One of the main reasons why I love traveling so much is because it allows me to learn about the world in a way that is deep, meaningful and personal. From soaking up tradition and culture in the medinas of Marrakech, Morocco to uncovering the horrors of the Nazi Regime at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland to learning of former Yugoslavia’s struggles following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the streets of Ljubljana, Slovenia, time and time again my travels have taught me that the best classroom in the world truly is the world. Although, if only I could get the same feeling and depth of knowledge out of textbooks or Netflix documentaries, my bank account would be a lot fuller!
I’ve also found there is no better way to really understand a place’s culture or history than by touring with a local. Perhaps as travelers we will never really fully be able to comprehend the destinations we visit, but to see a place through the eyes of a local and not just the lense of a tourist can at least get you a more profound understanding.
The opportunity to learn about Cuban history from actual Cubans was at the top of a long list of reasons why I was out of my mind with excitement at the opportunity to visit Havana. My pre-arrival excitement was so great in fact that I spent two of the three final nights before my trip wide awake with an adrenaline rush of insomnia further fueled by listening to the entire soundtrack of West Side Story. (Yes I’m aware the Sharks are Puerto Rican, not Cuban, but I didn’t have a Cuban musical to fall back on).
Havana Tour Company
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started traveling extensively was to not take more guided tours. In the past I used to kind of turn my nose up at them, branding them as the lazy way out for people who don’t want to be independent when they travel, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Tours in places like Budapest and Guatemala City taught me that you can learn way more on a guided tour than you ever could on your own, even if you have a guidebook.
Havana Tour Company offers tours that “showcase the real Havana.” The itinerary of their Full Day Tour of Havana includes a morning walking tour of La Habana Vieja, lunch at an authentic Cuban Paladar and an afternoon cruise in a classic car. Both private and group tours are available.
I took a private tour and met my tour guide, Yaniet Curro Cabrera, at the Hotel Inglaterra, Cuba’s oldest hotel, to begin our trek through Cuba’s capital city.
I couldn’t have asked for a cooler tour guide than Yaniet. While I do speak Spanish, Yaniet is completely fluent in English, making her a great guide for non-Spanish speaking visitors. Yaniet and I are very close in age and I found we had a lot in common. We both wanted to study journalism, taught English for a stint and have an unquenchable thirst to “see the world.” We both hate cat-callers and people who abuse our tendencies to be too trusting. We both love dresses and Sandra Bullock in the movie The Proposal. We both, as young women in 2015, want our voices to be heard, although we aren’t always sure the best way for this to happen in the confusing world we now live in.
I may not have found love in Cuba (I’m officially adding it to the long list of countries where my Before Sunrise fantasies did not come true), but in Yaniet I definitely found a potential Cuban BFF. And she taught me so much about Cuba. Here’s some of what I learned.
Historic Sights of Havana
We started our tour by stopping in front of the capitol building, which is an exact replica of the United States capitol building in Washington D.C., only not as long. It is however, technically taller, if only by a few meters.
The capitol building sits on Prado Avenue, which divides the more modern district of Havana Central from Havana Vieja. “Modern” is a relative term in Cuba; buildings that are described as modern were built in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s by American architecture firms during a period in which the United States had a lot of influence on the island nation. Little construction has been done since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, although Spanish colonial buildings dating back to the 1700’s have been well preserved.
Today 11 million people live in Cuba and two million live in Havana. Despite the U.S. ban on tourism, the country is hardly an undiscovered wonder — three million tourists visited the country last year, setting a new record. Yaniet said that she, like most Cubans, is very excited about the prospect of more American tourists, and she has even noticed more U.S. visitors already just since President Obama announced an opening of ties with Cuba in July.
From Prado Avenue we strolled down Boulevard San Rafael, the main shopping district for locals in Havana Central, and onto Central Park where there is a statue of José Julián Martí Pérez , a national hero and poet who fought against the Spanish. Since he used words as his primary weapon, he was killed in the first battle he fought in. There are 28 royal palms that surround the park commemorating his birthday.
La Habana Vieja
In the streets of la Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, we passed the former Bacardi factory, abandoned after the revolution. A factor that denotes Cuba from many other places is that, in accordance with communist and socialist principles, there are very few private businesses. When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959, all companies were nationalized and major corporations, including Hilton Hotels and Bacardi Liquor, left the country.
Up until five years ago there were very few private businesses in Cuba and it was also illegal for Cubans to buy or sell houses and cars. When Raúl Castro took over power from his brother Fidel, many laws changed. Now Cubans can have private businesses, but they can only sell items made in Cuba and shops have to operate out of their own homes. With this, there are three main types of private businesses — souvenier shops, casas particulares (private rooms for rent in homes) and paladares (private restaurants in homes).
From the former Bacardi factory we walked to La Floridita, home to the world’s best daquiris and former haunt of writer Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway lived in Cuba for around 20 years and this bar was one of his favorite hang outs.
Yaniet and I walked down Obispo Street, the main street of this district, to the harbor where we boiled under Havana’s hot sun. From the harbor there are views of Morro Castle, a Spanish fortress and El Cristo de Havana, a large statue of Christ in a district called Casa Blanca.
The Plaza de Armas also offers views of Spanish forts. One of the most unique plazas in Havana, the streets here are made of wood. Legend has it that the wife of a General who lived in this plaza was a lazy woman who wanted to sleep in late during the mornings. The carriages on the street would wake her up so her husband replaced the stones with wood so it would make less noise.
St. Francis Plaza is another beautiful square in the city. There’s a convent here as well as a former stock market building. Outside the convent is a statue of “The Gentleman from Paris.” This bronze statue depicts a former Spanish resident who was sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. In jail he went crazy. When he was released he became homeless and wandered the streets. When people would give him food, he would give poems back in return. In his madness he would tell people,” I’m not a beggar, I’m a gentleman from Paris.”
There is a special way to touch the statue to bring you luck, but you need to touch the statue’s foot, right finger and beard all at the same time. Yaniet clued me in on the secret.
We passed the Havana Club, which is not actually a club but rather a factory and museum where they make Cuba’s world-famous rum, on the way to Plaza Vieja. This is one of the largest plazas in Havana and has many restaurants. The plaza also has a unique statue that depicts a nude woman holding a fork while riding a rooster. In the 1950’s prostitution was rampant in Havana. This statue represents a prostitute, her face forlorn, going after an American man (the rooster) in order to put food on her family’s table (the fork). The Castro regime put an end to prostitution and did much for the equality of women.
Lunch at an Authentic Cuban Paladar
In a red, 1954 Chevy we cruised down the Malecón to another neighborhood called Vedado for lunch at Paladar Laurent.This restaurant sits on the top floor of a beautiful apartment complex and overlooks the sea and the outline of old Havana. It is 1950’s themed; the wall paper features real newspaper clippings from the era. The bright white space was the perfect setting to enjoy a relaxing conversation over mojitos, bread with olive oil, squash soup, chicken and vegetables and ice cream for dessert.
A Classic Car Tour
After lunch a pink classic car came to pick us up for the afternoon portion of our tour. Havana is full of beautiful classic cars that some visitors may write off as Disneylandesque, but their presence has little to do with tourism and more to do with practicality. These cars are so prevalent because following the beginning of the U.S. embargo in 1962, importing cars became extremely costly. Cars in Cuba can cost more than homes, and so it has been necessary to maintain the old ones and keep them running.
We drove first to Revolution Square. This large area can hold up to one million people and has long been a gathering place for leaders to talk to the masses. Fidel Castro has given many speeches here and the Pope delivered a mass from this square during his visit in September.
This plaza contains several unique buildings that depict key figures in Cuba’s revolution. One building shows an outline of Che Guevara, an Argentine Marxist revolutionary who served as Castro’s right hand man from 1954 until shortly before his death in 1967. He remains a heroic and popular figure in the country today. The building reads “Hasta la Victoria Siempre,” or “Until Victory, Always.” Molded in his own handwriting, Guevara wrote these famous words in a farewell letter to Cuba in the 1960’s.
Another building in the plaza contains the outline of Camilo Cienfuegos, another important confidant of Castro. The building reads “Va Bien Fidel,” or “You’re Doing Fine, Fidel.” Cienfuegos used to say these words often to Castro in times of distress. Cienfuegos died in 1959 when his plane disappeared.
From this historical plaza we drove to the outskirts of Havana to visit the city’s quieter side at the Havana Forest. An enchanting forest may not be what comes to mind when you first think of Havana, but there is indeed a large park near the Almendares River.
After walking around the woods for a bit and observing a group of locals performing a chicken sacrifice, we headed back into our classic car to drive to our final stop on the tour, La Torre. At 33 stories the FOSCA building is the tallest structure in Cuba. On the top level there is a restaurant and bar with large glass windows that look out at the city and Gulf of Mexico below. From here I even got a bird’s eye view of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a legendary hotel that I also got to tour.
Yaniet and I ended our time together on a high note, sipping piña coladas and talking about our dreams for the future.
I’ve been asked by a few people since I’ve returned from Cuba if, during my visit, I felt what I learned was propaganda. In response to this I want to laugh and show them the picture I have in my mind of me and Yaniet walking down Opispo street as the sounds of salsa spill out onto the cobble stone.
I’d laugh and ask, “do you see any propoganda here?” I don’t. I just see two young women, spending a day together in Havana, enchanted by the city and sharing in the same fears and questions about life despite the very different worlds they come from.
Note: A special thanks to Havana Tour Company for hosting me on a complimentary tour, and especially to Yaniet for showing me the real beauty of Cuba. All thoughts and opinions are my own.