We had been trying to go to Cuba for awhile. We had the whole plan set to go before we were officially allowed to, but easing of the restrictions made it easier for us. Our flight from Mexico City set down after dark and we had our visas and passports and we couldn’t wait to get out there exploring. They took our picture at customs then we waiting in the muggy airport for a long while waiting for our luggage. Everything was painted USSR red and the women customs agents wore tight khaki army skirts along with fishnet tights and heels. The agents led basset hounds around the airport, making people drop their bags while the dogs circled them. The form we signed made it very clear we were not to bring drugs, guns, or pornography into the country. Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign. She would take us to our casa particular in Centro Habana. First we had to change money. Cuban locals use the peso, while foreigners have to change their cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos which equal $1 or 24 local pesos. They charge 10% to exchange dollars so it was cheaper for us to bring Euros and trade them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). All the local shops use pesos while tourist areas only take CUC so after you get the CUC you can trade a little bit to pesos to spend on snacks and ice cream and such. It was confusing and redundant, like many things we would find in Cuba.
Our taxi was a red ’50s Chevy with the inside refurbished and a big TV screen that played loud reggaeton music videos. It was awesome. In Cuba travelers have two options for accommodation: government-run hotels or private “casas particulares” which are rooms in private family homes. Kind of like AirBNB, the casas are much more affordable and friendly than the overpriced, stark government hotels! In Havana we stayed in a fifth floor apartment in the center, with a nice lady whose Spanish was understandable.
The first thing I noticed in Cuba was the lack of billboards. The only thing resembling advertising was political propaganda. There’s about a 50/50 ratio of old/new cars in the city. The stores had dim lighting and the shelves were sparsely stocked with dusty goods. No Coca Cola! Only a national soda brand.
In Havana it seems like everyone is always out and about, living their lives outside. Every building is a different color and in a different state of disrepair or renovation. The cars were the same, with the freshly-painted old classics always full of tourists driving loops around the city. As we walked through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), enchanting live music flowed from almost every cafe, even at lunchtime.
Surprisingly, we were never really hassled; we just had a lot of friendly people want to know where we were from. We walked and walked, seeing the old castles and fortifications that kept the pirates out.
It was super hot on our first day in the city (high 80s) but the sea breeze coming off the Malecón (sea wall) helped a bit. The Malecón is where everyone gathers at night to hang out, drink beer and rum, and see and be seen. On our second night the wind picked up and sent waves over the wall in dramatic fashion, closing the road and sending careless tourists running for dry ground.
West of the Malecón lies the Vedado neighborhood. Newer than Havana Vieja, Vedado is home to the large hotels, sprawling residential areas, and the city’s best nightlife.
We found a Beatles themed rock club called Amarillo Submarino where they had a great rock ‘n’ roll cover band. It used to be illegal to play all English music, but times have changed in Cuba.
Our favorite spot in Vedado was the Coppelia ice cream shop. The place is shaped like a giant space ship and was opened in the ’60s right after the revolution. Always busy, you have to wait in a long line where they have a one in-one out policy. They try to usher foreigners into a separate area, but do not be led off course because the locals’ area is the real deal! Once inside you will be ushered into one of four rooms, seated at shared tables and served whatever ice cream flavors they feel like at the time. Each room has different flavors, so cross your fingers when getting seated. Oh, and the scoops are one peso each, or about 4 cents. Since the ice cream is so cheap, everyone orders at least 1o scoops apiece! On the best night we got a choice of mint or chocolate mint flavors, on the worst the choice was between guava, banana or plantain. It’s also a great place to people watch and witness the redundancies of the communist workforce. There are bored bouncers in several different locations, servers, scoopers, bussers, water pourers. It takes a simple ice cream shop to a crazy level of complexity. Never did it stop being strange.
Havana is a city of layers, never lacking in character or interesting encounters. The people are full of life and resiliency, pushing forward despite everyday struggles that are sometimes unbelievable. I don’t think you could see the same Havana twice with so much change happening at every moment. It did make us appreciate just how easy we have it, the simplicity of just going out and buying whatever, whenever. But then again, is that how things are supposed to be? Is that ability to freely spend really necessary, or is it just a lie created to fill fat pockets? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
After a week in Portugal, we took another Blablacar rideshare into southern Spain. We choose Sevilla because we had heard good things and it was on the way to Tarifa, where we would catch the boat to Morocco. It was nice to be back in Spain; we really love it there. The wine is cheap and the people are really nice. Seville turned out to be one of our favorite spots yet. It was cool to see the drastic differences between the north of the country and the south. Everything was new here. The accent, the food, the prices… It was awesome to get a glass of wine and tapas for under five euros each. Our Spanish had also improved greatly after a couple weeks of hearing mostly Spanish/Portuguese. The people in Sevilla also spoke a lot more slowly than they did in San Sebastian, which we appreciated!
Sevilla was also our first time using AirBnb.com. I know, we are behind the times! We stayed in a nice, affordable room in an older woman’s apartment very close to the city center. Maria had a very cute doggie which eased our grief over missing Dusty, and she was very welcoming and helpful. I think we did pretty well speaking only Spanish with her!
On our first night in Sevilla we had a tapas feast, of course! The tapas here weren’t all set out on the bar like the “pintxos” in San Sebastian were; you actually had to order them. They weren’t quite as good, but they were cheap and a little different! “Cola de toro” (bull tail) was my favorite. Since it was Friday night, people were out in droves and everyone was having a good time. Sevilla struck as an incredibly vibrant city where people have a lot of fun despite the Spanish recession.
The next day, we got lucky enough to visit the Catedral de Sevilla on “World Tourism Day” (who knew that existed?), making admission free!!!! This cathedral is actually the largest in the world! The altars, exhibits, and mausoleums were incredibly ornate and impressive, and slogging up the seven flights of the tower were well worth it for the views over Sevilla.
Despite some rain coming in that night, we still managed to venture out to find a secret, local flamenco show at a place called Casa Anselma in Barrio Triana recommended by Maria. The venue was completely unmarked, but upon finding the address, we asked around and learned that it didn’t open ’til midnight. Typical Spanish night owls! So we were forced to have some more tapas and wine at an awesome little joint we discovered down an inconspicuous alley, also filled with only locals. The champiñones ali-oli were delectable and it was fun to watch how a tiny tapas-oriented kitchen/bar staff operates! We kinda felt like we were crashing their party, but we love discovering those “off-the-beaten-path” places!
Finally, we went back to the flamenco place to find a line forming. We jumped in the back and waited about 20 more minutes as more people arrived. Obviously, this was the place to be! Once the doors opened, madness ensued. The proprieties, a feisty, petite woman, opened the side door instead of the front door, putting those who had waited longest at the back of the line and those who had just arrived in front. A crazy stampede of pushing and yelling ensued, ending with Zach & I being among the last patrons to actually get seats and a bunch of people standing in the back. The place was packed to the gills and we only spotted two or three other foreigners. It was free too, but you had to buy a drink. I didn’t know much about flamenco, because all I was picturing was women in colorful ruffly dresses dancing. Instead, this place was all about the music. A band of four guys playing acoustic instruments and harmonizing perfectly on ballad after ballad, while the dancing was left up to any audience member who wanted to strut their stuff! Obviously they learn from a young age because they were great! We stayed until 2am and there was still no sign of them slowing down. All in all, an unforgettable night in an amazing city!
We haven’t yet talked about the new songs and artists we’ve been exposed to during our journey. Truth be told, we’re not huge fans of most popular Latin American music since most of it is so dance-oriented and we like more mellow stuff. But, there are still a few songs that we can’t help but love! Here’s a sampling of what we hear every day…
First, the #1 song in most of South America right now. We heard this multiple times EVERY DAY in every country, despite the fact that it’s actually a Brazilian Portuguese song! But it is super catchy and fun to sing along to in bars, so it kind of grew on us…
Next, my favorite song. It’s not played too much and when we looked up the video we realized that’s probably because it’s from the ’80s, by some Mexican singer. But it’s still awesome.
A Colombian band we were introduced to by our Couchsurfing host in Medellin. They have a really unique cumbia/rap style, and they apparently played at South by Southwest last year. Takin’ over the world!
And another really popular Brazilian pop song. It’s also super catchy. Funny we learned so many Portuguese songs without even going to Brazil!
This is by no means an exhaustive summary. We haven’t included any traditional indigenous music here; maybe we’ll write about that later. But there you have it, a brief sampler of the songs that are going to stay stuck in our heads for a long time!