A Night Out in Old (and New) Havana

When we told people that we were going to Cuba, many had questions as to if that was even possible. Sure, for a long time it wasn’t, or was at least very difficult, then a few years ago it became much easier.

This past summer it became it bit more difficult again, but certainly not impossible. We won’t go into the politics or rationality of the situation, so let’s just say that for those of us with an open mind and an adventurous spirit Cuba is accessible.

We had some concerns, but in the end they turned out to be mostly unwarranted. The process is actually fairly simple, as long as the visit is part of a well-planned tour group. That is where Backroads excels, such as with our Cuba Bike Tour: National Parks, Rum & Latin Rhythms into Havana.

Being part of their special People-to-People experience meant that getting our Cuban Travel Cards, the equivalent of a visa, was basically a breeze and we had absolutely no issues entering or exiting the country.

One of the stipulations for travel from the U.S. is that tourists are not permitted to enter the Cuba more than 24 hours before their tour begins, or stay over 24 hours after it ends. Still, that left us with one night on our own in Havana before our bicycling began.

The ride into the city from the airport served as a quick tour as we passed revolutionary monuments, the old capitol building, and many grand old structures in various states of repair from regal to ruinous in this city founded over five hundred years ago.

Rather than trying to make the scene that was famous in the city’s glory days of yore, when nightclubs and casinos were all the rage, we chose to meet up with a few of our fellow cyclists and explore the burgeoning art scene.

That meant a trip to what has come to be known as simply La Fàbrica, the Fàbrica de Arte de Cubano, which means the Cuban factory of art.

As a special introductory to Havana bonus, we were more than pleasantly surprised that a 1955 Chevy Bel Air showed up to take us when we called a taxi. We didn’t know it at the time, but discovered that many of the old American classics now serve as “illegal” taxis. In this case the lack of legality only means that they are not state run.

The museum is actually housed in an old factory, which creates a maze of variously sized rooms and spaces serving as galleries and performance venues. Originally part of the Havana Tramway back in the eighteen hundreds, the name recalls a famed cooking oil brand which occupied the premises pre-World War II.

The Factory opened in 2013 with the concept of uniting all forms of art, music, and theater and quickly became a must see in Havana, attracting some of the world’s most famous folks such as Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Quincy Jones, Beyoncé, and President Barack Obama.

Our visit came too early in the evening to catch any of the musical or theatrical performances, but we wandered through the numerous rooms admiring the innovative works in their unique settings, much of which has a decidedly political theme.

While drinks, snacks, and a full service restaurant are available, we decided to walk next door for dinner at El Cocinero Restaurant. This establishment, like the private taxi and the “casa” that where we were staying for our first night, is part of a new tourist economy that has emerged in Cuba.

A few years ago the government made the decision to pursue international tourism as a source of income, but the state run services were not ready to meet the demand so rules were put in place to allow some private ventures.

What sprung up resemble Air B&B type lodgings called particulars and Uber style taxis. A similar movement has taken place in the restaurant business with the rise of paladares. These were once restricted to limited seats within a home, but have morphed into what we experienced seated on a beautiful terrace overlooking the Vedado neighborhood of la Habana.

Chef Ramon Manuel Lopez Alarcon has created what is consistently named as one of, if not the best restaurant in Havana.

Far from the bland, uninspired cuisine we had been warned to expect in Cuba, we dined on pork tenderloin with a creamy corn and coconut sauce and grilled Caribbean spiny lobster accompanied by pilaf and salad while some of our tour mates chose lamb curry and duck confit.

Delicious as the entrées were, the deserts were outstanding. We ordered a couple to share around the table, including the house specialty chocolate tart and a cute take on rice pudding that came served like sushi.

After another illegal ride back to our casa, we were left to ponder just how this strange new brand of seemingly capitalist entrepreneurship can coexist with the official economy that remains strictly controlled.

A few years ago the government created a two-tiered currency system, which in essence keeps these new businesses separated from the state run counterparts, but the discrepancy of incomes between government employees and these new service workers has become wildly unbalanced.

Foreigners can exchange currency for convertible pesos (CUC) at a rate pegged to the dollar, which are used for almost all tourist services. In fact, we never even saw a regular peso.

The trouble with this is that CUCs are twenty-five times more valuable than the regular pesos (CUP) that most everyone else is paid in.

This means that on a good night an illegal taxi driver, a server at a private restaurant, or a casa innkeeper can make the equivalent of many months of salary for a doctor, teacher, or engineer working for the state.

The system certainly looks to be unsustainable to our eyes, and Raul Castro has promised to do away with it for some time now, but has yet to find a workable way out.

Hopefully a balance can be struck that will allow Cuba’s burgeoning tourism sector to thrive.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to Backroads for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

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