Cuba is in many ways a strange country. It has two currencies in circulation. The sparse traffic is made of rickshaws, horse carriages, ancient motorcycles with sidecars, and flamboyant Buicks, Chevys and Fords from the 1950s, many of which have surely just left the showroom via a time machine. Here, a doctor or an engineer makes about as much money as a construction worker or a street musician. If you live here, Internet access is tightly controlled and prohibitively expensive, but gender reassignment surgery is free. Strangest of all for these hyper-consumerist times — and it’s the first thing I notice on landing in Havana — there is no advertising anywhere. Not on the sides of the jet bridge, not in the airport, not alongside the wide roads leading into the city.
Instead, what hoardings there are cheerlead the spectacular experiment in tropical socialism that is Cuba. An end to injustice. Everything for the revolution. If you fight daily, victory is certain. Fidel Castro towering over the ranged masses of Cuba: From my neighbourhood I will defend socialism. Che Guevara’s mien is everywhere, gazing heroically into the distance. Thank you, Che, for your example. Towards Victory, Always. And there’s endless public needling of Imperialism and the officious neighbour just a hundred odd kilometres across the sea whose embargo is the cause for much of Cuba’s economic woes today.
Over lunch at a restaurant in Old Havana, my companion and I make an observation about the two men sitting at the next table. It turns out they speak a little English, so they respond and we get talking. Mike and Mikhail are in their mid-thirties and work at jobs connected with the arts. I ask Mikhail how a poet would make a living in Cuba. “He would write poetry and he would fight.” Like the Cuban national hero, the poet-revolutionary José Martí. But Mikhail feels it’s time for Cuba to change. When I ask him what exactly he means, he clams up. Speaking ill of the government has been known to bring trouble. “My friend,” says Mikhail, apologetically, “I don’t know who you are.” For once, words don’t fail me. I quote what must be Martí’s best-known line: “Yo soy un hombre sincero.” I am a sincere man. There are cries of delight and Mike and Mikhail burst into ‘Guantanamera’. Their company and advice, and the friends we make through them end up opening the doors to Cuba a little wider.
The tourist in Havana has exhaustingly many places to visit and things to do. It’s probably best to abandon any attempt at thoroughness and wander about desultorily, taking in the dilapidated grandeur of the city, the irrepressible loucheness of its streets. Havana is rendered somewhat tractable by dividing it into zones. Old Havana — Habana Vieja — is where the five hundred years of the city’s history are crammed. Plazas, churches, houses, bars, cafés all thrive densely next to each other, and this is where most tourists choose to stay. Centro Habana is the slightly grittier part of town where the old Chinatown and Afro-Cuban hangouts are. Vedado is the chic Havana of boulevards, parks, and the art-deco edifices of the prosperous (if iniquitous) first half of the twentieth century.
At the Plaza de la Catedral in Habana Vieja, an old woman is selling issues of the state mouthpiece Granma as souvenirs to tourists. “Please buy one — I need the money to buy oil,” she repeats plaintively a couple of times, and having no takers, gives up and says with a laugh, “They’ll kill me if they hear me saying this.” Every area that’s frequented by tourists has jineteros — hustlers — who attempt to charm you into a restaurant to earn a commission. Antonio is a lean middle-aged black man who guesses I’m from India. He stomps the ground and says with profound emotion, “Pakistan bad. India good. Come eat in my restaurant.” It turns out he’s actually been in India. It’s rare to meet a Cuban who’s been abroad, so I dig further. Turns out he’s a doctor, and he went to Mumbai for a conference. He hustles in his spare time for some additional income.
At the Parque Lennon in Vedado, a gangly man with sunken eyes sits cast in metal on one of the park’s benches. An ancient watchman ambles over, draws round wire-framed glasses from his pocket and tenderly sets them on the nose of the man who’s now clearly John Lennon. With his opposition to the Vietnam War, Lennon’s image in Cuba went from decadent superstar to fellow-dreamer. He’d have approved that basic needs are taken care of here by the state. Combine this absence of desperation with the deterrent of stern punishments, and you get one of the lowest rates of crime in the world. (Though you might say that without a culture of consumerism there’s really nothing to kill or die for.) Still, Lennon’s glasses have proved irresistible. They were stolen so many times that now they’re only brought out when there’s a bona fide visitor.
The Malecón is the seaside avenue that runs along the northern edge of Havana. Its eight kilometres are an exuberant introduction to the city’s people — fishermen, lovers, schoolgirls, hustlers, alcoholics, musicians — perched on its embankment. Racially, they’re a diverse lot — white, black, East Asian, and everything in between. Africans came to Cuba as slaves, Spaniards as colonizers, the French as merchants and businessmen, the Chinese as traders and labour, and these gene pools have been splashing liberally into one another for a while now. If such merry miscegenation is the future of humanity, and if the people of Cuba are anything to go by, it’s an exceptionally good-looking future.
This mixing and matching is also evident in the syncretic religions here, blends of Catholicism and Afro-Cuban traditions. And it is present in the music, where African rhythms and European instruments meet a sensibility that’s all Cuban. Music is everywhere. Walking around Habana Vieja, it seems like any random half-dozen people can arm themselves with claves, maracas, guitars and a double-bass, and without effort erupt into winking syncopated rhythms and three-part harmonies. It probably helps that the state schools make it compulsory for every student to dance and play an instrument. I walk past a couple of three- or four-year-old boys at play, sitting on the steps outside a house, beating out rhythms on cartons with such instinctive joy that the beats seem to rise from the ground itself. I enter a salsa club, and there is such accomplished whirling and twirling going on that I get dizzy just watching.
Apparently, there’s no place like Trinidad for music and dance. It turns out to be a quiet colonial town, five and a half hours down the desolate eight-lane Autopista Nacional alongside which people fan currency notes to flag a ride. Trinidad flourished as the result of a nineteenth-century sugar boom, and its sweet fruits are being enjoyed today by tourists. The opulent homes built back then are now home-stays — high-roofed affairs with ornate furniture, prettily patterned tiles and enormous chandeliers. Even as we’re checking into our grand house, news arrives that Hugo Chavez has died in Venezuela. Three days of state mourning has been declared in Cuba, which means there’ll be no music and no dance. So there’s nothing to do except potter about a town that’s stuck prettily in the nineteenth century with its cobbled streets and horse-carriages, head down to the bright-white sands and Caribbean blue of Playa Ancon, and at night, tank up on the local cocktail Canchánchara — the fiery sugarcane hooch Aguardiente tempered with honey and lemon juice.
From the window of my room in Trinidad I see a man, cigar in mouth, tiling the roof next door. I call out to him, “Señor, can I take a picture?” He gestures to me to wait, removes the cigar from his mouth, holds up his spade and sets down his spirit-level, and for a minute turns motionless into an iconic Worker.
One of Mike’s friends lives in Santa Clara, around three hours from Havana, and he’s invited us to stay at his house. Eduardo is a warm, intense man, who strongly feels the revolution was necessary to bridge the divide between rich and poor. Now, there aren’t any really poor people in Cuba; everyone’s lower middle-class. They buy provisions for next to nothing at ration shops; there’s free education and healthcare for all. But few people have anything approaching a disposable income. Almost everyone is a government servant and salaries are more-or-less uniform across professions. Eduardo, a doctor with a specialization, makes only around $25 a month. His house is a 2-BHK in an apartment complex (that from outside looks exactly like one of the blocky peeled-paint apartment buildings of Navi Mumbai) and while there are no essentials lacking, the house feels bare. Compared to anywhere else in the world, there simply aren’t as many things. (There aren’t any ads for things on the TV either.) Doing something related to tourism is almost the only way to make some extra cash — which explains the doctor in Havana who hustles in his spare time, the Granma-selling grandma who didn’t really need to buy oil.
Santa Clara has a young, lively spirit — hardly surprising considering it has an important university and teems with students. The walls are full of colourful idealistic graffiti including, to my surprise, a scrawled Sai Baba (suggesting that the Afro speaks a language all its own). But if Santa Clara has a guru, it’s Che Guevara. His presence is everywhere, and his remains lie interred here beneath the sombre Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara. In 1958, a small band of guerrillas led by Che derailed an armoured train transporting troops and forced them to surrender. This spot is today a monument — the train’s carriages in disarray, still bearing bullet marks, their innards now converted into a museum. After the battle here, Santa Clara became the first city to be taken by the revolution that would sweep Cuba.
That revolution has shaped Cuba for the last five decades, but things are changing. There’s a little more private enterprise now; for the last couple of years, Cubans have been able to buy and sell houses and automobiles among each other. A hoarding close to Havana airport reads: Los cambios en Cuba son para más socialismo. The changes in Cuba are for more socialism. Despite the defiance, there’s little doubt that Cuba has been ‘opening up’, as the rest of the world likes to put it. It still has some way to go, though, and at a time when places are increasingly coming to look alike, Cuba must count as one of the last foreign countries left in the world.
Most travel search engines on the internet will not turn up tickets for Cuba, so best to deal directly with airlines flying there. KLM, Air France and Aeroflot all fly from Indian cities to Havana via their European hubs.
The Embassy of Cuba, New Delhi, issues 30-day tourist visas for those travelling from India (cubadiplomatica.cu). Those travelling from South and Central America, Canada and Europe can buy an over-the-counter 'tourist card' that serves as a visa for all nationalities. (I flew from Mexico City, where I bought this card at the check-in counter from a woman fishing them out of a kit-bag.)
Cuba has two currencies in circulation: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP). CUC 1 = CUP 24 = around $1. Cubans use the CUP for day-to-day transactions and the CUC for relative luxuries. The two currencies are freely convertible, but tourists will find themselves using the CUC for most things. A few CUP will prove handy for street food and local transport.
Credit and debit cards are accepted at fancier establishments and at banks for cash withdrawals, but cards issued by US banks do not work. ATMs exist, but are uncommon, and will not work with cards connected to US banks and Mastercard. Since Cuba is one of the safer countries to travel in, cash is the simplest option for a short trip. Money is easily exchanged at one of the many Cadecas (Casas de Cambio). US dollars incur a 10% penalty during exchange, so euros, pounds or Canadian dollars are the way to go.
When to go
The mild winter months from November to March make the main tourist season. There’s a mini-season in July-August, when it’s carnival time. The only time to be watchful is in September-October, when it’s peak hurricane season.
English works in most tourist areas, but a little Spanish can make for a much richer experience.
The Viazul bus service connects tourist destinations across Cuba using comfortable AC buses of Korean make. A 6hr ride from Havana to Trinidad costs CUC 25 (viazul.com). Many tourists prefer the cheaper, unofficial, shared taxis waiting just outside the bus stations. Options for local transport include preening blast-from-the-past taxis, shared cabs, buses, cycle-rickshaws called bici-taxis, auto-rickshaws called coco-taxis, and horse carriages.
Where to stay
In 1997, the Cuban government permitted Cubans to open home-stays. Now, every other house near city centres and tourist areas is a licensed casa particular that can be identified by a special sign on the door. They cost between CUC 20 and CUC 35 a night and the families are usually incredibly helpful. Casa Colonial 1715 (Lamparilla 324, Aguacate y Compostela, Habana Vieja) in Havana, Hostal Autentica Pergola (Luis Estevez 61, Independencia y Martí) in Santa Clara and Casa Osmary y Alberto (Miguel Calzada 114, Lino Pérez y Camilo Cienfuegos) in Trinidad are good places to start in those cities (cubarentaroom.com and cuba-junky.com are useful for scoping out casas). Casas are usually far more comfortable and economical compared to hotels. Those keen on hotels could try the palatial Santa Isabel (from CUC 135; hotelsantaisabel.com), the Iberostar Parque Central (from CUC 140; hotelparquecentral-cuba.com), or the seafront Hotel Terral (Malecón, Centro Habana; +53-78602100; from CUC 110) in Havana. Many of the smaller cities have such pretty and grand colonial-era casas that hotels should be a last option.
Where to eat
The best meals in Cuba seem to be produced by the casa particular cooks. (Breakfast around CUC 4; meals around CUC 7). There are restaurants around tourist areas, including homey 12-chairs-only (it’s a government rule) places called paladares. Restaurants I favoured: in Havana, the Jardine del Oriente is good for Cuban food (Amargura 112, Habana Vieja; meal for two with drinks, CUC 10); in Santa Clara, El Alba (Rolando Pardo 26); and in Trinidad, the Taberna La Botija is special for its strong cocktails and eclectic menu (Amargura 71; revelry for two, CUC 20). The tiny, inexpensive street cafés accept CUP for pizzas and sandwiches (CUP 10-20), batidos (milkshakes) made with guava, mamey, guanabana (soursop) or even wheat (CUP 3), and tiny strong shots of coffee (CUP 1). Vegetarians can survive: the centrepiece of Cuban food is beans and rice; omelettes can be managed; and the ubiquitous mojitos are the most fun anyone’s had with green vegetables.
What to do
In Havana, the hop-on-hop-off Habana Bus Tour (CUC 5) is a great way to get acquainted with the city. The 1830 Club (Malecón, Centro Habana; entrance CUC 3) by the sea is a place for dancing salsa (and for seeing some formidable dancers). Callejón de Hamel (Centro Habana) is a colourful street dedicated to Afro-Cuban culture, with a rumba performance at noon on Sundays. The José Martí memorial offers spectacular views of Havana (Plaza de la Revolución; CUC 5). In Trinidad, the Museo Historico Municipal, is a 19th-century mansion preserved with relics of slavery and a viewing tower (admission CUC 2). In Santa Clara, the Parque Vidal is the centre of life; the open-air Club Mejunje (Marta Abreu 107; entrance free) presents all manner of Cuban dance and music, including a drag show on Saturday nights.
Internet access is not ubiquitous. The government-run telecom centre (ETECSA) is the best bet in most places — CUC 6 for an hour of waiting for pages to load. The bigger hotels in Havana offer expensive Wi-Fi in their lobbies.