By Kaine Agary
For many years, I had an obsession with Cuba, which intensified after my Swiss photographer neighbour visited Havana and returned with an album with the most attractive pictures I had ever seen. I was intrigued by the images that could have been straight from a 1950s movie. The big, old American cars with fancy hood ornaments; the colonial and art deco buildings painted in bright colours typical of Latin America; and people.
For all the stories about Fidel Castro’s iron rule and the austere lives of Cubans, I expected to see more sad eyes in the pictures but it was quite the opposite—beautiful ladies, distinguished men, all looking like they were holding a full cup of life.
I had to experience it all first hand and as soon as Fidel Castro’s health began to fail there was more urgency to make the trip because I imagine that there will be big changes in Cuba when Fidel Castro dies. I wanted to see Cuba stuck in time, before the big changes blew in like a hurricane and swept out every trace of what has defined Cuba in the last five decades.
Before I booked my flight, I looked at a world map and thought to myself, ‘Cuba is not a big island, I will only be visiting Havana, and so eight days should be enough to see the city’. I was wrong, but still managed to pack in a memorable time into those eight days. There is so much to do in Havana, but here are a few things that you should not miss:
A stroll along the Malécon: You’ll see lovers in embrace; boys fishing; people praying to Yemoja, the Yoruba goddess of the sea; and others stretched out, basking in the sun, on this 8km seaside walkway/seawall. Pick a spot, make yourself comfortable and engage with the sea.
Rumba Sunday: Find your way to Callejon de Hammel on Sunday and enjoy a Rumba party with all the Orishas in Yoruba religion (Santeria) making an appearance through the worshippers. You’ll find the crowd is a good mix of tourists and locals. And while you’re enjoying the drums and singing, take some time out to appreciate the murals and metal sculptures erected as a tribute to Ogun, the god of iron.
Castillo el Morro: This fortress across the harbour was built between 1589 and 1630 to protect the ‘pearl of the Antilles’ from corsairs and pirates. There is a lot to see and do here during the day, with rooms dedicated to the preservation of different aspects of Cuban history, including a room from where Che Guevara worked when he was in charge of Cuba’s finances, and restaurants. The old tradition of fortress guards firing a canon at 9pm sharp to signal the closing of the walls continues today and is now part of an elaborate display complete with guards dressed in colonial uniforms.
The museums: Cuba has a museum for just about everything—the chocolate museum, beer museum, cigar museum, automobile museum, fire arms museum, fire service museum, etc. Cuba takes preservation of history very serious and while there, I mused that no child would have an excuse to fail history because on every other block is a playground where a small monument is erected in honour of a historical figure.
The beach: Who goes to the Caribbean and doesn’t spend a day at the beach? There are a couple of beaches not too far from Havana. I took in the sun and ocean breeze at Guanabo, a 40-minute moped ride from Havana Viejo (old Havana). It is, of course, much faster by car (about 25 minutes).
La Bodegita del Medio: their mojitos are a little overrated but it is worth dropping by for a picture in one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite hang outs in Havana. If you’re keen on chasing the ghost of Hemingway you must also visit Hemingway’s ‘museum’ featuring a small collection of the writer’s personal belongings including his typewriter and portmanteau, in his favoured room with a special view of Havana Viejo. If you have time, you could also visit the Marina Hemingway, which also pays tribute to his ‘Old Man and the Sea’ (scenic but not very exciting though).
Plaza de la Revoluciòn: This big square has a memorial and museum to Jose Marti, and a huge bronze silhouette of Che’s iconic photo pinned to the Ministry of Interior Building.
Party all night, rest when you return: There is a party every night in Cuba. Whatever your music taste, from Reggaeton to Salsa, Rumba to Ska, there’s sure to be a party to keep you on your feet till dawn.
The Arts: There is a strong appreciation for the arts in Cuba—Live theatre, movies, dance studios, literature, the visual arts—it’s all around you…great inspiration for any artist.
In Cuba there are two parallel economies, the tourist economy transacting business in the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) which, incidentally, was stronger than the American dollar when I was there, and the local economy transacting business in Cuban Pesos. You can convert your money at the airport.
Everything bad is good for you
Cuba is well known for its cigars, possibly made even more popular by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The high-end brands like Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas and Montecristos may be out of the reach of the common Cuban, but they will gladly indulge in a regular, everyday brand produced for local consumption.
Café Cubano (little cups of very strong coffee with plenty of sugar) is the anytime drink. It is how Cubans say ‘welcome’. It is the other drink aside from rum that lubricates friendly conversations.
Pork every which way – walking around the streets of Havana can be tiring and few things help bring back your energy like the smell of a pig roasting at the next street corner. The first time I was offered a slice of roasted pork, I hesitated, thinking of all that fat dripping out of the pork, and, to be honest, a lingering fear of tapeworms from stories I heard in my childhood.
But I was convinced with the usual “very good for you” that followed an offer for all the things that health journals warn you to stay away from. For the way I turned my nose up the first time, I am a little ashamed to say that for the eight days I was in Havana, this street pork (sometimes with bread) became my favourite snack.
I might have put on a few extra kilos, but I am still alive and no tapeworms to report so go ahead, enjoy the roast pork. Everything bad is good for you—cigars, coffee, sugar, rum, pork. That seems to be the Cuban philosophy; and if you allow yourself indulge, you’ll be a believer in no time.
Where to stay
There are two accommodation options when you visit Cuba—a hotel or a casa particular. Cuba has hotels from budget to luxury to meet the needs of every traveller. But if you want a more local experience, away from the tour buses and eager tourists, a casa particular, which is an approved private home where the family provides a bed and breakfast for guests, is the way to go. I stayed in a casa particular in an area called Vedado and my host ‘La China’ was very hospitable.
My room in her two bedroom apartment was en-suite, clean and very comfortable. I had my privacy when I wanted and got to meet some of the warmest people I’ve ever met in my life. It helped a great deal that ‘China’ was an ‘area mama’ and had the hook up for just about anything I wanted.
Nigerians need a visa to visit Cuba. The visa process is relatively easy and painless as long as you can show what every embassy asks for, that you can support yourself while you are there and intend to return after your holiday. Visas are processed at the Cuban Embassy in Abuja. Most European airlines fly into Cuba’s Jose Marti International Airport.
Kaine Agary writes a weekly column (‘The Pocket Lawyer’) for the Sunday Punch (in Nigeria). When she can take time off work, she likes to travel ‘off the beaten path’.