Cuba – If I had a dollar for every time I heard “go to Cuba now before Castro dies and McDonald’s moves in”, I’d be rich enough to spend the rest of my days sipping Mojitos on a Cuban beach. Cuba has been synonymous with socialist revolution and bearded guerrillas for more than half a century, but many may have forgotten that Havana (the capital) once enjoyed international acclaim as the Caribbean’s most colourful and exciting metropolis. Revolutionary sacrifice, the cold war, and a misguided US trade embargo have cast a painful shadow over the island for decades, but thanks to a series of unprecedented economic reforms (which allow greater private enterprise for the first time in a generation) Havana is now starting to remember its prosperous past.
I decided to assess the extent of the city’s re-emergence for myself. I started what would inevitably be a rum filled, dance laden and potentially unpredictable night in Havana, by taking a stroll through the narrow colonial streets of the city’s historic district (Known as Habana Vieja or Old Havana). Old Havana dates from the 1500s and its world-class Spanish colonial architecture resulted in it being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. I embarked on my “research” trip with my good local friend Jorge (a trusted companion and veteran of many such “expeditions”). First time visitors to the city may consider hiring an official tourist guide (prices are reasonable and guides can be arranged online, at tourist information centres, or in most major hotels). As we strolled through the narrow, music filled, streets of old Havana, it seemed that a moment didn’t pass without the offer of a guided tour (of the unofficial kind which are best avoided at all costs), a box of “authentic” cigars, or anything else you care to imagine. Some of the street hustlers (known as jineteros or “jockeys” due to their tendency to financially leach on the back of unwitting tourists) even requested that I buy them a cocktail, a meal, or an overpriced pack of powdered milk. Nevertheless, Havana is a relatively safe city for tourists and visitors will generally find street hustling is more an annoyance than a danger. A firm but polite response is usually enough to keep these chancers off your back, remember, if you wouldn’t buy an expensive meal for a stranger on the street in your own country, don’t do it in Cuba.
Once I had resisted the “temptation” of parting with my money to buy an elaborate cocktail for a dubious stranger, Jorge and I found ourselves sitting in Cuba’s most famous bar: El Floridita (Obispo street, No. 557, Old Havana). This should be the first stop on any visitor’s itinerary. In the early 1930s a bartender called Constantino Ribalaigua Vert invented the frozen daiquiri here. The bar was also a favoured watering hole to iconic literary figures such as Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. Today, patrons will find a life-sized bronze statue and bar stool which belonged to Hemingway himself. El Floridita retains its 1930s ambiance, classy décor, and quality (if expensive) cocktails. The bar is a tourist attraction in itself and is a must for any visitor to the city. Hemingway once downed 16 double Daiquiris in one sitting here, but at today’s prices, just one will have to do.
We take a short taxi ride across the city to the downtown district of Vedado. This part of the city couldn’t be more different to the colonial Havana we had left. Vedado is an extension of the original city and was largely constructed in the early 20th century. The wide streets and luxurious (if now faded) mansions make the American influence on the island (during the early to mid 20th century) clear for all to see. Vedado is now home to many of the city’s premier bars, restaurants, theaters, nightclubs and hotels. Recent economic reforms have resulted in an explosion of privately owned establishments in the area. As it’s still early, Jorge and I head for a spot of food at a restaurant called El Idilio (Street G and 15 in Vedado). This restaurant is one of the best examples of the new spirit of private enterprise in the capital. Until recently, restaurants in Havana were overwhelmingly owned by the state and unfortunately the concept of quality food and customer service often escapes the under motivated employees of state-owned businesses (hardly surprising considering the communist state often pays its waiters as little as the equivalent of just $12 a month before tips). El Idilio exemplifies all that is good about the growing capitalist spirit on the island. For the equivalent of $15 we ate what seemed like the best (not to mention the most impressively presented) seafood in Havana. The portions of Caribbean fish were generous and the taste was sublime. As we had polished off a hearty meal and consumed our body weight in Bucanero beer (the refreshing domestic tipple) it was about time to test Havana’s famous (or should I say notorious) nightspots.
Havana’s Miramar district is famed for its glorious mansions, concentration of foreign embassies, upscale shopping centers and nightclubs. Jorge had warned me to expect an entirely “different” Havana and I soon discovered what he meant. It seemed as if we had left every day Havana behind and had entered a kind of Disneyland parallel universe. Miramar’s wide streets are lined with palm trees and mansions that would make Tony Soprano envious. It seemed as if the entirety of Cuba’s emerging middle classes had gathered in the Don Cangrejo nightclub that night (Avenue 1ra, between 16 and 18 street, Miramar). Hundreds of well-heeled Cubans and tourists had turned out to grind the night away to the hottest Reggaeton tunes (Reggaeton is an infectious form of dance music which blends Latin rhythms and hip hop). The club itself is a lush open air venue (complete with swimming pool) which overlooks the Caribbean sea. It caters for anyone able and willing to shake the night away under the stars. There certainly isn’t anything socialist about Don Cangrejo and simply reserving a table can sometimes cost upwards of $40 (the equivalent of an average Cuban workers salary for 3 months). This type of nightspot remains out of reach for the majority of Cubans who still earn appallingly low government salaries (averaging the equivalent of just $15 a month) and it’s hard not to feel just a bit guilty. Unfortunately the economic reforms seem to be creating a great disparity of wealth which didn’t really exist before. In any event, it really seems that unapologetic capitalism (with all its benefits and drawbacks) has arrived in Castro’s Cuba.
Our research was complete and it’s safe to say that Jorge and I enjoyed the debauchery that a night in the Cuban capital can offer (we had splendid hangovers to prove it). Havana is an entirely unique city which hasn’t let go of its revolutionary zeal and hasn’t quite returned to its decadent past quite just yet. Havana is a city in transition; it is evolving and is a work in progress. As Raul Castro (the Cuban President) says “change is without haste, but without pause”. Now is an exciting time to visit Havana and go now before there’s a McDonald’s on every corner.