On a Saturday afternoon, the streets of Old Havana have a steady rhythm.
A dark-skinned woman sings while she sells peanuts wrapped in paper cones. Men smoke fat cigars in the outdoor cafes of the cobbled squares, the embers glowing deeply in the columned shade of the Spanish baroque cathedrals. Young boys play soccer and old men play chess amid the amid dust that rises from dirt paths. Troubadours serenade you with harmonized duets, and you can wander without a map, simply following the sun and the strumming of the Spanish guitar.
Winding paths will take you through an aging city, filled with modern ruins: 80% of buildings in Havana went up between 1900 and 1958. Because the average income is about $20 a month and people cannot always afford to maintain what they own, an average of 3.1 buildings crumble every day. Lime-washed mansions sit elegantly with faded columns, cracked facades, and vacant interiors. Three-story colonial buildings stand in vibrant rows of hot pink, sea green, lemon yellow, and Havana blue (named for the unique tint of minerals found in the soil). Often, their balconies are painted in a starkly different hue, hung with white sheets billowing from long clothing lines.
At the Malecón, the promenade hugging the sea that Cubans call “the longest couch in Europe,” lovers lie basking in the sun on the five-mile stone seawall. Classic American cars shimmer as they rumble throatily along the winding road, filling the salt air with the smell of heavy exhaust fumes, as winter waves crash belligerently against the barrier, as though trying to escape the ocean.
I spent five days in Havana back in February, enchanted by a place that feels both suspended in the 1950s and also on the precipice of historic change. President Obama recently traveled to the country, marking the first visit from a sitting U.S. president in 88 years. He promised to lift America’s crippling trade embargo, a move that will quickly usher Cuba into the 21st century. (More than 3 million Americans are expected to visit in 2016, enormous given that Havana only has roughly 2.2 million residents.)
When I visited, it felt like the country embodied another time, one free of monolithic ads, glitzy nightclubs, and omnipresent chains — but also one without many conveniences. American credit and debit cards still don’t work on the island. The internet is illegal in most Cuban homes. Wifi hotspots dot the city, but they usually require an internet card, which costs $2 an hour, a princely sum in a country where the average salary is $20 a month.
On March 20, the U.S. government granted permission to Starwood Hotels and Marriott International to operate in Cuba, but other chains will have difficulty penetrating the market until the embargo is officially lifted. There is a cluster of luxury hotels in Havana, like the famous La Nacional that has housed everyone from Castro to, now, Obama. The average price for a room at one of these hotels is $200, and the rate is likely to climb as more tourists make their way to Havana.
Full disclosure: I went to Cuba as part of a press trip for Airbnb, which began operating in the country in April and has grown at record speed, in part because casa particulares(private homes) available for rent have long been a part of the culture. There are now more than 4,000 Airbnb listings in Cuba, more than 50% of which are in Havana, and they are continuing to expand.
For only $35 a night, I stayed in a private room with a host family in a stunning 1930s art deco building in Central Havana. Inside, each room was filled with floor-to-ceiling shuttered doors, which were always open during the day, giving the feeling of living in the open air. The sun bathed the flat with morning light, and the balmy Cuban breeze pushed the wooden rocking chairs gently to and fro.
The living room consisted of palatial ceilings, tiled floors, marble columns, and frosted glass chandeliers. The décor, meanwhile, was a mishmash of items inherited from departed relatives: a grandmother’s teacups with delicate floral patterns, porcelain statues rimmed with gold, and a stuffed monkey hugging a giant artificial rose.
The bathroom in my room was essentially a bunker opened by an accordion door, while the door to my bedroom had an enchanted locking system—it worked if you fiddle around with it a bit, but none of us were sure of how or why.
Every morning, I would drink a cup of strong, black Cuban coffee on the balcony while I watched life quietly unfold within the buildings across the street: a family gathered around an old television set, a woman patching a knitted turquoise shawl, a man separating coffee beans on his kitchen table.
The downside of this openness, of course, is that you could hear everything inside the building, especially at night: an old man shuffling anxiously upstairs, a mother drying her dishes downstairs. I would lie awake imagining the lives of these people, and then, finally, succumb to sleep.
Cuba has a long history of hospitality, and it shows. Even though I told Mildred, my host, that I don’t eat breakfast, she stuffed me with eggs, sausage, bread, fruit, smoothies, and Cuban coffee every morning. Like a watchful mother hen, she glared warily from the balcony when a male friend came to pick me up, refusing to let him inside the house until I was done getting dressed. It often felt like everyone was responsible for your well-being, that everyone was in some way family.
But with this sense of familiarity comes a lack of personal space. It’s not uncommon for a man to grab you by the forearm to get your attention as you pass. I felt perfectly safe walking the streets by myself, but it was like walking through a perpetual construction zone. Men constantly ask you where you’re from, especially if, like me, you are blonde and fair-skinned.
For tourists, Cuba is extremely cheap. At an average bar, a cocktail only costs $2, and it only goes up to $6 at a touristy spot like Hemingway’s famous watering hole, El Floridita. But the reality is that Cuba is still a very poor country.
For ordinary people, food is still hard to come by. I asked my Cuban friend Orly to take me to a supermarket. “This is the supermercado,”he said, pointing to a lone fruit vendor selling pineapples and coconuts on a dusty alleyway.
One morning, we passed by a horde of people storming a store on an ordinary street. “Is that a hot nightclub or something?” I asked, jokingly. “No,” Orly responded. “That’s the line for eggs.”
While some items, like toothpaste and shampoo, are fairly easy to acquire, others, like toilet paper, are a challenge. It’s not easy to find a store that sells it, and when you do there’s no guarantee that more will be there the following day.
But Cubans prevail, because finding a way around any obstacle is a national sport that stems from the country’s unique history. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost its biggest exporter of trade. The years that followed are what Cubans euphemistically call “The Special Period.” Goods were particularly limited, and blackouts became a routine part of everyday life.
While Cubans today love their country the way it is, they are also optimistic and excited about the changes that restoring diplomatic relations with the U.S. will bring. It’s not so much because of the economic boost that the partnership is sure to foment, but something that’s much closer to the hearts of Cubans: family.
The easing of travel restrictions means that Cubans can now visit their relatives in the U.S. without special permission and welcome them back in their home country for the first time in 60 years.
“Communism, capitalism, that’s all politics, that’s all the government,” a local man named Luis said, pointing his finger toward the sky. “But family, that’s real.”
As I watch people saunter through the Saturday afternoon sunlight in Havana, I worry that lifting the embargo will turn Cuba into a kitschy tourist trap. While I know it will be an enormous boon to everyday Cubans, I selfishly want it to the stay the same, to retain its purity as a place where people can just breathe in the salt air and smoke cigars and sip rum away from the clutches of commercialism.
“Some people say Havana will turn into Las Vegas,” Luis said when I asked him if he was worried. “But they forget that before 1959, it was Las Vegas — and we were still Cuban.”
Things to Know Before You Go:
Tourism is still illegal. The U.S. government has 12 approved categories for American citizens traveling to Cuba, including family visits, journalism, humanitarian work, religious activities, and people-to-people travel, the latter of which is essentially a thinly-veiled term for tourism, because all it requires is a series of activities “that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
Make a plan. Until recently, if you wanted to do “people-to-people travel,” you had to go through an organization specializing in travel, such as Cuba Educational Travel, which offers trips for a flat fee of $3,500 but take care of everything for you. Since March 15, you can go independently, provided you have a full-time itinerary of activities when you’re there and aren’t just sipping mojitos on the beach.
U.S. companies still can’t deposit money in Cuban accounts, but Airbnb hosts navigate this with help from relatives, who live abroad and manage the listing for them. Children call their parents on their home phone to tell them when visitors are arriving. Airbnb sends the money to family members’ accounts, and they then send it on to Cuba. Otherwise, Airbnb sends an intermediary to physically deliver cash to the hosts.
Getting there requires a visa. It costs between $50-100, but you don’t need to send your passport to a consulate. They just hand you the visa when you check-in for your flight.
Charter planes are the only way to arrive. In December, it was announced that commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba would resume. Airlines may fly these routes as early as the fall. But for now, traveling to Cuba is still only possible via charter planes. Direct flights to Havana operate from Miami, Los Angeles, Tampa, and New York. The standard round-trip fare ranges from $450 to $1,000, and you have to pay a $25 exit tax when you leave.
By Diana Bruk