We were very fortunate to attend the 31st annual jazz festival in Havana, Cuba, which is usually held in December or January. For seven nights in as many as seven different venues, there was music. Not all of it was Jazz though, which became evident when we saw Billie Gibson of ZZ Top sing at the 2015 jazz festival.
The main theater for the festival is the Teatro Mella and it can hold 1500 people, but probably held more as many people were standing. The inside was nice, only a couple of rows had broken seats. The first 5-10 rows of the Teatro Mella were supposed to be reserved for people who paid more to sit up front and show up at the last minute. They had two women monitoring that area, but no tape to block it off. Everyone started sitting in that area and would not move when the women asked them to. So, when the high dollar folks came at the very last minute, all their seats were taken. They didn’t want to sit up top so they sat on the stage, but eventually gave up and most of them moved upstairs. This happened 2 nights in a row. My advice is to avoid buying the reserved tickets and just get there an hour early to find your seats. If you avoid sitting in the first 10 rows, you should be fine.
Also, I suggest you bring your own toilet paper to the theater and bring money to tip the poor woman who works there. There are no toilet seats, no toilet paper, no soap, and you can’t flush. The woman who works in the bathroom comes behind you with her son and pours a bucket of water down your toilet. Can you imagine doing this all day? Especially since 1 out of every 5 tourists gets diarrhea. The same goes all throughout Cuba–all the restaurants, clubs, theaters, and even the airport. Most nice hotels, however, have flushing toilets and will give you very limited toilet paper. Each day we would pack up our toilet paper from our room and take it with us. Then the house cleaner would replace it, but only if it was gone.
Back to the jazz festival–you do not know who will be playing at the jazz concerts until about one month before, but it’s still subject to change. As long as you are open to all kinds of music and dancing, you will have fun!
At the Teatro Mella, we saw the Preservation Hall Band from New Orleans. They brought 125 people with them and they all pitched into buy the Teatro Mella a marquis sign. I loved it. Musicians are not paid nor do they get free hotel rooms, but this group gave back. Not only did they play at the Teatro Mella, but they played at other Havana venues throughout the week. My favorite part was when they asked 6 older Cuban couples to come dance on stage. The band had met them earlier that week, and wow, could these 80-year-olds cut a rug! They were wearing their best clothes and having the time of their lives. I can see why the Preservation Hall Band has been around for 50 years, they give back and generate happiness with their music.
The jazz festival was a wonderful way to see Cuba. With our inclusive jazz pass, we could visit 7 venues and cut in front of the long line at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC). Make sure you go to this venue. It has a very young crowd, but it’s a cool combination of art, music, and people-watching. All drinks are $2 no matter what they are including water, mojitos, margarita, colas, and beers.
Touring Havana in Style
We also hired a guide and driver, Guillermo, who drove us around in a red 57 Chevy for 6 hours in Havana. The first place we went was Jose Fuster’s house. This was the highlight or our trip for three of us. Fuster was a mad man who loved to decorate everything with mosaic tiles. Not only his house or his neighbor’s houses, but also the whole neighborhood and even the bus stop!
If you make it to his house, make sure to visit the cultural art center across the street. They have some artwork in there that will really draw you in.
Another place you can find fabulous artwork is the San Jose arts and crafts mall. If you buy anything, just make sure you get the $3 letter of authentication that’s required to take art out of the country. They want to make sure you are not taking a rare treasure out of Cuba. I wouldn’t take any chances on this because all rolled artwork will be examined when you depart from Cuba.
The last place Guillermo took us was the Hemingway home, which is decorated the same way as it was in 1961, including Hemingway’s boat. It’s a fabulous home with a beautiful view.
Guillermo entertained us for 6 hours in his fully restored 57 Chevy with a Toyota engine, and it cost us about $120 total. He also agreed to pick us up the next day at 6 a.m. to take us to the airport even tough he had to get another driver to hold all our luggage. They both were there promptly at 6 a.m.
In addition, the night before we left, we went out to dinner and wanted a taxi ride home. Our hostess told us there were no more taxis for the night, so we had her call Guillermo. He was busy on the other side of town, but he asked her for the restaurant address and gave us directions to a hotel that would have taxis. Sure enough, there were 10 taxis waiting just four blocks away.
I highly recommend our guide and professional driver, Guillermo, for his knowledge, his 57 red Chevy car, his smile, and his willingness to help us with any information. He felt like a true friend in Havana. If you want to reach him, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and his phone number is 7(831)-6448 or his cell is 5(368)-2575.
Cuba is For the Seasoned Traveler
In Cuba things go wrong, hotels change, music changes, toilets do not work, and hotels run out of food. You must bring your own soap, toilet paper, and all medicines because you will not be able to buy any of that in Cuba.
Air conditioning can be non-existent in some places, and even during winter in December, it still was in the high 80’s. To help with the heat, you can a fan or buy a lovely wooden one while you are there. Also, buy a hat when you are there. For some reason their hats breathe better than ours, and American baseball caps were too hot. I paid about $8 for my hat from an old man on the street, and it kept me cool the entire time I was there.
When I asked for a Coca Cola, I was told they do not have Coca Colas in Cuba. There is only Tucola or Cola. There are no McDonald’s either. It’s also important to note you cannot use any American credit card, and you’ll need to carry cash. You can exchange American money, but they tax us another 10%.
The Beauty of Decay, Old Cars, and Architecture
I was expecting old cars in Cuba, but I did not know that 75% of all the cars were old. Sometimes you only have one window crank in the car that you have to pass around to open the windows. Sometimes they break down right in the middle of traffic and you have to jump out quickly. When our old belvedere car broke down, four men on the curb immediately jumped over and helped push the car off the road. I was not expecting the heavy smell of diesel gasoline that feels like it chokes the oxygen out of the air.
I was not expecting the grandeur of all the buildings and homes in Cuba either. I had no idea how beautiful the decaying facades of 60 years of neglect and mildew would look to me, or how captivating it was with the lingering ghosts of another time. Cuba must have been so European and beautiful 60 years ago, because it is still beautiful. What an exotic place to visit, a place I will never forget.