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Southwest Airlines

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Culture Shock, Havana, Travel

Welcome to Cuba…

I’m going to be honest…I don’t know what to expect from Cuba… Sure, I’m familiar with the stereotypical things – vintage cars, cheap rum, good cigars, and I’ve heard arriving will be like stepping back in time. But, as usual, I am willfully unprepared and have done little planning other than to sort a few night’s accommodation along the way.

On December 3oth, a good friend drops me off at Mangonia Station near West Palm Beach to take the TriRail to Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. After a one-hour train ride and a shuttle bus to Terminal 1, I head to the Southwest desk to check in for my flight. I’m told to head downstairs to a separate check-in area where an employee, who’s appropriately sporting a fedora, tells me to head to the visa desk, get my visa, then come back and get in line to check in. After waiting in many lines and talking to many people, I have the appropriate visa for Cuba and am checked in.

The gates are crammed full of people traveling home from their Christmas holidays and off on their New Years jaunts, and I make my way to B-7 for boarding. I snag an exit seat next to an American guy, Wayne, who sort of resembles Robert De Niro. He’s traveling home to Havana, where his Cuban wife is waiting for him. He looks at me and asks if this is my first visit to Cuba, and at my response, proceeds to spend the entire duration of the one-hour flight making suggestions of where to eat, what to see, what to eat, where to drink, and where to dance. He makes notes on the print out of other recommendations someone had kindly emailed to me and jots down his address and his cell phone number.

Upon landing, I quickly fill out the numerous arrival forms handed to me at the beginning of the flight, grab my bag and walk with Wayne to the arrival hall. He suggests I change a small amount of currency at the airport, but not all of it. I can get a better rate in the city, he says.

Arrival is seamless, despite hearing horror stories of hour long waits to clear security and customs (they x-ray EVERYTHING coming in), and Wayne and I say goodbye. My friend Christy’s flight has just arrived, so I scoop her up and we head off to find our other friend Sarah, who is waiting in the arrivals area outside.

Outside and to the left is a concession stand that sells cold beer, rum, cigarettes and a few snacks. The area is seething with people, but we grab a hightop table we can stand around, orderĀ  a cold Bavaria beer each and watch as people drive their vintage cars around the arrival loop road, looking for the people they’re picking up.

The air is humid and smells of car fumes, but there’s a lightness to it. No one is in a hurry. We are already experiencing Cuban time.

We wait for Arianna, who meets us to assist with our airport transfer and help get us settled in at the Airbnb we have booked. I guess all she had to do was look for the three white girls at the airport, so her job wasn’t too difficult. After our hellos, we finish our beers, grab our bags and squeeze into a kelly green 1950s Chevrolet and make our way to Vedado.

We drop our bags at our Airbnb on 23rd & 12th and attempt to change money. After learning that most banks would be closed until after New Years, I audibly thank Wayne for suggesting we change a little bit of money at the airport, and we jump into a taxi with Arianna still in tow and head to Old Havana.

We pass the iconic Hotel Nacional and make a right to drive along the Malecon. By this point in time, it’s nearing end of day, and as we drive, we watch the waves splash up and over the Malecon, splashing the road, the cars and the occasional passerby.

We drive up Parque Central and jump out near Hotel Ingelterra. I can tell we’ve entered the touristic area of Havana but can’t help but be awed by the beauty of the architecture. Once ornate buildings have lost the struggle with the test of time, but they manage to hold on to a sliver of their former glory. It is easy to envision just how jaw-droppingly beautiful Havana was in its heyday.

We stop in to Parque Central Hotel, where every tourist seems to be sitting in the lobby and attempting to access WIFI. Here we’re able to change a bit more cash before heading to the eastern part of Old Havana for drinks and a snack.

We find El Chacon and order a round of mojitos, followed by the national beer, Cristal. Arianna is still with us and we get the chance to learn a little bit more about what her life is like. Besides helping out with her cousin’s Airbnb and working as a makeshift tour guide, she also works as an architect/interior designer and as a teacher. Arianna tells us it’s not uncommon for Cubans to have up to two or three side gigs in addition to their main job. We learn she makes the least amount of money from her full time job teaching, bringing in about $20 a month. She makes better money with her design gig, but the most income is derived from her tourism gig.

As we sit in El Chacon, in what feels like the equivalent of a hip European cafe in a touristy part of town, I hope that I will be able to discover the authentic Cuban experience while I’m here. I’m glad Arianna is still with us and that we have the chance to talk openly and candidly with her. She tells us that she (like many other Cubans) has never left the country and despite being (so say) allowed to, it’s almost impossible for Cubans to get the necessary visas.

From El Chacon, we walk over to Obispo, which is filled with even more tourists, but we find a dive bar on the corner called El Escabeche. The place is dimly lit, and a band is set up in the corner belting out Cuban classics. We order a round of mojitos and meet the crew working there. Carlo, is the manager and Armando and Diego are tending bar with Charlie, who claims to make the best mojito. He even won an award in Chicago.

Carlo calls over a young guy, David, from the other corner, and makes him salsa with me. I think to myself that I’m doing good at following the instructions my good friend Christel gave me before I departed for this trip: 1. drink rum, 2. smoke cigars, and 3. dance. We spend a good part of the night in this little hole in the wall spot.

From here, we make our way up the road to El Floridita – a bar made famous by Hemingway. It’s packed to the brim, so we decide to save it for another day and make our way back to the taxi stand near Hotel Ingleterra, stopping to take a peak at the lobby of the Gran Teatro before hailing a cab.

We head back to Vedado and venture to Cinecita, which is directly next door to our apartment. It’s officially sleepy, but we’re just looking for a nightcap, and a table of Cuban men wave us over and insist we sit down. They offer us a taste of everything they have, and we end up ordering plates of cerdo, mashed yucca and ensalada… quite the midnight snack. We wash it all down with a Cristal, bid goodnight to our new Cuban friends and call it a night.