BY YOEL YOHANNES
In the sweltering hours of a late summer’s evening, airplanes touch down in Havana’s José Martí International Airport and pull into gates, full of tourists and expatriates returning to see family. Past passport security and baggage claim, cigarette-smoking airport employees direct recent arrivals into the currency exchange boxes and vendors hock bottles of warm beer and children’s juice pouches. José Martí International, a multi-terminal airport, is named after a Spanish-citizen Cuban-denizen poet and long-respected political prisoner and soldier of the third war for Cuban independence against Spain (1895-1898). As it turns out, this airport is the only port of entry for Americans. Some of the airlines that arrive at this particular airport include Southwest, American, Copa and JetBlue. Dispersed among Terminals 2 and 3, these airlines bring Americans from New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Houston in to be asked, “Do you want your passport stamped?”
Since the airport is located a half hour’s drive from central Havana, the only real option a U.S. citizen has is to travel by taxi.
It is possible to rent a car, but if you are using an American credit card to rent it, there is an almost 100% guarantee your account will be frozen. You cannot use American credit cards, debit cards or travelers’ cards in Cuba. The Cuban government will allow it, the U.S. government will not.
Once settling to opt for the taxi, always know that no matter who you are, you have the option to haggle for a price. Whatever the suggested price is, consider cutting it in half and adding maybe 200 pesos, or offering 60% of the requested payment. Most likely, the taxi driver will not even need a map. Tell them the address and the driver will reach the street and go down block by block. We would advise that you have downloaded the entire map of Cuba on Google Maps, as internet connections will be quite difficult to have most days on the island. On top of Google Maps, try to download the Google Translate Spanish translation dictionary onto your phone as well. You will be able to map out the cities you visit and translate any audio, video and written words offline. Very helpful.
I had reserved our casa particular (a hostel that is personally owned, as opposed to a state-operated hotel) and paid in cash once we arrived. One of the worries as U.S. citizens is to be careful not to plan out or pay for anything related to the Cuban government or the military. The rule of thumb is if the place looks fancy, it’s government owned. Because of the American embargo imposed on Cuba, Americans cannot travel there as tourists. There are 12 possible reasons Americans are allowed to go to Havana. These specific reasons are listed on the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) website. We chose the Journalistic Activity option.
The streets, especially San Rafael and O’Reilly, are filled with souvenir shops. Almost all of them are run by local owners who live either right above or next door. The owners are often the very same who run the shops and thus are the ones with whom you will haggle over prices. Many of the shops we visited were just down the road on Boulevard de San Rafael or de Obispo, and they offered almost exactly the same items, such as revolutionary-style green hats with Che’s image, wooden cars, magnets, shirts, cigar cases and other trinkets. In between many of these shops, restaurants and lounges, there are promoters that will try their best to move tourists into the shops and restaurants they are working for. They will neither hurt nor rob you, but the general deal is that if they bring you into a place to spend money, they are paid by the shop owner depending on how much you spend. In areas navigated by large groups of tourists, many of these promoters will be present. Often, they will approach apparent tourists and ask them where they are from, inform them of the nearby cigar festival (which is nonexistent and just a gimmick to promote interest, seriously, THERE ARE NO CIGAR FESTIVALS), and then let their listeners know they can exchange currencies. There isn’t really a problem with exchanging money, but just try for an exchange rate of at least 100 to 1, whether you have euros or U.S. dollars.
Both Obispo and San Rafael are dotted with cafeterias, restaurants, sandwich shops and other eateries. If you’re interested in a bevy of five-star food spots and Michelin-rated dining, Havana isn’t really for you. The city does have higher-end eateries, but we focused on where locals ate and drank for our food and drink.
Walking down tourist-filled paths, we noticed that several sandwich shops and bakeries were operated directly from local residents’ home kitchens. Menus with pre-made juice blends, shots of instant espresso, and ham and cheese baguettes lined the streets in the mornings. Groups of people lined up to an entrepreneurial resident’s back door and shelled out a handful of pesos for egg sandwiches and lemonade. We followed suit and were treated to deliciously fresh beans and bread, mango juice and hot espressos, paying maybe two dollars total.
Since Havana is home to a large harbor, christened the Port of La Habana, water surrounds you in the capital city. Having said that, Havana was also the most defended city in the New World; the Spanish built safeguards throughout the city before moving on to build around Florida’s St. Augustine. Along the coast of Havana, sights like the San Salvador Castle or the Malecon merge the ruggedness of stone and the fluidity of the water bordering it. However, seafood isn’t as apparent in the local diet as one would expect. We perhaps saw fish served at one nearby restaurant. Our photographer, Haileab, preferred the lobster served at this locality.
Evenings were melodic and serene during our stay. We walked past closed services in Chinatown and saw quiet people-watchers setting their folding chairs in front of their apartments, cigars in hand. Open windows with metal bars gave snapshots into apartments where residents watched television and talked, some nodding their heads as we passed. Down Paseo de Martí, a hushed promenade between two streets leading towards the Bay of Havana, young locals practiced their skateboarding. Some would sit on the benches lining the walkway with their paramours and practice something else. Traffic was almost nonexistent, only two or three 60- or 70-year-old Buicks with newer parts shipped in from the east or a Moskvitch would pass every so often. Every few blocks, we would pass a small convenience store based out of an apartment selling Coral brand fruit-flavored water in small pouches. This isn’t to say that no one was out. The streets still had promoters and tourists milling about, but daylight hours bring hordes of tourists and businesspeople. Compared to this, the late-night crowds only congregate around bars still open, or smoking lounges that serve small snacks.
We made plans many years ago to visit Havana, not realizing that we would not be able to go as tourists. It is quite fortunate for us that we were able to go now. It became a repeated mantra during our time in Cuba to say, “Imagine we made it to Cuba,” and laugh. Our experience in this part of the world, hit not only by political upheaval but by a historically momentous embargo by such a near neighbor and fervent defender in the past, showed us again that people find ways to survive even in the toughest situations. We encourage readers to visit Havana under the Support for Cuban People allowance, a U.S. governmentally legal opportunity to see the neighborhoods and locally owned shops in cities like Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and, of course, La Habana.