When the strict US travel ban was lifted and major airlines opened direct flights to Havana from American cities like New York and Miami in the fall of 2016, a lot of digital influencers, journalists and celebrities rushed to the “forbidden land”. Seen-it-all, been-everywhere voyagers were excited to explore a country famous for its rich history and slightly sinful indulgences. High quality delicious cigars accompanied by creamy, caffeine-heavy cortado shots, topped with delicious Mojitos, and of course Cuban rum, clouded dreams of all hedonists in America.
Havana has never really tickled my imagination the way it did that of Americans’. In fact, all I knew about Cuba was that it was a communist country with a pirate-y past. The other details of its history were conveniently obscured during my post-USSR education. As a citizen of Azerbaijan (which used to be a part of the Soviet Union until 1991!) I could always visit Cuba without any restrictions; it didn’t bear that forbidden-fruit-attractiveness to me. However, I am a curious little creature, and upon reading some great written pieces in travel journals, blogs and a couple of Wikipedia articles, I told my husband that maybe, one day we should add Cuba to our never-ending bucket list. Little that I knew that Ben, as many Americans, was immediately smitten with the idea of enjoying an unlimited supply of cigars and rum on a practically virgin beach with turquoise blue water. He booked the tickets the next day and we set sail into the [relatively] unknown.
Elated by stories of Cuba’s glory days and multiple Instagram photos filled with the colourful streets of Cuba, on the 1st of July, my squad, consisting of my irreplaceable husband, fellow blogger and friend Olga and her boyfriend Frank, was standing outside the very Communist Red José Martí International Airport. Strict passport control and an additional baggage scan was not something I am used to, but everything went smoothly. Be prepared, Cuban border control will ask you if you have recently been to Africa. To be honest, I am not sure WHAT they do when someone says yes (do they send you back, do they force a medical exam, do they just ask and don’t really care about your answer?), but just in case, make sure you don’t visit Africa a month prior your arrival to Cuba.
The first thing that hit us when we left the airport is how hot, loud and energetic Cuba is. Be prepared to be attacked by very friendly taxi drivers who will shout their prices as if it was the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Bargaining in Cuba is practically a national sport, and if you don’t want to get fooled, try to politely haggle the prices down. The only time battling for a cheaper price is unnecessary is at the airport, as we all know how tired you are after a flight, and getting to the hotel is more important.
The ride to our hotel in Old Havana was fascinating in so many ways! Even though I had seen a lot of photographs of Havana, and heard my blogger friends’ impressions of their trips to Cuba (which were not always favourable), I walked into this country with an open mind and heart, and trust me, that is the best way to travel to ANY destination. Very specific expectations and unreasonable high-hopes can cause disappointment and ruin trips. If you are travelling to Havana and expecting to have all the luxuries of modern resorts, all the items and products that you assume are commodities, and don’t have anyone in your travelling group who speaks Spanish (or at least is very very good at humming Despasito and at meaningful hand gestures) don’t waste your time.
Why is that, you ask? Good question.
The USA imposed (and still imposing, although it eased up in recent years!) an embargo on Cuba for more than 50 years, which means a complete and harsh trade ban. Moreover, Cuba became a communist country in 1965, which didn’t help its economy growth either. To give you a few examples of what it means to the country and its citizens, please read further.
The people of Cuba were not allowed to buy or sell their property until just a few years ago; Cubans were not allowed to have cell phones, computers or DVDs until 2008, many still have never even used Internet, and the average salary is under $30. There is NO freedom of speech, and even those few lucky ones who get to “surf” the internet face severe online censorship.
So let me ask you again: Does a meaningful vacation for you translate into mornings at luxury spas, shopping sprees at Rodeo Drive-esque streets, 5-course meals by chef Lawrence Blah Blah Michelin Gordon Blah Ratatouille and such? Then, scroll to another page, forget about Cuba for a few years until globalisation ruins [i mean brings!] Starbucks, Forever 21 and KFC to the country.
But if your heart pumps faster when you think of discoveries, adventures and untold stories, congratulations! You are my friend forever. Let’s continue!
Where were we? Ah, yes, we just got into the cab at the airport. I greedily inhaled hot and heavy Havana air, and peered out of the window like a happy puppy on our way to the Saratoga Hotel where we were going to stay for a week. Our driver ended up being a singer at the popular new Cuban hangout Fabrica de Arte, and sang Rick James’s Superfreak surprisingly well, and put us in a dancing mood.
When we arrived at the The Saratoga Hotel, we were greeted with delicious cocktails and great service straight away. The hotel is one of the most luxurious ones in Havana, and it has hosted such celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
Ben and I had a beautiful suite with a balcony overlooking Havana’s Parque de la Fraternidad and the glorious El Capitolio, which is as much an iconic symbol of Havana as Tour d’Eiffel is to Paris! The Saratoga Hotel has a great rooftop pool with a little bar, a great view and perfect tanning spots. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t expect any lavishness from Havana, so everything at our hotel pleasantly surprised me.
Of course after we relaxed by the pool, we were itching to explore the city. There is no doubt that the first thing that catches everyone’s eyes are cars. Gorgeous classic cars from later 40s and 50s are everywhere! For a person who went to vintage cars shows in England for several years in a row (oh, how I hunted for tickets!), it was quite special. And we are allowed to ride in them?! And they cost as much as regular cabs?! My mind was blown, and I truly felt like I was immersed in the 50s when we got to drive around in convertible classic cars of all sorts of bright, pastel colors.
After my initial infatuation with vintage cars, I looked around and… couldn’t take my eyes off the impossibly beautiful architecture so wildly juxtaposed to poverty-ridden corners. I have never seen a place more decadent than Havana. The city is like a dusty jewelry box full of gems that shine as bright as ever, and are just waiting to be re-discovered. There are abandoned castles transformed into restaurants with grand chandeliers, half-destroyed walls and amazingly intricate doors. Untouched, decaying, but still glorious in its awareness of its former beauty.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Havana became arguably more fashionable than Monaco and Cannes combined. It was prosperous, flourishing, swimming in an abundance riches. Cuba was a country with a grand middle-class; it was filled with prosperous entrepreneurs, glamorous starlets and powerful gangsters. Cuba was the fifth country in the world to have a railroad, and had some of the most luxurious theatres, mansions and estates in the world. The fascination with “The Paris of the Antilles” seemed to be endless.
Until it ended. With the embargo and all that (read above). The last 50 years have been hard on Cuba, but I saw the raw beauty of Havana with all its deteriorating villas, classic sculptures, magnificent cultural monuments, and of course its people. Full of energy, chatter, and an eagerness to help, to work, to make a change.
I walked the streets of Havana that whispered passionate stories and screamed about historical occurrences, like they were pages of a book. A book so old, so rusty and yellowed, that not a lot of people would give it any time out of their day, but a book with a truly rare story that only those who seeks it can find.
P.S. This article might have ended being more poetic than I anticipated, but that is what fiction writing does to you (yes, I am still writing my novel!) My next post will have less nostalgia, and more of FACTS, LOCATIONS and USEFUL TIPS for those who plan to travel to CUBA.
For now, I bid you adieu, my friends, but already excited to see you in my next post!