I’m fortunate to be part of a family that places value on travel and exploring other cultures. As a Nigerian American, I got my first taste of international travel from summer long excursions to Lagos to spend time with my grandparents and extended family.
From those trips grew a curiosity to see and explore more, each place seemingly better than the last but the peak so far? Havana, Cuba.
It goes without saying that I’m always excited at the opportunity to travel, especially to a new place, but the fact that I was going to a place where one is technically “forbidden” to travel to?! What an adventure! So against the law! Sort of. But anyways – it was one of the most beautiful, intriguing and fascinating places I have laid eyes on.
The amount of history and stories behind the monuments, neighborhoods, bars, and restaurants was incredibly humbling and as much as I would like to write about everything I saw, that would make for an exceptionally long post so I’ll just focus on the highlights, mmmkay?
Cuba is an extremely green and lush country. Unfortunately, we flew into and left Cuba at night so I didn’t get to see with my own eyes but, I’m told that the aerial view of Cuba is magical and dreamy, especially to a person usually surrounded by concrete, monstrosities of glass and metal with apartments I’ll never be able to afford, and significant noise pollution (can you guess where I live???).
I saw some of it as we explored areas outside Havana like Santa Clara and Varadero and I can’t say enough how stunning the country is. Even with the societal imperfections – it’s still a sight for sore eyes.
Food was fantastic and I ate e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Rice and beans. Pork. Seafood. Lots and lots of seafood. Often our eating out was in Plaza de la Catedral – which is one of the main squares in Old Havana. Did you know the mojito originated in Cuba? I didnt. And it is claimed that the drink came from a bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway called El Bodeguito del Medio. We went there for lunch, mojitos and live music – the simplest yet most perfect combination for our first outing in Havana.
Music was everywhere as we walked around town. It was as if the city of Havana had a permanent salsa soundtrack to immerse you in the culture. We saw the Buena Vista Social Club Orchestra at the Havana Cafe – a lounge surrounded by cars from the 1950’s which have become a significant part of the city.
The song you’re bound to hear on the streets at any given moment? Chan Chan. This is particularly poetic to me because Compay Segundo, who composed the song, described that the melody of the song came to him like a dream; that it was as if heard the song playing on the street from his balcony.
Probably my favorite part of this trip was exploring the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and the island. Hemingway had a deep admiration for the country and the Cuban people have showed equal esteem for the writer. Cues of Hemingway are seen almost as much as other Cuban icons throughout Havana.
His first “residence” was at Hotel Ambos Mundos, a small studio where he resided after his divorce and prior to moving into Finca La Vigía, where he wrote The Old Man and The Sea. His home, located only about 20 minutes outside the city center has been turned into a museum and inspiration for my dream home. A must see.
On our last day, we went to Museo de la Revolución, where you can learn in painstaking detail all of the events leading up to and post revolution. The museum is housed in what was the former Presidential Palace until 1959. The amount of artifacts they have on display is fascinating.
I mean they have ev-ery-thing from the space suit worn by Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez to Fulgencio Bastista’s seemingly super “extra” golden telephone to the uber famous Rincon de los Cretinos (translates to Caricatures of Antirevolutionists). Even after spending a few hours there, I left wanting to know even more.
These are just some of the highlights that made this trip so memorable. I’m so lucky to have seen it, especially before the floodgates of capitalism take over the island. It was simultaneously mind boggling to be in a place vacant of McDonalds, KFC, Subway or Starbucks or any other American corporation. If you have the opportunity, GO SOON! And if you are planning to go, here are a few things to know:
Accommodations: we were lucky to have a contact at the Nigerian embassy with whom we stayed but, if you need to find your own accommodations, use Airbnb. Do NOT book a hotel. I recommend this for a few reasons. 1. I’m fairly certain your expectations of what a hotel should be and the realities of what they are in Cuba will be miles apart. 2. using Airbnb will feed needed dollars to Cubans vs a more-likely-than-not state-run and operated hotel.
Wifi: is damn near nonexistent so prepare yourself. Have all the information you might need (addresses, phone numbers, places you want to visit, etc.) written down or stored somewhere because you will not be surfing the web or posting to the ‘gram unless you happen upon a pocket of wifi.
Getting Around: easiest way to get around is via taxi which usually take the form of old 1950’s Chevy’s. These are official government taxis which are required for tourist use. However if you use a Coco taxi (one of the small yellow taxis) it’s unlikely you’ll run into trouble but the driver might afterwards. Make sure to negotiate your price before starting your ride. When you are in a new country or city, it is important to do your research on public transport, as it may differ depending on where you are. Before I went to Cuba, I was doing some research into taxi services close to where my hotel was and I came across stories where people were involved in Uber accidents. They don’t have this service in Cuba, but it was still scary to hear. Anything can happen on the road. The victims even went as far as getting in touch with a company like Batta Fulkerson to get professional advice about how to take this further. This must have been very scary for the victims to deal with. These stories did make me a little nervous when I thought about taking taxis in Cuba, but I then had to remember that accidents don’t always happen and they are just unfortunate events that take place.
Read: This is Cuba by Ben Corbett provides a provoking view at the contradictions that permeate the island as it battles between socialism and capitalism and the seemingly devastating effect on its people. I especially recommend this if you plan to stay only in Havana because you’ll only see the “tourist’s Cuba.”
Ola Abayomi is a blogger living in New York City. In 2015, she was lucky enough to spend 3 glorious months backpacking through Southeast Asia. That sabbatical inspired her blog Out of Office: Gone Living. Follow Ola’s adventures on IG @ola_ola_ayy.