Two beautiful, busy days in Cuba’s capital
06.12.2016 - 07.12.2016 32 °C
Followers of this blog will know that I have a habit of comparing places, and often ranking them. This often isn’t really fair – it’s hardly a controlled trial, and might be heavily affected by the weather, health, and luck – and each place should be appreciated in its own right, and not compared to some other town.
Having said that, Havana compares very favourably to all Latin American cities we’ve been to, maybe on a par with Buenos Aires and behind only Rio de Janeiro. The architecture here is charming, the cars are charming and the people are charming, and the atmosphere is lively. It’s a lot like stepping back in time.
Stepping back in time to when tobacco ads were still allowed...
A large part of this is the embargo, and the economic paralysis this has caused. The colonial era buildings are only now being restored, and the vintage cars are abundant due to import restrictions after the Cuban Revolution (1959). Incomes are low and people can’t afford air conditioners, so they wander out onto the streets at night to cool down.
Perhaps it also explains why people are so friendly, and why the music is so great. With limited internet and TV, Cubanos socialise, and jam on their bongos and saxophones rather than stay inside. We were asked many times on a short walk around the city where we were from and whether we were enjoying Cuba (and when we say Australia they always say ‘Ah, Australia! Kangaroo!’).
On the way from the chaotic, ancient airport, Vladimir the taxi driver – named after Lenin, not Putin – told us the model and year of all the vintage cars. The oldest was from 1948, still going reasonably smoothly.
From what we’ve heard, the people are friendly but the food leaves a lot to be desired. Our first dinner was pretty good though: delicious Spanish cuisine on a rooftop overlooking the old city. Good start to the next section of our trip.
The mural in our hotel showing the street back when the Spanish were still around
Rooftop breakfast at hour hotel
On our first full day we had to change our money over. ATM access is limited, and very few places take credit cards, so you have to take buckets of cash – Canadian dollars and Euros preferred, because US dollars attract a 10% fee. This is easier said than done though, because lots of locals want to change their money too, and the queues at the casa de cambio are long and slow. (Don’t necessarily take any of this as travel advice; things are changing very quickly here so make sure you check with an up-to-date source.)
The queue meant we were late to meet our guide, Leyanis. She was tiny but lively and idealistic, and she showed us the best sites around the old city. It was a hot trek, but we saw some great street art, more incredible colonial architecture, and plenty of important historical monuments.
There were grand plazas, bars visited by Hemingway, and small parks that we learned were the sites of collapsed buildings. We even ducked into a synagogue. We learnt, too, about the restoration project, which aims to strengthen and beautify the buildings of the old city. There’s a fair way to go yet, but the photos below show the difference it makes.
This window is where parents could place unwanted babies to be looked after by the orphanage
Sam modelling a kippa, Cuban-style
What was also striking was the number of tourists, and in some ways, the amount of services geared towards tourists. I reckon there’s been a recent spike in tourism, likely because it’s high season and certainly because just weeks ago, direct flights have started from the US.
We said goodbye to Leyanis, had lunch, and made our way back across the city to the arte Cubano section of the fine arts museum. For a small and relatively poor country, they punch above their weight in creative endeavours, and that came through in some of the brilliant art from the colonial period to today.
And then, just in time to see the sunset, we made it to the Malecón, or seafront boulevard, for a magnificent view of the city and the bay.
As if that wasn’t good enough, we went out for dinner in a fairly posh area of the city, driven in 1950 and 1954 Chevrolets. As Al said, “this is living.”
He wasn’t so keen on the crowded bar we went to after dinner though, and neither was I really. The Floridita was another of Hemingway’s haunts, and the supposed birthplace of the daiquiri, so it’s a special place, but after a long day we were ready for bed.