Havana nights

Posted on 12 Jul 2012 at 11:35pm

Think that Cuba is totally off limits? It’s not, and a paradise for gay travelers

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I AM CUBA | A young man, above, jumps into the water off the Malecon; the Nicho Cascadas, below, provide natural beauty ... as do many of the local men, below right. (Photos by Paul William)

 

Puerta Vallarta — so 2000s. Key West — boring. The new hot spot for gay men is 90 miles south of Florida. Sleepy, mysterious Cuba may be officially off-limits to Americans, but with a little creativity is readily accessible to Texans looking for a unique Caribbean adventure.

Cubana Airlines has one daily flight departing Cancun at 3 p.m. for Havana, so any morning flight from DFW to Cancun will get you there in plenty of time for a connection. Cuba’s immigration and customs are surprisingly accommodating to Americans (they do not stamp your passport), and money is easily exchanged (the rate is roughly 97 Cuban cents to the American dollar, though with commissions it can run to 90 cents).

Havana is a city of severe contrasts. Cubans make on average the equivalent of $20 per month. Most of the residents live in multi-story concrete housing that has not been updated in years, if not decades — some even have trees growing through them. Meanwhile, Old Havana boasts homes and restaurants that have been meticulously restored, as well as great shopping.

_Nicho-Cascadas-232323232-fp63566-nu=4279-2-2-534-WSNRCG=354354-936349nu0mrjCuba’s literacy rate is 99 percent, with an outstanding education and university system. Students are required to learn English in primary school, so many of the younger crowd can speak it, whether haltingly or fluently. (Older Cubans tend to get rusty and will speak only Spanish.)

Spectacular beaches make Cuba a sun-worshipper’s paradise, with several very comfortable all-inclusive hotels geared toward tourists. A room at a beach will set you back about $50 per night in summer and $98 in February’s high season. The two most noteworthy beaches are Varadero to the north and Trinidad to the south. The food at the hotels is average but you can drink mojitos, beer, rum punch, or Cuba libres all day without putting down a dime. There are two brands of beer on the island — Crystal and Bucanero — which will generally set you back about a dollar; a liter of rum costs about seven bucks.

The Malecon is the center of social life in Havana. This four-mile stretch of seawall is a family-friendly destination by day, but after 6 p.m., police make sure the crowd is only 18 and over; as the night draws on, the strip fills up shoulder-to-shoulder with men and women. Americans are known for their generosity in such a poor country, and are popular with the local boys — if you walk 100 feet, expect at least 15 young, smiling men to approach you.

It can, though, also be dangerous along the Malecon (or other Havana streets) at night, so try never to walk alone after dark to avoid being mugged.

Fortunately, there’s a solution for that.

Since being embargoed by the U.S. in the early 1960s, Cuban has struggled to modernize, but that comes with some charming points of nostalgia.

There are more 1950s-era American cars in Cuba than there are Mercedes-Benzes in Dallas. They come in all makes, models and states of rehabilitation … and all are in service as taxis. One night I was part of a group of nine who piled into a 1953 Buick Estate station wagon for a “charter”232323232-fp63569-nu=4279-2-2-534-WSNRCG=35433639-3349nu0mrj across town … and we could have easily accommodated three more. That’s not always the case; some cannot hold more than a few passengers.

If you plan to hail a taxi, merely hold up as many fingers as passengers you have; drivers will stop if they can accommodate your party. It is easy to find one’s way around in Cuba — street addresses are all listed by cross streets; it helps you to know where to get out of a taxi.

Cuba has made great strides in gay rights during the last decade or so, thanks in large part to Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro. Five years ago, gays congregating near the National Hotel would whisper which abandoned building would host that night’s dance party, as raids were common and punishment could be severe. But Mariela, who is trained as a sexologist, founded the National Center for Sex Education, and with his father’s blessing was given latitude to expand gay rights. There are now five gay bars in Havana that stay open until 5 a.m., and gays have a regular zone to hang out in along the Malecon. Sexual reassignment surgery is now provided free of charge through the national healthcare system.

Cubans are very hungry to get to know Americans, and with the opening of gay culture, it’s much easier to get to meet the locals. Sex is fairly free-flowing here, and Havana is a dream destination for those attracted to Latinos. Lifeguards on the beaches are paid a mere $14 per month,  so even the married ones are open to fraternization. (Most Cuban men will tell you they are straight anyway.) While they may have visited beaches outside Havana, most have never been to a beach resort or fine restaurant, and are happy to accept a generous invitation. (Don’t be surprised if they want to take some food home with them — family is revered in Cuba, and when they say food or money is going to help their families, they mean it.)

If you hope to take a local home with you, be forewarned: There are many tourist hotels with moderate prices but locals cannot go above the first floor — not even as guests for a few minutes. Instead, you may want to stay at a casa particular — basically, a guesthouse or B&B with relaxed rules. Most are rooms in private homes but some are in stand-alone apartment buildings. They rent for 25 Cuban bucks a night and serve the needs of tourists who may be staying in a hotel and want to share a room with a local.

Cuba is a fantastic destination, the travel is easy and returning home via Cancun and going through customs is painless … unless, of course, you try to bring back Cuban cigars.

— Paul William

For more information about travel to Cuba, contact the author at hermanopablo12@gmail.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 13, 2012.

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