A Whirlwind Trip Through Havana

Havana Trip

“Weed? Wifi? Wifi, Weed?” A man muttered under his breath down a dark street. Backpackers sat on the curb waiting for other offers.

“Wifi,” we said, lurching out at the man. “We need Wifi.”

The man looked over his shoulder as he revealed his pack of internet cards, muttering his price. We haggled but only for a moment, agreeing to what seemed like a high price in utter desperation. He gave us two internet cards and hurried away, walking down the dark street.

We clamored off to the Saratoga Hotel in the center of Havana, having one hour between us to contact a woman named Aleja.

Six months before, Cuba had officially opened to Americans. I had been wanting to go and asked a friend to join me over my birthday weekend. He agreed. Due to general life stressors, I hadn’t planned for the trip. It was the first time I was flying in blind, preparing only two suggestions of things to do, depending on my friend who was more than happy to figure out a plan and send over Airbnbs for me to book.

I happened to have had one hundred dollars cash on me. My friend had fifty. Not realizing we wouldn’t be able to take out money (except at the airport, which we didn’t do seeing the line) or use our credit cards, we had only the cash on us to exchange into CUC, Cuba’s tourist currency. Our first night was wonderful. We arrived in Humid Havana, shedding winter clothes and exploring, admiring the city’s baroque and neoclassicism architecture. Our Airbnb hosts, a group of economic professors, greeted us and had a beer with us, discussing Havana’s history. One of the professors, named Aleja, joined us for dinner. Aleja had a bubbly personality, full of knowledge, hope for Havana’s future, and determination for her own. She was a welcome addition for our evening but soon had to return to the university, directing us in the general direction to explore further.

My friend and I, admitting to one another that we actually enjoy the red tourist busses, bought two hop on hop off tickets for ease of use and travel around the city for the remainder of the day. It wasn’t until the second day on check out that my friend told me he hadn’t booked the second Airbnb. Or the third. With only the money we had on us, and no wifi, we set out searching for an affordable place to stay.

On the second night, a man walked alongside us, asking if we were dating. “No, no,” we said quickly. He nodded and lured us into a “secret bar” which, after using the bathroom, I realized was a brothel. “There are only white men in here,” I said quietly to my friend. “We need to leave.”

We made a swift exit though I felt sorry for not making a scene, calling out the old white Canadians and Europeans in there.

“It’s your birthday,” my friend said. I looked at him wearily. The day was spent searching for a place we could afford to spend the night. Midnight struck and I officially turned 25 in a brothel in Havana. “Happy birthday.”

We walked passed a raucous bar, trumpets blasting their call to any and all salsa dancers in the city block. We went in to share a daiquiri we couldn’t well afford. While my friend slumped, exhausted from the day, I woke back up with the excitement. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Let’s find food.”

Wandering back in the direction of our far-flung homestay, Guy spotted a pizza place, the only thing open in this area of town, to stop in. While Havana is known for many delicious foods like roast pork and rice, it is not known for its pizza.

“25,” the man said. He wrote it down to make it clear. The small pizza joint went quiet, couples gazing over at the counter, half amused.

“That’s 25 dollars,” I said, looking down at the small, limp pizza. My friend paid. I, the type of cheap person who gets angry at having to pay for the subway three times in a day, hadn’t even the energy to brood over what felt like the biggest fail in my travels. It was almost funny. My friend ate the pizza and we went decided we had to turn back to town, to find some internet as we had only a few dollars left and no place to stay on the third night.

In the Saratoga Hotel, a group of people constantly sit in the lobby, taking advantage of the hotel’s wifi. “You have to go to the alley down three streets away. You’ll see plenty of people standing around. That’s where they sell Wifi.”

And so, later that same evening, my friend and I returned to the Saratoga Hotel, huddled over his phone and desperately texting his mother. It was two am, no chance in hell my mother would be awake. “We have no money,” my friend simply said. There were laughs and general amusement at our situation before getting down to business: we hadn’t a place to stay on our last night. We wanted to book an Airbnb with Aleja, our helpful first-night host, but the internet was too slow for us to do the booking ourself. We asked that my friend’s mother reach out with a message, explaining what had happened.

And there, the next day, Aleja stood waiting for us, laughing, scolding us for being so foolish. She asked if we wanted to take her Airbnb tour to her village. We said we had no money. She had another good laugh then said that she trusted us to pay later.

We spent the day exploring Aleja’s home village and her traditions with voodoo then promised to spend the evening indoors so we wouldn’t be tempted to buy a 25 dollar pizza.

With three Cuban Convertible Pesos to go, my friend and I boarded a bus bound for the airport. Planning forty-five minutes for the bus ride and another two hours at the airport wasn’t enough though. We’d gotten off at the wrong airport terminal and told to get back on the next bus. We did and it sped out of the airport and into a village where a man boarded with his ducks and sheep. My friend, sweating, desperate, looked back at me. “We’re not going to make it.” Done in and highly amused by the animal passengers, all I could do was shrug.

The bus wound through a village, stopping three times more and changing drivers before returning to the correct airport terminal. We sprinted to the gate and were the last ones on.

My friend returned to New York and I went on to Miami, enjoying a wild night of club-hopping down Ocean Drive with a group from my hostel, feeling a strange, newfound freedom with my credit card. While we never got the chance for a ride in Havana’s classic American cars, explore the art galleries, or try a mojito or El Presidente at the Hotel Nacional, we had a memorable trip made rich and beautiful by Aleja.

One might think a seasoned traveler would have read up, would have planned ahead, but that’s falling victim to the very moral of this story: never assume! This wild, memorable trip taught me to always carry a fair amount of cash and, especially for a hectic, short trip, to always make sure the rooms are booked ahead of time.