Many writers have set their works in Havana, and no wonder. The city exudes a romance that is hard to deny with the grand old buildings, beautiful weather, compelling music and history of vice. Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, among others, set their stories in Cuba to capitalise on the atmosphere. Today Old Havana maintains its original charm, which seems enhanced by the the limitations of the embargo on historical conservation. Everywhere you look, age shows.
Except for a handful of carry-overs from the colonial period, most of Havana was built in the 20th century during the early years of the century when US involvement on the island was ubiquitous. Even the Capitol building is a facsimile of the US Capitol in DC. The city was constructed under the strong Art Deco and neoclassical influences that similarly influenced US cities in the 1920s and 1930s. The climate and long Spanish colonial influence also play significant roles in the architecture with a heavy emphasis on courtyards, colonnades, verandas and tilework.
One of the most striking throwbacks about visiting Cuba was the entirely cash economy. US cards do not work in Cuba at all, so we brought in all the currency we thought we would need for our time there. I did a Jason-Bourne-esque maneuver and brought a variety of currencies: dollars, Euros, yen and a handful of Mexican pesos. This was both a factor of taking advantage of the most favorable exchange rates as I left Thailand and having leftover currency from my time in Cambodia and Japan, respectively. It should also be noted that this is the only Jason-Bourne-esque maneuver I am likely to be able to pull off.
Speaking of currency, Cuba has two. There are convertible pesos (CUC) most tourists use and pesos nacionales (MN) that Cubans use. The CUC is 1:1 with the US dollar (though they charge a 10-15% fee to exchange USD because: embargo), but the MN is 25:1 to the CUC. We used both when we were in Cuba, though paying with MN with some locals got us some startled glances at best and a direct request for CUC instead at worst. Most of the time things are priced for either CUC or MN to be used – it’s not unusual to see a shopkeeper pull out a calculator to do the 1:25 calculation or its reverse. But in some cases, like taking collective taxis, paying in MN is a slightly better deal. Each ride costs MN$10 or CUC$0.50. Change is not always granted, so I tried to pay in whichever currency for which I had exact change. Though the collective taxi experience in Havana is worth a post all its own. It was hard to get change in MN as a rule, but if you can track down the MN$3 coin, it’s got the famous Che Guevara portrait on the face, which makes it well worth the effort.
At first glance, walking through Old Havana is like walking through a time capsule. Then you reach one of the city’s many parks where men and women cluster around limited internet routers to use time-stamped cards to access the Web. Having internet at home here is still a rarity, but you can connect through the one state-owned internet provider by purchasing cards all over the city. Most hotels carry the one-hour cards for a few CUC.
Title quote: Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana