It’s hard to escape the chatter about Cuba– we’ve all seen the photos of colourful classic cars and heard about people buying truckloads of cheap as chips rum and cigars. From the moment we were greeted by our taxi driver Homero and his bright blue 1958 Dodge, we really did feel like we were escaping away (rather bumpily) to another world…
Like many, we arrived in Havana with romantic notions of going to a place where the world has slowed down, passing our days with endless cocktails and a constant soundtrack of live music. But did Castro’s country really live up to the tales people tell of it?
Postcard perfect classic cars line streets filled with houses, painted in every colour imaginable? So true. Take your first step into Old Havana and you’d be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into your Lonely Planet guidebook. The cars and houses exist and look amazing- the sight of a 1950’s pink convertible cruising through town could bring a smile to anyone! But under than pretty paint, there’s the petrol fumes blowing straight into your face or the dodgy structural issues- not something I would want to deal with everyday.
Cuban food is definitely not going to take the world by storm? So true. Don’t get me wrong- it’s actually quite tasty, in a comfort-food kinda way. We were pleasantly surprised at our first meal in Havana- fried chicken for me, roast chicken for a certain someone, both served with rice, beans, and salad.
Turns out this would also be our second meal… and third, and tenth… you get the drift. There’s really only so many days in a row you can eat chicken, pork, or fish- grilled, fried, stewed, with a side of rice and/or beans, and a salad with nothing but white vinegar and oil for dressing.
We did manage to get some variation at El Templete, a government run seafood restaurant which is extremely popular with tourists, being a bit ‘fancier’ and a lot pricier than paladars- the hearty family run joints. While our food was actually ok, the meal was rather spoiled by the worst service we have ever encountered- is getting a menu too much to ask for? I’m not really sure what the employment laws are, but I guess if you know you can’t get fired, it doesn’t really matter. We mainly stuck with paladars- better food, much friendlier faces.
There’s no such thing as too many mojitos? Not true. They were the cheapest mojitos I’ve ever had- for 2-3 CUC, or 5-6 CUC at a Hemingway haunt, why wouldn’t I go nuts and drink up a storm?! Sugar. Several tablespoons in every drink, I’m surprised I didn’t get the shakes. And they just weren’t that good.
A trip to the Tropicana is a must? So true. It’s touristy, it’s a little dated, it’s definitely gawdy but it is fun! We settled down in our front row seats with a glass of bubbly, a bottle of rum, and spent the next 2 hours thoroughly entertained by the dancing, singing, acrobatics, and clashy costumes! It’s no Cirque du Soleil, but in some weird way, it feels quintessentially Cuban.
You are serenaded at every meal? So true. Imagine yourself sitting outside on a warm evening, your candlelit table looking out onto a beautiful square surrounded by pretty old buildings, a small band plays and sings during your meal… sounds romantic doesn’t it? I love some live music while I’m chowing down my grilled chicken, but I’ve learnt the novelty does wear off. The tunes are on repeat, sometimes the band is amazing, sometimes not, but your tip cannot discriminate! For real atmosphere- head to a teeny tiny bar, where the band is right in your face and everyone has no choice but to get amongst it! It was the perfect place to ring in the New Year, and hide out until the locals stopped throwing bucket loads of water onto the street from their balconies- a tradition apparently!
Che Guevara is a national hero? So true. There’s no escaping him, and that image. But not all Cubans are shouting ‘Viva la Revolucion’ and pledging full allegiance to Castro. While the Government has loosened some reigns allowing locals to run casa particulars and paladors, many locals are far from prosperous.
Cuba is one of the few undiscovered travel destinations? Not true. Travel to Cuba may be restricted for Americans but that has not stopped them and plenty of other tourists heading to the island. You can’t take two steps in Havana without a bicycle taxi offering you a ride (despite it being illegal for them to carry tourists), or being approached by women asking you to buy milk for their starving children. Che hats and t-shirts are everywhere, as are men hissing at you about cheap cigars- there’s no shortage of wheeling and dealing to take advantage of the tourist market.
But that won’t and shouldn’t stop people from visiting Cuba- it is some parts eclectic, some parts messy, some parts painstakingly slow, but it is all parts charming.