In Havana, disconnection is a breath of fresh air

Havana: Cuba is a curious destination for a technology reporter.

Of course, you can book a room over the internet these days, through any number of online directories like or Airbnb.

The bright lights of Havana's Hotel Inglaterra.
The bright lights of Havana's Hotel Inglaterra. Photo: Hannah Francis

Homes with internet access remain a tiny minority, but the version of Havana that is frozen in time – with its vintage cars and lack of mobile phones – is gradually fading.

So, when staying in a 1920s casa particular without any internet access available for guests, I was left to navigate the city with a free mobile app I'd downloaded – including an offline map which didn't always have its landmarks in the right spot – and a Lonely Planet guide to Havana, published in 2007, which belonged to my landlady. Between them I managed all right.

Centro Habana.
Centro Habana. Photo: Hannah Francis

During rainy spells – and there are many in Havana in January – I took the opportunity to read Dave Eggers' The Circle, a dystopian snapshot ofan always-connected, social-media-obsessed society; a place we might end up if we fail to challenge the creeping power and rationale of the tech giants that ultimately own so much of our lives online. In Eggers' world, private pleasures such as taking a kayak out to sea on a moonlit night are compromised by cameras and connectivity tools that are always watching, always on.

I devoured the book on a pastel-painted balcony overlooking the sea. Without a humble status update or benevolent email on hand to bring me back to reality, the story's power – and eeriness – was amplified.


The streets of Centro Habana, a predominantly residential area, remain true to the postcard version of Cuba. They are full with people from dawn to dusk: chatting and cat-calling; spruiking empanadas and platanos; shooing stray dogs; or just watching it all from the porch. Cars and rickshaws honk past, blaring salsa and reggaeton – but sometimes Beyonce or Adele. This is a pueblo that lives outdoors, face-to-face.

A short walk away in touristy Habana Vieja, teenagers huddle along curbs like rows of pigeons, scavenging free Wi-Fi from nearby hotels to check their Facebook.

Bill Haley and Lionel Richie on display in a Havana record store.
Bill Haley and Lionel Richie on display in a Havana record store. Photo: Hannah Francis

In a quiet bar off the main drag, I downed some Spanish wine – Cuba is too hot and humid for anything but dessert wine – and practised my Spanish on the bartender. We talked about 1960s crooners and I told him how refreshing it was not to be connected to the internet. He told me how badly he, and most Cubans, want the opposite.

That may come sooner rather than later, as US President Barack Obama chips away industriously at thawing icy relations in his last term.

The view of Habana Vieja from Hotel Ambos Mundos.
The view of Habana Vieja from Hotel Ambos Mundos. Photo: Hannah Francis

Days after I left Havana, a top-level US delegation arrived to discuss development of Cuba's internet. Several US companies are reportedly vying to build an undersea fibre-optic cable from Florida. Cuba now relies on its connection with Venezuela, and satellite.

The government, resisting connectivity for so long – and the liberation of information that comes with it – is now aiming to have 50 per cent of households connected by 2020, and 60 per cent mobile penetration.

A frieze on the roof of Hotel Ambos Mundos.
A frieze on the roof of Hotel Ambos Mundos. Photo: Hannah Francis

On my last day I headed to the Plaza Vieja where stallholders sell records by Frank Sinatra and books about the Cuban Revolution. I bought a photocopied edition of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, complete with spelling errors and a copyright warning.

I took the book to the rooftop of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived for several years when he first arrived to Cuba. While inwardly embarrassed by the touristic cliche of it all, the view was spectacular and the mojitos were strong.

Teenagers browse the web on their phones using free Wi-Fi from nearby Hotel Ambos Mundos.
Teenagers browse the web on their phones using free Wi-Fi from nearby Hotel Ambos Mundos. Photo: Hannah Francis

Other customers were asking waiters for help connecting their devices to the hotel's Wi-Fi signal. I checked my phone and, sure enough, an unsecured Wi-Fi signal had registered.

But I'd gone five days without the internet and I didn't want to ruin it now. I started on Hemingway and drifted out to sea in a clapped-out rowboat, with the shore nowhere in sight.

An afternoon in Centro Habana.
An afternoon in Centro Habana. Photo: Hannah Francis

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