Checking into a government-owned national monument isn’t usually on the cards when I travel, but the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was worth making an exception for. Its nuclear bunker, neatly cut into clipped lawns in front of the building, is a reminder of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just a few yards away are antique cannons, and inside there was once a casino created by the Mafia. You couldn’t make it up.
The list of previous guests at the Nacional is embarrassingly vast, with their names and photos covering the walls of the Hall of Fame Bar; Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Simone de Beauvoir and the Backstreet Boys are among those who have walked through the doors. Now it was my turn to follow them.
Imagine a cemetery where the decor mirrors the state of the city surrounding it; imagine elegant plinths crumbling away and rusting railings guarding them. This is the reality of Cementerio Colon, a sprawling 140 acre site in the Vedado district of Havana, where the lines of graves are so long that there are actual streets carving up each section.
There’s as much decay here as in the city centre, but there’s also a sense of belonging, with the tributes left to loved ones being much more personal and emotional than anything you’d encounter back in the UK. Yet many of the graves are poorly maintained because the relatives left behind have escaped Cuba and managed to emigrate elsewhere, leaving some corner of the cemetery to fall into obscurity in their absence. This is what I found when I spent a morning inside the gates…
Two museums separated by the Atlantic Ocean tackle similar issues, but from opposing viewpoints. Prague’s Velvet Revolution may be decades old, yet the relief at being free from communism is still palpable on a visit to the city, most notably in the Museum of Communism, where the reality of Czechoslovakian life from 1948-1989 is laid bare.
In contrast, Havana has been under the revolutionary eye of Fidel Castro (and, lately, his brother Raul) for decades, and its Museo de la Revolución is filled with artefacts described in chillingly stylistic communist prose, featuring phrases like ‘his courageous will’ and ‘an unbeatable soldier’. Having visited each museum in the last two months, I couldn’t help but compare these two attractions.
Ok, so it’s time to focus on the kind of sights that drew me to visit Havana in the first place. Of course, I knew that the crumbling buildings in candy colours would appeal to my love of all things vintage, but one particular spot leapt out during my research: Plaza de Armas, a beautiful square lined with independent stalls selling all kinds of retro pieces, including a hefty amount of books. As a regular visitor to vintage fairs across the south of England, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to find my own piece of kitsch in Cuba.
If you thought British police love their paperwork a little too much, you’ll be astounded by the number of Cuban policemen and women it takes to file a report, especially when computers are scarce. During the six hours I spent with my sister across two stations reporting being robbed on the Malecón, I also realised that officers are reluctant to solve crimes in the rain, their squad cars are on the verge of breaking down, and they don’t need cigarette breaks because they can smoke where they like. Who needs museums when you have all this to experience?
Obviously the title’s a bit of a giveaway here, so I’ll cut to the chase: my first 24 hours in the Cuban capital involved being a victim of robbery on the Malecón, breaking down in tears several times in public (there goes any semblance of street cred) and subsequently spending six hours across two of the city’s police stations with a big language barrier to overcome.
To say this was no picnic would be a massive understatement; despite reading up on the topic of poverty and crime in Havana, I was hardly prepared to have my bag strap cut from me with a knife, and in broad daylight. Whilst this isn’t the topic I wanted to talk about first when blogging about Cuba, it’s one that I just had to start with, because it altered everything.
The reason Cuba fast-tracked its way to the top of my priorities, bypassing much-longed-for trips to India, Peru and Mexico in one fell swoop, was embarrassingly based on hipster logic. “Get there before everyone else does!” Screamed the travel journalists, bloggers and guidebook authors. “Cuba’s about to change forever!”
With the gradual and inevitable decline of the president, Fidel Castro, there’s no escaping the fact that the country is teetering on the precipice and is headed for modernisation and – gulp – Americanisation. It’s only mere months since Beyoncé and Jay-Z rocked up on its shores for a holiday, with little Blue Ivy in tow, but already there’s a sense of urgency for people to follow in their footsteps.
Calavera (Span. feminine noun) = skull. A travel blog with a love of culture, dark tourism and the unconventional.