My casa in Havana was a slice of humble happiness. White lacy curtains danced in the morning breeze and the brilliant magenta bougainvillea clustering outside my window blew petals in the air. A table fan, kept beside my springy bed kept me cool all night and morning sounds of surrounding households resounded in the Caribbean air. The next morning, by the time I woke up, the sun was already high in the sky making the air muggy. After a cold shower and quick breakfast of ruby red watermelon slices, I walked over to the nearest bus stop to begin exploring Havana. My destination was the famous Habana Vieja and I could not wait to get started.
Heavily flowering Gulmohar trees in Havana made me miss India
According to MET reports, Cuba was witnessing the monsoon at the time of my visit and a humid stickiness made the air heavy. Though it was not the perfect weather for exploring Havana, the sky was crystal clear, thus guaranteeing stunning photos. The huge blue sky was absolutely free of clouds and billboards, and a still ocean stifled the breeze. The bus stop was very close to my casa and I waited under heavily flowering fiery red forest fire trees with a hodgepodge of assorted Cubans. Known as Gulmohar in India, those trees were my first sign of familiarity in Cuba and my heart had suddenly given a strange nostalgic squeeze.
Upscale district of Miramar was a throwback into vintage Miami
A relatively new upscale locality, Miramar, where I was staying, was situated away from the city center and it took a long bus ride to go exploring Havana from there. While old Havana was what featured on the travel postcards, Miramar with its (relatively) modern urban landscape housed some of the city’s best restaurants, music venues, clubs, and embassies. A throwback into vintage Miami, Miramar had leafy boulevards, broad roads and a lovely stone urn decorated avenue where every evening diplomats sweated out in designer rags. The famous Club Habana, Tropicana Cabaret, and Marina Hemmingway were also located there and it seemed as if everything close to a Havana heart was packed inside Miramar.
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The first lesson for exploring Havana on a budget is to understand its myriad public transport
Public transportation in Havana was an intriguing mix of patched up Soviet trucks, fancy registered taxis, huge Chinese buses, and private car taxis (called collectivos), all of which seemed to have been designed to confuse the tourists. Cuba happened right after my cross South America trip and though rusty, I had picked up enough Spanish to make me feel confident. Thus, armed with a map, a camera, and Mercedez’s instructions, all of which screamed of a tourist, I boarded a bus to go exploring Havana. My destination was the drop dead gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Habana Vieja.
Exploring Havana gets easier when you get the dual currencies of CUC and CUP
The bus fare was a paltry sum in Cuban Pesos and thanks to my hostess’s guidance, I narrowly missed falling into a mega Cuban tourist trap, that time. In 2014 (and perhaps even now), Cuba had a dual economy system and they consisted of the two currencies of Cuban Pesos and Cuban Convertible. While the Cuban Convertible (CUC) was the legitimate currency approved for tourists, it was the Cuban Pesos (CUP) that was widely accepted and used. In fact, Cubans were not even allowed to deal in CUC (unless they had casa particular/hotels or paladares/restaurants) and the tourists were prohibited from using CUPs. However, that particular rule was the most relaxed one in Cuba and I quickly learned to, just like all other tourists, to keep a stash of CUP handy. This confusion of the dual currencies was the most popular rip-off in Cuba, especially Havana and many people fell for the seemingly cheap price, which was later revealed to be in CUC. Needless to say, the equivalent in CUC is quite expensive and in 2014 Cuba had many ingenious ways to burn holes in the pockets.
If the dual currency was a killer, using an ATM in Havana in 2014 felt like a high-security act
While dealing with the dual currencies was enough to bamboozle a tourist, withdrawing money from an ATM in Havana gave me a financial headache in 2014. Due to imposed embargoes and ban on USD, Visa, Mastercard etc, Cuba was a strictly controlled economy and I had to show my passport to an official armed ATM guard to withdraw cash using my foreign card. It reminded me of a similar incident in Iran which incidentally, also was a closed economy with a dual currency system. All this action happened even before I started my second day in Cuba in full swing and my aim to go exploring Havana, especially the old quarters was still pending. Cuba definitely was a tough teacher and as a solo traveler, one has to buckle up and learn the ropes to survive, faster in this Caribbean island than in most places. Other destinations, often give its visitors an introductory breather, while in Cuba, you immediately start doing as the Cubans do. Foreign currency in Cuba can go a long way, provided you are a fast learner and Havana especially affects the travel budget (and minds) in many ways.
My day of exploring Havana started with the legendary Coppelia Ice-Cream
Anyway, the tree-shaded bus stop was moderately crowded with a smattering of people and it gave off a general aura of laid-back ease. The split-level bus arrived, choc a bloc full of crushing bodies and it immediately reminded me of countless such scenes from everyday India. With the arrival of the lumbering giant, the bus stop chaos magically dissolved into a neatly maintained queue, thus teaching me another important Cuba survival lesson, fairly early on my trip. Queues are an integral part of the Cuban life and jumping one guarantee getting yelled at or worse. This came to my help when I was severely tempted to jump the serpentine queue at Havana’s famous Coppelia Ice Cream Parlour.
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Stop by at Coppelia, the ice-cream parlour initiated by Fidel Castro
Located at Vedado, Coppelia is one of the largest ice cream parlours in the world. Initiated by the great leader, Fidel Castro himself, Coppelia was founded in 1966 and named after his comrade Celia Sanchez’s favourite ballet. An ambitious project, serving twenty-six flavours and twenty-four combinations, when it started, Coppelia’s original menu was a mind-boggling study. Almond, coconut, chocolate, walnut, peach, coffee, Tutti Frutti, caramel, strawberry etc featured on its extensive list and lovely combinations like Harlequin, Coke, and ice-cream, Coppelia Special, chocolate soldier, Ice-Cream Sun-Rise, Juanillete, Indian Canoe, Lolita, Special Harlequin etc delighted Havana hearts for generations. In 2014, Coppelia was still popular and sampling an ice-cream there was an excellent way of exploring Havana and its cultural heritage. Plus, it provided a fantastic way to escape the muggy heat and experience the local life of the Cubans, up close and personal.
Coppelia is an institution for locals and tourists exploring Havana
In 2014, the iconic ice-cream parlour was more of a city institution and the prevalent state of Coppelia could only be best described as declining. Having featured in many beautiful films, including the legendary Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s “Strawberry and Chocolate”, Cuba’s ice cream cathedral incidentally was, for a long time, serving only those options. However queuing up for one of its paltry scoops was a quintessential Havana thing to do and for a few pesos, the surly Coppelia staff dished out an integral piece of Cuban history (which was also one of the most stolen items in Havana). Stories of Coppelia ice cream getting stolen from under the very noses of its owners were rampant and only in Havana, could so much of passion be attached to a scoop of ice cream. Needless to say, Coppelia was my first stop before going around exploring Havana Vieja and I enjoyed some cold dessert immediately after getting off from the bus.
Every step in the Cuban capital city is like seduction by the beauty
The bus dropped me off at the crumbling, peeling photogenic Habana Vieja and I bumped into two of my fellow passengers from Panama City. They too were solo travelers like me and met with the similar tedious welcome at Jose Marti Airport. Still shaken and incredulous, we revived those immigration hassles over plastic cups of Jugo (fresh fruit juice) while wandering through the iconic crumbling old lanes. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Habana Vieja was what romantic Cuban postcard dreams were made of and combined with the easy-going Habaneros (its residents), Havana was a very seductive city. Exploring Havana Vieja and the adjoining Centro Havana felt like wandering through an open-air museum.
Exploring Havana is never complete without watching the Habaneros go about their daily lives
Crammed choc a bloc with magnificent crumbling colonial buildings, amazing street art, and a most sedentary pace of life, Havana was powerfully glamourous. The bright colours peeled and faded in a most photogenic way and the sagging dilapidation was irresistibly exotic. The vintage cars added to the all-pervading timeless aura and it was an intoxicating jumble of wild rainbow colours and winged shapes. The weather too added more chutzpah to the melodrama and the entire cityscape against a backdrop of dark, brooding sky was an intensely riveting vision. The Habaneros, in contrast to their surrounding whirlpool of photogenic drama, were easy going, laid back, and a bit flirtatious.
Ignore the whistling wolves, if exploring Havana as a solo female traveler
Hipster in attire and attitude, they laughed, greeted, lazed, stared, gossiped and flirted in a most leisurely pace. Time actually stopped there to enjoy itself in their childish joie de vivre and seemed to have forgotten to move ahead. People called out to their neighbours from across ornate old buildings and exquisitely decorated windows held fading wooden shutters, vibrant geranium flower pots, and fluttering lace curtains. Mangoes were sold in golden heaps from pushcarts and school girls in dangerously short skirts ambled amidst catcalls. Eve teasing was a common annoyance faced by women exploring Havana and the capital city was full of amorous Latin lovers on the prowl. They lounged at photogenic corners smoking cigars, selling flowers, tacky souvenirs, pirated goods and stared, whistled and blew kisses relentlessly to every female form.
Exploring Havana Vieja is like going back in the 80’s India
The touristy Capitol Building and its square full of grand vintage beauties held most of these whistling wolves and they tired me out with their deluge of unwanted attention. Eventually, I ducked away from them and loitered around the thin, timeless lanes of Havana Vieja. Happily lost in time, with fierce games of baseball and dominoes all around me, it was quite a cozy place to be. Fantastically dressed Cuban ladies in turbans fanned themselves from rocking chairs in front of their crumbling palatial mansions. The dilapidated grandeur was overwhelming and I shamelessly peeped inside people’s homes to stare at marble columns, faux gilt ceiling, and dazzling chandeliers. Devoid of most worldly rights and freedom, the lifestyle of the Habaneros was most ethereal, kind of like a very tangible time travel. That was how India was, more than 20 years ago and while exploring Havana, I actually got transported back to the early 80’s.
Look out for the hustlers, while exploring Havana
In fact, nothing in 2014, Havana very much moved past that era and the cars, rocking chairs, television sets, fans and even the lifestyle were like blasts from the past. I watched in amazement how in the middle of a weekday, the Cubans leisurely spent hours taking siestas, gossiping, flirting and/or watching the world go by. Unexpectedly, owing to the recent permission given to Cubans to possess business establishments, there was a palpable commercial buzz present in the city and everybody tried to get the rule work for them. Thus in the touristy Havana Vieja and Centro were full of the locals Habaneros engaged in all sorts of businesses. From owning restaurants, hole in the wall street food shacks selling burgers, sandwiches and juices, stylish vendors peddling crackers, tamarind sweets, caramel peanuts, old turbaned ladies hawking stolen cigars and tubes of toothpaste from sheets on the pavements, doctors offering homegrown flowers, housewives displaying handmade cushion covers from flat windows, students giving bargains on their hand-painted posters to provocatively dressed under-aged prostitutes, Havana was buzzing with the scent of money. This commercialism brought in a tide of touts, scamsters, and pimps, all of which made exploring Havana sometimes quite dangerous.
Racing along the Malecon to stay away from a Caribbean storm
In spite of the growing stream of tourists, I did not find Havana to be cheap and its food scene left me mighty disappointed. Paladares (registered restaurants) burnt holes in my pocket and the street food tasted pretty awful. Greasy sandwiches, burgers, and sometimes pizza slices constituted of my meals in the old city and they too did not come cheap. I lost the track of time while exploring Havana on my second day, and wandered around the old city until a sudden downpour made me rush back to my casa. It was June, the hurricane, and high humidity season which made it the cheapest month to visit Cuba. On my way back to Miramar, my taxi took the photogenic road by the water and I watched the Caribbean Sea hurl huge waves against the seawall of Malecon.
Exploring Havana can be mentally and physically exhausting
The heaven seemed to have cracked open over the timeless city and huge bolts of lightning ripped apart the sky. It was an awesome sight to behold from the safety of my overpriced taxi and it poured even after I reached home. Back in Miramar, dry and safe in the cocoon of my sea facing room, I took a breather from exploring Havana and watched the mighty monsoon at work. A fierce wind raged through Havana like a wild furious beauty and it clawed off the crimson petals from the forest fire trees. The raging wind tossed them around harshly before scattering them carelessly and they flitted across the Havana sky like too many drops of blood.
Havana then and now
That was my most poignant Havana memory and in my eyes, the scene aptly captured the situation of the grand dame of the Caribbean. Embargo strapped, timeless and dreamless, Havana in 2014 was still very transient and bleeding. Cuba came a long way from the Fidel Castroiron-clad regime and was poised for a change. However, it was a change which eventually did fast track time, kill a lot of its charms and started to make Cuba lose its sheen. But change is inevitable I suppose, and I wonder how fast forward has the island nation moved from then to now.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE