Havana is almost exactly how you imagine it — crumbling old-world Colonial charm, antique cars and music emanating from every corner.
And yet, all of those things you expect become impossibly and sometimes uncomfortably surreal when you’re confronted with them. For every picturesque, pastel cityscape that seems to be just waiting to be Instagrammed, just out of frame are decaying buildings that haven’t been reanimated by a Miami investor, or haven’t received the requisite approvals from the government. For each quaintly cobbled street in Habana Vieja there’s another with a headless chicken laying in the gutter next to a pile of rubble.
I took a trip to Havana with my husband this May, and returned just before the Trump administration announced that the reigns would once again be tightening on the tumultuous U.S.-Cuban relationship.
We landed in the Havana airport in the afternoon, and unsuccessfully tried to show someone — anyone — the $100 visa we’d purchased at the Miami airport. You can’t leave the U.S. without it, but once you get to Havana no one cares whether you’ve got one or not.
We had prearranged for a taxi to bring us to our Airbnb on the Malecon, and on our trip from the airport to downtown Havana we rushed past motorcycles weaving through traffic and horse-drawn buggies plodding along the side of the highway. We saw fields of tobacco and the occasional billboard emblazoned with Fidel’s words and face.
We were about halfway to downtown Havana when our taxi broke down, and spent some time sweating on the side of the road. Eventually, another cab carrying a friendly Brit made room for us and brought us to our address.
When we arrived, we weren’t sure what to make of the neighborhood and its palpable decay.
But, once we walked up to our floor, our hostess greeted us with the most delicious beverage I’ve ever tasted: fresh pineapple lemonade — so sweet and so cold. We drank it on the balcony overlooking the ocean, and watched the people and cars go by on the Malecon. It was our welcome to Havana and the introduction to the flavor profile we’d come to know: everything in Cuba is saccharine. Life is bitter enough, after all.
After settling in and unpacking, we decided to get our bearings and explore our neighborhood — although we were tired and we didn’t stray far.
We found a lofty restaurant that looked out onto the ocean, with large wooden tables and pew-like benches.
The cocktail menu was typical: daiquiris, cubatas, cubanitos. We thought it apt to start our trip with mojitos, which from this particular establishment were watery and somewhat tasteless.
The food was what we would learn to be typical as well: lobster tail and mushy vegetables. Whatever appetizer we asked for wasn’t available. Restaurants in Cuba are not permitted to have standing contracts with suppliers, which results in the daily task of procuring meat, vegetables and rum for their service. Resources can be scarce, however — even when we visited La Guarida, the paladar visited by Beyonce and Barack Obama, they were not able to offer us any dish with beef.
The next day, we woke up and made our way to Callejon de Hamel, a hotbed of Afro-Cuban culture and tourist scams. The artist Salvador has transformed an area once known for its crime into a tourist attraction full of religious and cultural symbolism.
Now, the people of Callejon de Hamel have a finely tuned hustle to earn money from the flocks of tourists that come to see the art and hear the music. At the end of our visit to the neighborhood, rather than indulge the tourist tradition of buying some artwork featuring one Orisha or another, we ordered some mojitos. The recipe, a variation on the classic mojito made with honey and basil, was purportedly created by the wife of Salvador himself, and was one of the better mojitos we had in Havana.
The following afternoon we headed to a decidedly quieter neighborhood, Vedado, to tour a paladar. We learned about back-of-house operations, tasted some goat stew right out of the pot, and learned how to make a traditional mojito.
The mojito starts with spearmint, lime juice and sugar. The stems of the spearmint are muddled to release their flavor, then ice is added to the glass, followed by Havana Club rum. To garnish, a sprig of spearmint is slapped before settling into the glass.
We asked our host if it’s possible to make a mojito with dark rum. He reluctantly said it is, but if anyone would dare to make a mojito with a good quality dark rum in his presence, he would slap him like a spearmint. Cubans take their rum seriously, and dark rum is meant for sipping neat.
Next up in my Havana recap: a Hemingway favorite, the daiquiri.