Landing at Havana Airport is quite a treat. On approach, all I saw was the ocean water. We actually got very low before the island finally appeared and then we turned to land at the airport but got treated to great views of the surprisingly green undeveloped open island spaces. A lot of farmland and open grasslands for miles were in sight.
Havana (HAV or Jose Martin) airport is really not in the best shape. There’s not two ways to put that. It’s not uncommon to see rough airports in Latin America but this one may the worst. The upside is that I got through customs fast and simply. Within 10 minutes of deplaning,I was out of the airport. I rarely check bags so I can’t speak to that experience at Jose Martin airport.
When I got out, a taxi driver quoted me 75CUC to get my airbnb. It’s a good thing my host told me in advance what to pay because I would have no idea that this guy was overcharging me. So I told him I would pay 35CUC and he agreed. So thanks to my host Martha for that!
After about a 30 min drive to my host I got out and marveled immediately at the very rough but charming visual of this unique Cuban neighborhood. It’s very hard to describe. Something that could easily be as high end as the garden district in New Orleans but also reminded me of the worst parts of Detroit because most of the buildings are in visual disrepair. If our stupid government ever get off this horrible Cuba policy and opens that island up, I can’t say enough about the incredible opportunities with their buildings. They’re absolutely stunning even though 90% of Havana is falling apart. If they were restored to the original condition (much like what’s happening in Panama City’s old town) Havana would rival even Paris as the most architecturally stunning city on earth. You can see the detail and the marble and pillars in the 19th century and early 20th buildings.
Anyway, I was greeted and got settled into my very cute little room which thankfully had AC. My hosts were very gracious and helpful. It’s like staying in my grandparents home in a way. It was nothing like a hotel. But very clean like one should be.
I slept a few hours since I took a red eye and got no sleep whatsoever. Then Juan, one of my hosts, helped me get a taxi to meet my evening Havana tour. Unfortunately, I forgot my wallet and didn’t realize it until I was there so my driver took me all the way back and back again. I went from being thirty minutes early to being fifteen minutes late. And a 10CUC ride became 30CUC. So that really sucked.
When I got to my group, I quickly hit it off with them but fast realized that none of them really cared for our tour guide. I actually liked him a lot but I think he was a bit quick to judgement and took things too personally and that may have come through in some of the interactions. I chalked it up to Cuban passion. So the whole night was fun but just sort of uneasy with the group. We did a little drive around Havana which was fun but the highlight was certainly a rooftop mojito making session. We all had fun drinking and dancing and making drinks. One other Brazilian drink which I could not ever pronounce consisting of 3.5 scoops of sugar, three pieces of limes squeezed and left in, muddled, then rum, ice, shaken, and more ice makes the most delicious drink. The views from the rooftop and the tasty drinks made that hour up there a highlight for me. I only wish the whole evening had gone as well.
After that, we had dinner at a little Cuban restaurant where I had a delicious pork dish and good drinks. That restaurant was Nao and I ended up returning twice more before leaving Havana (more on that later). That was about the beginning of the end for the night though!
It didn’t help that one of our group mates wanted to see the annual Havana carnival festival (which was going on at the same time) and that’s not normally part of the tour. So our guide reluctantly accommodated and I think that took things way off course to the point where everyone else was tired of walking and just wanted to go drink and ended the tour. I’ve never seen a tour group mutiny like that and just decide they were done with the tour. It was just awkward. I liked our guide but I can’t blame the rest of our group either. They were all tired and I think they’d rather have been drinking and dancing than walking on the malecon endlessly. The whole premise of the tour was disrupted. Instead of a drinking/fun tour, it became a walking tour.
I stuck with our guide and we walked just the two of us another hour or so and exchanged cultural information and I tried to give him advice on better ways to interact with different types of Americans and I suggested not deviating from what works. Sometimes doing things to please people who don’t know Cuba can make things worse. I’ll bet if he stuck to his normal routine everyone would’ve had a better time and been happier in the end. Once we deviated it just became a walking tour not a nightlife tour. Anyway, I still had fun. I got to see a lot of Havana on foot. I try to see the good side of everything when I travel. The more I thought about it later I realized that most tours aren’t all that successful and the few group tours I’ve taken that were successful only became that due to the people in the group. It rarely is possible for the tour guide to get the group there. It’s the people in it and how they interact that makes it special.
Anyway, I ended up skipping the taxi and walking around 30 minutes from the malecon to my room at 11pm. It’s a bit rough walking thorough the Vedado neighborhood of Havana after dark but I never felt unsafe and I just used good judgement. I enjoyed the walk with the exception of a man sitting on the sidewalk in a dark residential street that I almost tripped over. He was basically laying on the sidewalk in a dark spot. He didn’t move when I leaped out of the way so I’ll just hope he was drunk (and not dead)! I made it back to my room safe and sound.
My other lingering concern on Day One was cash. Everyone warns you to bring extra cash and I thought $500 would be plenty considering how cheap the country is but after $65 in taxi and $40 in tips, that was a big chunk gone day one.
My first impressions of Havana was that it is truly unique and seeing the Cubans in the streets dancing and having a good time made me smile. The country feels so remote in some ways. Even though it’s 90 miles from Miami, I felt far more connected in Japan or China than Cuba. No reliable cell service (Verizon works but not always and when it does it’s super expensive and no data) and internet is not easy to find either which is nice in many ways but definitely hard to adjust to. The energy and unique nature of Havana does get the blood pumping and the curiosity flowing.