It is always my goal to try and help the local economy in all countries that I visit. The easier it is to navigate, the easier it is to acquire information and meet locals so that you can get a better sense whether you are impacting the lives of individual citizens or governments or giant corporations. Communism is in theory about the people so should make it easier to boost the bank accounts of ordinary people through tourism but it is generally the opposite.
It’s hard to know what is controlled by the government, advertising is suppressed and not everyone is comfortable expressing an honest opinion. That doesn’t mean you give up though, just that you have to try harder. As I earlier expressed, I really wished I had done more homework before I arrived in Havana and highly encourage bringing a guidebook!
Of course the other thing that works in every place is to chat with locals. You might meet some on the Malecon. It’s a seafront promenade that stretches for seven kilometres. Personally I found it a little underwhelming and having to navigate several lanes of crazy Latin drivers without traffic lights just made me feel as though I was back in Pompeii risking my life on the roadway so I could catch the bus back to Rome. There is a lot I like about Latin people but their driving habits are not in that category. Nevertheless, as long as no one plows you down getting there, it offers a great view of Havana.
I preferred to meet my locals in Old Havana where the traffic is mostly on foot. The most fascinating conversation I had was when I was buying souvenirs on Calle Obispo and met an American who was relocating to Cuba. He was a big fan and an entertaining guy. A liberal Republican! He had lots of interesting views involving a few conspiracy theories. Much to like. Much to question 🙂 I had been lured in by a young Cuban entrepreneur promoting his wares on the street so felt I was supporting the local economy.
Also spent some time at Sloppy Joe’s, a restoration project of a Havana institution. It is definitely new Cuba and an interesting
counterpoint to all the crumbling buildings.
The other thing I would recommend is taking a shared taxi. I didn’t do it on purpose. The taxi to Plaza de Revolution was so expensive I thought I would walk back but instead just managed to get lost in Nuevo Vedado. It was illuminating though. I found a hotel where Cubans would stay rather than foreigners. Of course, that also meant the guy at the front desk couldn’t call me a taxi. It was Mother’s Day so taxis were at a premium.
I discovered that it appears the street names in Vedado are marked on stones at ground level rather than signs above eye level… why it is easy to get lost. Since I had to find my own taxi, I attempted to figure out how to get to a main street and managed to get back to Avenida de los Presidentes, a place I knew well from my earlier experience lost in Havana. It wasn’t easy to find a taxi that wasn’t filled with passengers but finally a car stopped. I had read about the shared taxis so figured it was better than being lost.
It was a great insight into the real Cuba. There are two currencies – local pesos and tourist pesos (which are equivalent to a US dollar). I had been living in the tourist peso economy and the taxi driver was quoting the fare in local pesos. The other passengers were lovely and helped me to figure it all out and I think we both won. It cost me almost nothing and the driver got a crazy tip.
I would definitely encourage you to seek out the real Cuba and support the new entrepreneurs. One of the easiest ways is dining at paladares. You will need to seek them out as they are typically on the second floor and advertising is very minimal. I used my guidebook and discovered a great one and a classic one.
The classic one was El Gijones at Prado #309. You can look out on the Prado and eat a very reasonably priced meal of pork, rice and beans. Classic Cuban fare.
Even better is to seek out Paladar Los Mercaderes (Mercaderes #207). It’s a charming, romantic space complete with
fresh rose petals on a marble staircase. Some equally charming young men were at street level trying to lure me in but I told them I had already selected it as my dinner location. I was really early so got incredible service and took my server’s suggestion to splurge on the lobster in coffee sauce. It’s a Cuban splurge so not too bad on the budget and it was delicious!
It also allowed me to have some intriguing conversations with young Cubans. Coming of age in Cuba in the 21st century is definitely an interesting experience. They have grown up with a rich culture and a history longer than almost any in the New World but capitalism is seductive and they sense the need for change. You can’t begin to debate the merits of capitalism or socialism in under a half hour but I told them Cuba was trending and their lives would be memorable… most memorable for me… they didn’t know what trending meant… why you need to see it now 😉