By Mary Anne Bargen, Cuba Journal contributor
When I decided to venture to Cuba for the first time, it was a no brainer to check into what was available on Airbnb. I’ve relied on the service when traveling both across the states and abroad, and prefer staying in apartments and homes to hotels. Havana would be no different. I found a well-located spot with plenty of space and air conditioning. It checked all my boxes, so I made my reservation, and I’m happy to report it was just as advertised.
In order to be able to travel to Cuba from the US legally, I needed to meet one of 12 requirements. Airbnb would come to my aid for that as well.
They don’t call them adventures. They call them “experiences.” But the immersive journey into the life of Ernest Hemingway through the eyes of a 20-something Havana native felt like an adventure to me.
I know the year Lisandra – or “Lisi” – was born, how she was raised, the movies she taught herself English while watching, and what authors she enjoys reading. I know what she thinks about the way Cuba is changing and that her life is about to change in a really big way…that she is on the brink of her very own adventure, an experience that will take her off the island for the first time – to discover a world she’s only read about or seen on a screen.
Signing on for an Airbnb experience isn’t signing up for a mass tour of famous sights where someone whose name you won’t remember robotically recites memorized details. It’s the promise of a friend to show you around, give you a glimpse at everyday life, share stories that will stick, and maybe – if you’re lucky – introduce you to her mom.
Here is my Airbnb listing. Please note that you book Airbnb Experiences separately from Airbnb stays.
I was drawn to the “After Hemingway” experience because I love visiting old book stores, and that was one of the activities mentioned. I knew my stomach couldn’t handle the gastro option, nor would my lack of coordination make the dancing one enjoyable, but Hemingway sounded right up my alley. (I have a weak spot for brilliant creatives.)
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Booking was easy. You click. You pay. You verify your ID. And just like that, if you live in the States and are going to Cuba, your trip now qualifies under one of the 12 categories of authorized travel (education – person-to-person).
It was my first Airbnb experience, but I’m excited to try more. Maybe even create one in my neighborhood.
It was a 3-day experience of bookstores, Hemingway, and a night spent at the incredimazing Fabrica de Arte Cubano. (I’m actually jealous LA doesn’t have one of these, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
Our meeting place the first day was the Cuba Libro bookstore. Run by a New Yorker and providing a haven for book lovers, it’s a personal stop on the tour for Lisi, who has the place to thank for feeding her habit of reading in English. Our tour that first day wound around Havana to a literary magazine reading (where we met her mom), a cafe where she stopped to pick up a bag of her favorite coffee “they usually run out so when you see it, you get it”, a bar for Old Havana’s best daiquiri, and a friend’s art gallery, where Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky stopped to play the piano when he took Lisi’s tour. (He took it on the recommendation of his sister, who visited first.)
Lisi says she was nervous the whole time. I have no doubt he saw in her what we did, a breath of fresh air full of information and knowledge and exactly what Havana – and Cuba – should look for in an ambassador. She says her friends call her a dreamer because of her desire to stick around and be a part of how the country is changing. (Most of them have left to do things in other countries.) We end the first day at another bar on Plaza del Cristo with a tapas and mojito recommendation.
The second day is spent at Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia. Unlike other home tours, you don’t walk through the home, you walk around the home, peeking in open doors and windows, as if you were a snooping neighbor or a passerby. I loved it. As we walked, Lisi shared details about the author’s obsession with his weight (he documented it on the wall of his bathroom), showed us the guest bed where Ava Gardner once slept, and talked the staff into opening doors that were closed to other visitors. The story of the four dog graves, she told it. And she knew that it’s been less than a year that they’ve allowed the US flag to wave on his boat. (The Cuban flag hangs on there too.)
Ok ok here comes the experience part. Because it’s a moment in time that the three of us (the third of us being an English teacher from Atlanta named Andy who also took the experience) participated in that both Lisi and I offered as highlights when on our last night together Andy asked us what our favorite parts were. It was this. After immersing ourselves in all things Hemingway, while having a drink at the bar, Andy read the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” aloud. It was the earnest (pun intended, but also that’s the word that belongs here) discussion afterward when he asked us what we thought it was about, and we talked about what it was about and how incredibly Hemingway had developed these two characters and tightly woven this story all in four pages.
That experience would have been different elsewhere and with other people. That was a moment brought to me by Airbnb.
The end of our trilogy of hangouts was spent at the aforementioned Fabrica des Artes Cubano or FAC. It’s an amazing combined space of art gallery, music venue, bar, and coffee shop that offers anything you could want in a night all in the same place. Lisi filled us in on how it came about and shared details about specific works of art. We watched Michel Herrera perform with his band, and reminisced about our experience over classic cocktails.
Although the experience promised a glimpse at the literary side of Havana, it provided an inside look at life in a city that is adapting through the eyes of a young (yet ageless) Cuban with big dreams and a lot of promise.