Published: May 21st 2010May 14th 2010
Above panorama: View on Plaza Vieja and centro Habana from the camera obscura building.
What can one expect of Cuba and Havana in particular? Amazing centuries old colonial architecture? A vibrant city with traditional music, dance and street life? Cigars, rum and mojito's? Revamped classic American cars from the 1950s? A society still in "revolution" and the evidence of Fidel, Che, Camilo and Raul "liberating" Cuba from dictatorship?
Well, those were all the expectations I had. They all came true and I wasn't disappointed! Havana "delivers" and is an amazing place to experience, unlike anywhere else in the world. It is all around you.
It's not all beauty and fun, though. There's poverty, although you don't see it on the street that much; it's definitely not in your face. Cuba's economy is not exactly in bloom, especially not with all the trade boycotts that it experiences. Being a communist country, entrepreneurship is pretty much non existent and simple not allowed. Everything is state run with some exceptions. Everyone earns the same salary whether you are a doctor or a construction worker. There's also no such thing as freedom of speech. Internet is hard to come by and relatively expensive.
To be honest though, being a foreign tourist, the positive experiences in this city seem to "weigh up" against the controversies surrounding the Castro government. Maybe it's because they master to cover it up so well. Although I was aware of it, you tend to forget about it as you stroll through the city and listen to the sounds of Cuban bands playing old time favorites like "Guantanamera", "Chan Chan" and "El Cuarto del Tula". If you haven't heard any of these songs but are curious to know, I highly recommend listening to the album by the Buena Vista Social Club.
Havana Vieja, the old centre of Havana, was once a run down place to visit. All those beautiful colonial buildings were neglected and almost in ruins. Now that the government realizes that it attracts tourism, they are restoring the buildings to their former glory. They're doing a good job, one by one. I was staying in a hotel that was in one of the restored buildings, situated on a quiet cobblestone street, near the picturesque Plaza de la Catedral. Down below from my window on the first floor, a couple of guys were playing a ball game,
of which I couldn't exactly make out the rules but was fun to watch.
Plaza de la Catedral is a beautiful square surrounded by old colonial buildings and it has one of the oldest Catedrals in the Americas. On the square, a Cuban group of stilt dancers were showing off their skills and making music. Another square, Plaza de Armas, houses the City Museum, with some artifacts of Spanish rule and more recent decor. There are a lot of booksellers on the square, mainly selling books on art and the revolution. Che Guevara's face is common here! Another short stroll, and you arrive at yet another square, the bigger Plaza Vieja. Beautifully restored, it houses the "camera obscura", a dark room on the 8th floor of a building which offers amazing views over Havana. Light falls into the dark room from a mirror, operated by ropes, showing the buildings around the area. There's also a terrace, to experience the views first hand.
A stroll through Havana Vieja, the old town, also offers view of street life, a lot of classic American cars from the 1950s, all in a setting of run down streets without much traffic.
is a seaside city, and has a wide boulevard called the Malecon, where at night literally hundreds of people come to socialize. I was a bit early, just before sunset, but when it's dark, it's literally packed with people.
In the evening, I had a drink in one of the more popular bars in the old center, Cafe Paris. While enjoying a rum and the Cuban music, I met up with an American guy, Paul, who also had just arrived and was going to travel in Cuba for about a month. Later, we went to another bar where more Cuban music was played by a live band and people were dancing salsa. Great atmosphere!
On my next Havana post, more street scenes, the Plaza de la Revolucion and my night out at the famous Tropicana Nightclub!
More pics below and on the next page!
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