I thought that I would share my trip report. Oddly enough, even without Internet (and thus Foursquare, Facebook, etc) I found myself taking notes of where I went and what I saw. I'm glad I did because it's a good way to preserve the memory.
This post is a detailed trip report. I'm very direct and frank in my observations - they're seen from the perspective of a middle-aged seasoned traveler who lives abroad and speaks fluent Spanish, traveling with his 20-something Colombian girlfriend. While I, for example, found Obispo street to be a tourist trap, if you are that 60-something German couple who stayed in the casa with me you might think it's the best. As the saying goes, Your Mileage May Vary.
I set off for La Habana in an attempt to discover the authentic city and culture. I wanted to find something beyond the antique cars, beautiful beaches and cabernet shows. In all, I think that I accomplished just that but it took me a few days to get there.
Finally, I wrote this from the perspective of someone who might want the same things that I want - something I'd want to read prior to the trip. It's a bit wordy. I'd love to hear comments just the same from locals, however, about places where I made a misstep or missed.
Day 1 - Wednesday, March 20
I landed on a Wednesday afternoon and breezed through immigration, along with my Colombian female companion. I am a dual US-Italian citizen and used my Italian passport, did not have a problem. I've been told that health insurance was needed to enter. I bought it prior but no one ever asked to see it. It was a waste of $150 for two people. We changed money - I brought euros knowing that dollars are taxed at 10%.
Within 15 minutes, I was picked up and headed for Casa Sra. Graciela where I stayed for all 7 days in Havana. The trip from the airport was $30 in a 1954 Chevy. There's something very surreal about driving down a country road in a '54 Chevy that's blasting reggaeton. Havana is definitely a city of contrasts.
At the airport, someone asked if we had any gum. We gave them some trident and they remarked about how great it was - so much better than the Chinese gum they get in Cuba. I didn't see any American products during the entire trip - I was a bit bewildered to see so much Red Bull but I later learned Red Bull is an Austrian company (did you know that??).
By the way, our stay at Casa Sra. Graciela was fantastic. The hosts were wonderful and I really liked that it was in Havana but in the area where people lived - no tourists (yes, this is a theme of my post). It was a short healthy walk to Old Havana, though some days we took the bici-taxis which usually cost 2 CUC.
My Spanish had issues. Cubans speak very differently then most of Latin America. The "listo" and "dale" was replaced by "Oíste". They speak fast!! "Ahora" means "now" and not "later". Lots of anomalies that even presented problems for the Colombiana that I was with.
We checked in at the casa around 5pm and were exhausted, but pressed on to Old Havana where we had our first taste of Obispo Street. We had lots of street hawkers trying to sell us just about everything and anything, the entry always the same, "What country are you from?". We settled on one of the many restaurants on the strip and had the 10 CUC lobster special which included mojitos, surprisingly made very strong. The place was filled with tourists but it had live music that walked around with their CD after each set. 15 CUC for 15 songs, wow! But, like everything in Havana, you can negotiate them down to more than half.
Tired, we went back to the casa and took a nap. Alas, we overslept, waking up at 1am. What should we do on 1am on a Wednesday night? Why, we went to Diablo Tun Tun!
Diablo Tun Tun is in Miramar just above Casa de la Music Miramar. When we arrived we were immediately set upon by hawkers looking to move us to a different place. They told us that Tun Tun was not worth the entry, it was empty, the music was bad. They had a taxi ready that would take us to a better place. We insisted and parted through them to the club. We weren't disappointed.
The club Diablo Tun Tun has live music, mostly salsa, every night of the week. I know few places in the world where I could waltz into a club on a Wednesday night at 2am and find back to back sets of good live salsa music. The place is open until 6am.
Curiously, I noticed some 6 young and very attractive girls sitting alone. They weren't sitting at a bar, they were on a bench watching the show and playing with their cell phones. They were dressed for a night on the town but were not really enjoying themselves, didn't have a table or drinks, seemed just to be waiting for dates that never arrived. More on this later.
We drank rum on the rocks (my favorite was Club Havana Añejo Especial - at least until I discovered the cheap rum in the barrios, but more on that later). I was hungry, so at 4am I asked for a sandwich - which is of course a Cuban sandwich except since I was in Cuba, it's just a sandwich. :-) Fantastic! Loved it. In fact, tun tun had some of the best sandwiches that we encountered in Havana.
All in all it was a great night out.
When we left, the taxi driver wanted 12 CUC to take us back. Why so much? Because it was night, we were told. Here's a piece of advise - in Havana, negotiate, even if you don't like to do it. That 12 CUC cab ride was really 8 CUC (and if I was a local, much, much lower). If you walk out of a night club and there are 10 taxis and one of you, you have the leverage, not them.
Day 2 - Thursday, March 21
On Thursday we decided to walk the Malecon. Unfortunately we were not advised well and without Internet found ourselves walking with a strong wind, high heat, and nothing in sight. We walked for a good hour before we hailed a taxi and asked them to take us to the closest place on the Malecon with restaurants.
When we hailed the taxi we had some hesitation - there was someone in the front seat already. As it turns out, the typical rules of Latin America don't apply in Havana. People often get in taxis that already have people, and in this case it was the driver's wife. I'd never do that in any other Latin American city but it felt safe and it was.
Unfortunately they took us to an empty overpriced restaurant somewhere between what I learned was Miramar and Havana. At that point we decided to hail another taxi, who took us where Obispo meets the Malecon. This made more sense. We walked the waterfront again but were just overwhelmed, and frankly disappointed, by how the culture has been influenced by tourists and tourism. Prices were high, hawkers were aggressive, watered down drinks and less than authentic food.
At one point we asked for directions, at which time we were given the aggressive sell on a "cooperative". As the story goes, Raul Castro recently passed a law allowing cigars to be sold by everyday citizens in their house, but only for 5 days per month and today was the last day. They can sell a box of Montecristo #2's for only 60 CUC. Out of curiosity I did follow them to the private house, smoked one and nearly gagged. No thank you. I left, but walked into the next scam which was an attempt to have me buy milk for a guide on the street. There, we successfully dodged.
Later that night we decided to go to Casa of the Music in Havana. This was the club on everyone's lips and seemed like the place to be. And so we went. The music starts at 11, so we arrived at 10:30pm.
The road is under construction and upon arriving we saw the line - which was long. Immediately, we were approached by someone who worked for the club asking if we wanted to pay to skip the line. We declined, but we watched as other tourists accepted and passed us by.
The line was filled with two types - tourists, and young girls (who later I would learn are prostitutes). We waited in line from 10:30pm until about 11:45pm. Amazingly, when we entered, there were many empty tables. The line was moving slow simply as a mechanism to extract money from tourists to skip the line. Yes, very annoying.
When we entered, my date went for the bathroom and I took a table. I was IMMEDIATELY besieged by these young beautiful women, probably in the 18 to 21 range. One after the other they approached until I made it clear that I was with someone. There were probably 25 women in total. Within an hour, every single guy who wanted one had a girl at their table and there was still a line of girls at the bar looking for men.
Again, we were approached. For 10 CUC more we could move to a better table. This time I broke down and did it, why not? It was a better table. I smoked a cigar, drank more rum, and the show started. It was not good. No, let me be more frank, it was bad.
But that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that the place was filled with tourists, and so what I had was a poor salsa band and the tragedy of watching middle-aged tourists fill the dance floor and dance bad salsa (or something that they thought was salsa). Horrific. I was losing hope. We went home early and got some rest for the next day.
Day 3 - Friday, March 22
On Friday we decided to go to the beach, so we once again hired the '54 Chevy and set out for Playa de Este (Santa María) on recommendations that we read here. It took us about 20 minutes to get there and - WOW. I've traveled to most of the Caribbean islands, Hawaii, the Mediterranean, South America - that beach must be top 5 in the world. Simply stunning.
There were no crowds. We brought our own bottle of rum - left over from the club the night before. At 4, someone brought us a private table on the beach where we listened to salsa music and ate a fantastic fresh fish dinner.
I imagine that a beach vacation of 7 days itself could easily be had just with this Playa de la Estes.
That night we decided to go to Delirio Habanero, which is at Plaza de la Revolucion. We entered at 11:30pm and it was dead. We waited an hour then went downstairs to Cafe Cantante which had a live rock band. That was fun though they had the air conditioner cranked and it was cold. After that, we popped our head back into Habanero around 1:30am - it was not only dead but they had a "band" that consisted of one person singing to recorded music.
Time to go back to Tun Tun!
Tun Tun was again packed, we had the last table. For 35 CUC we had a bottle of rum, a red bull and 5 bottles of water. The service was exceptional and the live music was great. I can't say much more about the night because I was well hammered, but I crawled back into bed around 6am.
Day 4 - Saturday, March 23
During the day, we decided to explore Marina Hemingway, and thus took the long cab ride through embassy row in Miramar, landing eventually upon a hotel named El Viejo y El Mar. The marina was deserted, and so we entered the hotel looking for a meal.
The hotel, itself, was deserted. The staff that worked there looked surprised to see guests. This hotel, which was enormous and I'd guess more than 10 floors, did not have a single guest.
The staff was attentive. We told them we wanted to eat outside and there was no eatery outside, so they literally snapped to attention, moving a table outside to the area behind the hotel overlooking the water. There we drank piña coladas and ate fish. It can only be described as surreal.
Next we decided, upon the recommendation of Isgra from our casa, to visit Hotel Nacional. We stayed long enough to use the Internet, check-in on email, snap a few pictures and leave.
In the evening we dined at the famed Café Laurent. The food was very good, especially the bread, but the service was slow, the mojitos weak and the table cloth dirty when we arrived.
Having had all that we could handle of the tourist scene for two days, we decided for the evening to venture outside of the Miramar-Vedado-Old Havana barrios to the barrios south and landed upon Barrio Víbora (literally "viper"). We landed upon a very cool night spot named "El Túnel" on the recommendation of a local who we met at the beginning of the week.
Now, Barrio Víbora is NOT for everyone. It's a normal barrio where people live. There are no tourists and the local currency is used. The main strip in Barrio Víbora is called "10 de octubre" and it is not well lit, though to me it seemed generally safe (coming from Medellin).
El Túnel itself is a cool ambiance, literally a cave in a hill. Inside are pool tables, music and a dance floor. We mingled and danced with the locals and picked up tips that we would use for the rest of the vacation. Meals in Havana? Less than 2CUC for a typical including pork, rice, beans and salad. Rum? 2 CUC for a bottle (my favorite was Ron Don Diego), 5 of the local currency (about $0.20 USD). Now we're talking.
We watched Cubans dance real salsa and it's much different than Colombia. There is much more movement and lots of whirling and spinning. We had a great night, made some new friends, and things were starting to open up.
Day 5 - Sunday, March 24
One thing that I did not mention is that on every trip to Obispo we stopped in at Club Havana (next to Floridita), where we got to know the bartender Diego very well. He's a charming gentleman, probably late 50's, and he made the best mojitos we had in Havana. So Sunday morning we returned, petitioned for and received the recipe. If anyone is interested, PM me and I will send it.
On Sunday I wanted to return to the beach, except this time to the areas described in the trip advisor forums with more people and live salsa. Intent on being the ultimate tourist today, I walked to Parque Central and hired a shiny red 1948 Buick convertible to take us there.
This time, we went all the way up Santa María to Tropicoco, which, was advertised was jammed. The Colombiana didn't like that, so we walked back to where we were before and repeated our experience of Friday. This time, though, the sun was red hot and I burned.
In the evening we decided to explore Calle 23, where we saw a large crowd gathering at a club called Salon Rojo. It turns out Juan Guillermo was playing (of sueña como se ve fame) and we made it in. It was jammed - more or less the same scene as Casa de la Music described earlier. There were some 10 to 15 Cuban men, all with dates, another 30 tourists (mostly older Europeans) and a MOB of prostitutes.
Honestly, I have never seen anything like it - there was probably about 50 prostitutes, and they were aggressive. On each walk to the bathroom, girls were tugging at my shirt or pulling on my hand. Every single man who entered was aggressively sought upon. The Colombiana told me when she went to the bathroom that the girls were complaining loudly about how difficult the conditions were and how hard it was to find a man.
All the tables were taken but we begged and pleaded and the made us a table, which ended up being, in my opinion, the best seat in the house. Cigars were sold in the men's bathroom (I did not partake) and it was the atmosphere that I expected for a salsa bar, smokey, hot, jammed with people with a set that ran from 1am to 3am which was just an amazing performance.
By 3am we were exhausted and went back to the casa.
Day 6 - Monday, March 25
Monday was another touristy day - we followed the advice of Diego and went to Cafe Oriental near the Malecon, then hired a lanchita to take us to Barrio Regla. There is nothing in Barrio Regala but it's a great place to take pictures of Havana from across the water. Honestly, after partying until 5am for 6 nights, we were exhausted and spent most of the night sleeping.
Day 7 - Tuesday, March 26
During the day on Tuesday we explored Vedado, which I did not like. It had the tourist aspects of old Havana but less restaurants. It had also turned cold, I'd estimate 10C which seems very unusual even for Miami. We did manage to make it to the feria de San José later in the day, where I picked up a variety of souvenirs including two beautiful humidors for 30 CUC each.
Then it was time for some baseball! On Tuesday night, famed rivals Industriales squared off against the Matanzas. These teams do NOT like each other and it was a fantastic experience.
Tickets are purchased at the stadium and they cost 3 CUC each. There are no seat assignments, you sit where you can - and if you don't get there early, you'll find it difficult. Seats that look open are not, and it took 20 minutes of hearing "ocupado" to eventually find the seat. Bring the local currency. The pork sandwiches at the games are great and they cost less than 1 CUC, you pay in the local currency.
The game itself was surreal. Rival fans shouting at each other, the smell of cigars throughout the stadium, the mascot dancing and waving, salsa music between innings and drummers while the home team is at bat. We bought and decked ourselves out in Industriales gear and had a blast.
Day 8 - Wednesday
Wednesday was our last day and we experienced pure Havana as a local. During my stay I made friends with a bici-taxi driver named Yeral and we spent the day with him. We decided to do a bar crawl, but of only the local, non touristy bars. Cheapest bar crawl ever. I took pictures at each one and wrote down the names, I'm hoping that I can find them again on the GPS. At each one we had a few tragos of rum and a few beers, and the bill was always less than 1 CUC.
We also ate typical food with the locals which, to be honest, was the best meal I had during my entire stay in Havana. I had lamb, rice beans and salad, the Colombiana had pork, rice, beans and salad, total damage was 70 in the local currency, or about 3 CUC.
That's the 7 days. I drank a lot of rum, smoked a lot of cigars, danced a lot of salsa, made a lot of friends and got to know the city. A friend in Vībora offered to rent me a room on my next stay for 40 CUC - for an entire month. I might just take him up on that.