muscles & mojitos in havana
memorial day weekend i found myself on a plane headed to cuba with 11 handsome, gay men…
what ensued was pure magic in the discovery of this country-on-the-cusp.
in case you missed the history lesson, u.s.. citizens haven't been allowed to legally travel to cuba since 1962. but in 2015 negotiations began between the u.s. and cuban governments to officially lift that ban. today travel to cuba from the united states is easier than ever. (and even easier since the writing of this post since six airlines have been granted access to flying commercial routes between the u.s. and havana.)
we arrived in cuba via panama city on an overnight flight with copa airlines. all that was required was to hand in an affidavit stating our purpose for travel to cuba. though it's legal to travel to cuba, u.s. citizens still need a purpose for their visit, be it education, journalism, business, etc. hotels are outrageously expensive in cuba because they can be. instead opt for "casas," which are essentially b&bs, or homestays, where people rent out rooms in their homes for drastically cheaper rates than hotels. most of these casas operate like hotels, so relinquish the visual of surfing the couches of strangers in the back alleys of havana. consider Casa Vitrales, a seven-room bed&breakfast in the heart of old havana built in the 17th century, complete with a rooftop deck. we opted for airbnb, a totally legal and valid way to stay. the 13 of us rented a four-floor villa (with rooftop pool) in the miramar neighborhood of havana for four nights and it only cost about $230 per person...total.
free from u.s. influence (ahem, starbucks, mcdonald's, EVERY MAJOR HOTEL CHAIN), what persists in cuba is entirely…cuban. architecture is reminiscent of europe or south america to the point where you forget that this is a caribbean island.yes, the beaches are beautiful, especially in varadero, but if you're going to cuba, for god's sake go to CUBA. save the sun-soaking for your 6th visit to miami or cancun.
i’ve been asked a lot of questions about what it was like to be in a group of gay men in a catholic, caribbean country. that’s a fair question, considering many caribbean countries are less than gay friendly. but the gay scene in havana is thriving and very much out in the open. of course homosexuality is less tolerated in the smaller, rural towns, but that’s not really different from any other place in the world. havana is very much accepting. the gay district in havana is called bimbom, and is the most popular meeting place for gays. but be warned - this area near the famous malecon is essentially a meat market for cruising, to the point where the guys in my group felt almost overwhelmed and uncomfortable. the street was humming with hundreds of guys, many of whom expected you to pay for their company.
eating in cuba can be a bit of a gamble. the tourist restaurants are typically expensive, and frankly, terrible. instead opt for paladares, where locals turn their kitchens or back patios into operating restaurants. the food is cheap, and you can't get much closer to home cooking than this. staples are rice, beans, and typically a fried meat. it’s not the best food in the world, but it’s what they’ve got to survive on. fresh fruit is absolutely delicious, as is the seafood.
it's true that everyone is in a rush to get to cuba before it "changes." and truth be told, it already has. you can exchange your money to dollars at the airport, whereas previously you had to bring euros or another currency to exchange into the cuban c.u.c. (pronounced kook). carnival cruises has even started offering itineraries including cuba this year. no one at u.s. immigration at jfk batted an eyelash upon our return, either. that's just the tip of the iceberg. is cuba going to change tomorrow? not likely. the country just got internet last year and you can only access it in the public parks by shadily buying wifi tickets from guys on the street. still, change is absolutely on its way. at the very least, for the first time in 54 years we are legally allowed to cross that border. you absolutely must see cuba, no question, because of its history, culture, architecture, and beautiful, amazing people. but if you're adding it to your bucket list because of its "naughty" appeal, perhaps you should consider north korea instead.