I first visited Havana in August 2015. From scenes in “The Godfather” to “Guys and Dolls,” it was to be a city of my dreams, definitely a bucket-list destination for me that suddenly seemed even more possible with sanctions from the US towards Cuba decreasing. As I mentioned in a previous post and a Fathom article I wrote, I went to Havana under a People to People visa. While there, to fulfill that requirement, I volunteered with the arts organization, Muraleando.
Going to Havana, I didn’t have what seems to be the standard expectation: a city frozen in time. Well aware that Cuba was still a big beach destinations for many countries besides the US, I assumed it couldn’t be all that different; but the cars — I was so excited by the cars. In some ways, Havana is a bit of a relic. For me, it’s not really the lack of amenities or hospitality standards that we’re used to the US and other first world countries: I’ve seen that difference in other Caribbean and former Eastern Bloc countries I’ve visited. As I mentioned during my post of my stay at the Habana Riviera, in some areas, this country feels like a watch face smashed on January 1, 1959. Hotel ballrooms seem haunted by a ghost of a more decadent era as tables were set and the place-settings hardly seem to have changed since.
But there’s more to Havana than this. It’s the color play as you see bubblegum pink restored Cadillacs on the street parked outside of a mint green mansion in Vedado. It’s the people — so much so the people — and their warm smiles welcoming you as an American to the place. I definitely felt the strong love there as a black American. There were several encounters in 2015 and in my most recent trip this May 2017 that once a person realized I was not Cuban but rather American, and a black American their eyes twinkled with excitement and pride (and then they confirmed my “Latina blood”😂). It’s also the two different worlds that exist in this city.
There’s a polish for the tourists but not too polished. Havana is old and decadent, but at the same time gritty in it’s fading glamour. In very few other cities in the world is the Capitol building and the tourist-heavy old town alongside where locals live; El Capitolio casting it’s grand shadow over rations markets. Reggaeton can be heard blasting from a side street alley as you pose for a photo at Plaza de las Armas. I encourage you to get lost down those side streets and alleys and get a glimpse of the real Havana. That’s what I did. Here’s a photo diary from my trip there in 2015.
For most of our trip, my mother and I stayed at Casa Lilly in Vedado. Not only was it an incredible way to experience the city, in a casa particular, but it also was situated in Vedado, an awesome neighborhood we might not have otherwise explored. Vedado means “forbidden” in Spanish, referencing the neighborhood’s past as a military zone and forest. From the 1850s it became residential and was designed on a grid system. The streets have numbers and letters making it one of the easiest places to navigate in Havana.
A wealthy neighborhood once rife with American investors and sugar cane families, the mansions in Vedado are spectacular: think fountains, grand marble staircases, completely opulent. Many of these properties are still single-family homes, but a remarkable number of them were converted into state offices, government-sponsored cultural centers, and embassies after the 1959 Cuban revolution. The neighborhood and these beautiful buildings are also home to some of Havana’s best restaurants and nightlife. Really, on my most recent trip after not staying in Vedado, I realized what a pain it was to find a good, basic meal in Havana.
Vedado landmark hotels like the Hotel Nacional, the Capri, and the Riviera (below) are towering odes to 1950’s Cuba, when it seems American gangsters and their gambling enterprises controlled the island. Meyer Lansky owned the Riviera before it was nationalized. The who’s who of Hollywood and the American elite at the time treated Havana as their playground.