- Jamie Campbell
#SHINETRAVELIFE : CUBA!
Our projects sometimes takes us to far away places—which is a definite perk to #setlife...and in this case, we started our journey in Puerto Rico shooting a PSA (more on this later) on a huge set with our production partner Nostrom for a solid week—which sounds beachy and sexy—but I assure you, neither beachy nor sexy. Lots of sand fleas, 95 degree days in high sun and intense scenes to get through in limited time. All in a day's work though! That being said, our crew was ready bigly for some R&R and cold beverages once we wrapped...
So we go to an even hotter place.
Four amazing (Hot. I mentioned it was hot, right?) days in Havana (plus a couple of nearby beaches thrown in) had us walking endlessly, getting lost on crumbly city streets, staring at decay for days, basking in the beauty of the most incredible architecture I’ve ever seen, and enjoying $2 cocktails and $5 cheese/charcuterie plates that defy overpriced East Coast logic.
Kady + Dan hoofing it. Kady is young and walked very fast in the hot heat. Yo no comprende.
Tourism for Americans in Cuba may be a new thing, but tourism in Cuba is not. The hotels are beautiful but the tourist areas can also be overpriced and underwhelming in terms of experience. As a non-Cuban, you are basically a dollar sign to be prodded for tips as music is played in your face—unsolicited, or cigars sold to you even if you don’t smoke, or the occasional ‘relaxation’ sale which we assumed was either pot or sex. No never really meant no… the push for our small change was aggressive and persistent and consistent. At first charming, by the end, annoying and it created an awkward barrier that often confused real human connection for transaction.
The epic view from our Airbnb at sunset. (photo: Drury Bynum)
That door tho.
Wow, that sounded negative, sorry! It wasn't really that bad. We just made it a point—and did our best, to blend in. The first night in our AirBnb on Calle Cuba, the four of us decided, without a map or internet (because no, in Cuba) to start walking toward the city center. Our first look at the city as the sun was going down had us all quiet and in awe. As our cameras started going (and we've got a mix here of iPhone shots and Dru's Sony A6000), we soon realized, there are no bad photos to be taken in havana. Everything is beautiful. The crumbled facades, the sweaty pedicabs, the wild street gatos, the puddles of unidentifiable Cuban ‘gravy’ along the sidewalks, the old cabs—which yes, are everywhere. The older men and women who sit in short little doorways that are parts of even larger doorways. The doorways. The doors. Enormous, God-like.
A room with a view of a room. The balcony of our airbnb. Magical
What we did on the balcony.
What we saw over the balcony.
What we saw on the floor.
We often tried to imagine these streets in their glory days. What it must have been like to be there, to live there in all that beauty. Clearly the arts were important. Clearly, craftsmen were busy. Now, it seems that the arts are still important, but there is a necessary and new regime of artists and creative class that are making something new, for a new Cuba.
It's all just falling apart in the most beautiful way.
We were a little obsessed with the creativity in electrical wiring everywhere. (photo: Drury Bynum)
Our first stop that night was El Dandy. It was a beacon that was calling us with its low lighting, 60’s reggae music, crooked art on the walls and aloof waitresses who made mean, cheap drinks. El Dandy became our daily stop for a $3 morning Michelada Kermata (made with Clamato & El Presidente, the Cuban beer) and perfect omelets. Nightly we’d pop in for $3 cocktails and a $5 Platico of Serrano Jamon, cheese cubes in olive oil, olives and these insane roasted green peppers that have me rethinking my pepper game altogether. We’d walk out of there usually around $32 for all 4 of us—after multiple drinks and full bellies. I haven’t experienced a tab like that since the 80’s.
El Dandy. El Perfecto.
I know El Dandy misses us. (photo: Drury Bynum)
Traveling in a foursome proved to be highly efficient. Four of us could score a cab to the beach for $30 each way—which meant less than $8 pp. If you were to travel in a couple or solo, it would still be $30. Getting a table and going anywhere was easy with a foursome and it was just really fun to have mates there.
The Cuban Taxi. Business in the front.
Party in the back. (Photo: Drury Bynum)
On Day 2 we wandered Old Havana more, looking for a market to get provisions for the house. We were told there was a mercado and a farmer’s market a block from our airbnb. We could not find a farmer’s market or even traces of a farmer’s market but thought we might have been too late. We did find a ‘mercado’ and it was a sad experience in communist consumption. The markets are run by the government, and what you experience is basically a long empty glass counter with 2 people—one of whom will not help you. Not sure what she did, but she would not help us. The other takes orders of what she has behind the counter—which isn’t much. From what I saw it was mostly Havana Club rum, some other bottles of booze—whiskey, vodka, beer, cuban soda, sweet snacks, hairspray, toothpaste. If you want something that resembles a Walgreens or a Rite Aid, nope. SPF? No. Tampons? No. Bugspray? No. Bring it all with you. If you want fruit, you will have to buy it from someone off the street in a very random way. If you want a chip like snack, I’m not sure what to tell you. I couldn’t find any. Anywhere. Wandering the streets did leave us thirsty and hungry though, so we ended up wandering into an empty garden style restaurant called Hostal Valencia that apparently is on the tour—soon after we sat down, a giant tour group gawked into its giant doors from the street and began taking pictures of the dining room, with us in it.
What that little stop did do though was re-introduce me to the daiquiri. Frozen and beautiful, this little drink did so much in a short amount of time. Not sure if it’s the very one drank by Old Papa himself, but I can see why the daiquiri. I melted.
We drank daiquiris here. Where we also learned Havana Lesson #1: Always carry small change. You must pay for toilet paper everywhere you go.
This was also the first run in with the restaurant musicians. Oh! How charming and fun. Oh! You want us to buy your CD? Ok, cool. I don’t have a CD player anymore, but whatever I can do to fuel your scaley fish thing and bongo business… The music everywhere was great. So much talent everywhere, and it is expected to tip. All of them. On this day, at the Hostal Valencia, the older Cuban chef came out and danced and sang with the band. It was pretty amazing and certainly enough to make us order more daiquiris and buy more merch.
The band made me do it. The Mega Mega Mojito at Mojito Mojito!
On Day 3 we wised up, got the f out of dodge and headed to the beach. Our first beach day we followed the advice of the New York Times and went to the locals beach called Guanabo. It was a little more 'local' than we preferred, as there were no amenities except for another sad grocery store and some awesome architectural rubble on the beach. We made a day of it though and enjoyed the privacy and warm, clear blue water.
Guanabo. Meh. (photo: Drury Bynum)
But that place was pretty cute!
Day 4, under the advisement of our taxi driver, we went to Playa Del Este and this was la playa we were looking for. After a crazy cab ride with a newbie lady driver who got lost more than twice, took us to the wrong beach and then INSISTED on hanging with us all day in order to drive us back to Havana, we found the perfect little beach shack with drinks inside coconuts, fresh fish, cervezas, thatched umbrellas with reclining chairs. All the beach things you want at a beach, but not a lot of people. This perfectly shacky shack of a place was aptly called El Mojito. Our host was super friendly, fed us, drank us and we were happy (drunk) beach otters by the end of our stay.
El Mojito! The bery bery best!
Playa del Este! Yeay!
Hey ladies! The ocean is that way. (photo: Drury Bynum)
Oh where is our taxi lady? (Photos: Drury Bynum)
That night we decided to break our El Dandy habit and venture west a bit to the Vedado neighborhood near the Malecon. If you stay in Old Havana and never leave, you may think all of Cuba is old and crusty (which is fine by me), but seeing this part of Cuba made us realize how modern and interesting and deep this culture is. There is an intriguing, creative, young, middle class scene fueled by good food, art and cocktails (sound familiar?). Especially intriguing after hearing for decades how poor and oppressed Cuba has been without the support of the US.
Our night began at a restaurant in Vedado called El Cocinero, which segued into a walk down the Malecon along the water (a must do) and ended back in Old Havana at Roma. The first two stops were great, but Roma was the sh*t.
Roma. A buncha cool mo fo's.
To better understand the culture of Roma, it's best to just troll through their instagram @RomaHabana. It's cooler than me, it's cooler than you. It's cooler than anything in New York. It felt raw, sexy, alive and a purely authentic experience. On the rooftop of an old Havana building, an escorted, (unbelievably) old, elevator ride takes you to an open air space looking over the city. The DJ was killing it, the drinks were cheap and cold. As the place filled up, everyone was dancing. It felt liberating and we felt like we really found something special. This description shouldn't intimidate you, it should inspire you to grab life by the nuts like the Cubans do and and dive right in. Go visit Roma—and all of Cuba for that matter—for yourself.
Roma. Ok, we were a little early to the party...but it got fun. I swear!
See?? From @RomaHabana.
SOME QUICK TRAVEL TIPS BEFORE YOU GO.
When we were in Cuba it was nutty. We heard while we were there that Old 45 put a new ban on Cuban travel (don't get me started...) but guess what? You can still go! New York Times just posted this article on how.
Get your travel visa squared away early.
Bring lots of cash—Euros are even better for the exchange. Your US debit card won't work.
You will need to exchange your money at the airport which as you exit out, you are immediately accosted by taxi drivers—politely ignore them and go into the adjacent building to change your money.
CUC's are similar in value to the US dollar, so that's easy!
A taxi ride from the airport to Old Havana will probably run you $30 CUC. Don't bother haggling unless it's way more. Old taxis are fun and a novelty, but new ones are air conditioned. Just saying.
It's super hot. Dress accordingly. Bring or buy a hat. Think twice about wearing flip flops on the streets of Old Havana. That's just gross. You'll see.
Flip flops in Old Havana! The horror!
Bring your travel notes or a book on Cuba and a real map. You will probably not have internet.
Try to book an airbnb (if it's still available to Americans) and stay away from the touristy, large, chain hotels.
Do yourself a favor and go to the beach during the day. Save your city walking for dusk and evening.
Look up! The architecture is incredible! Look down! Poop!
Havana is pretty safe, although sometimes at night it feels seedy AF. Crimes against tourists are punishable at the highest degree, so there's a degree of protection there. That being said, be smart and keep your CUCs close to the vest.
Any other tips out there? Let's hear 'em!
We're ready to go back!