Exploring HAVANA

Day 1 // Wednesday, February 21- Thursday,  February 22

I never actually felt ready to leave for Havana.  

The more that I read, the more confused that I was.   Everything seemed so foreign and the things that I am usually able to do to make it around a place is just not an option in Cuba.  There really is no WiFi? The WiFi is only available in WiFi parks scattered around the city and not in any houses or restaurants. You can’t take out cash from an ATM?  You really need to bring all of your money with you for the entire trip since the atms will not accept American debit cards? Where the heck was I going?!

Sometimes you just have to let all of that stuff go and get on a plane and see what happens.  

After working a full day to wrap up work deadlines and a delirious red eye flight leaving Denver and stopping over in Miami, I finally made it to Cuba!  I had arranged for my Casa Particular (the house you are staying in) to have a car pick me up at the airport. The kind man had my name on a sign ( I secretly love this.  It makes me feel like a rockstar.) and helped me exchange my USD for Cuban Pesos and we headed into the city! We made our way from the rural parts of the city where there were horse drawn carriages transporting sugarcane and into the craziness that is Havana.

We pulled up to the house with a beautiful garden and a large balcony.  Monica, the host, greeted us warmly and spoke to me only in Spanish.  I then realized that my Spanish is absolute garbage and the only thing I have even close to communicating with her is my rusty Italian. Through my jetlagged stupor, we were able to make simple small talk while we waited for the room to be ready.  I kept forgetting that it was only 9:30 in the morning. I waited on the beautiful balcony and cracked my Havana guide book for the very first time. Where the heck was I?

I headed out of my new Cuban home base and wandered east, toward the old part of the city.  I just sort of walked and enjoyed the warm weather and sunshine. The houses in Havana are beautiful and aged but still hold this incredible charm.  They are painted all colors from tans and peaches to mint and hibiscus. Yellow and blue too. They all have beautiful balconies and incredibly high ceilings.  Old American cars drove by and salsa music filtered through the open windows and doors. Old women walked by and greeted their neighbors and got the daily gossip while men sat on the porch in rocking chairs, smoking cigars.  Everyone was smiling or joking as they all turned to watch me walk by. It’s not that I am a girl, or white girl, or even a white girl alone. The street is simply an extension of their living room and they are curious about who just walked in their front door.  They smiled at me and some waved and they continued on with their day.

As I worked my way through the newest part of the city toward central Havana, the buildings started to get older and change character. More businesses, more people, and fewer residences.  The city grid starts to change and becomes narrower streets and shorted blocks. The buildings are often connected, instead of the free standing houses like that of my residential neighborhood.  This started to look like the Cuba that I expected. I finally found myself in Old Havana. The streets are narrow and the sidewalks even narrower, if they exist at all. Almost everyone walked in the street with the cars, carts, horses, bicycles and occasionally building materials.  The people were selling their wares, from strands of garlic to a ride in a bicycle taxi.

             


I eventually found my way to the center of old Havana, the Capitol.  It looks just like ours! It oddly felt more in place in old Havana than the mall in DC.  I continued on and wandered through the smaller streets and the art district. In Havana, there are live musicians in almost every restaurant and music filtering out of every shop. It felt like the entire county was beating to the 8 count of the salsa.  The ebb and flow of energy matched the steps of the dance that makes Cuba unique to anywhere else in the world.

I found my way to Plaza de Animas and stopped to find somewhere to eat lunch.  I ended up at RumRum and had my first Cuban mojito and a delicious vegetable paella that was my first real meal in almost 20 hours.  At that time, my feet started to hurt from my bad decision of wearing brand new flip flops and walking almost 20 miles. Who does that?!  Rookie move.

My walk back took me along the Malecon, the famous sea drive that creates a vehicle route around the hyper dense Old City and connects the harbor to the rest of the city.  The views of the road, the sea and the city are absolutely stunning. There were lovers sitting side-by-side staring into the sea and old fishermen casting lines and making jokes.  Every once in a while the sea took over and crested the wall, splashing any unsuspecting selfie aficionados in its way.

At that time, I was officially running late.  (No surprise to those who know me) I have my first Airbnb Experience, Cuban Spirits, that afternoon in Miramar, clear on the other side of my homestay.  Andale! After a quick detour back to my Casa Particular to remedy my poor footwear decision from earlier in the day, I only had 30 minutes to make it to the restaurant.  With my newfound knowledge about how large the city of Havana actually was and my aching feet, I decided that a taxi was the only way to make it. I asked Monica where to catch a taxi and in our broken communication, she instructed me to walk down to the Linea (literally translates to “The Line”, a main road running through the city) and catch one there.  I gingerly made my way the few blocks to the Linea, feeling the press of the time. I was all about catching a taxi, until I got to the Linea and realized I had no idea how to do it. Ok, so I am from Colorado. The amount of times that I have hailed a taxi are exactly none. Reminder, there is no Uber in Cuba, no alerts that Jeff is 2 minutes away in a Silver Chevy Malibu.  So, I did what everyone who has no idea what to do in a given situation does, I watched and emulated. After observing for a few moments, I dramatically stuck my arm straight out, just like the older Cuban woman with a basket of plantains did in front of me. Magically, a car stopped. Literally, I was so shocked that it actually worked that I was dumbstruck for a moment before I jumped in.  Recovering quickly, I showed the nice driver the map and 10 CUCs later and only 2 minutes late, I was standing in front of the restaurant 7 Dias.

Ariel, the host of Cuban Spirits, was a jovial guy who seemed to always have a smile on his face and a cocktail in hand.  

READ ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE HERE

Eventually, I finished my last cocktail and needed to make my way back home.  I said farewell to my new friends and wandered home. My feet hurt less, thanks to the new shoes (and the 3 cocktails) and eventually I turned onto my street and fell straight into bed. I was worried that I might have a hard time sleeping in Cuba, but my wonderful room was quiet and with a touch of air conditioning, I was able to fall right to sleep. I think I like it here...

Day 2 // Friday, February 23

I woke up to birds chirping outside my window, sore feet and stiff legs, but was able to walk both off on my short walk to meet my Fabric of the City experience at Cafe Mamaine.  The little cafe was an artist mecca with musicians and artists everywhere. For the day’s Airbnb experience, we were going to photograph Cuba and then create a momento book that is inspired by the Cuban ration book.  Emilio explained about how every family is given a ration book to use. Each month, the family is entitled to so much sugar, rice, etc. Totally interesting!

READ ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE HERE

After finishing up my Fabric of the City experience in the late afternoon, I made my way through the Vedado neighborhood back to my Casa Particular.  The streets of this part of the city were very residential and at this time of day was when everyone was returning home. The life on the street was so vibrant.  Children were running around and young students in their uniforms coming home from school. Professional women in crisp white collared shirts with black pencil skirts delicately walked across broken concrete sidewalks and over sticks and leaves in their perfectly clean, black high heeled dress shoes with their attaché cases.  It seems like such a contrast. The dogs roamed the streets, patrolling for any stray cats entering the neighborhood. Old men sat in rocking chairs and called to friends on the street. It was such a community and everyone knew everyone else. They cannot walk one block without stopping to greet a friend or neighbor. It is simply beautiful to watch.  It is such an outward focused culture. The lack of technology is truly an advantage in Havana. The culture is based on personal communication instead of texting and people live life on their front porch instead of in front of the TV. It was wildly refreshing and so fascinating to watch and ultimately be a part of!



Day 3 // Saturday, February 24

Another stiff morning required some yoga and feet up the wall before heading across town to Locos de Cuba to meet my guide for my trip to the Countryside.  I found Yuri and her 12 year old son Kevin waiting for me. I was the only attendee on the tour! How does this keep happening to me? I am totally cool with it!  

READ ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE HERE

After returning home, still painfully full from a delicious late lunch, I sat in the living room of the wonderful homestay and caught up on some journaling before making my way to the Fabrica del Arte Cubano, affectionately known as the FAC or “the factory”.   As I made my way through the now slightly heavy drizzle to the factory, I wandered through wonderful old residential neighborhoods in the Vedado. After arriving, I saw the line was already forming and I was excited, a little nervous and unsure of what to expect.  If I had any expectations, the FAC far exceeded them. The cheap 2 CUCs cover was worth every cent. Once inside, I was surrounded by amazing music, lighting, bars, and art installations. As a converted oil factory, the original stone building structure was present and inside the small areas were bars, small cafes, and art rooms.  Each “nave” featured a different contemporary Cuban artist from sculpture and abstract art to photography and mixed media.  In some of the larger naves were live music performances. Random doors to the outside lead to courtyards lined with shipping containers and an outdoor bar. Eventually, I made my way to a bar and ordered a standard mojito and continued to wander through the overwhelming space.  After a few days in the old city with old cars and old buildings, this ultra modern art gallery / night club scene would not have been out of place in the hippest part of Brooklyn. One of the larger naves was hosting a live band later that evening and a techno DJ was playing in a nearby nave with a collection of people lounging, dancing or people watching. I fell into the third category, naturally.




In the larger nave, I found a small door leading to another outdoor courtyard with two levels and made of shipping containers.  With a light rain, people were staying to the covered balconies and I continued on into a larger food court area featuring a sculpture artist.  At the end of this hall was an outdoor stair leading to fancy restaurant lining one side of the courtyard and on the other side of the stairs was the second story of the oil factory with an outdoor space with seating spanning the distance between.  I followed a steady stream of people into the largest space I had encountered thus far only to stumble into the middle of a fashion show. A runway spanned the front of the room with rows of seating and a photographer. The street fashion collection was created by a series of young students from the university in Havana.  It was so much fun to watch! It felt so swanky and exclusive, but in true Cuban fashion, it was all about the people. The finale walk was beautiful and the students were beaming. It was an incredibly infectiously supportive environment and I couldn’t help but beam right back at them and feel a sense of Cuban pride for the whole situation.  I went back outside and down the stairs, through the food court and courtyard to the larger nave and beyond to explore some other parts of the space. I followed a couple who looked like they knew where they were going up a very narrow metal staircase to the second floor of the oil factory. I came up on the other side of the fashion show nave and into a very modern photography exhibit and into a series of interactive digitally projecting exhibitions.  The Cuban art scene is very rooted in their culture and their struggles and their successes. All of the art was incredibly evocative and was not art for art’s sake, but art to express a powerful emotion; joy, grief, sorrow, pain, pleasure and everything in between. The atmosphere of the entire place was so charged and so youthful. There was nothing of the silent art museums or echoing galleries that I knew but an eclectic variety of rhythmic dance music in one nave and live salsa music in another.  It was truly an exploration of art in all forms and I drank it all in. I did several loops through the area, searching out new staircases and somewhat secret routes to navigate this incredible place. Eventually the day started to catch up to me and I paid my tab and reluctantly left the beloved FAC and put on my sweaty long sleeve white sun shirt and plodded home in the rain. The best part of the rain was that it washed out the shirt that I had been wearing nonstop in the heat of the last few days. The rain made the city quiet and subdued the individual noises and everything blended into a low and pleasant din.  That’s what made the live salsa music seem like sirens singing on a distant island. I followed the beautiful sounds of salsa music and found a live band playing on the outdoor porch of a large mansion in the Vedado. Here I was, beyond exhausted, soaking wet and standing in the rain at midnight with my eyes closed listening to the most beautiful rhythm, soaking in all that was Cuba.

In Havana, there are live musicians in almost every restaurant and music filtering out of every shop. It felt like the entire county was beating to the 8 count of the salsa.

Day 4 // Sunday,  February 25

Today was another Advil and feet up the wall morning as I prepared to leave the house and walk for just over an hour to get to Havana Viejo (Old Havana).  In an attempt to take a new and different route through the city, I explored smaller side streets making my way from the Vedado through Central Havana and into Old Havana just in time to meet Yaneli for our Explore the City’s Architecture tour.  This was my largest tour group with 3 other couples. Two of the couples were Ukrainians that lived in Philly so we naturally bonded over the Eagles Super Bowl win. The other was a younger couple from Seattle. Yaneli was a sweet lady with a wonderful perspective on the city as she is also a professor at the university teaching architecture and art history.  We met in Central Park with the Capitolio looming in the distance.



We walked through the city and Yaneli explained about all of the newer and large building that had been built including some Spanish Palaces that are now art museums and the original Bacardi rum building that is now a commercial office building.  We walked along the route that what was originally the oldest part of the city which is within the wall to the bay with the next oldest being Central Havana which was built slightly after as the city grew outside of the wall. Through the course of history, the old city wall was torn down.  This resulted in a large swath of land on either side of the wall that was now available to be developed sandwiched between two of the oldest parts of the city. The new Capitolio and the palaces and the park as well as a new avenue were all built at a much later date than the city bordering it. From an urban design perspective, it is absolutely fascinating!



We finished our route along the old wall and then entered the old city.  The narrow streets with courtyard style buildings cast shadows and keep the streets shaded and cool and allow air to circulate through the buildings. The buildings are typically 3 stories with a ground floor that is very high, typically 20-30 feet that was used for business as well as the garage.   The next level was very low, around 8 feet high and was the original slave quarters. The top floor was the primary residence for the business and was around a 15 foot ceiling height. This unique mix of floor to floor heights made the building exceptionally unique. We entered an original house that has since been turned into a museum to see how this felt on the inside.  The beautiful outdoor corridors and courtyard create a peaceful respite from the hustle of the city.



We explored the oldest fort in Havana as well as the original Basilica and the town squares.  The public spaces and the grand buildings flanking them are beautiful. Yaneli explained that originally, the sea was closer to the main plaza, but since then, they created the Malecon Avenue over the sea to make it easier to navigate around (instead of through) Old Havana and to the rest of the city.  



After the tour, per the recommendation of the Ukrainians, I hopped the public ferry across to the other side of they bay to climb to the top of the hillside where the Christ statue and the Fortress were.   

My first attempt at public transportation in Havana was exactly as expected.  I followed the masses and came out on the other side. I was one of many boarding the ferry.  The others included a man selling pastries out of a box attached to the back of a bicycle, a family with two lengths of 8’ pvc pipe, a group of students, and an older woman with a small dog.  



After landing, I began to follow the stream of other travelers up the road towards the statue looming on the hill above us.  The city across the bay began to unroll its skyline as I climbed up to El Cristo de La Habana. The enormous marble statue looms over the bay and the city that it protects.  I meandered down towards the Fortaleza and explored the area flanking the fortress before returning to the ferry. I met a nice older couple from Denmark that was on their 12th day in Havana and we chatted about the city and the differences between Cuba, Denmark and the US as the ferry docked again on the city side of the channel.  I confidently flagged down an aging Lada like a boss and headed back to the casa particular to get ready for my salsa lesson.

The green 1957 Chevy taxi that picked me up for my lesson was exactly not at all what I expected.  While beautiful, the interior of the Chevy was a mismatched combination of parts from various other automobiles including a Kia steering wheel and a Dodge shifter.  A small stash of tools was perched on the dash for what seemed like daily maintenance. The beautiful images of the old cars are not revealing the whole picture. They are full on Cuban Solutions.  Whatever parts are available to fix a 50 year old car is what is used. I hopped out of the antique and headed upstairs for my Salsa lesson!

READ ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE HERE

Per Yaneli’s recommendation, I planned on trying out the Mediterrano for dinner, but first I really needed to track down one of these elusive WiFi cards to check in with my family and make sure Waypoint was ok.  I tried the park by my house to find someone selling the cards with no luck. From there I tried a convenience type store, another WiFi zone near the University of Havana, the hotel next door, the hotel that the first hotel had recommended, and eventually the original WiFi spot that Emilio let me use his WiFi at the first day.  No such luck. I finally decided to call off the search and head out for dinner. Mediterrano was a beautiful building in the Vedado and I was seated upstairs facing the terrace. I enjoyed a delicious salad and shrimp ravioli and topped it off with an early birthday tiramisu. Feeling quite content, I made my way home and promptly fell right asleep.

Day 5 // Monday,  February 26 (My 30th Birthday!)

I fell asleep the night before in my twenties and woke up in the morning with beautiful city of Havana welcoming me to my 30’s. I naturally did all of the things I loved - bike riding and yoga.  I finally was able to track down a woman selling the WiFi cards in a last ditch effort to get connected. I was able to FaceTime my wonderful husband and let him know I was safe and happy as could be before rushing off to my Bicycle tour.  

READ ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE HERE

We ended our bike tour at a fabulous little juice bar that Ernesto knew about.  The fresh pressed juice was heavenly after a hot ride in the sun. Per usual, riding a bike is still one of my very favorite ways to see a city.  After bidding my fellow riders farewell, I continued to head west out of the Vedado and towards the park where I was to meet Lis for afternoon yoga.  

READ ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE HERE

After a beautiful yoga session, we rolled up our mats and Lis offered to go to dinner.  I was so thrilled for her company and eager to hear where local vegetarians went to eat in Havana, as Lis was the only vegetarian I had met in this city that was all about beef.  We walked and talked and worked our way to Vampirio, a little basement type restaurant in the Vedado. You could tell it was good because there were 7 or 8 people lingering outside and a constantly departing Vespa with delivery orders.  We approached the waiting group and Lis asked “ultimate?” and a young couple nodded. I realized that this is a self regulating waiting line. The server walks upstairs and just asks who’s next and the group knows. What an interesting approach!  We sit on the bench and wait our turn and Lis and I laughed over our shared people-watching passion. Once seated, we ordered juice and the vegetarian sandwich that Lis was raving about. I will never get over how delicious the fresh juice tasted!  The sandwich was wonderful too! The fresh soft bread was amazing with a mix of pickled and fresh veggies, it was perfect! After dinner, we sat and lingered and Lis informed me that we must have the “French toast” for desert. I was fascinated by this idea and when it arrived, with syrup made from a fruit reduction sauce, and I dug in and was shocked to find that it is served cold!  The bread had been dipped and pan fried but was then chilled. It was absolutely amazing! It was the perfect ending to a perfect day and to a perfect trip. As Lis and I walked home in the warm evening, I was full and happy and I knew that I would be back to Cuba.


Caitlin

Caitlin Blythe

Waypoint Goods // Owner & Founder

Caitlin began Waypoint Goods to help and inspire women to get out and travel while feeling safe and fashion forward.  She creates custom patterns and designs for the travel scarves based on her travels. Her past life as an architect makes the brand contemporary and modern while focusing on empowering women to travel.
Tags: Havana