Havana (La Habana, in Spanish) was the first stop in our 3-weeks Cuba trip. We had heard so much about it that we figured it was worth it to stay there for a whole week. When everybody thinks of Havana, the first picture popping up is that of Old Havana, with its old majestic buildings that near the status of ruins. However, there are other areas that are important to visit if one is to understand how Cubans live. Old Havana, although gorgeous, is a cradle of tourists with an almost asphyxiating atmosphere, if you ask me. Luckily, fate (read: canceled reservation) wanted us to visit Vedado first (a neighbourhood west to Old Havana). But our story begins a little earlier, in a neighborhood called Boyeros. In today’s blog I will talk about our first impressions of Cuba.
Havana will certainly not leave you indifferent. Even today, I find it hard to organize my thoughts about the city and the country in general, and still have mixed feelings about everything I saw and experienced. I felt happiness, awe, repulsion (yes, you read right), sadness for its people, etc. It was a completely new sensory experience. As I told you, I wrote a travel diary everyday, so I will let this diary guide the course of the stories I will tell you, as we lived them.
Boyeros: landing on a piece of heaven
We arrived to José Martí International Airport at night. It may have been only 7 pm but, after countless hours of travel, it simply felt like night. Upon leaving the plane, we were welcomed by a blast of heat, and subsequently acquainted with our first item of the Cuban checklist: queuing! I was nervous because I was not sure of how to reach our first Casa, whether the exchange office would be operative and whether finding a taxi would be easy. Clearly, I hadn’t chilled down yet.
As it turns our, a man with my name on a paper was waiting for us. He introduced himself as Camacho, our host for the first night. Camacho and his wife Kalina were the loveliest and most hospitable of our hosts, and we were extremely lucky to have been welcomed by them, as they gave us an excellent introduction to Cuba, and lots of priceless tips. I feel almost ashamed to admit that during the first minutes after we met I was slightly alert. But no wonder here: tourist guides had filled our heads with prejudice, with all their stories about people called jineteros that lure people into their homes in order to mug them. Nothing like this happened to us in the whole trip.
Talking with Camacho, we learned a lot about life in Cuba, for instance that Cubans and tourists use different currencies and that the average Cuban who is employed by the government earns literally next to nothing, as the basic goods (from housing, to food daily rations) are supposed to be provided by the state. I will write more about this later, but in case you stop reading now, know that Cubans are thirsty for change. The end of the embargo and the end of the Communist era are both much needed. Change is slowly happening though. I was surprised to learn that Camacho and his family had traveled outside of Cuba. Actually, they had been to my home region, Valencia, and were familiar with our jargon and food! Later, I read that since 2013, Cubans are allowed to travel outside the country, for the first time after more than 50 years! However, I am assuming the process of applying must not be without its difficulties. Less than one hour and it has already been made clear to us: we are goddamn privileged. I have to agree.
It was night when we arrived to Camacho’s home, so everything was dark. Our big surprise came the next day when we woke up and saw our surroundings in daylight. It was paradise! Here are a few pictures of Camacho’s home. If you are going to Cuba and are looking for a place near the airport to sleep when you arrive or leave, you should book with them. I swear! You can book their home on this website.
This was our room at Camacho’s place! A lovely unit with a bed, an ensuite bathroom, and its own porch!
I mean, look at the nature right at our doorstep!
Did you know that coffee is actually a berry, and does not become the coffee bean we know until after roasted? Call me ignorant, but I did not!
Our first breakfast was outstanding: baby bananas (mil en la boca, they called them), fresh Cuban coffee (omg THAT COFFEE!), guayaba-banana-rice juice (yum!), organic eggs from their chickens, and sausages! That was a perfect first day. I thought I’d eat so much and put on so much weight! Haha, if only I had known then…
While digesting the breakfast, I went to take a few pictures and to sit down and write my thoughts. Here is my first diary excerpt:
We are currently sitting at the marvelous garden in our first Casa, which is a farm on the outskirts of Havana. I am amazed at the nature here, everything is so green and big! It truly looks like paradise, no wonder that so many intellectuals throughout the years have taken exile in this island and have produced such great works. I could also imagine myself writing books in the calmness of this environment. But what has amazed me most is the people here. They are so kind! In a couple of hours I have learned so much about the country and the city!
The need to check the phone every 5 minutes has disappeared. Everybody should do this kind of technology cure at least once a year. It puts things into perspective, it helps you edit your life down. In this exact moment, I am here and nothing else matters.
Around midday the next day (December 31st), we were ready to move on to our next destination: Vedado.
Next week, read our Vedado experience! Here’s a teaser