Cuba – Havana

The mere mention of this fabled city conjures up images of romance and faded glory. Havana has beckoned us to visit for as long as we can remember, and we were thrilled when the opportunity finally presented itself. What can we say about this gorgeous city? We love Havana, its wonderful people, crumbling architecture, vintage automobiles, and sultry sunsets. Its easy to see why we now have a love affair with Havana. Come explore for yourself and find out why we can never get rid of the Havana allure.

16 Jun: Got to Cancun airport with no real issues. While attempting to check in at the Mexicana counter, we were directed to first purchase our Cuba tourist cards at the Mexicana ticket counter to our rear (which only had two attendants and was painfully slow). After waiting nearly 30 minutes for a representative, the lady assisting us informed us that the tourist cards had not arrived yet and would be there in about “5 minutes”. There was no way we were about to get back in line just to wait again, so we stalled by asking her if we could purchase travel insurance (which according to some travel forums was now mandatory for all visitors to Cuba). Luckily for us, even though we had bought our air tickets through Cuba Junky, Mexicana was able to cover us for $10 each for the duration of our stay. The tourist cards for Cuba cost another $15 and we were able to use a combination of US dollars and Mexican Pesos. Checking in was easy…the check in counter was fairly relaxed about our weight limit, but we still decided to hand carry some heavy items in our carry ons. The short flight only took an hour and was on time. We arrived to the Havana Jose Marti airport at around 4 pm, and had no problems at all going through immigration/customs. No evidence of insurance was asked for (although we did see other US citizens singled out and forced to buy the 8 CUC a day insurance option), and we cleared the “medical screening” section where all we were asked was if we had any stomach or breathing problems as well as what the last few countries we had visited prior to Cuba were. Our luggage was already off loaded, and we spent the majority of our time at the airport at the two cadecas, looking for our Caribbean Transfers card, which we had requested online prior to arrival. Even though we had not loaded it with funds, we wanted it as an emergency in case our cash ran out. Not impressed with this company at all! No one at the airport had ever heard of them, and we were relieved we had not put funds on the card since we wouldn’t have had a clue how to retrieve the card. The email from the company said our card would be ready for pick up at the cadeca which was not true….glad we had a reserve of cash on hand and we weren’t relying on Caribbean Transfers!

Getting into old Havana was easy….we caught a taxi for 25 CUCs and had a smooth ride into the city. The driver was unable to make change for 50 CUCs, so we agreed to check in to the hotel and get smaller change to give him. The Hotel Valencia is conveniently located in the old city, and even though we couldn’t find our check in voucher (we had a confirmation number but for some reason the receptionist was insistent on the voucher), we eventually were given the Sueca room, located just above the reception. The hotel is beautiful, with a gorgeous courtyard full of pretty plants, and the rooms tastefully (although simply) decorated. We were instantly invited by our bagboy, Alfredo, to join him and his family at the beach tomorrow, and agreed with no firm arrangements on when and how to link up. After getting settled in the room, we set out to explore the city, wandering first to the Plaza de San Francisco where we saw a cadeca which was closed already (we forgot the time here is an hour ahead of Mexico, so it was already well past the closing time posted of 1630). The Euro to CUC rate was listed as 1.09 and we decided to check the other cadecas and banks to see if any others had a better rate. The Plaza de San Francisco is a cobblestoned area, that used to be the waterfront of the early colonial city. Its main focal point is the white marbled Fuente de los Leones (Fountain of Lions) erected in 1836, designed by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gaginni. The lonja del comercio (Good’s exchange) building has an interesting façade, and we could see that its dome is topped by a bronze statue of the god Mercury. The most interesting building on this square is the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asis where we saw a bunch of locals giggling as they posed next to a life sized bronze statue located just outside the main entrance to the church. The figurine is of a tramp known as “El Caballero de Paris”, and the locals pulled at his beard and held his fingers for good luck. Our next stop was at the Plaza Vieja, which is the old commercial square surrounded by calle Mercaderes, San Ignacio, Brasil and Muralla. The entire square has been tastefully restored, and photos depicting the “before and after” images of the various mansions, museums, and restaurants are in front of each building. The square had been used in colonial times for bullfights, executions, and fiestas, but today is a peaceful square dominated by a rather plain marble fountain in the center. We expected to be hassled constantly while walking the streets, but found them to be surprisingly devoid of the notorious jiniteros and jiniteras that we had been forewarned about. Palacio Cueto (also known as Palacio Vienna) is probably the square’s finest building, a daring art nouveau building that dates from 1906. Today it is a crumbling ruin that still retains its former glory, but it appeared to be undergoing renovation as a possible future hotel? It will look fabulous once completed. We spent the rest of the evening wandering the back alleys of Havana, smiling at the curious and friendly locals who greeted us in surprise as they saw us sauntering up and down their neighborhoods. Some sections felt more dodgy than others (especially for Robby with his SLR dangling from his neck) but we kept our wits about us and smartly moved from one section to the other, admiring the gorgeous (and crumbling) architecture of Havana’s back alleyways. The vintage cars on almost every street corner were a delight, and we were shocked to see so many of them in operational existence, not merely showcased as an antique but rather as a functioning mode of transportation. It was very cool. As the sun was setting, we happened upon the massive Capitol and the intricate Grand Theatre, and promised to return here in daylight hours to explore them in full. With no map in hand, Havana’s streets were easy to navigate, and we found ourselves back on the main street of Calle Opisbo where all the action seemed to be happening. Crowded with tourists and locals alike, we enjoyed our evening stroll through the dimly lit streets of Havana and eventually made our way back to the beautifully lit Plaza Vieja. Security guards had blocked off certain sections of old Havana, so we had to dodge and weave our way through the city to make our way back to Hotel Valencia where we called it a night. Overall first impression of Havana is that we are going to love this city!

17 Jun: Woke up and had breakfast of omelets with ham/cheese which were delicious! First agenda today was to exchange our Euros to CUCs, and we found a cadeca that offered us a rate of 1.10. After exchanging all of our cash into CUCs, we returned to the hotel for safekeeping of our bundle of CUCs before heading over to Plaza de Armas, which incidentally is Havana’s oldest square. Robby was immediately accosted by colorfully clad ladies clamoring for a photo and we obliged, thrilling them with a 1 CUC payment afterwards. Well worth it to see Robby attempt to scrub some strong lipstick off his scrubby beard afterwards. We later visited the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest existing fort in the Americas. There was a book fair being held at the Plaza, and we strolled by the Museo de la Ciudad which was packed with tourists. An inside courtyard had a white marble statue of Christopher Columbus and the entry portal was quite ornate. From Plaza de Armas, it was a short walk over to the Plaza de la Cathedral, and we saw a pretty model in a bright yellow gown being filmed at various locations around the plaza. Of course, we did the obligatory pass by of one of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes, but it was way too crowded with tourists so we headed back to the Plaza de San Francisco, climbing the church tower for a nice view over the city. Afterwards, we visited the Havana Club Museum of Rum, (Museo del Ron) which was OK but a bit overpriced at 7 CUC (the “free” sample was a tiny shot of the 7 year old aged rum). Afterwards, we went to the Plaza Vieja and took an elevator up to the Camara Oscura, which had “live 360 degree views” of the city. It had been a busy day, but we still managed to wander back towards the Capitol and the Prado, stopping frequently to admire the gorgeous architecture. At the edge of the malecon, we both imbibed in our bottles of Havana Club rum, and of course got a little bit tipsy.

18 Jun, Friday: After breakfast, we headed towards the Capitol and found to our dismay that no visitors are allowed as renovations are ongoing! What a pity as we were both quite curious to check out this monstrosity of a building. We settled instead for a 2 CUC tour of the Grand Theatre, and thought it was interesting and worthwhile. We got to sit in Fidel Castro’s very own box seats (they look exactly like everyone else’s but are smack dab in the middle of the theater for a decent view of the stage). Next, we wandered into Hotel Inglaterra which has a fine bar area, and then we went down to the Museum of the Revolution which was interesting although heavily slanted with only one perspective and laced with lots of propaganda. We were both surprised to see the Granma, a vessel that Castro used during the revolution, behind heavy glass with no less than 4 security personnel cautiously eyeballing every single visitor as if we would somehow smash through the glass and make off with the boat…it was very funny and a bit bizarre! After the museum, we skirted outside to see part of the old city wall to the rear of the complex, and we headed towards the statue of General Maximo Gomez. While retracing our steps on the Prado, we found some 10 peso (national moneda) pizza and 2 peso mango juice (yummy) opposite the Bacardi building. Our goal this afternoon was to figure out how to get our Viazul bus tickets, so we stopped by to talk to InfoTur but they were trying to sell us one of their tours for 15 CUC each (the Viazul bus ride is only 12 CUC each). We declined when we found out that we could just buy them the day of departure, one hour prior to the bus departing. We then took a 10 peso ferry over towards the Parque Historico Militar Morro-Cabana and had to hike uphill towards a Christ statue and onward to the main entrance to the Morro. We paid 6 CUC for entry prior to 1800 (those coming for the nightly canon ceremony pay 8 CUC). The complex is large but we had more than enough time to explore it before the 9 pm ceremony which was packed with locals and visitors alike. Becky met 2 Chinese girls studying Spanish here in Havana, and enjoyed a conversation in Chinese, Spanish and English…very funny. We watched the sunset and waited for the canonazo, a ceremony that brings nightly crowds cramming upon each other to watch as the soldiers dressed in replica outfits march smartly to fire the canon at dusk. The cannon only fires once but it is damn loud (make sure to cover your ears!) For some crazy reason, we didn’t bring much money with us to the Morro, so we didn’t have enough for dinner and a taxi ride. Instead, we settled for some granola bars and oreo cookies in lieu of dinner, and after the ceremony, caught a taxi for 5 CUC back to our hotel.

19 Jun: Today was our marathon sightseeing day, but what a day! We started out near the Capitol, visiting Friendship Park where a bust of Abraham Lincoln is on display. Next stop was at Barrio Chino (Chinatown) which has some eclectic architecture and friendly people, who were all trying to guess Becky’s ethnicity. The range of “china” to “brasil” were mentioned, and we laughed that almost every person in Cuba is lumped into some category or description. The Havana train station was our next quick stop, followed by visiting remnants of the old Havana city wall. We then headed towards “Cuatros Caminos Mercado”, a very colorful farmer’s market where we were able to buy inexpensive star fruit (5 pesos each) and guavas (about 8 for 20 pesos). Of course we had a field day taking photos here, with all the hustle and bustle of the market lending its full charm. There is an animal section to the market, and a friendly vendor placed a baby chick in Becky’s hands as a present when he saw her checking out the chicks! She had to reluctantly hand it back, and then we made our way over to the Plaza de la Revolucion, which provides a buzzard’s eye 360 degree view of Havana (seriously, there are soaring vultures everywhere at the top of the Jose Marti Tower!). The views were impressive and we could make out the Christopher Columbus cemetery so we decided to head over there next. We were not impressed when we finally reached the main gate to find that the price of admission had jumped from 1 CUC to a whopping 5 CUCs, so we opted to skip it. We saw a confused tourist making his way towards us, and he asked if we spoke English. Delighted when we responded in the affirmative, he told us he had been spending his time at a Vedado resort and had decided on a whim to visit Havana. He wasn’t willing to pay the resort prices for a city tour, and had opted to make his own way to the city on a local bus which had taken almost 3 hours (compared to his 1 hour expectation). As a result, he only had a very short amount of time to see Havana and wanted us to point out the malecon to him. We felt bad for him when he explained he hailed from Canada and knew virtually zero Spanish, which made it impossible for him to communicate with many of the Cubans that he had come across. After bidding our new acquaintance good luck, we stopped for an ice cold soda at a nearby bakery before making our own way towards the malecon. Passing by the US special interests building (a plain nondescript building behind a metal fence), and the anti-imperialist plaza which stands immediately next to the US special interest building, we had to laugh at the stark contrast between the two areas. Further along the malecon, we were suddenly accosted by boys demanding that we take their photos and give them CUCs as payment. Not from us…we both ignored their increasingly strident demands and wandered onwards towards the Hotel National de Cuba. This is a gorgeous hotel along the malecon, and as we explored its grounds, discovered photographs of some celebrities who have stayed here (Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Micheal Keaton). Afterwards, we saw the mural at Hotel Tryp, followed by some super inexpensive ice-cream at Coppelia. We were amazed that the locals around us were consuming double or triple servings of ice-cream, devouring it as if they would never taste it again! It was rather funny watching everyone consume a ton of ice-cream, when we were rather satisfied with our single bowl each of three scoops. We took to walking the streets of Havana some more, passing by the impressive looking University. Our plan was to stop by the Convento del Carmen, but it had a religious ceremony going on so we didn’t venture inside. From the convent, it was a short walk to the fascinating site of “Salvador’s Alley” which is a Santeria religious area (lots of children begging for candy/money as well as adults)…we didn’t give in but could see that a lot of other tourists had and didn’t like the aura of “gimme, gimme” which hadn’t been felt elsewhere in Havana. Sunset at the malecon was nice, with lots of folks swimming and enjoying the final moments of sun before it disappeared over the horizon. We strolled along the prado back towards our hotel, where we freshened up briefly and headed back out to the Chinese restaurant of La Torre del Marfil (super tasty dishes). Had a late night and a crazy busy day but slept well, especially with our AC on full blast.

20 Jun: After our marathon day of sights yesterday, we decided to sleep in and get caught up on some rest. It was a shock to realize that it was already 0930 and as our room remains pitch black dark and it is impossible to know what time of day it is without a clock. We jolted awake and were able to catch the remaining breakfast buffet before they wrapped up at 10 am. Our main agenda today was to get some nice shots of the city from the rooftops of Hotel Parque Central and the nearby Hotel Saratoga. We headed directly for the rooftops where the views were absolutely gorgeous. After having walked almost every single street in the city, it was amazing to appreciate Havana’s perspective from high above. Stunning views and we thought both hotels (while more fancy than what we are normally used to) would have made a great base to explore the city. From the skyline, we were finally able to observe the Bacardi building clearly, noting that there is indeed a bat atop the whimsically designed building. We than backtracked towards the Plaza de la Cathedral to visit the ever crowded and boisterous Hemingway haunt of “La Bodeguita del Medio”, which by 12:30 was already in full swing, with a lively trio of performers and drunk tourists snapping photos of each other with glee. Too crowded for our tastes, we just enjoyed the ambiance and décor, before heading back out in the sultry heat to pose with one of Havana’s legends, a cigar chomping bespeckled lady happily posing for portraits. A street party complete with colorfully clad stilt walkers was in progress, so we trailed them to see where the party was heading. Of course, their helpers were policing up the photographers asking for tip money, but it was well worth it for some colorful street shots of the entertainers. We headed over to the free Coche Mambi (a 1900 train car built in the US, and brought to Cuba in 1912 as the Presidential car, a palace on wheels with a formal dining room), but it was closed due to ongoing renovations. Since that was a complete bust, we headed over to Plaza Vieja’s Taverna de la Muralla, which is Havana’s only home brewed pub, set up by an Austrian company. We enjoyed live music entertainment and some nice cold beers in a great atmosphere…we love Habana! Afterwards, we chilled at the hotel and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon before heading out for dinner at Al Medina, an Arabic restaurant complete with hummus, falafel and kebabs. The food was OK (last night’s Chinese restaurant was definitely much better) and our bill was under 20 CUC, including propina (tip). We headed out to the Plaza de la Cathedral for a nightly show put on by the restaurant El Patio. Tonight’s theme was a fashion catwalk show but we were more entertained by an elderly couple who was spontaneously breaking out into dance at the lively techno and pop music. Very funny to see an older lady breakdance along with her husband who was dressed in suit, bowtie and top hat perform a modified moonwalk. Headed back to the hotel to pack for our onward trip to Vinales.

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