Sleepless Nights in La Habana

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February 27th 2016
Published: November 16th 2016
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Ola to all!

I realize this blog has not been updated in a while, but apparently it's hosts have been busy going to school/working/saving the world (the last one may not be entirely accurate, but we're working on it).

So please pardon the brief interruption, but travelling has commenced again, hence this blog will be updated!

Peter, and his buddy Luke, both decided they wanted to see Cuba before it opened up to tourism so they managed to find a crazy seat sale and hopped on a plane to the sunny Caribbean.

The plane arrived in Toronto in the middle of the night and, after been given directions by a very nice flight attendant (with the longest and pointiest fingers nails either of them had ever seen), Peter and Luke found a couple of nice benches to sleep on.The sleep was definitely not very comfortable, and then after a couple of hours we were asked to move by a staff member. He was very polite about it, so that wasn't too bad. After finding another couple of benches, Peter and Luke settled in for what they thought would be a good few hours of shut eye.

They were wrong. Dead wrong. Apparently, 5am is the prime time for staff, who wear red jackets (an outfit that will forever live in infamy) to have conversations. Not so much conversations, but yelling matches. Right next to sleeping people. In a completely empty airport. With many seats available nowhere near sleeping people. Peter woke up first and contemplated throwing things at them, but he decided not to as he might get in trouble for such an act and be detained before his flight. Fortunately, Peter was awake in time to see Luke's facial expression upon being awoken by Satan's minions. It was contorted into a frightening mixture of rage, anger, and loathing. Bears would have gone back into hibernation at the sight of that face.

After regaining his composure, Peter and Luke had breakfast and transferred to their flight to Cuba which, fortunately, was uneventful.

They landed in Varadero, cleared customs, and then waited for the bus to take them the two hours to Havana. The Viazul bus, the tourist bus company in Cuba showed up on time (somewhat surprisingly) and Peter and Luke were able to get on it without issue as they had reservations something that is a big deal in Cuba, apparently, as several other people were turned away.

The bus journey to Havana allowed us to the the countryside a bit. The water looked amazingly warm, and the scenery on land was mostly green forest and scrub-land.

When we arrived in Havana, we were struck by how beautiful the city seemed. It had wide boulevards, and beautiful architecture. That being said, many of the buildings had definitely seen better days, but more on that later.

We bought more tickets at the bus station for future trips, then experienced our first old car ride to the Casa Particular in a 1980s Russian-made Lada.

Casa Particular are basically a mixture of bed and breakfasts and home-stays, and are located all over Cuba. The one we tried to stay in was booked solid, but fortunately Luis, the man who ran it, had friends who also ran a Casa Particular that was located on the top floor of the same building. We were able to drop off our stuff at Casa 1932, run by the lovely couple of Alina and Vice. The room had a couple of beds, air-conditioning, had a fridge and an en suite bathroom, and was very pleasant. We went back downstairs and were loaned some money by Luis, as it is very hard to get Cuban Convertible Pesos outside Cuba, so we could eat dinner. We walked along the darkened Malecon, the seaside promenade that was two blocks from our Casa, to a nice restaurant where the food was not terrible.

The next morning, we had a very enjoyable and relaxed breakfast on the terrace with all manners of fresh fruit before heading from Centro Habana to Habana Vieja, the old town, for some exploring. Centro Habana is definitely falling down. Many of the edifices are crumbling, but it does add a certain charm to the area, provided one is not directly underneath some plaster or a balcony which might collapse to the ground unexpectedly. We also learned that one has to line up for pretty much everything in Cuba, including changing money as we did not have any. The Convertible Peso, or CUC, is pegged to the American Dollar at 1 to 1. We thought things would be priced accordingly, but this was not the case. Most products were much more expensive than we anticipated, mainly because of the currency. There is a local peso, that seems to make everything much less expensive, but neither of us figured out how to get any of it, nor where we could actually use it.

Habana Vieja was in better condition, and had some beautifully maintained buildings in gorgeous shades of yellow, pink, and orange, among other colours. The Moorish-style hotel off Prado, one of the main streets, was particularly stunning. The Cathedral, made of limestone and situated on a gorgeous square, was also breathtaking! The style was unmistakably Catholic, but with a bit of Caribbean flair.

The next day, Luke and Peter joined a tour heading out to western Cuba. Under normal circumstances, this would have been pleasant, but Peter was battling food poisoning, the it was going to be a very long day for him! The first city visited was Pinar del Rio, located near the western end of Cuba. The tour stopped at at a spirits factory, which reminded Peter a lot of a moonshine distillery. After tasting the not-so-appetizing spirit, the tour continued on to our lunch stop. The lunch stop was reminiscent of feeding time at a pig trough because a multitude of buses parked at one restaurant where every tourist was dropped off for an hour to eat. Not surprisingly, the food was bland and boring. The next stop was a boat tour on a river in a cave. The concept sounds much more interesting than it actually is. Firstly, the wait to get on to the boat was 45 minutes. Inside the cave, there were a few interesting stalactites, but also a lot of concrete to ensure nothing collapsed on people. Secondly, the boat trip was no more than 5 minutes long, and the guide would point out rock formations that, if you squinted, and were still drunk from the spirits at the distillery, looked like what he was describing. Finally, the tour improved as we drove through the limestone karst dotted landscape to a tobacco plantation in Viñales . The green karsts, red soil, and blue skies all contrasted beautifully! At the plantation, we watched a farmer roll cigars with dried tobacco leaves. Afterwards, the tour slipped back into mediocrity as we were driven to a viewpoint, which while the view was decent, was definitely not more scenic than the plantation had been. Fortunately, this was the last stop on the tour before it returned everyone to Havana. The tour was very disappointing, but it was the easiest way to see the beautiful scenery of Viñales.

Peter had recovered from his food poisoning by the next morning, so site-seeing was much easier than the previous day! We headed along the Malecon, making sure to take a photo of our favourite statue. There is art everywhere in Havana, adding to the cultural feel of the city. We wanted to go to the Castelo de los Santos Reyes so we flagged down one of the vintage cars to take us up to the castle. As it turned out, the car was not so much vintage as rust bucket, but it took us up to the Castelo without breaking down. Unfortunately, Peter has screwed up the opening hours of the place so it was not open yet, but the views across to Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, and Vedado were stunning! After enjoying the views, we flagged down a vintage Ford for the ride down to Habana Vieja. This time, the car was in pristine condition and looked like it had was brand new! We were dropped off the in pretty Plaza de San Francisco de Asisi, and we wandered down to Plaza Vieja where Luke had an amazing coffee at Cafe El Escorial. We then headed to the souvenir market on the south side of town. There were many beautiful paintings, but it would be nearly impossible to transport some of the larger canvasses home. That being said, it still didn't stop Luke and Peter from each grabbing a painting or two on the way back to Plaza Vieja. We wandered around for a bit longer, and then had dinner at Cafe Miglis, a Cuban-Swedish fusion place, which served some of the best köttbullar outside Sweden.

The next morning found us at the Museo do la Revolucion, where we expected to have an amazing account of the Cuban Revolution. The building itself was gorgeous, with beautiful herring bone floors and painted ceilings. While we did receive a thorough description of the Revolution, as well as many pictures of Ché and Fidel, as well as weapons and clothing belonging to both men, the museum was underwhelming. After visiting an underwhelming microbrewery, apparently underwhelming was the theme of the morning, we headed to the start of the Malecon. There, next to one of the smaller forts guarding the entrance to Havana's harbour, we found peace. We could not hear or see the belching cars that proliferate much of the city. Instead, it was just the fort, the Malecon, and the waves for company. Needless to say, we spent a while just sitting there before continuing along the Malecon all the way to the neighbourhood of Vedado. En route, we watched men fishing off the Malecon and feeding hungry pelicans that were watching nearby. Vedado is a newer part of the city, with wide streets, greenery everywhere, and buildings that are not falling down. The area had a different vibe as well, probably because of the amount of students there. We even found some decent food!

After returning to the hostel, we relaxed on the rooftop terrace and we were treated to a boxing match being held on the rooftop terrace across the street. It was a pleasant way to end our time in Havana.

Three things we learned:

- Peter and Luke are far too old to sleep in an airport.

- There is just something pleasant about being driven around in a beautifully maintained car from the 1950s that is similar in size to a cruise ship.

- Cuban food is not stunning. It's mostly shredded pork, chicken, rice, or beans. Forget any seasoning or salt; those are seemingly forbidden in Cuba.


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