This is the first instalment in a series of “gal-dem goes to…” which will follow the experience of some of our contributors as they travel around the world as women of colour. We kick off with Niellah and Hannah’s first stop on their trip around Latin America: Havana, Cuba.
Havana is the capital city of Cuba, the largest country in the Caribbean. We went at the end of March and it was very hot in comparison to the rainy Britain that we left behind. Racially, Cuba is made up of a diverse population that is 65 percent white and 35 percent black and mixed-race people. In this respect, we didn’t feel like we stood out too much, asides from our visibly different fashion sense and when we opened our mouths to speak in non-native Spanish.
We decided to go to Cuba sooner rather than later because the political climate is changing and we wanted to see what it was like before the country became more commercial. It was really refreshing to visit a city like Havana, that wasn’t dotted with a McDonalds and Starbucks on every corner. However, for tourists, it is as expensive as visiting a city like London or New York so definitely contemplate this fact when considering it as part of a bigger trip. In hindsight, perhaps it is not the best place money-wise to go if you’re backpacking on a budget, but we had a wonderful time!
We stayed in a casa particular which is a private home stay, like a b’n’b. They were set up in 1997 by the Cuban government to provide a source of income for Cuban nationals; this means your rent is given directly to the people (rather than to hotels that are owned by the government) and you get to meet locals and see how they live.
Specifically, we stayed in Casa Kety in the Vedado district which was run by a very lovely and accommodating family who provided us with a cooked breakfast every morning. They spoke about as much English as we do Spanish (read: very little), which made for some very interesting conversations punctuated with several hand gestures.
Cuba has two currencies: Cuban pesos (CUP), the currency for locals, and Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), the only currency most tourists will deal with. You can’t exchange your currency outside of Cuba so come prepared. We came to Cuba with our Caxton FX and STA international cash cards that enable the cardholder to withdraw money from ATMs around the world. However, both were Mastercards, and ATMs that accept them were not widely available in Havana; in the airports, ATMs only accepted Visa cards. Thus, we had to exchange the emergency US dollars we had with us, but we would have been better off exchanging British pounds as the exchange rate is more favourable. However, we could withdraw money from our Mastercards in the banks in the Old Town, but sometimes the whole system went down and no one in Havana was able to take out money, so be careful not to spend every last penny you have!
Banks will only issue tourists with CUP, though you may want to exchange your money with a street vendor for some local CUC because it makes certain things cheaper. However, as this is not an official transaction do this at your own risk.
We got a licensed airport taxi from outside the airport to our casa which cost 25CUC. If you are staying in the Old Town then you can walk to pretty much all of the main attractions. We were staying in Vedado, a neighbouring district, so we relied on collectivo taxis to get us into the centre. These are really cheap shared taxi services (it was 50 cents a ride for each of us) in beautiful 50s Chevrolets.
Don’t make the mistake we did once and give the address of your destination straight to the taxi driver as they will take you straight there and not pick anyone up, and it will be considerably more expensive. Instead, make sure you specify that the taxi is a collectivo and not a private taxi before you get in, and try to give a landmark near to your destination, or the map co-ordinates. Then enjoy the ride because you won’t get picked up in whips like these anywhere else!
Food & lifestyle
The first thing to note is that Havana Club rum is about the same price as water and is cheaper than Pringles. As it was our first stop of many we were very sad not to be able to bring some home as souvenirs, but if you’re going on a single trip to Cuba we recommend leaving a sizable space in your suitcase for some bottles! We made the most of it while we were there though, enjoying many a piña colada, mojito and daiquiri. The best we had were served in the bar of the Havana Club Rum Museum.
In terms of food, the best thing to do is to eat at casas that open themselves out to the public as restaurants too. We found that the cheapest meals were from local restaurants in the more suburban, less-touristy, area near our casa. There are loads of fancier restaurants in the centre if you want to splash the cash – for instance the Restaurante Floridita is famed for being the place that Ernest Hemingway used to drink.
In terms of fashion, the dream of the noughties is well and truly alive in Cuba. Think tinted glasses à la Anastasia, Britney-esque belly tops, faded jeans, and everything covered in rhinestones. We spotted quite a few tees printed with the smiling face of Avril Lavigne circa Sk8er Boi. Although these may not be looks that we can see being resurrected anywhere else any time soon, what we can really take from the Cuban fashion sense is the unapologetic body confidence. No matter their physique, no lady was ashamed to show off their bodies in the tightest t-shirts and leggings.
First of all, beware that Internet access is not widely available in Cuba so make sure that you tell your Twitter fans to expect a momentary hiatus from your feed! We were only here for a week so didn’t feel the need to search high and low for wifi, but word on the street is that you can get connection in some of the fancy hotels if you really need it.
Another thing to bear in mind is that locals are very friendly, and may offer to show you around. From our experience our tour did not come free, which we learned after following two teachers to what we thought was a free salsa festival, but actually turned out to be a trip to view a typewriter in the corner of a bar. A round of drinks was ordered by our hosts and, £20 later, we left very confused! But talking to them did give us an insight about what it means to be an average Cuban citizen.
As a group of just women travelling we experienced the odd cat-call, as we do at home, but no one actually approached us physically so we didn’t feel unsafe.
Our final words of wisdom would be: don’t drink the tap water and, if you buy a cigar, make sure it has a stamp on it.
Fabrica del Arte
Imagine if your local club night was in the Tate Modern! A market vendor around the same age as us recommended we go here on a Friday night and it did not disappoint. People of all ages flocked to this art gallery in the Vedado district to dance to live music, chat in the outdoor seating areas, or watch films projected onto walls. If none of these are really your thing, then come a bit later because after the live music finished they played club banger after club banger (read: Sean Paul). We paid 2 CUC to get in and most drinks, including cocktails, were around a similar price. But keep track of what you order from the bar because they put it on a tab that you pay off at the end of your night…
Museum of the Revolution
This was a really great experience because we learned more about the political history of Cuba, and came to understand more about the culture around us. It’s also a great midday activity for when the sun is beating down and you don’t want to stay out risking sunstroke (we learned the hard way). It cost us 8 CUC to get in.
Also Make sure you take a stroll along the Malecón!
“It’s very refreshing to visit a country where you are seen as norm. Usually, visiting other countries around Europe, I feel my blackness is a point of conversation and I am the reluctant recipient of unsolicited stares. But in Cuba, the majority of people seemed to be of African descent or non-white and therefore I seemed to blend in effortlessly. Locals would inform me on how Cuban I looked and hold their forearm up to mine.” – Niellah
“The lifestyle in Cuba is so different to what we experience at home. For instance, you have to check in any bags you have before you go into a supermarket and then before you leave a security guard checks all the items you’ve bought against your receipts. I’ve never been to anywhere like Cuba and I would love to explore what the country has to offer outside of Havana when I have more money to my name in the future!” – Hannah