When the taxi from the airport dropped me off, I was a bit in shock. La Habana Centro, the heart of the Cuban capital, was much more ramshackle than I expected, and so was the “casa particular” (authorized private homestay) were I was planning on staying. It was also my first full solo trip, and apart from booking these few nights, I had done zero preparation. But for the next 10 days, I would discover and fall in love with Cuba and its people.
Havana has an extremely unique atmosphere. It’s not just the colonial buildings, mainly in La Habana Vieja (the restored center, cute if a bit fake for my taste), the cathedral, the revolution memorials, the Morro fortress, or the antique cars, which any tourist would enjoy… it’s all of that but it’s also the people on the streets, always willing to start a conversation, the lively Malecon, the neat university, the pizzas sold from the house windows, the ice cream breaks at Coppelia… and the total lack of advertising, making the city feel clean in a way we Westerners can’t grasp.
I wandered the streets for 3 days, observed people, talked to them, sneaked into schools, hitchhiked to different places… Cubans were the most welcoming people in the world, and I always felt safe. I used Peso Nacional (the currency for locals) instead of Peso Convertible (the official tourist currency, equivalent to $1), so most things were extremely cheap for me, up to 24x cheaper (You probably can’t get away with this if you don’t speak Spanish and look somewhat local). I also learned how people live without being as demanding and picky about unimportant things. The grocer would respond to “Can I have a kilo of oranges?” with a natural “There are no oranges this week, I’ll give you bananas”. Coppelia would show which 2-3 flavors were available that day, and people would line up in front of different counters, get their ice cream and enjoy it. I didn’t hear any complaints because they were out of “my favorite chocolate fudge cookie dough”.
Without entering into political debates (I will in my next post), visiting Havana is like time-travelling or falling into a parallel universe. And for all the thoughts it sparks on the traveler, it’s my top destination worldwide. I get extremely sad every time I hear about how the country is opening to capitalism…