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What Havana Is Really Like

My first walk in Cuba.

Havana
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HAVANA, Cuba- Cuba is something different. I believe that’s the best way to put it. There is literally nowhere else in the world that is even remotely like Cuba. The recent history, the vibe on the street, the look and feel of things: different.

I suppose that’s why we go there.

The ride into Havana from the airport pretty much said it all: a menagerie of things from all decades of the 20th century but hardly any sign of anything from the 21st.

I got a room in the Vedado district — a nice, relatively upscale, not too hectic part of the city that’s full of restaurants and bars — and set off on a little walk. The first walk in a new country is something that you always remember. It’s really a one-time thing, an awkward ice breaker, as you will never again be as alert, as excited, as absorbed in your surroundings than when you’re taking your first steps somewhere. You’re just walking saying “Fuck yeah, I’m here” to yourself over and over again.

I walked down La Rampa to the Malecón, which is this seaside promenade that flanks a highway and runs the length of the west part of Havana. There’s a seawall there that people hang out on in the evening and at night when the heat dies down and people venture out to socialize. It’s a place to meet people, to talk, to pass some time in a way that doesn’t cost anything.

I just wanted to check it out. However, the sun was high in the sky and only a moron would be caught walking around out there then. I puttered about for a few minutes alone taking some pics, sweating under the sweltering sun, and then took refuge in the shade on the other side of the street like everyone else.

I began walking back up La Rampa and soon found a black dude at my side. He sputtered a bit of English and told me that he worked as a security guard at the Hotel Nacional on the hill above us. He told me that he comes here to find foreigners to practice his English during his spare time, but I’ve traveled long enough to know what this actually means … and I didn’t give him the chance.

It was my first walk in this country and I wasn’t ready to spoil my first impression just yet.

That would come about one minute later when a couple who appeared to be in their late 50s latched on to me. They were friendly and their English was more than conversational — as if they may have lived in the US at one point. The dude had a big scar that ran vertically down the right side of his face. The lady was a touch pear shaped and had adorned her face as though it were a Christmas tree. I had a friendly chat with them as I continued walking but got the feeling that I should disengage.

It was an amicable break up but that lady would cross paths with me again a little farther down the street. A coincidence, I suppose.

It was clear that I wasn’t going to shake her so I figured I’d see where this was going. I told her I was going to eat. She asked if I was going to El Biky. I said yes. She said the place was owned by the government and charged a lot of money. She said she would like to show me a good local place that was cheap. I had no intention of eating where she would take me but I really had nothing better to do … it would also be a good idea to find out where not to eat.

But she took me to a ration station for some reason. Perhaps tourists like going to these or something?

She told me that this was where people get flour.

Havana ration station

It was completely cleaned out. Maybe it was just my timing? Maybe, as I was told later on, it was the fact that rations have started running out near the end of the month.

The lady told the guy behind the counter show me the ration books. He produced a giant, old and worn ledger that contained hundreds of hand written names and how many sacks of flour they got and when.

Havana ration station

I followed the lady to what I would suppose you’d call an art street. It was a narrow, winding back street that was akin to an alley that had some murals on the brick walls and some large colorful steel sculptures. She said she taught a salsa class to the children here on the weekend. I didn’t quite believe her.

She then took me to a restaurant she was talking about. It was a little cafe style restaurant with pictures of famous people all over the walls. It seemed set up for tourists. But it was empty. So empty in fact, that there wasn’t even anyone there working. I walked out. The lady tried to get me to buy her a drink at the booze stall on the other side of the alley. I said no. She asked me for ten dollars. I said no. As I walked away she swore at me.


Iwill spare you the repeated retelling of this story, as it more or less epitomizes much of my initial experience of Havana. I’ve rarely had more difficulty connecting with people in any country I’ve ever traveled in before.

In some places, they treat you like money on legs; here, that was taken to even the next level. This isn’t hyperbole: nearly everyone that I spoke with in the city either wanted money for nothing, were trying to sell me a girl, or was a girl trying to get me to buy her things or was overtly selling herself. It wasn’t just street urchins either — it was also well dressed people who were clearly educated who seemed to have other things going on. It seemed to be more or less a “why the fuck not?” kind of proposition when asking me for cash, and to a certain extent I can’t blame them — why the fuck not? It’s not like they’re ever going to see me again.

But herein lies the problem: I don’t really do the tourist thing. I don’t care about restaurants. I don’t care about going to famous bars. I don’t really find much interest in museums, or sites, or the places that are said to be the reasons to visit a particular country. I take the UNESCO label as a signpost of where not to go. And someone leading me around like a dog on a leash trying to make me look at things is about the last thing I ever want to do.

This isn’t a statement of travel purity or a show of status — to the contrary, the way I travel would probably bore most people. I just know what I’m into and what I’m not. I know that I ultimately travel for one reason: to talk with people. And getting a proverbial bill after each verbal exchange definitely puts a damper on the experience.

A new strategy would be needed.

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Filed under: Cuba, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Lord Intel March 17, 2024, 1:26 pm

    Hello,
    May I inquire on what camera and lens you were shooting with? Nice pictures! Nice story.

    Thanks

    Link Reply
    • VBJ March 17, 2024, 8:13 pm

      Thank you!

      I hate to disappoint, but these photos were shot with an iPhone 13 Pro 🤷‍♂️

      Which is kind of funny as my film company has an all out arsenal of high quality cameras.

      Link Reply