offer them a swig of his hip flask, and enjoy the pleasure of their company in return.

Because he was a man, this is billed as friendly and forthcoming, rather than unwise or provocative. The differences in the way men and women are treated as travellers and as writers run deep. It makes me sad that women still learn, however subconsciously, to hold back. Sadder still that this is probably to be recommended in many parts of the world, for reasons of personal safety and security.

Yet there is no such excuse with regard to travel in countries like Cuba, which apparently has a great deal to recommend female travellers. Those who teach women they are unwise or unable to travel in such places alone are only blinded by prejudice. But I am hopeful that this is changing, and travel writing and resources need to change too to offer a supportive (but not prescriptive) guide. We shouldn’t be seen as a group that need special protection, distinct from the confident and experienced male canon. It’s not weird anymore for women to chart their own path around the world, so it might be worth rewriting the guides to reflect this, rather than sticking on a cursory note at the end.

tracing the revolution: Cuartel Moncada

On 8 January 1959, Castro and his compañeros blazed through the streets of Havana, bringing the Cuban Revolution to a euphoric finale. But their trail can still be seen today, mapped spatially throughout the island nation. Che Guevara’s face gazes out from dozens of murals, immortally spray-painted over the urban landscape. Plazas, monuments and museums abound in each of Cuba’s cities. The revolution lives on, as resilient as the island that staged it over half a century ago.

Revolutionaries entering Havana, 1959. Image: Latin American Studies

Revolutionaries entering Havana, 1959. Image: latinamericanstudies.org

I would like to explore the most iconic spots that commemorate 1959. (Disclaimer: I have not actually been to Cuba yet. It’s a learning curve. Any recommendations/corrections very welcome)

Here is the first…

#1. Cuartel Moncada

1953: Dissent is smouldering in the countryside. After a successful military coup in 1952, Fulgencio Batista is safely back in power as Cuba’s internationally recognised leader, and the country is propelled into another term of corruption, inequality and devastating poverty for the vast majority. A charismatic young lawyer named Fidel Castro, robbed of his chance of power when the elections were conveniently cancelled by the Batista regime, seizes his chance. Mustering the support of about 140 like-minded rebels, they decided there was only one way forward: revolution.

Cuartel Moncada, 2013. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Cancillería Ecuador

Cuartel Moncada, 2013. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Cancillería Ecuador

But their first attempt, an attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago on 26 July, failed miserably. A series of unfortunate events left the rebels exposed to Batista’s forces, who outnumbered them ten to one. About six rebels died in combat and 55 were later executed by Batista’s forces. Those who escaped, including Castro, were soon caught and imprisoned.

And yet this putsch would be considered the true beginning of the revolution, its date giving the name to their burgeoning cause: el movimiento 26 de julio, M-26-7. It endures at this historic site. The art deco building was converted to a school in 1961, and a museum commemorating the botched attack was inaugurated in 1967. Well worth an explore during a day in Santiago! The museum is full of documents, photographs, some rather gruesome artefacts and other exciting memorabilia to enthral any revolutionary aficionados.

A logical start to exploring Cuba’s twentieth-century history. More information at Lonely Planet and lots of useful reviews on TripAdvisor.


more to follow…