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Havana: some questions answered

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Is the US embargo against Cuba on its last legs?

Speeding down the highway into Havana, you’re somewhat thrown into the deep end in terms of revolutionary images and slogans. I’m thinking specifically about the first one I saw on arriving in the country: a black billboard on the side of the road that shouted “EL BLOQUEO” (the “blockade”, or the US embargo) in large white letters. The final “O” was represented by a large noose, and the subtitle read, in translation: “The longest genocide in history”.

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On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously to condemn the embargo. Out of 193 member states, there were 191 yes votes, with only the US and Israel opposing the resolution. In 1992, when it was first drafted, 71 countries abstained from voting. Three did so last year. The shift is a telling sign of overwhelming international opposition to the policy. But will it make a difference to the US Congress?

Full diplomatic ties have now been restored between Cuba and the United States. This summer, embassies were reopened in both countries. Trade and travel restrictions have been eased by the Obama administration. In the eyes of the world’s media, Cold War animosity is all but a thing of the past. Tourists visit the island by the busload and warn others to follow their lead “before the Americans get in!” The coverage of Pope Francis’s recent visit depicted a healthy, happy nation and a promising future for all in its inhabitants, finally released from political isolation and a crippled economy. But for the average Cuban, on a wage of under thirty dollars a month, this remains a distant hope.

The UNGA vote has apparently given us a much-needed reminder that the “blockade” is still very much in operation, held firmly in place by an unshakeable Congress. Last month, Obama said he was ‘confident our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore’. This so-called confidence seems more of a desperate nudge, as Republicans show little inclination for change. The Cuban government has made clear that full normalisation of relations is impossible without the embargo being lifted. As foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez recently suggested, only this would ‘give some meaning’ to the recent thaw – in other words, as it stands, it doesn’t mean all that much.

Speculation that the US might abstain from, rather than opposing the resolution this year was quashed when Ronald Godard, US deputy ambassador to the UN, stated that the language of the motion had not changed sufficiently to reflect the steps taken by the two countries. The ‘expressed will’ of the Obama administration to end the embargo was recognised and the recent changes welcomed, but little else was amended. Abstaining would have intensified pressure on the Congress – hence Godard’s description of the motion as ‘unfortunate’.

Unfortunate is a term perhaps more suited to describe the $121 billion in damage done to the Cuban economy by the embargo over five decades. A report by the American Association for World Health found that food shortages led to a 33% drop in caloric intake between 1989 and 1993, and doctors in the country have access to less than 50% of drugs on the world market. In 2011, Amnesty International reported that treatments for children with bone cancer and HIV/AIDS were not readily available, having been commercialised under US patents. Food, medicine, technology and other necessities have all been in critically short supply. The consequences of the bloqueo, described by Rodríguez as ‘a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans’, are hard to overstate.

Neither has the embargo achieved its goals. History proves that such sanctions do little more than hurt ordinary people, and fail to touch those sheltered in the high ranks of government. The renowned dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, ever critical of the Cuban government, underlines such a view on the Huffington Post:

‘The five decade prolongation of the “blockade” has allowed every setback we’ve suffered to be explained as stemming from it, justified by its effects. But its existence has not prevented the luxurious mansions of the nomenklatura from swimming in whiskey, their freezers packed with food while modern cars sit in the garages. To make matters worse, the economic fence has helped to fuel the idea of a place besieged, where dissent comes to be equated with an act of treason. The exterior blockade has strengthened the interior blockade.’

It gives the government a useful scapegoat, she argues; a ‘big bad wolf’ to blame everything on, from the limited Internet access to the harsh violations of the right to freedom of association. If the embargo remains in place to put pressure on Cuba to improve its human rights record and make the transition to democracy, fifty long years have proved its failure.

When we remember that the US turns a blind eye to the human rights records of trading partners Venezuela, China and Vietnam, it becomes clear that this argument doesn’t hold. Double standards turn sinister when the word ‘Guantánamo’ is whispered. Failure to close the notorious detention centre may be the biggest stain on Obama’s presidency, and it leaves any righteousness from Cuba’s northern neighbour without so much as a leg to stand on.

The bloqueo is little more than a relic from a time when Communism was the ultimate bogeyman, the enemy that legitimised any dirty tactic, no matter how high the cost. As one generation grudgingly makes room for another, public opinion shifts in both countries. Young Cubans yearn for the freedom of financial stability over anti-Yankee patriotism. And the influence of anti-Castro lobbyists on the American public is loosening its grip: a report by the Pew Research Center this July found 72% of people in favour of lifting of the embargo.

So how bright is the future? It all depends on the next president of the United States. Hillary Clinton has indicated her commitment to call on Congress to end the embargo. No Republican candidate supports such a move. But for both parties, the issue is likely to take a back seat over the election period. Change is still far off, and it’s about time the news of the world reflected this. Meanwhile, as the bloqueo enters its 55th year – the most enduring trade embargo in modern history – the people of Cuba continue struggling to make ends meet.