Traveling to Cuba to Find the Heart of Havana

A vintage Jaguar on the street in the Vedado neighborhood

The first thing you notice when you walk out of the airport in Havana is the cars. They’re the cars that you imagine when you think of Cuba, all bulbous hoods and long lines stretching to the taillights. They are old, and they are real. Unlike French berets or Italian gondolas, Cuba’s cars aren’t just a symbol for tourists; they’re the cars that everyday Cubans drive to school, to the store, to the beach.

Some are dull and rusted, held together by unseen forces, but others are sleek and perfectly maintained, with brilliantly colored paint and shiny chrome accents. They’re a visible reminder of everything that Cubans hold dear: perseverance, ingenuity, style. Perhaps more so than many places, Cuba has had to forge its identity in a vacuum and looking at these cars, you can begin to understand what it is: bold, colorful, and completely unique.

The First Mojitos

My trip to Cuba was a bit to the left of legal; I visited just two weeks before relations between the United States and Cuba were restored, meaning that I had to plan everything without any of my usual resources, like travel websites. Even sites based in other countries would sometimes block me from searching flights to Cuba.

Eventually, though, I was able to find tickets from Cancun to Havana on an airline I’d never heard of. I bought them, praying that the unprofessional-looking, buggy site didn’t mean that I was being scammed. And then, six months later, my boyfriend and I were crammed into an airplane, our luggage crowded around our feet in clear violation of every regulation, getting ready to touch down in a country where, if anything went wrong, we were, more or less, screwed.

The idea of getting into legal trouble in my own country, though, worried me less than the idea of being an unwelcome stranger in another. As we drove through the Havana twilight, I wondered if the arrival of two American tourists would be met with hostility or at least suspicion. Enthusiasm seemed too much to hope for, but I could have lived with indifference.

As it turns out, it was met with mojitos.

As the Cuban people have slowly been regaining their rights and freedoms after decades under an oppressive government, one of the first businesses that individuals were allowed to run were homestay arrangements, meaning that they could rent out rooms in their homes to visitors and make a profit. We pulled up to a beautiful building in the Vedado neighborhood and climbed the stairs to the very top floor, wondering what we would find. Large, airy rooms with thick plaster walls circled a central courtyard, and a winding metal staircase led up to the roof, from which we could see the entire city.

Our hosts followed us up, mojitos in tow. Felipe, the husband, made the best mojitos in Cuba, they said. One sip told us that the syrupy, bitter mojitos we’d had in the United States for years didn’t deserve the same name. A whole stalk of fresh mint swirled in the glass with lime, soda, and real Havana Club rum. As we drank, we looked out over the rooftops to the ocean where, somewhere in the distance, was Florida. At that moment, though, it couldn’t have felt farther.

The Malecón: Havana’s Living Room

Havana is nestled up to the water, where a stretch of seawall known as the Malecón serves as a meeting place for the entire city, locals and tourists alike. At sunset, hundreds of people come to watch as the light on the buildings turns suddenly golden. Fishermen line the rocks, casting their reels out into the fading daylight, while children still in their school uniforms shove and tease each other. Tourists like us take picture after picture of the skyline, knowing that by the time we return, it could look entirely different.

Habana Vieja, the old part of the city, is currently undergoing an expansive reconstruction, and it has revitalized the city’s artisans and workers. Every job possible is being given to local experts, from masonry to art restoration. And with the restoration comes more tourism revenue, further improving the economy.

Now, in Havana Vieja, instead of cracked and pitted plaster, the walls are smooth and white, and the fountains and bell towers have been painstakingly restored. And, bit by bit, the work is spreading outwards, toward other parts of the city.

The rest of Havana is stunning and shabby in equal measure; the heavy wrought-iron balconies and vividly painted buildings have remained largely untouched for the last half-century, giving them a worn patina. But that wear and tear somehow suit Havana. Many cities feel as though the people in them are just passing by, always on their way to somewhere else. The people of Havana are present; they yell to one another from windows and doorways. The streets feel vibrant, music pouring out of every window. Impromptu soccer games disband and regroup every time a car drives through. Everywhere you turn, you are a part of something.

The New Year

Two nights after we drank those first mojitos together, we stood with our hosts on the roof at midnight and watched as their neighbors poured water out the windows to wash away the sins and sorrows of the previous year. I tried, in my imperfect Spanish, to explain the concept of New Year’s resolutions, even though I didn’t have one myself. The wife, in particular, took to the idea; she told us that her resolution was to see more of the world. She had never been outside of Cuba but was planning a three-week trip to Wales to visit a homestay guest who had become a friend. Years of brutal restrictions had prevented her from leaving the country before, but this would be a time of change.

That was the word that hung over our whole trip: change. In a matter of weeks, travel between the US and Cuba would begin to open up, and no one knew what it would mean. Some changes, like the increased availability of the internet and all of its multitudes of information, were undoubtedly good. But as I looked at the buildings that lined the winding streets, with their grand, crumbling facades, and tried to imagine what Havana would feel like with the arrival of shiny, anonymous resorts and American chain restaurants. I wondered if that progress might destroy what was so special about Cuba if that intangible thing that made Havana feel so different from everywhere else I’d ever been was directly connected to the fact that this is a city frozen in time.

Then again, the imminent arrival of Americans won’t be the first major change that the people of Cuba have experienced recently. Running a business had allowed our host family to live differently than anyone could have dreamed even a decade ago.

They owned their entire apartment building and were hoping to buy the one next door as well. They could afford to have full-time help with the cooking and cleaning. And they’d bought a new car. It is small and modern, with beige seats and a shiny black exterior. It would be virtually invisible on any street in the United States, but here it stands out among the classic Fords and Bel Airs. Slowly, though, that is changing. A symbol of pride becomes a symbol of progress and watching our host family buckle their children in before driving away, soon turning a corner down one of those same crowded, complicated Havana streets, it’s clear that the cars were never where the country’s heart lay anyway.

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