Cuba Bustles With Hustle
Don’t go expecting an unspoiled Caribbean paradise. Go, instead, to watch a society being transformed. Go for the history. Go for the color. Go for the music.
Diesel and flowers. Rum and beans. Grace and grit. Havana is a city that’s changing rapidly in slow motion.
Everyone wants to go now, “before it gets mobbed by Americans.” But forget any fantasies you might have of empty squares and tourist-free streets. Havana is already well-mobbed by Canadians and everyone else.
So don’t go expecting an unspoiled Caribbean paradise. Go, instead, to watch a society being transformed. The lifting of government restrictions over the past few years has created a bloom of small businesses, including paladores, private restaurants inside houses and apartments; casas particulares, guesthouses; bicitaxis, bicycle taxies; and strolling vendors selling roasted peanuts.
Photo by Bud Ellison
This is great for tourists, whose dining options now expand beyond the standard chicken/rice/beans/plantains menu. It’s not so great for Cubans, who face a three-tiered economy in which political elites live in mansions and those with relatives abroad have the wherewithal to open small businesses. The unlucky rest exist on puny government paychecks.
But it seems that everyone has a hustle—and hustling tourists is just part of life. Beware the jineteros, young men and women who call out, “Where are you from?” in hopes of leading you to a tourist trap. They’ll tell you they love California—and they probably do. After all, they have a hard-eyed realism about commerce, and they see how tourism brings money in.
Go for the history. Old Havana’s colonial architecture reflects its 16th-century Spanish conquerors, some of it crumbling, some of it restored to its original glory.
Photo By Bryan Ledgard
Go for the color. Restored 18th- and 19th-century buildings are bright yellow, blue, and pastel coral. In older neighborhoods, these playful tropical colors are softened with the patina of age and dirt.
Go for la música. Almost every old-town bar and restaurant has a salsa or rhumba combo that drops in regularly. In Vedado, the hipper entertainment district where you’ll mingle more with the locals, La Zorra y el Cuervo is the place to go for hot jazz. Dance salsa at La Casa de la Música in Miramar.
It’s not illegal or even difficult for Americans to visit Cuba. Direct flights are available from Florida and New York, with more departure cities to come. You can also travel on foreign airlines with connections from Oakland International Airport to Mexico City: All you have to do is buy a tourist visa when you check in for your flight to Cuba and fill out a brief form choosing one of 12 possible reasons for your trip. (“Support for the Cuban people” works for everyone.)
Photo by Bryan Ledgard
But with the flight restrictions now lifted, is there any reason to travel with one of those officially sanctioned tour operators? It depends. It’s easy to float along on Cuba’s river of touristy places, wandering through abbeys and castles by day, through the bars of Old Havana by night.
But one of the great things about Cuba also makes it difficult to explore: It has no advertising.
It’s a delight to wander and look without the distraction of garish signs and posters. But combined with hard-to-find, expensive, and unreliable WiFi, you’re reduced to the stumble-upon method. Nothing’s wrong with that. You might blunder upon Somos Cuba, an upstart private restaurant in an old tenement building that features wild décor and food cooked with enthusiasm in a tiny kitchen space separated from the dining area only by the prep counter.
Photo By Dan Lundgren
Alicia Alonso Theater and the Hotel Inglaterra.
And you might find your way to the top of the Colonial-era Hotel Inglaterra, where you can sip a mojito while watching classic cars cruise around Parque Central.
If you suffer from Fear of Missing Out, then before your trip you can search online for the 10 Best Whatevers in Havana and plan accordingly—with full awareness that the latest Best might have popped up just yesterday. Also consider a tour—even if you hate tours. For a half-day look around Havana, book with Habagüanex, the state-owned company that manages some of the big hotels and restaurants and also invests in rehabbing historic buildings. These tours, available only via the San Cristobal travel agency, are tailored to subjects including historic renovation and Art Deco. They’re led by locals whom you can pelt with questions about daily life.
If you really want to meet the locals, consider one of the multi-day, people-to-people tours or volunteer opportunities that focus on an aspect of Cuban life, including jazz, organic farming, and nature. They’re pricey but will let you hang out with Cubans who aren’t involved in the tourist trade.
However you go, prepare to move. Cubans are hustling toward an unknown future that they believe will be brighter. You’ll want to keep up.
Where to Go
La Zorra y El Cuervo: entre N y O, Avenida 23; +53 7 662402; Facebook.com/Club-La-zorra-y-el-cuervo-860987390616797
Somos Cuba: San Ignacio 202; +53 7 8636339;
Hotel Inglaterra: 416 Paseo de Martí, Havana; +53 7 608593; HotelInglaterra-cuba.com
Published online on Feb. 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.