Havana, Cuba: Hola Cuba! Day 1 - Havana Laugh

Havana, Cuba
This is going to be a long blog post (I counted over a hundred photos) so you might want to pour yourself a drink. Make it a mojito. Havana Club rum, naturally. And fire up a Cohiba while you're at it.

A couple of Saturdays ago our long awaited trip to Cuba kicked off. Luxy, Ciara, and I spent two nights in Havana of sightseeing, then flying down to Cayo Largo Del Sur for six days and finally retuning to Havana for another night. This trip has been a long time in the making and would not have been possible without Luxy's amazing micromanaging skills (she even made a Powerpoint presentation), so muchos gracias Catarina (her new Spanish name for when we were in Cuba. Mine was Jazmín)!

All I knew about Cuba before this trip was that it is a 'socialist paradise' and practically inaccessible to most Americans. What I didn't know was that this was thanks to the embargo which also meant that internet is more or less non-existent. And here I was asking innocently 'Do they have Uber in Cuba?' Are you Havana laugh? But in all seriousness, can Cuba make 3G more widely available? Then they can start a taxi app called Cuber. *waits for applause. Gets none. Awkward*

So I flew to Paris with the girls before enduring a ten hour flight (Air France, economy class. An ordeal) to Havana to see for myself the charming communist country steeped in a history of revolution, and home to the best cigars and rum in the world. And also the catalyst for all the Che Guevara tees that years ago were so popular with clueless bros who have no idea who he is. I like it when the Cubans wear Che tees because he is their hero, but I wouldn't, because...well wouldn't it be a bit odd for my London friends to wear tees with Tunku Abdul Rahman's face on them? Who's Tunku Abdul Rahman you ask? Exactly my point.

We checked into our charming B&B, Casa Cristo Colonial (more on that in the next post), a short walking distance from Old Havana on Saturday night, and devoted our Sunday to exploring the city.

I posted this photo on Instagram, mistaking this dude for Carlos Manuel de Céspedes aka the Abraham Lincoln of Cuba who with his grito de Yara (war cry from Yara) freed his slaves, called for the abolition of slavery, and called upon his fellow Cubans to rebel against Spanish rule. I was wrong, apparently this is Jose Martin. Oops. Anyway, good man.

Havana city's landscape of pre-revolution colonial buildings is dotted with strikingly coloured vintage American cars; pastels, red, blues, yellows, some from the '30s and '40s but mostly from the '50s. Ever since the embargo parts for these cars have been hard to come by, never mind buying new cars. Most of the modern cars we saw were taxis or owned by government officials but I quite like it that way. It certainly added to the nostalgia and fantasy of having travelled back in time to a place where the pace of life was slower, more innocent, and when people were happy without the latest iPhone or whatever newfangled and superfluous gadget.

You could pay 20 CUC (£11) for an hour tour around the city in one of these cars with a guide, which is what we did the next day.

Also, there are two currencies in Cuba; the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) for tourists and the peso for locals. The difference? Massive. It's about 28 CUC to one peso. The average monthly wage is 15 CUC. A local would pay 3 pesos for an ice-cream, but the same ice-cream would be sold to a tourist for 1 CUC. That's almost a 30 time markup but I think it's more than fair given that foreign currency is so valuable to Cuba but the prices are still so cheap for tourists. 1 CUC for a mojito? That's 60p. Take my stinking English money, take it!  

I strained so hard to look through this window and catch a glimpse of the inside of this building.

Likewise with the difficulty of procuring new car parts, resources and funds to repair and restore Havana's older buildings are hard to come by. Certainly the faded glory, textures, the wear and tear that spoke of history and stories were charming and fascinating. But imagine what Havana looked like in it's heyday? The entire city is a living museum and a restoration project begging to happen.

As many city guides warned, we were constantly accosted by people in the streets offering to sell us 'Cohiba cigars, very good price for you my friend' but we firmly said 'No, gracias' and moved on from the pedlars of counterfeits.

Instead we visited a cigar factory to procure the real deal.

The scent of tobacco prevailed throughout. 

Sadly the factory had relocated to Miramar, an upscale residential neighbourhood quite a distance away. But we got our cigar fix at a Casa Del Habano next to the former factory.

Casa del Habanos are all over Cuba (also the world and online) and sell exclusively authentic Cuban cigars, humidors, rum, humidors, and cigar accessories.

Humidors in the shape of the Partagas cigar factory.

Funnily, I never knew how expensive cigars could be. Going by the way people around me smoke Cohibas, Montecristos, and Romeo y Julietas like cigarettes I always thought them not costing much more than cigarettes. No wonder a few people's eyes lit up when I promised them a whole box of Cuban cigars! Sorry, not this time. 

I picked up a few cigars for a couple of the more deserving people in my life before adjourning to a modern hotel for a pre-lunch cocktail. 

Which hotel? I forgot the name, but I shall call it Shoreditch House. Casa del Shoreditch.

Not because it was inundated with arty types and rich hipsters but for the view and rooftop pool.

And what a view of the city.

It was so hot that our cocktails condensed and formed puddles on the table. Waiter! My ice is sweating!

Shortly after noon we paid San Cristobal cathedral a visit.

The cathedral facade is an example of early Cuban baroque designed with slightly asymmetrical features (the right bell tower is wider than the left) and the building itself is mostly made from coral cut from the Gulf of Mexico's ocean floor. We didn't go in the cathedral because the once ornate and grandiose interior is said to be disappointingly simple, austere even, compared to the facade. That, and that it wasn't open. Oh.

Not to worry, the streets of Havana were a wealth of sights, sound, smells, and friendly faces.

Luxy feeling blue. Happy blue.

Cubans are extremely friendly and will come up to you to strike a conversation. Sure, many of them were promoters for nightclubs and restaurants (if anyone asks if you'd like to visit the 'festival de salsa at Buena Vista Social club, just say 'no, gracias') but most of them are just genuinely happy to see tourists, curious, and want to know where you're from, what your country's like, and wish you a happy holiday and 'Welcome to Cuba!'

Whenever the locals asked where we were from and we told them 'Londres, Inglaterra' 8 out of 10 people's eyes would light up and shout "England! Ali G! Booyakasha!" the other two would say "Craig David! Seven days! Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Domingo!" or "I love London". Nobody said "God Save The Queen" or asked if we knew Prince Harry (Yes, all the English play polo with him then go out for fish and chips after, and take the night bus home together) which was really quite refreshing.

Men will constantly stop to compliment ladies 'linda!' (beautiful) but there is nothing sleazy or untoward about it. They genuinely feel it their social duty to pay you compliments and remind you of your pleasing appearance, sanguine manner, and charms. I like it! Wouldn't the world be such a happier place if strangers innocently flirted with each other and tell you how lovely you look?

Like these chaps who came up to us and had a chat about Craig David. And eggs. What was the man in blue doing with all those eggs? Is he making an eggstraordinarily large, eggsciting, eggscellent, eggsperimental omelette? 

"Jah bless, and enjoy Cuba! Welcome!" Thank you!

We sought out our midday cocktail at one of Ernest Hemmingway's favourite bars.

La Bodeguita del Medio for his mojitos, and El Floridita for his daiquiris. 

Of course we had a mojito (Havana Club of course) and toasted to Hemmingway.

Music is a huge part of Cuban life. You can't go anywhere on a Sunday without hearing a band playing. The only Cuban song I know is Guantanamera (woman from Guantánamo) the patriotic song about a beautiful woman too proud to accept a compliment so I asked the band to play it. I sang (shouted incomprehensibly) along thinking I was being so cultured before realising much later that Cuban bands get that request all the time, and are probably sick of stupid tourists singing it like they're so original and the first to do so. Ohhhh. 

We bought the band's CD, they were wonderful and their music was the perfect pick up for our tired and sweaty selves. 

Happily tipsy, we adjourned to nearby Dona Eutimia for lunch. 

No those chickens weren't on the menu. A Cuban man nodded and said 'our family pet!' I thought he was joking until he whistled at them and they ran over to him and hopped into his house. So cute!

A promoter asked us to try his restaurant for lunch and we politely declined, saying we were going to Dona Eutimia. He said! "Ah! That restaurant is the best. Number one. We are number two! But try us next time. Enjoy!" I like his non-pushy approach.

Dona Eutimia follows the 'paladar' concept (an informal 'home-style' restaurant) serving home-style Cuban food at affordable prices. 

My meal, a heaving plate of fresh fish served with a side of rice, black beans, plantain chips, and salad was around 10 CUC.

Like most things in Cuba, this was seriously good value! I brought just £350 spending money for 10 days in Cuba (for taxis, B&B fees, food, souvenirs) and only ran out of money on the last day, borrowing something like £10 from Luxy which would buy one cocktail in London but in Havana would get me a main, dessert, and a drink.

Thanks again Luxy!

The girls were trying to flirt with this fellow but he wasn't having any of it. I think he was stoned.

Happily fed we strolled through the streets of Havana, stopping occasionally to pop into souvenir shops set up in the doorways of homes of enterprising Cubans.

These dolls were reversible; on one end was a doll with black skin and the doll on the other end had brown skin. I bought one for Diana. I forgot to ask what the duality represents but I imagine it alludes to the majority African and Spanish population of Cuba. Minority wise, apparently there's a community of Chinese immigrants there but I never saw any. I did see a few Japanese and Chinese tourists, but the visitors were mostly from Canada, Italy, and Spain.

Back on the main thoroughfare the streets were full of action. Cubans and tourists poured out on to the streets for churros and ice-cream to cool down in the heat, stopping to watch salsa bands play to dancing crowds. 

There was a massive queue outside this shop. A display of phones sat in the window, admired by many, and I thought maybe this was a mobile phone shop. "Maybe they're queueing for the iPhone 6?" 

We later found out from the friendly security guard that it was in fact an internet cafe. While 3G is non-existent and the internet is expensive (government officials, modern hotels, and the rich have access) and censored (I couldn't access my blog from the hotel wifi!) email is available. Just email. No Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed, and the like. Cuba would almost be an example of communism that works if not for how the masses are more or less cut off from accessing information of 'the outside world' for fear of political instability. 

The more informed Cubans we spoke to ie. those with money, connections, higher education, and access to the internet are the ones who are dissatisfied with the way things are run. Tellingly, the happier ones are the less well to do who live in blissful ignorance, not necessarily out of choice but because of the lack of access to the resources of information. 


Locals sat on their door steps (stoop culture is huge here) to socialise, chat with their neighbours, and observe the colourful characters of Havana.

I love this beautiful lady and her bemused cat. Why do cats always have this 'I'm so over this' expression? I asked for a photo, she happily obliged, and I tipped her (it's the polite thing to do) and gave her one of my Vogue cigarettes. My thin smokes are a novelty here and I gave more than a few locals some to try, which they always happily accepted especially when I tell them 'it's menthol!'.

I'm allowed to smoke on holiday! Especially in Cuba, tobacco capital of the world.

We wandered into a Cuban pharmacy. While the doctors in Cuba are excellent (infant mortality is one of the lowest in the world) over the counter medicines are hard to come by. Ibuprofen and the like apparently are only available from international pharmacies meant for tourists. The local pharmacies are mostly stocked with home remedies and traditional medicines.

I wonder what is in all those jars on the shelves on the wall?

I had little time to ponder, drawn back out on the streets by salsa music, we followed the source.

A local noticed Ciara's hips swaying to the salsa and pulled her into a dance.

Photo by Luxe
It was really sweet to see complete strangers of different cultures, countries, age groups etc. dancing so intimately with no sleaze. The locals explained that dancing closely was completely natural and not sexual at all. Ciara said "In Britain, when people dance with their bodies close to each other it's just dry humping and sex with clothes on! Encouraging platonic physical closeness in dancing and body language would go a long way to preventing prudeness and overcompensating in the nightclubs!"

I agree. There is no body-shaming here. Figures of all shapes and sizes were proudly displayed in eye-wateringly tight jeans, tiny tops, and short hemlines. Paunches, curves, cellulite, muscles, everything was highlighted in bright, tight, fabric that shouted "I'm here, I love my body, and I'm not afraid to show you so."

I love the openness, pride, and acceptance here. In 2010 Fidel Castro apologised and took responsibility for the persecution of the LGBT community. He criticised 'machismo culture' and urged for acceptance of homosexuality. Good. That's a revolution I stand whole-heartedly behind (sorry, can't help it).

A curious scene: on our way back to the casa (B&B) we saw a dance hall. We were the only young people in the audience.

Night fell and we got ready for our last destination of the day, the famous cabaret and nightclub Tropicana. We had a quick snack at a hotel bar which I regret, the cheese in my sandwich tasted like rubber and the ham was plastic. If we had more time I would have gone back to the restaurant we had dinner at the night before.

Our dinner from the previous evening. 5 CUC for a huge plate of pork, plantain chips, rice, and vegetables which seems to be a typical Cuban meal. It was so delicious! Home style Cuban food is so much better than the 'Western-style' fare pandering to tourists. Of course this is because of the embargo, foreign ingredients are hard to come by. When in Cuba stick to the local dishes and the fresh food.

Also, the street food is government regulated so it's safer than street food in many other countries. So one can dig into pizza (a favourite street food) with no fear. I have quite a delicate disposition but I ate the street food, the worst that happened to me was dripping sauces all over my clothes while eating and walking. And talking. And trying to take selfies of myself doing all three.

So we headed to Tropicana.

An enterprising widow converted her vast 36,000 square meter estate and transformed it into the Tropicana nightclub. In its heyday it was frequented by international celebrities, the rich, the beautiful, and the dangerous. 

The showgirls at the Tropicana, known collectively as "Las Diosas de Carne" (or "Flesh Goddesses"), were renowned the world over for their voluptuousness, and the cabaret showcased a kind of sequin-and-feather musical theater that would be copied in Paris, New York, and Las Vegas. The lavish shows were staged by Neyra. Headliners included Xavier Cugat, Paul Robeson, Yma Sumac, Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole, and Josephine Baker. Liberace never performed there officially, but took to the stage with mambo star Ana Gloria Varona on the one day in 1955 that he held a large party for the Cuban press corps. Heralded as a "Paradise Under the Stars", the Tropicana became known for its showgirls, conga sounds, domino tournaments and flashy, spectacular productions. In "Tropicana Nights" Nat King Cole's wife Maria paints a colorful portrait of the venue in its heyday: "It was breathtaking! My mouth just fell open...there was so much color, so much movement...and the orchestra! The house band had forty musicians...I said to Nat, ’that's the house band? (Are there) that many showgirls?"[source]
These days it is a tourist attraction, slightly cheesy but steeped in glamourous history  (like the Moulin Rouge in Paris) and priced well out of reach for many locals. Tickets start at 75 CUC up to 90 CUC (six times the average Cuban's monthly's wages) and include a bottle of rum, a welcome drink of prosecco (sour and rank. Don't drink it). To bring in a camera you pay 5 CUC, 10 CUC for iPads, and 15 for video filming equipment.

Upon arrival men are given a cigar and ladies get a carnation. I don't want a carnation! Give me my cigar! This is gender discrimination. Also, why do carnations get such a bad rep? 

We bought the 85 CUC tickets which are for the seats in the middle row. Seating is free, so arriving earlier to get a better table and view is essential. We were first seated to the side behind some terrifying tall and large people before Ciara puffed up and insisted we move to the empty table right in the centre of the audience. The experience improved tremendously. Good work.

The dancers have the most incredibly pert bottoms and endless legs. Buttocks galore! Even so more than a few had soft bellies and even slight paunches. I think it's incredibly feminine and sexy. 

The show was colourful, sometimes slow, sometimes fast-paced. The best performances I felt were when the women shimmied and wiggled.

My second favourite performance of the evening.

From what I gathered, this couple were wed and declared their undying love for each other with dance. The man was captured by his enemies and slain. His distraught widow couldn't go on living without her beloved. At the climax she threw herself from a height. To the gasps of the crowd she was caught by the dancers twenty feet below, but alas, the lovers are reunited in death. 

My favourite act were these incredibly strong duo.

I can't even lift a baby with one arm let alone another person my own weight while standing up slowly.

The show ended with a bang, with the singers and dancers coming on stage to thank everyone, stay for the encore...

...and descended from the stage to dance with the crowd.

We left during the encore, at midnight, but I almost wished we had stayed back to dance at the Tropicana like its patrons did during their glory days. But only because we had an early start the next day and so much more of Havana to explore.

If you go to Tropicana Club, my advice would be not to get the 75 CUC cheap tickets (you'll be seated way at the back), go early to get a better table, and prebook a taxi to get you back to the hotel. And also to get up and dance with the performers when they join the crowd.

This blog post took me four hours to write! I work hard for my nickname 'YipAdvisor'. I deserve some rum.

Hasta luego!



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