Many of my Canadian friends and family have made trips to Cuba. The vast majority go on package tours to all-inclusive resorts on the beaches 20-30 kilometers outside of Havana. They have a great time sitting on the beach, smoking Cuban cigars and drinking great inexpensive rum. Occasionally, they might take a daily excursion into Havana to look around. That is not what we went to Cuba for.
We only had 5 days in Cuba and spent it all in Havana. Our main goals for visiting Havana were to meet and talk to as many of the local people as we could to find out about their lives, attend a home church service – all churches closed in 1959 and operated underground if at all until about 10 years ago – we had contacts for a group near central Havana, learn about Cuban history and culture by visiting museums and other sites.
Old Havana – Unspoiled but crumbling. One of the interesting things about Havana is that it is a very old city, established over 400 years ago, and much of the architecture is still in place and unchanged. For lack of a better word, the city is “raw”. In most other cities of the world, many of the older buildings would have been torn down and replaced or modified. Hard Rock Cafes, Starbucks and McDonalds would abound.
The flip side of this is that most of the architecture is in poor condition; wood is rotting, paint is gone or peeling, stone and cement is crumbling. Most of the buildings are unwashed and dirty.
Another aspect of Old Havana is that everyday people still live here. In most other cities the residents of the area would have been forced out, bought out, or otherwise relocated and the downtown area would be filled with shops, high-end luxury condominiums, offices and businesses. In old Havana, everyday people still live in the apartments at or above street level. They live their daily lives in the same areas that are thronging with tourists.
Calle Opisbo – this is a long, cobblestone pedestrian only street filled with shops, restaurants, art galleries, small museums and other tourist oriented facilities. There is also a smattering of places that would be more frequented by locals – banks, telephone company, restaurants that serve primarily Cubans. You can identify these restaurants quite quickly because they tend to be much lower end and have prices displayed in the Cuban peso versus the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The Cuban peso can only be for transactions with Cuban government supplied goods – basic food items, electricity, phone, etc. The exchange rate is about 25 Cuban pesos to one CUC. All tourist places accept only CUC. In many of these places, particularly the food stands, they will accept CUC at a discounted rate. For example, anything that sells for 20 Cuban pesos will cost 1 CUC if you ask.
We did buy a few things at these shops. I bought a slice of pizza at one. At another place they were selling hot dogs. The listed price was 18 Cuban pesos. Theoretically, that converts to about 0.72 CUC. But when I asked the price in CUC I was told, “One peso.” Close enough, I thought. It was absolutely the worst hot dog I have ever had, and that says a lot. In Spanish, I asked if he had soda pop. He told me he did, but it wasn’t cold and suggested I go to a booth up the street and pointed it out. This place was interesting. It was basically a booth facing the street that had a tray of actual glasses made out of glass on the counter and a fountain machine behind the counter. You buy a glass of soda and drink it right there at the counter and give them the glass back. I asked how much for one cola. Can you guess what the price was? Correct, one CUC. “Es demasiado cara-it is too expensive,” I said and began to walk away. The price immediately dropped to 0.10 CUC, a 90% cost reduction. We bought two glasses.
This main street was interesting, but very crowded with tourists and vendors calling at you to buy their trinkets. Not our kind of place. I would recommend walking up it once, but once was enough for us.
Plaza Vieja – this is a very cool plaza. It was updated a number of years ago. On the front of most buildings it shows a before and after picture of what it looked like before and after restoration. It was quite remarkable. The plaza itself was stone and had a number of modern art pieces. Tourist shops and restaurants lined all four sides of the plaza.
What was especially interesting was the mix of locals and tourists. In the afternoon you could find children playing soccer and tag in the courtyard alongside the buskers playing music and the sight seeing tourists. One morning we went to an upper story privada (private restaurant) overlooking the plaza. There were four or five classes of school children and their teachers doing their phys ed class – calisthenics, relay races, soccer.
Parque Central – Central Park – this was a nice park at one end of the main street. A statue of Jose Marti (1853 – 1895)– a Cuban national hero – was in the center of the square. Trees and benches were throughout the park. It is a great place to people watch. In the morning, you can find a group of guys that stand around and debate quite passionately about the Cuban baseball leagues. I had heard about this place and found it interesting to watch. This was also the main stop for the double decker sight-seeing bus. Vintage American cars converted into taxis along with more traditional taxis lined three sides of the plaza.
Castillo de las Tres Reyes and Fortaleza de San Carlos – across the harbor are two forts. A quick taxi ride gets you over there. The Tres Reyes fort guarded the harbor for many years and parts of it have been restored quite well. Like most places, the admission fee was minimal and for an extra 1 CUC we got a personal guide. The guide spoke English fairly well and gave a great, informative tour. It was not very busy that day and towards the end of the tour we talked quite a bit with her about life in Cuba. Take a look at my “People of Cuba” posts for more details of her thoughts.
The Fortaleza de San Carlos is just a short walk from the Castillo Tres Reyes. It is quite large and offers some great views of Old Havana. On site are a number of small museums. At 9:00PM every evening they have a ceremony where they dress in Spanish colonial uniforms and fire the cannons. We arrived late in the day and saw the souvenir vendors setting up. We had intentions of going back for the ceremony, but never made it back. You could hear the cannons every night though.
Museum of Art – my wife and son are huge art aficionados. I like art and appreciate it, but I don’t have the same depth of knowledge or passion that they have. Nor do I have the vocabulary. When Parker and Susan go to an art museum they speak in a language that I don’t fully understand. “What do you think of this? A little post-impressionist, don’t you think?”
“Yes, with touches of retro gargantuanism and farsal varnification. A little reminiscent of Francis Bacon in his trepsadian period with touches of linear alphabetasicm.” At least that is what it sounds like to me.
I did find the museum interesting even if I don’t have the level of knowledge or appreciation of my wife and son. There were a few guided tours going through in English and it was interesting picking up on what pieces and artists had gone in and out of censorship. It sounds like censorship has loosened up a bit in recent years and there are more pieces displayed that were not previously allowed. It was also interesting to me to see the revolutionary influence, not only of those works of art produced during the early 1960s, but even more recent pieces. Che Guevara is featured prominently with a bit of Castro thrown in here and there.
Museum of the Revolution – this was a very interesting museum. I learned quite a bit about the history of Cuba, particularly from the mid-1950s on. The museum is in the former national palace and still has the bullet holes from when the revolutionaries stormed the palace and forced out Batista.
History is always written from the perspective of the victor, as they say. For most of the campesinos, a Spanish word that translates to “farmer” or “peasant”, life was indeed brutal pre-revolution. There was near slave like conditions on the sugar plantations. High unemployment. High wealth inequality. Something needed to change, that is for sure.
As an American citizen, it felt a little different reading all the verbiage about the “Imperialist Americans” and the American government’s multiple attempts to destabilize the country during and after the revolution. I am sure quite a bit is fact, but I have a feeling there is a fair amount of hyperbole as well.
Across the street but still part of the museum is a display of large artifacts such as the Granma – the yacht that Castro and the first group of revolutionaries sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1957, the remains of a US spy plane shot down by the revolutionaries, various military vehicles used in combat.
Malecon – in Havana, this is an 8km stretch of road and sidewalk that borders the Caribbean Sea. The shoreline is solid rock and the waves crash continuously against the rocks, often spraying enough water on the sidewalk and roadway to have it closed to traffic.
On the far western end of the Malecon stands the newly opened US Embassy. I went out for a run a number of times along the Malecon in the morning. Susan and I went for a couple of late afternoon strolls as well. Quite pleasant and seems to be a gathering place for locals and tourists alike.
Double decker sightseeing bus – although my wife and son chide me for being so, I am a big fan of the double decker buses found in most major cities. Yes, they are pretty touristy, but my view is that they give you a good overview of a new city and you can get an idea of where you might want to get off and take a closer look.
I was happy we took the tour. It was a little different than most other bus tours I have taken. With most other bus tours you get a tri-fold brochure with a map that shows the routes of the bus and while you are on the bus, you are provided with a cheap set of ear buds and hear a narration of the sights as you are driving by. Not in Havana. There is no brochure and no map. Not even a map somewhere on the wall. There was a worn depiction that listed the various stops, but there was no description of what each stop was nor any idea of the relative distance between the stops. There was no audio guide, however, someone downstairs would say a few words at about half of the stops in Spanish and English explaining a little about that particular stop.
It travelled through both Old Havana and New Havana and you got to see some more modern, middle class neighborhood. When I say more modern, they looked like they were built in the 60s and 70s.
We did drive by THE Copa Cabana. You know the place, “The hottest spot north of Havana.” Unfortunately, after driving by it took me about 15 minutes to get that Barry Manilow tune out of my head.
The round trip takes about two and a half hours. You can get on and off at the different stops and the ticket is good for all day. We did not get off at any of the stops. The bus was quite crowded, all of the top seats were occupied for most of the trip.
Overall, Havana was a fascinating place. I am glad we went. If I had to do it all over again, I would have done a lot of things differently. I felt the least prepared for our trip to Cuba than I have for just about any other trip we have taken. Next time we go I will plan more in advance, stay in a casa rather than a hotel, visit other parts of Cuba rather than just Havana.
A few weeks after our trip, President Obama visited Cuba for a few days. Starwood hotels announced that they would be building three hotels in the country. Right now USA based airlines are bidding for up to 30 flights per day from the USA to Cuba. The next time we visit, whenever that is, the country will have likely changed, maybe by quite a bit. I am looking forward to visiting again and observing the changes.