Arriving in Havana
My mom had dreamed of visiting Cuba for years (Communism, old cars, Hemingway, cigars, and all that romantic stuff), so after President Obama lifted the American travel ban in 2014, she and my dad generously invited my brother and me with our significant others on a week-long trip to the Caribbean island nation in March 2017. David, and his girlfriend, Melanie, drove from their home in Vermont to my parents’ in Connecticut and they flew together through Florida to Havana, where Ted and I, having traveled from California, met them at the airport. The Cuban-American Friendship Society organized our accommodations and itinerary—a “people-to-people exchange,” for visa purposes—and arranged for a bilingual guide, Armando, and driver to accompany us during our week there.
I was in a daze when we exited the airport, which was hustling and bustling with taxi drivers and welcome parties. After going through customs, we had waited in a long, disorganized line to go through another surprise security and luggage screening and were generally tired from our overnight flight. We were finally spit out onto the sidewalk in front of the terminal and the temperature was cooler than I expected, not a tropical furnace. Eventually, I heard my name from the crowd and we turned to meet Armando, who greeted us with an embrace and friendly smile.
Armando had arranged for an old, large bus to take us all to the apartment where we were staying, but explained we would be in a VW bus for the rest of the week. Something pretty neat. The influx in recent flights from the United States had caused some confusion about our arrival terminals and my family had landed at the other terminal; my mom was marked for additional luggage screening and this had caused some delay. They were all waiting outside, looking disoriented, when we drove up. Mom had survived the additional screening—she was always the lucky one, stopped at security!—and we were on our way.
Reminders of Cuba’s political history popped up everywhere, from the Ministerio del Interior building, with a mural of Che Guevara, to the late-50s, early-60s pre-embargo cars—upgraded with diesel—that covered the streets.
We were incredibly lucky with our apartment, which had a balcony and three separate rooms each with a bathroom, on the seventeenth floor of one of the few tall buildings in downtown Havana (on La Rampa, Avenida 23, at E). We did some necessary administrative paperwork and exchanged money with Armando, who left with plans to meet us later for dinner. Cuba had two currencies, one for locals and another for tourists, CUCs (pesos convertibles) which were exchanged nearly 1:1 with American Dollars.
Our first journey out into Havana that afternoon was moderately successful. We understood there was a kiosk within a couple blocks to buy rum, but we had no idea what a kiosk looked like and were soon lured to a government store where they only sold bulk ingredients and, oddly, peppermint schnapps (licor de menta). Perplexing. We wandered away and noticed a really cool Don Quixote sculpture by Sergio Martinez, the style of which was almost shockingly arabesque. It was immediately apparent to me that Cuba would be a place of art in a way that the United States was not: deeply respectful and appreciative of art.
Eventually, we found some pizza (my brother was starving) and we sat outside and drank some beer, which was very nice. In my marginal Spanish, I asked our server where we might find rum—not knowing the word for rum (ron), finally got the point across—and she asked, incredulously, as if I had lived in the neighborhood my whole life and would know, “Was there not any in the Habana Libre market???” Habana Libre? What was that? She pointed to the sky behind us. Oh, a huge building with a sign: Habana Libre, a few blocks down the street.
That night, we ate at a paladar, a home that had been turned into a restaurant, mostly for tourists. As a vegetarian, I was worried food would be limited, but I was happy with my egg, rice, and bean dish and fried plantains.
Our mornings in Havana, we awoke to a few women who prepared us fruit and eggs; the spread was incredible. The guava and papaya (fruta bomba) were perfectly ripe. Eventually, we would also taste a mamey, a sweet, date-like fruit that tasted like yam.
The first full day in Cuba, we spent in Old Havana. Habana Vieja was strikingly photogenic; antique, perfectly maintained cars streamed along against the regal lines of clean baroque and neoclassic buildings, every few bursting with bright blue, rust, or mimosa paint.
We walked down Florida and shopped a bit and learned that the city was slowly being gentrified by the flow of Americans and the only way for locals to thrive was to participate in tourism in one way or another (rent their homes, use their cars as taxis, sell art or souvenirs). Transportation was a huge issue because buses were unreliable and taxis were generally reserved for tourists or crammed full of locals.
It seemed that every other bar was one that Hemingway frequented. (I feel this way about almost everywhere in the world: was there a bar he didn’t frequent?) We stopped in an open hotel lobby for mojitos and made our way to the Museum of Fine Arts, which unfortunately had already closed (early on Sunday). At some point, we stopped in a school, improbably small and under-resourced for the hundreds of students who matriculated there. Tired after a full day, we strolled along the Malecon (sea wall) to a huge art market (Almacenes) and stopped at a small artist community on our way back to the apartment.
On Monday, I was sick as a dog, but joined everyone anyway to visit Hemingway’s house, a thirty-minute drive outside the city. I had suffered on our flights to Havana with an ear infection I hadn’t known I had and by Monday, I realized there probably wasn’t enough toilet paper in the country for my runny nose, even though we each had packed a roll for ourselves (toiletries in Cuba are hard to come by). We coined the term “Fluba” with much laughter because every one of us suffered some sort of sickness over the course of the week.
My mom handed her camera to an attendant inside the house, which was cordoned off, and scored some awesome photos. The grounds had a pool and Hemingway’s old boat, and seemed like an amazing place to get some writing done. I enjoyed this visit immensely, though I could see how, if you weren’t a fan of Hemingway, it may not be worth the trip outside the city center.
As we got ready to leave, we learned our VW had popped a cable of sorts, so we waited at the outdoor bar area for a while and listened to a really fun group of six strum on guitars and sing. Eventually, another car came and we were shuttled in two groups to Atelier, another paladar, where I had the best vegetarian meal of the trip (though not exactly traditionally Cuban): lasagna.
On Tuesday, it rained and I stayed in our apartment to rest.
Viñales: Cigars and Climbing
On Wednesday, I felt a little better and we left in the morning for Viñales, a village a few hours from Havana where tobacco was grown and the rural landscape featured mogotes, limestone formations covered in jungle and resembling haystacks. When we arrived at our casa particular (hostel), we did the necessary administrative stuff again and Dave, Melanie, Ted, and I collected our two ropes, quickdraws (eighteen or so), and climbing gear and set off for our first climbing destination. Our friend, Harrison, had just returned from climbing in Cuba a couple weeks prior, so we generally followed his advice and trekked a mile or so directly to a small bar in the jungle: Raul’s place. Raul was there when we walked up and welcomed us immediately. I guess it was thanks to Raul that access to climbing in the area was so easy because his farm bordered Cueva Larga and the climbing areas close to town. Raul’s place was the local gathering spot for climbers, covered with stickers and cards from around the world; hammocks were strung in between coffee trees, kittens and puppies ran around while a stubborn ox, bleeding from its nose where it had been pierced, moved brush from one place to another. A small restaurant served local favorites and Raul sold cigars for the best price around, from his tobacco.
We left Melanie and my parents at Raul’s and continued down the dirt road—lots of little chicks running about, shepherded by their hen mothers—to Cueva Larga; I felt proud to have been able to bring my family to this more remote part of Cuba. We reached a hill up to a small home and was invited through by an incredibly warm woman who also wanted to share coffee and space with us. There was a group of four climbers inside around her table, looking over the guidebook.
The wall ahead had four or so parties on it and they directed us around and up into the Cueva Larga where we climbed a warm up, 5.9 or so. The mosquitoes were pretty bad and it was generally cool outside, so we ventured back into the sunlight for our second route. A local guide there showed us a plant growing up the wall, poisonous and to be avoided.
The limestone was solid and peppered with sharp solution pockets. The cave was pillared with tufas and other-worldly formations. Jungle grew around it like icing. I was so happy to be at the crag!
That night, our hosts (Josefina y Esther) put out an amazing spread of fish and vegetables. Viñales was a little more vegetarian-friendly, I think because it was frequented more by climbers.
Our second day of climbing, Melanie joined us. We ventured back out onto the dirt paths, past lazy horses and cows, toward Raul’s, then up old, crumbling steps, through Cueva de la Vaca, and out into an even more rural area where we climbed a few good moderate routes at Paredón de Josué. It was Melanie's first time climbing outdoors and she was a rock star!
In the afternoon, we met my parents and Armando and headed back for Havana. We stopped at Cueva San Miguel (Palenque) to scope the climbing nearby (but there was a wasp infestation on the main wall) and enjoyed a parting mojito at the bar inside the cave.
Jazz and Art
Once back in Havana, we ventured out to La Zorra y el Cuervo, a moody, underground jazz club marked by a British phone booth on the street. The line at the door started about forty-five minutes before the club opened around 10:00pm. Though we were exhausted from our whirlwind climbing excursion, Yissy, a lively group led by a female drummer, made it worthwhile.
On Friday, we spent a windy, chilly day at a nearby beach (Playa del Este). On our way back to the apartment, we stopped at a local market and bought a couple mameys; I couldn’t get enough of the doughy fruit, even though I was having stomach trouble (Imodium was a lifesaver)! Back in the apartment, I crawled onto the couch with Mom for a bit; it was rare and lovely to have so much time with Mom, as her adult kid, living across North America from home in Connecticut.
In the evening, Jorge Javier Garcia Ruiz, a local artist, joined us in our apartment for a painting session. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip; I enjoyed painting while asking Jorge what color he thought I should put down next and he seemed to enjoy sketching the city from our view. He explained that artists are doing comparatively well in Havana because they have the opportunity to sell to foreigners and make more money than they could working for the state. He said that materials were expensive, though, and without selling to foreigners, they would be impossible to afford.
I was really happy to finish a sketch painting of the city.
For our parting dinner in Havana, we headed back to Hotel Nacional, where we had enjoyed drinks and the view of the Malecon a few nights before. Ariel, a friend of Harrison’s joined us, and Ted said the chicken he had there was some of the best he had ever tasted. After dinner, we heard the ceremonial 9pm canon fire as we smoked a cigar from Viñales on the terrace. Mom and Dad headed back to bed and Ariel put Dave, Melanie, Ted, and me in a taxi to enjoy our last few hours in Havana.
Essential Packing List
- Imodium AD and other “anticipatory” first aid
- Toilet paper and any necessary toiletries (tampons)
- Sturdy, closed-toe shoes (for the rough sidewalks in Havana)
- Consider a tetanus booster before traveling to any rural foreign area