5 ways Cuba has changed since Obama – our return to Havana

Cuba has undergone enormous change and development over the past few years. Supercharged evolution following decades of barely any progress threatens to throw the country out of whack. The question is are these changes for the better or the worse? Our return after 4 of Cuba’s most important years since the revolution shows us changes we never expected to see.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed?

Instead of a regular IG Edition this week, we thought we’d turn our first instalment of our time in Cuba into something more. The last time we were in Cuba was just before President Obama visited in 2014, when even getting into Cuba was difficult.

These days, visiting Cuba is much easier – even from the USA – but it seems our second trip to this beautiful country has heralded another big change.

For the first time since the success of the Cuban revolution in 1959, Cuba has a president who is not a Castro. Could this spell another growth spurt for Cuba into the 21st Century, or will President Miguel Diaz-Canal simply tow the Castro line?

In this special IG Edition, we look at 5 of the ways we’ve noticed change in Cuba in the time since our last visit and ask the question of progress in this fascinating time capsule country.

We hope you enjoy this Edition. Cheers,

Jim & Christina xx

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed?

From the moment we step through the arrivals hall at Jose Marti International Airport, we get the feeling something’s different about Cuba. Gone are the massing crowds milling around the entrance. Taxi drivers tout muted offers of rides and there’s advertising and screens in places there was nothing before.

But when we finally get into Havana Old Town, everything seems to be just the same. Beautiful old cars parked like it’s the most normal thing in the world, people sitting out on the street and talking, the elegant sadness of the crumbling plasterwork…

At the same time, there’s an itch on the back of our necks that makes us eager to explore ‘our Havana’ and find out what’s going on.

We asked our friend John, who runs the excellent tour company Cuban Adventures, whether Cuba had changed a while ago. You can read what he thinks here. So we’re even more interested now to see things with our own eyes.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Tech

This is an image we never thought we’d see here in Havana.

One of the things we were always so impressed with here was the lack of mobile phones. But the smart phone has come to Cuba. In spite of the hardship, the relatively diminutive internet access and an American embargo still holding strong, people here are walking nose down staring at screens and gobbling up modern tech instead of talking and being much more present.

You might also notice the ‘eye in the sky’ in corner of this photo. CCTV has also come to Cuba. Not that visitors are ever in much danger here. It’s still tremendously safe to visit – safer than any other country we’ve visited I honestly believe.

But here are the 5 main differences we’ve spotted that I think shows bigger changes coming to Cuba.

How much has Cuba changed? 5 big differences

1. The cars

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Old cars

Thanks to a big influx of visitors to Cuba since 2014, the country is seeing a boom in tourism. In fact, it’s the country’s biggest GDP earner by a long way. Think in the 80% realm.

Because of this, people from across the country are bringing their beautiful old ’50s American cars to the capital in hope of getting their hands on more tourist coin.

When we were last here, of course there were ’50s cars here, but nowhere near as many. And they weren’t in the best condition either. These days the vintage cars are spectacular – almost better than when they first came off the production line.

Check out some of our favourite shots of these beautiful old cars – I think you’ll see what I mean.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Old cars

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Old cars

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Old cars

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Old cars

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Old cars

2. The food, bars and eating options

The last time we were here, Christina and I lamented the food situation so much that it was really the one thing we felt we had to warn people about.

Things have changed for the better like you wouldn’t believe.

Imagine our surprise when we sit down to dinner in a little restaurant in Havana Vieja and the waitress plonks salt, pepper, ketchup and mayonnaise in the table. These three things did not exist here in 2014. Not only that, but the food is actually delicious!

We’ll be writing Cuba a full apology in the next few weeks and showing you some of the honestly delicious food we’ve been eating here.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Food

If there’s one thing you have to try while you’re here is the Cuban pizza. These were really the only things you could find easily in Havana and that you’d really want to eat. The only thing that’s changed is the availability of them. They’re everywhere!

And at only $1-$2 each, they’re the perfect snack as you explore Havana. And we’ve got some tips to help you order too:

– Be brave and queue up. Call out ‘ultimo?’ and find out who’s last in the melée and be ready to shout ‘si’ when the next person asks.

– Order the basic pizza queso – a cheese pizza – and ignore the offerings of ham or anything else. It’s not worth it.

– Don’t try and share these pizzas. They’re made for a single owner.

– When you get your pizza, fold it in half and eat it like a sandwich. It’s neater and how the locals do it.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Mojitos

A trip back to the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos – preferred digs of famed writer Ernest Hemingway – sees us enjoying views across the city, excellent mojitos and a great spot for a cigar of course.

Go through the hotel lobby to the old elevator – it’s usually working – and head to the top floor. Considering it’s such a famous hotel, it’s rarely over-busy and you can nearly always find a table.

There are definitely more rooftop bars around Havana now. Keep an eye out for tell-tale umbrellas on the tops of buildings. There’s nothing like getting up high in this city. None of the buildings are that tall – that even from the highest vantage point – you’ll have some great people-watching opportunities.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Rooftop bars

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Dining

Cubans have really embraced al fresco dining since we’ve been gone. Thanks to the government releasing its death grip on private business licences, people have been able to open their own little restaurants or are now free to have visitors openly eat with them.

Certain areas of Havana Old Town are packed with open-air seating and menu-wielding restauranteurs doing their best to pull in the punters.

3. The street art

We’re impressed to see people expressing themselves on Cuba’s streets more this trip. Instead of just political tropes or communist propaganda messages, Cubans have been given more freedom to create. We even come across a street art quarter in Havana Viejo.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Street art

This quarter adds to the colour and traditional spirit of the town more than we ever thought it would. This kind of artistic freedom is a good sign that Cubans are being given more space to express themselves.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Street art

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Street art

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Street art

4. The cruises and shopping

Another of the most surprising differences we’ve noticed with Cuba now is the arrival of cruise ships to Havana’s port.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Cruises

Pre-2014, cruises on this scale that went around the Caribbean had at least one port of call in the USA. This meant they were not allowed to land in Cuba. For decades, Cubans would watch ships full of tourist dollars sail just out of reach but never make landfall.

Now, cruises can stop here. In peak season, around 11 ships per week moor up, which is busier than Sydney. Sadly many of the passengers don’t disembark though because tours and taxes are too expensive to lure people off the cruiser.

Still, it’s an interesting sign of things to come. Perhaps sight of these magnificent cars will tempt out more tourists.

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Shopping

The shopping in Havana has also improved since we were last here. You won’t find a Target or Aldi here (yet), but there are more and more brands showing up on the streets here.

This new high-end shopping mall near the Capitol Building has created a weird oasis in the city. Its shiny floors, vaulted glass ceilings and enormous price tags seem a bit in bad taste though with so many locals struggling to make ends meet. This mall has an eerie ghost-town feel to it, with few people exploring its streets and even fewer within its shops.

Bored-looking shop employees stare out the windows or down at their smart phones. We hasten back to the living streets of Havana and away from this anachronistic oddity.

5. The casa particulare

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Casas

We’re big fans of staying in the casa particulare in Cuba. Private homes with enough space to fit a bedroom with a lockable door and its own bathroom facilities can apply for a licence to run what is essentially a B&B.

These casas are awesome because you are connected with the community much more and your money is going to the people instead of to hotels, which are run by the government military.

Since the last time we were here, there are lots more casas around, and the facilities they’re offering are also more complete.

We’re staying in La Gargola – more like a miniature hostel than a proper casa particulare, but still privately owned. This place is so well located. If you want to stay in Old Havana, you should definitely check this one out.

And the good news…

In spite of all the changes that have happened in Cuba since 2014, the city still feels the same. It’s absolutely awesome to be back here – it almost feels like coming home.

It’s also still a photographer’s paradise, with incredible things happening and life doing its thing before your very eyes. Here are some of our favourite shots from Havana – though I think we’ll be sharing a few more with you over the next little while:

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Sunrise

Sunrise in Havana. Early morning in this city is definitely the time to go exploring

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Streets

The colour and life of Havana Viejo never gets boring

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed?

Amidst the old crumbling ruins of tenements are grand arched passageways of perfect symmetry and architecture

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Cats

Early in the morning, these cats are all waiting by this door for their breakfast

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Bananas

As quickly as Havana is progressing, it’s still things like this that give you hope that it’s a city that will never lose its sense of humour or its ingenuity

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Old style

With the Grand Teatro de la Habana in the background, this old horse and carriage brings history alive

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Fishing

The fishermen along the Malecon – Havana’s sea wall – throw a line in

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Fishing

The sun sets perfectly with the Cuban fishermen still casting their hopes into the Caribbean

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Street photography

Wedged between two taller white buildings, this old duck-egg blue perfume shop catches Christina’s sharp eye

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Colour

The colours of Cuba are so bright in places around Havana

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Streets

But it’s these long straight roads, busy with life, that fill me with intrigue. It’s like you could look down this street forever and never get to the end

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Monuments

Cuba loves a monument. This is a replica of the tank Fidel Castro rode in when the revolution overturned the government

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Cigar factory

This is the old Partagas Cigar Factory, which is now a museum and (quite good) cigar shop. It’s also a monument in a way

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Capitolio

The ultimate monument – the Capitol Building. Scaffolding has surrounded this dome for so long it didn’t look much different when we were last here. We’ve been assured that renovations will be complete in the next few years though…

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Jose Marti

Cuba’s darling – Jose Marti – is more celebrated than Fidel Castro or Ché Guevara. There are squares, streets, monuments and of course airports named after him all over the country

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Cigars and beer

I’ve wanted to try a Sancho Panza cigar for years, but they’re quite hard to find. The brand’s named after Don Quixote’s comic sidekick – a favourite character of cigar rollers when they were read books as they worked to keep them entertained. I’m enjoying this smoke with a can of local beer in gardens of the Hotel Internacional de Cuba – haunt of the rich and famous

Havana Cuba - how much has Cuba changed? Daiquiri

And of course it’s not a trip to Cuba without a piña colada!

Our next stop is to another old haunt in Cuba: Viñales. This southwestern town is famous for its tobacco plantations, but was nothing more than a single street when we were last there. I wonder if things have changed much…

Cheers – Jim & Christina xx

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