Cuba La Habana - City of faded splendour, music, history, smoke & revolution - a photographer’s dream

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Central America Caribbean » Cuba » Oeste » La Habana
February 12th 2014
Published: February 12th 2014
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After a short 1hr flight with Cayman Airways we arrive in Cuba- at last! We’ve been too-ing & fro-ing about coming here for years. The first impression we get from the flight is that the Cubans are very much like Indians with hand luggage; taking on board well over the permitted size or amount & paying no attention to instructions from the Crew – nightmare passengers for them. They also shout loudly to each other – across many rows at times. But they also seem incredibly friendly and exuberant.

We arrive at Havana airport after an ok flight and are taken off by bus. Then chaos reigns as other planes with expat Cubans have also arrived from Miami. The system is that you have to check in your hand luggage through a scanning machine – and there is not much of a queuing system here – so tag on to a line (one of many) and hope for the best unless one of the people working there knows you or feels sorry for you and you jump ahead of the queues.

After this the Baggage Claim system is a joke as no one tells you which one (of the 2 conveyor belts) your flight baggage is coming through on? So just wait & watch! Vast plastic wrapped packages come through – obviously bulk purchases – which, usually women, manhandle off. Eventually our stuff appears. Phew!

Next job, change some money as you have to pay in Convertible (CUC) Cuban currency. But there is no money changing facility in the Arrivals area so we are eventually directed by the Information Desk chappie (though he has no other helpful literature on Cuba) to the Departure lounge where there is a Cadeca (money exchange place). Here the rate CUC (C from now on) is 1.575 to the Pound. (In Havana we got better at 1.585). The pounds get a better rate than US Dollars –there’s a 10% Tax on $ (a reflection of the Cultural Relations between the 2 countries!).

There are 2 currencies in operation in Cuba; one the local Moneda Nacional which the locals use or you can use for snacks, drinks, ice cream in little hole in the wall outlets etc. Otherwise it’s the Convertible ‘Peso’ currency (aka Cuc – pronounced ‘cook’) which is pegged to the US$ in rate. So be careful with change – however, our experience to date is that Cubans are not only quite friendly & helpful, they seem pretty honest as well.

The Information guy helps us get a Taxi to Chez Nous on Calle Brasil in Old Havana – our Casa Particular (B & B Cuba style), and gets a commission from the Taxi Driver as we drive off. Like India, getting commission for work on a sale given to someone else is a way of life in Cuba. Though watch out for hustlers – there’s more of them later, but you have to be pretty dumb to not be aware of them and how they operate – Cuban Cigars good price; Can I show you somewhere to eat close by – best food in town etc. You fall for this you deserve it…… Mostly though it’s gentle and good humoured. We find a ‘No Gracias’ with a smile and hand held out like a stop sign works wonders.

The Taxi is an old Lada car – and it’s literally falling apart with torn seats etc. We think they went out of production about 30 odd years ago. The driver has problems finding the address as the street name has changed as have many in La Habana to give it its proper title, but with C’s map reading we eventually get there. The Hostal is one of Havanas many Grand Old Buildings in the heart of the Old Historic district – owned by Gustavo, a Historian. We could not have chosen a better spot. It is convenient for most things to see and do in Havana Vieja – the historic district. The rate is C30 per night for the room + C4 each for a good hearty breakfast (fresh fruit salad, fresh fruit juice, ground fresh coffee or tea, bread and eggs) – great value – and it is standard in all the Casas. Also means no lunch or just a snack later.

The one thing we notice is that taxi drivers smoke freely in the car, and people smoke everywhere - in the hotels, restaurants etc but not on the buses thankfully – so definitely a culture shock for non-smokers. However, given that one of the major exports for Cuba is Cigars (and such a way of life for Cubans) we assume that any thoughts of banning smoking might be too politically sensitive and a definite no-no!!

It’s surprisingly cool (21) despite its location near Miami (90 miles away) and Grand Cayman (100 miles away); the drop from the 80s is noticeable & we feel cold!!

We settle ourselves in and go for a wander. We haven’t gone far when we find Café Paris – a bar/eatery with live music playing Salsa. This is Cuba at its best. So we grab a beer and a Cuba Libre (basically rum and coke) and settle down to enjoy the day. Most bars/restaurants have live bands playing Salsa/Son music both at lunch time & evenings and the sound of music pervades the streets of old Havana all day - including from apartments which gives it a great feel. Inside and outside locals and tourists congregate and get up and dance impromptu along to the rhythms.

We are recommended to go to a particular Paladar (private restaurant) by Migdalia the house keeper at our Hostal, in Centro Havana. A bad move on our part as it’s a bit fancy and very expensive. We decide not stay so leave and wander around the historic district for a while before ending up in Europa on Obispo – the main drag in the old town. The place is in a large old colonial building and a bit of an institution. It’s also amazingly cheap given its location and menu. Drinks are C1.5 for Mojito & Cuba Libre (C4 at the Café Paris by comparison) and the food is not bad even though they seem to run out of things; a large Lobster Tail is C9.95 and Fish C3. It’s obviously a Govt: run establishment though popular with tourists and they have live bands playing at lunch and dinner which is lovely, and a couple who Salsa there professionally. The bands and the couple do come around with a collecting hat quite frequently but seem happy with any little tip. Most bands also sell CDs of their music – some surprisingly expensive – though this may be because we are tourists.

Habana Vieja or the Historic District as it’s known is a great place to stay even if a bit touristy and we’d definitely recommend it over any other area. It’s mainly 4 squares or Plazas interlinked and can be walked in about 1 hour or 2 – allowing for pictures etc. There are remains of the Old City Wall in various places but none is complete. The Spanish influence is everywhere to be seen architecturally and in the design and layout of this part of the city.

The key attractions are Plaza Vieja, a lovely square with well restored buildings in a whole mix of styles and a central fountain; Cathedral de San Cristobel de la Habana, a Cuban Baroque edifice which has a Plaza in front which is frequented by 2 African women fortune tellers, cigar smoking men & women dressed up for photos, and rather bizarrely some Sausage dogs dressed up with clothes and glasses for Tourists to take pictures for a fee (Note for Sarah: there are hundreds of Sausage Dogs here and the rest of Cuba for that matter!). The churches in Cuba – all relics of the Spanish period, are very impressive especially the Cathedral, where we go to attend the Sunday service; like a Spanish house, the church is a large open air square around a garden and the congregation assemble in the covered aisles along the sides of the square and the Alter is in the corner. We have never seen anything like it before. The Cathedral is also lit up at night with super imposed colourful religious images – quite spectacular; Plaza de Armas was a training ground for the military but now has second hand bookstalls all around it and a very peaceful feel; and finally, Plaza de Saint Francisco de Asis where many live gigs and concerts take place. There are some interesting sculptures around the square – modern and old and one of chopin sitting on a park bench – not sure why. The ace here is a piece written by Mother Teresa of Kolkata on the wall which is profound and inspirational. On a side street we visit Iglesia de Saint Francisco de Paula which is very well maintained and serene.

The most interesting streets are Calle Mercaderas, which has been renovated and has some unique shops and eateries (including an awesome chocolate shop/cafe with queues round the block if you want to eat there) and many street performers, and Calle Obispo, the Oxford or Regent Street of Habana at the end of which there’s a Havana Club (the main brand of rum in Cuba) near the seafront – full of tourists and selling …. You guessed it. We see some shops selling designer gear – not quite Armani, Gucci & Boss etc but Pepe Jeans, Seiko watches, Perfumery by Dolce & Gabana, Gucci etc. And despite the rumours to the contrary we have found Coca Cola on sale in Cuba – though a bit more expensive than their local brew called TuKola.

There are also some amazing pharmacists around – almost like museums, with dark wooden shelves from floor to very high ceiling stacked with porcelain jars of different drugs - though most of the dispensing is done from little packets from beneath the counter.

There are many high class hotels in the area but our favourite is Hotel Raquel which has an amazing art nouveau glass ceiling and a French style roof garden on the 3rd floor. Only $200 per night – wow.

Much of the restoration of the old city is attributed to Eusebio Leal Spengler, the City Historian, who set up a tourist company called Habaguanex (state owned which includes very good hotels, restaurants etc) and using tourist money (c $160m p.a) invests in restoration works and social projects. It’s a great and successful concept.

Bordering Habana Vieja and Habana Centro are a number of other sights and places of note. The most prominent, visible from many parts of the city is Capitolio Nacional built in the style of the Capitol Hill building in Washington DC and marginally taller. It now houses the science and technology museum although it used to be the Cuban Congress. Just behind that is a still operating cigar production factory - Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas which is open for viewing at limited times.

Alongside is a parking area known as the ‘Jurassic Park’ of cars – an apt title. Though the newer and well maintained ones are kept for tourists for Tours around Havana and are parked outside the main hotel area – Central Park.

Leading down to the Malecon is a pedestrian boulevard known as Prado or Paseo de Marti which is lined with the work of local artists – mainly paintings or carvings from wood of smart Cuban women or men with a Cuban hat on & cigar – looks great. And a notable landmark is the Bacardi Building which is definitely worth a visit. It is an Art Deco building and for C1 each you can take a ride in the lift to the 7th Floor then walk up 2 floors and get great 360 degree views of the city.

And of major interest to us – and interestingly, signposted from the main road, is Harris Brothers Supermarket. Like many shops we find here the shelves are quite bare and the range of supplies limited. But they are cheap as chips! Havana Club – Light Dry C5.50 (for Cuba Libre) & 3 year old (for Mojitos we are informed) C6.50 for a Litre. Cans of TuKola (their version of Coke) are C0.5 , and local beers (Cristal & Buccanero) C1 each. Bottled water at C1.5 for 1.5 Litres the best deal we find till we leave the city then it’s C0.70!

There are loads of cultural and historic buildings which we see and admire but are too numerous to mention so we have just selected the few we visited. There are also a myriad of museums and Art Galleries, again too many to mention. You could spend a month here to get to them all.

Clearly Ernest Hemingway (the US writer) spent a lot of his time in Cuba and has had an impact on the Cuban psyche. He had a home here and one of his famous books about The Old Man and the Sea was inspired and written here in Cuba. He also clearly spent plenty of time drinking in Havana. The celebrated bars with his name attached to them are La Floridita where he popularised the Daiquiri rum drink (the place is a must of the tourist map) and La Bodeguita del Medio near the Cathedral which is a bit more shabby and low key and the food is pretty dear by Havana standards – yet it’s packed most days (especially the bar area which is tiny), and legend has it in between time he would pop in at Sloppy Joe’s (another drinking hole)!!

We celebrate M’s 64th Birthday in Habana with a surprise cake for breakfast produced ‘out of the hat’ by Migdalia. After breakfast it’s off on an open top bus for a City Tour - C5 each – well worth it for orientation – even though the commentary from the bus attendant can’t be heard (they do it in English & Spanish). It goes to all the main sights including the Plaza de la Revolucion with its monument to Jose Marti and oversized images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos (some of the main characters of the revolution alongside Castro); past the Russian Embassy – a concrete monstrosity; the University buildings; along the Malecon- the long stretch of road along the sea wall; to the 4 and 5 star beach resorts (absolutely pants!); Parque Central & around Habana Vieja; and the amazing Necropolis Cristobel Colon – the old cemetery with its massive mausoleums (reminds us of the one in Buenos Aires).

Then we head off to try to catch up with the family. Unfortunately Internet is not freely available and Skype and Facetime do not work here so catching up is only by email or text. Rather than join the long queues for the state internet booths, we go to the very fancy Hotel Parque Central. It’s expensive - C8 for an hour on an Ectesca Card (normally it’s C6 but you have to queue for ages to get to the public facility) – here at least we can use it whenever we want, and enjoy the fancy surroundings. It’s also a fancy 4 star pee stop as long as you act like you belong there!

We notice that the Cubans have an amazing resilience and seem to Queue for most things. It seems to be a way of life. There’s always a long queue at the local Chocolate factory, Churros bars anywhere in the city, the Cadeca (money exchange) places, Telecom office for the internet – all day long, bus stations, ice cream and snack bars.

The highlight of M’s day though is dinner at the Dona Eutimia Paladares – Shredded Lamb Cuban Style (C7) & Seafood Combo – fish, shrimp & Lobster ($12) accompanied by a couple of Cuba Libres. Amazing value (as is the seafood in most places). Heaven compared to Grand Cayman.

Another evening we go to the NAO Bar & Paladar based on the LP review. Clearly things have changed. What was once a mainly seafood place now has very little or none available. The service is very slow and the food – Pork Roast & Rabbit – were ok – nothing special for the price – we would not recommend it.

Wandering around we find the streets generally kept clean even if some of the dog owners don’t clean up after their pets – though this happens in London too. Dog poo is an issue but not as bad as Buenos Aires. The neighbourhoods vary a lot in look and feel – some are plush and well maintained and others literally derelict or crumbling (akin to squats in the UK) with people still living in them. There are a lot of larger buildings who’s outer facades are only standing up due to scaffolding and the insides demolished – a sign of the times that investment will arrive and bring these areas back into attractive (but more expensive areas) again.

After a while you realise that the City is full of contrasts & contradictions, as is Cuba – it has Charm (with a big C) by the bucket load – the real thing is much better than any of the pictures you will see in the brochures back home. It is also a lot bigger than you realise when the 4 districts are put together – Old Havana, and the Military area (Parque Historico Militar Morro Cabana) with its 2 historic Forts are part of the UNESCO Heritage sites of the city. Plus there’s Centro Havana and Vedado (the newer neighbourhoods).

In Havana there are many modes of transport ranging from Bici-Taxis - a form of cycle rickshaw (which are supposed to be for locals only but they do take tourists), the Horse drawn carts really only for tourists, a form of Tuk Tuk Havana style – a scooter with a C cup shape carriage for 2 people, local buses which are best to avoid – overcrowded and falling apart, newer imported taxis, and of course the Old American cars - the one’s just about hanging together, clunking & belching along, used as Collectivos by locals. Then there are the well maintained Chevys and Cadillacs (some convertible) all shiny and well maintained – again only for tourists (no one else can afford them), that feature in so many of the pictorial images of Cuba.

The air is filled with petrol fumes as the old US Cadillacs, Chevys, Fords, Ladas, buses, trucks etc belch out fumes. However, these American cars make Havana what it is in part – it gives the city a uniqueness that one doesn’t experience anywhere else in the world. In our view they are also a symbol of Cubans – their tenacity, creativity, skill, ingenuity, determination (against the odds), to make something old work for them.

And of course, there is music. Playing any instrument and in a band if possible (the trumpet, sax, maracas and double bass are really big here apart from the guitar of course) and the ability to sing – some of the guys who perform are well past 70 – at least they look it or maybe it’s all that Rum!

Saturday is generally very busy with tourists and day trippers from Varadero and on Sunday most things are open & the families come out. The people are very polite, friendly, noisy at times but seem to be content and smile a lot – maybe it’s a sign of the changing times with more optimism around due to changes politically, economically & socially which gives them renewed hope for the future, or maybe it’s that the years of austerity has made them hardy and more accommodating of what life has to throw at them. History shows that they have put up with a lot over the last 60 years or more.

Begging and hustling happens anywhere including in the Supermarket. Most times if someone strikes up a conversion, there will be an angle – either they would like to help you buy some cigars, good food etc or ask for money or soap, shampoo, milk for their children etc. Again, a smile and a “No Gracias” usually work. These guys do have a hard life – the average wage is apparently $25 per month. We also notice a lot of people scavenging from the dust bins for food and recyclable items – clearly despite outward appearances many local have a hard time making ends meet.

Spanish is very much the main language here – English is hardly spoken except in the tourist hotels, Agencies etc so finding out what the people really think & feel is difficult as our Spanish isn’t that brilliant. However, there seems to be an outward air of commitment to the Revolution and the country with posters all over and El Che features everywhere.

We are fascinated by the coexistence of the Catholic Church and the state over the years. The relationship has been through its troubled times but people here seem steeped in the Catholic religion. Perhaps it’s what has kept people going through the tough times and they have had many years of it.

We feel that there is too much to do & see in La Havana in a short time if you want to do the place and the people justice. It has so much to offer, style, charm, history, great characters, architecture, etc that we hope to see some more of it when we return. So it’s onto the rest of Cuba for us. However, this has been a great start and we’ll be back for more….. after our trip to Vinales and then again for a day and a half at the end before going to the Cayman Islands for some R & R…… we look forward to being seduced by La Habana again … hastaluego mi amiga.

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