Back in Havana after our Vinales trip. Our last full day in this city ended up being a Monday so missed out on seeing more museums as they are closed on Mondays. But hey Havana is a museum so we browsed Havana again and we checked out the bars and hotels too as we finalised some housekeeping tasks.
Near Sloppy Joe’s Bar we had a look inside an antique shop, full of old posters, black and white film photographs and albums, postcards and old magazines including Time. One of the photographs was of Frank Sinatra at Sloppy Joes in the 1950s. Hemingway also patronised this bar amongst many others. We then stopped in the 5-star Parque Central Hotel to change some money so that we could pay for our casa particolare expenses. The doormen let all tourists pass inside easily. Inside it’s all shiny and new with the most modern toilets we have seen (no way no lady standing by with a bucket of water), expensive cafe and restaurant menus, hotel guests on their devices because of the wifi (some locals around the corner outside managing to get it too) and a cambio office.
In Calle Obispo, one of the main colourful colonial streets populated by dedicated tourists, we browsed through the artisan markets mainly selling jewellery, wooden sculptures, clothes and souvenirs. In this street, we saw some famous buildings such as the Droghuiera Johnson building in use again today. Across from the pharmacy is the famous Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway stayed. This hotel was full of citizens of the USA and a whole wall was dedicated to photographs and a signature image of Hemingway. Outside the hotel near the Plaza de Armas we watched a group of businessmen, some wearing Texan cowboy hats, huddle around a tour guide as a Cuban woman circled around them watching them very closely. Further along, looking inside the Hotel Florida, formally a British Club in early 19th century, we found a beautiful art deco sculpture and a marble floor.
I was interested in the plaque dedicated to Garibaldi on the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales building marked here in 1982 : “La ciudad de Roma dedica esta homaneje al hombre que alento la idea de la independencia de Cuba. De el escribio Jose Marti.” (The city of Roma dedicates this tribute to the man who encouraged the independence of Cuba. ) Garibaldi was considered an inspiration for the revolution of independence. I’ve come across Garibaldi a few times on my travels in this part of the world. It brings home the Garibaldi stories my dad used to recount to me in my childhood. In front of the captains building was a healthy looking dog with a paper tied around its’ neck saying “esterilizada” (sterilised) and “no me maltrates” (don’t mistreat me). That’s good news and when we enquired about this dog and some of the others we were told that the dog belonged to the building and that they looked after it. That is good news.
Most of the Havana bars and hotels claim to fame rests on a famous person going there so these places are full of tourists now especially after they have been renovated. The old Havana uses this history to attract tourists even though they had gotten rid of the debauchery I thought they had detested long ago. Even in the Vedado area, hotels like the Habana Libre where we had waited for our Vinales bus uses its’ past, Fidel Castro, Che and Elizabeth Taylor were all here at various times but so did the Mafia come to play here.
Well enough of the tourists. We followed our nose down Calle Cuba into the ruinous areas again for Mike to snap away. Then up the Acosta we discovered a lovely little bridge. This was the Arco de Belen which apparently had been part of a Jesuit Convent. I lingered in front of the stained terracotta arch watching a Santeria woman cross the road.
Looping back to the Parque Central we took a break in the oldest hotel, Hotel Ingalterra, where there were more photographs of the rich and famous including the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. We enjoyed a drink in the bar with beautifully tiled walls and then we tried the internet to check up on our flights and emails after a week without internet. It was 2 CUCS for an hour. It was very slow but worked. I wanted to do the Aeromexico web check-in as I did from Mexico to Cuba but it was blocked. A pop-up box appeared saying that I had to do the check-in at the airport. Walking through the plaza behind the hotel you come across the square where the Cubans can access free wi-fi. They were all there connected but I understand that it is a limited connection with each other.
This time we stayed in the same casa as Mike and Monica had east of Havana Viejo, Deysi Casa Particolares, located in Calle Blanco across from a hospital and next to a fruit market. It’s a gritty and grimy area but lively in the evening with it’s laid back and social vibe. At night there were men sitting outside seated round a table playing backgammon and other games. There were kids in the street playing and hanging out in the dim light. There was music blaring from inside homes and dancing in the rooms that we could see into. Cats on the hunt and prowl. Little takeaways from a window or hole in the wall. We could see high ceilings in some of the homes. Our casa is a two-storey house with high ceilings but Deysi, a colourful and lively personality, built another mezzanine storey onto the first level so she could squeeze several rooms with ensuites on the top and bottom of it. Most of them a boxy room without windows. Ours has a window into the hall which leads to the kitchen where we have breakfast. In the evenings, her daughter has piano lessons in the room next to us. We can hear them in the kitchen chatting and watching TV but they mostly live on their private second storey. In this casa, you definitely know you are inside or under a family home. They live a limited life except for the tourists bringing the world to them and their satellite TV connecting them to US Hispanic channels. They told us that people still live by food rations and restaurants are organised according to how many patrons they get every evening. We only ever saw a couple of supermarkets in the tourist areas and then not much inside either.
In the evening, our favourite bar ended up being the LLuvio de Oro, the Bar de Oro on Obispo, not particularly famous for anything. A relaxed environment, a band playing a mix of Cuban jazz and salsa, a sharp looking Cuban man in yellow trousers smoking a cigar at the mahogany bar bench, reasonable prices, friendly waiters and happy patrons, locals and tourists. Generally Obispo has a nice social vibe in the evening. Walking back past the bright neon light of the El Floridita bar, another Hemingway spot, we noticed the calles seemed a little cleaner on the Monday night. Did they really clean them or was it the mojitos working?
The next morning our taxi took us to the airport, past the Plaza de Revolucion and the Jose Marti memorial. Past the three Havana’s we had discovered. Past the gated mansions of the fourth Havana we had seen a glimpse of. Adios Havana! In some ways, Cuba is one of the strangest countries I have been to. It was almost as if we were paying first-world prices for third-world standards (if I can exaggerate a bit), which made me wonder how long they could sustain this two-tiered setup. We spent more in one week in Cuba than in two weeks in Mexico. On the other hand, good on them for figuring out a way to attain funds. Isn’t it a crime to allow a city to crumble and have people and animals live in it’s poor conditions? Underneath it all people are hungry for change, to improve their standard of living and to become connected again to the world.
Vinales, our getaway with Monica and Mike K. Monica and I referred to them as “los dos Mike’s” because both our partners names are Mike!
We arrived in Vinales after about a three and a half hour bus ride we had organised by the helpful lady at the Cubanacan cruise terminal office the day before. Best to get the tickets first thing in the morning before they run out. The bus was full picking up tourist after tourist at several hotels in Havana and that added to the time and then finally it stopped one street back from the main Vinales square, where the cathedral and Casa de la Cultura sit.
As we walked to our casa, Mike and I mostly hungry on account of missing breakfast at an early start and Monica and Mike anxious to check in, we saw lots of tourists in the little shops, restaurants and markets. Nearly every little colourful pink, yellow or green casa we passed had signs “2 habitaciones” indicating the two rooms available to guests. I was also immediately struck by the mix of horse carts, old fifties cars and modern cars all driving pass each other as if it was normal.
Our casa particolare, Villa El Ranchon, was comfortable and tranquil. Ignazio and Raiza were immediately hospitable, warm and welcoming right from the minute we met them. They are a really lovely quiet unassuming couple who have set up two rooms with double beds, both with ensuites, at the back of their modest home. Perfect for the two couples occupying them. In front of the two rooms is an outdoor eating area under a charming thatched-roof pergola overlooking the country side. They were generous with their breakfasts and our first dinner there was a delicious home cooked feast, including vegetable soup and pescado. We soon realised that eating here was a better choice than eating in town where nearly every restaurant has the same formula and is a hit and miss affair. We felt very relaxed and safe in our casa. Ignazio’s English is also excellent and he was always helpful. It was a peaceful stay, quiet after the hustle and bustle of Havana, so you could catch up on a good nights sleep if you needed to, especially after a Mojito. Muchas gracias Ignazio y Raiza!
To the right of our casa was a short walk to the tobacco factory. In fact we were surrounded by a tobacco plantation which you could view from the casa rooftop. Just a short five or ten minute walk turning left is the village. The air wasn’t as choked with fumes as in Havana but not entirely clear of it either especially in the village centre. There was rubbish strewn about in town as well, it’s tossed anywhere, in the countryside or the city.
At the hop-on-hop-off bus stop we changed our plans when a better offer came along, offering us a package including the factory, a walk and a private driver to take us to the places we wanted to see. So we toured the tobacco factory and the plantation, a short walk into the pretty valley surrounded by the round hills. We felt this to be a better idea than just walking in there by yourself so you don’t feel like you are intruding even though the locals are friendly. Whilst I’m not a smoker it was interesting to see how their biggest industry operates. Our factory tour guide was a lady who’d been working there for thirty years and never smoked a day in her life. There was one worker who read literature and all kinds of entertaining stories to motivate and entertain the workers who were sorting out the tobacco leaves. They were paid according to how many they could do per hour. It was also interesting to speak directly with the farmer on whose property we were on. They were obliged to sell 90% of their crop to the government, the value depending on the quality, and they could keep 10% to make their own cigars. Mike K was inspired to buy organic cigars directly from the farmer.
Getting to see the Cueva del Indio took a lot longer than expected as we were sandwiched between two German groups in a tunnel in the cave with the sound of water droplets. I was becoming slightly claustrophobic but finally after about an hour we saw the cave opening and took the boat ride around. It was beautiful even if touristic. We opted out of the other caves and chose to see the Mural de la Prehistoria from a distance. Otherwise our CUCS would keep on disappearing and what we saw gave us enough of an idea. The last item on our list was really worth going to. From the Hotel Horizontes Los Jazmines we saw the most beautiful view of the valley – a panorama of a green lush valley surrounded by round mounds.
We spent two nights in Vinales and on our last night we checked out the village in the evening. It had a lovely atmosphere with a live band in the plaza, an all-girl band. Mike and I watched couples salsa together, young men doing their moves solo, teenagers checking each other out and in particular an older man asking the blonde female tourists for a dance. Well I didn’t fit his criteria, did I?
Had we stayed on an extra day I would have joined Mike and Monica on their beach day at Cayo Jutios. Although our journey together was short and sweet, we enjoyed sharing new experiences together. Instead we went to the Botanical Gardens while they headed to the water. Adios amigos and bien viaje!
We explored parques, plazas, museos, fortresses and libros with Monica and Mike K.
We began by heading for Parque Central not far from the casa where Monica and Mike were staying. On our way through Animas and the surrounding calles we could see the state of the buildings and the work going on everywhere. A mix of dilapidated buildings falling apart, others standing upright, some were just a concrete skeleton, some lots were empty except for rubble and other buildings were colourfully painted. You had to watch where you walked dodging the rubbish, puddles of water and what not. Stray dogs roamed and laid about. Washing hung from lines above us. There were fruit and vegetable market stalls, usually bananas, on the corners of the streets. Some doors and windows were open to let the air in so we could see some homes were tiled but others only had concrete and unplastered walls. Along the Prado or Paseo de Marti piles of rubble lined the main street as workmen concentrated on repairing the infrastructure under the road. We passed the newly restored Francais Alliance building but the blue Centro Cultural Cubano Arabo building was not quite as polished yet. You could see that there were so many different styles of buildings as well as the different conditions they were in. Stepping over the rubble we saw Hotel Inglaterra, then a row of colourful and polished old cars lined up by the park and the Roman-like white dome of the Capitolio Nacional building ahead of us. With all the work going on at the moment, we realised that it’s far better to walk in the centre pathway of the Prado and walk across the road when you need to.
We went to the Museo de Revolucion which used to be the former government building. The museum was basically a series of rooms on three levels with old black and white photographs (some of them disturbing war images) accompanied by Spanish and English explanations of battles, heroes and heroines as well as the new socialist society they founded. There were some war artefacts too, guns, clothes including Che’s and typewriters as well as a wax replica of Che in guerilla action. You could get a sense of what this building was like before the revolucion from the Hall of Mirrors. You can view the rooms where the new socialist government reigned from, one of them with a gold telephone and once you’re out of the building there are more revolucion artefacts, rockets and the famous yacht that Castro and the revolutionaries used. This is the museum to go to if you want to know all about the revolution and you could easily spend a few hours here if you wanted to digest it in detail but even two hours of it was enough for me.
As we continued on our walk, it was easy to notice clues everywhere that indicated Havana’s different pasts and not just in the renovated buildings. We went by a boarded and locked up building that had Bolsa De La Habana, inscribed on it, the former stock exchange building I presume. Another inscription on the footpath that read New York Hotel but when you look up you just see the encased concrete walls of whatever building is behind it. Fading art deco signage of restaurants and shops. Chipped tiles around doors and windows which must have been elegant in their time. The Chinatown gate still stands in a dilapidated state as a record of El Barrio Chino which had been a buzzing Chinatown by the 1920s but is now run down except for a done up area of restaurants and the street sign with both English and Chinese writing, Calle Zanja. I don’t think the Chinese run it anymore. While Mike and Monica went to the Museo de Belles Artes we followed our nose to this barrio, Mike snapping away and me trying not to breathe in the exhaust fumes as I studied the map and sprayed some lavender water onto my face.
Then deeper in Havana Vieja there are the old beautiful plazas, very Spanish style, surrounded by churches and grand buildings: Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco. These plazas come as a surprise after walking through streets of crumbling buildings. Coming out of ruinous areas are colourful and beautifully restored buildings with shops, bars and restaurants, markets, performers dressed in costumes. In these places there were also jineteros (hawkers and sales people) but they leave you alone after you say no. A no gracias or fuimos ya or lo tenemos ya or no lo necesito gracias sufficed to get them off our back only once (no thanks, we went already, we have it already, we don’t need it thanks). These areas are also full of tourists because it’s close to the cruise ship terminals and plush hotels. No wonder the buildings have been renovated here.
We wanted to see books and forts so to the book fair we went. The Feria Internacional de Libros was held inside the fortress across the bay, la Punta Fortress. It was a 10 minute pleasant short ferry ride from the terminal to Casablanca to get there and then just a short walk up passing the Cristo of Havana statue. Many countries from Latin America participate in the book fair but on first impressions the range of themes and authors seemed a bit limited to me although we were only spending a short time there. Even Mexico City bookshops had a wide range of translated authors. However, we did find some English books that were taken out of a locked cupboard that inspired Mike and Monica’s purchases. Plus it is fantastic to see a book fair so well attended by the public. From the fort beside the old cannons you get a wonderful panoramic view of Havana stretching from the terminal to the Malecon.
We tried a Cuban traditional meal in a restaurant near another 16th-century fortress, the Castillo De La Real Fuerza. Called Ropa Vieja, old clothes, it is a kind of a stew, either with beef or lamb. I tried some of Mike’s otherwise I usually ordered vegetarian like Monica and Mike K. even if you only always got rice, beans and salad. Cuba still has a long way to go in terms of food variety.
At Havana airport, we got through customs ok although they asked us strange questions on whether we had more than one passport. Baggage claim took longer as it was so disorganised. A couple of distressed Russians couldn’t find theirs. There was lost luggage in piles and they kept changing the carousel.
Once out our driver took us to our guest house within thirty minutes driving a blue Swiss made Chevy from the 1950s. On the way there, we could see they were on the road everywhere and he pointed out a Buick for Mike once we told him his surname.
My first impression of Havana in the Vedado area was that it was similar to some other Latin American cities, a mix of grand houses and apartments in need of repair. My second impression east of Havana Viejo where our friends Monica and Mike K were staying was more a feeling that I had stepped back in time, perhaps to Naples after the war. My third impression of Havana was that I was in Europe surrounded by piazzas and beautifully restored 18th and 19th century buildings. Havana is definitely on the cusp of change.
Our guest house was a comfortable focal point at the end of each day. La Colonial 1861 is a beautifully restored white building managed by Armando from Spain. With a cigar in his mouth and a kiss on the cheek we were warmly welcomed and given lots of fantastic tips. The guest house is located in the Vedado area, a quiet area by the Malecon, where the wealthy used to live. We also noticed how Armando cares for a few dogs making sure they are taken for a walk every evening. They look very well cared for more to our welfare standards compared to the poor skinny strays we see.
One of the most useful tips Armando gave us was how to get to Havana Viejo like a local. We stand on the corner of the main road, Linea, on the look out for an old Chevy, Ford or Buick. This is different from a taxi which charges more. The driver is on the look out for passengers standing at intersections and if he has room he will stop for you. In response, you check he is going in the same direction as you, in our case Habana, and give him the intersection you want to stop at, usually a calle. This only cost us 1 CUC total for the two of us compared to 5 – 10 CUC for a taxi service – and much cheaper than a tour ride. Beware that some will still try to get an extra buck out of you though so confirm the price before you get in. We were nervous at first but took to it quite easily once we knew it was quite a normal and safe thing everyone does. Plus a great way to travel with the locals. Just one thing to remember is to close the door gently because you don’t want it to fall off and always get out on your right.
On our first night here we were excited to meet up with our European friends, Monica and Mike K, and stayed up late catching up with them at a Paladar on the Malecon. In general, a Palador is a restaurant in someone’s home. The Palador Torresson at Ave Malecon No. 27 had tables on their balcony with a view of the Malecon though it’s so dark you can’t see the sea. Not much lighting but we saw an American cargo ship pull out of the bay disappearing into the dark distance. The meals are simple but good, vegetable soup, rice with beans, grilled fish and salad plus the ubiquitous and refreshing iconic drink, the Mojito. I think this is all I’m going to be drinking while I’m in Cuba!
On our way back to La Colonial we took a local car again from Neptuno, near the Casa de la Musica Habana where there was a queue of beautiful young things, some transvestites, ready to salsa dance all night from 11pm to 5am, obviously the place to be seen if you’re a local. In the Vedado area young things queue up for the Fabrica de Arte, one of Armando’s favourites and a more contemporary musical scene. Both are pricey if you’re on a budget and especially if you’re a foreigner where everything is double the price!
Our last stop on this Mexican journey is Merida, the white city in Yucatan, so called for its white palaces of yesteryear on the grand avenida. One of these ornate palaces is now the Museo de Antropologia which holds Mayan artefacts. Visiting the Museo prepared us for our tour to Chichin Itza.
The Chichin Itza, at the mouth of the well, site is one of the best renovated archaeological sites. It was the low season but still busy enough to pass the crowds as we meandered around the temples, serpent carvings and the cenote, a very deep natural limestone well about 40 metres wide. Apparently human skeletons have been found at the bottom when it was dredged around the 1930s. We had a very informative guide who explained the significance of the site and the Mayan state of mind, switching between Spanish and English for the English group we were in, with a lovely young Melburnian couple, Andreas and Athina on their honeymoon and a couple of Danish sisters. By the end of it though we suffered a bit of heat stress and the market vendors only added to our stress although they were funny with their comments, “cheap, almost free amigos.”
Then we enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch. I have really been enjoying their variety of soups always with lime and avocado and the yummy fruit juice drinks. In the afternoon, we went to another cenote that you could swim in. It looked dark and cold and there were fish in there apparently. Mike and I were unprepared but we could see how much the other tourists enjoyed it. Although our guide said we could go nude we didn’t believe him.
Overall we enjoyed the atmosphere of Merida on the weekend the most. It’s a university town with lots of entertainment. On Saturday evening a stage, chairs, market and food stalls were set up right in front of our hostel. It was for Noches Mexicanas! And since it was the night before Valentines Day there were a series of romantic and sentimental songs performed by solo singers in Mexican dress. There were dance performances by dance troupes who came from different areas of Mexico. The Chihuahua dancers wore Spanish style fluffy dresses and cowboy hats. The cowboy hat actually originated in Mexico. Mike said the dance was a cross between tap-dancing and a ho-down. Then on Sunday various streets were closed for markets and cyclists, young and old. The elderly ones were being cycled in a special seat while the toddlers had training wheels.
One thing about Merida is that it is not the best place to shop. Oaxaca and San Cristobal were much better for that if shopping is your thing. Just a lot of souvenir trinkets here although the vendors all seem to know more English.
At our hostel, we befriended friendly Bart, a New Yorker gringo who’d been travelling and living in Mexico on the cheap for the past six months. Happy and safe travelling Bart!
Thanks to Bamba Experience our independent travelling using the hop-on-hop-off on bus vouchers went smoothly. We organised our own schedule with them according to how many days we went and a couple of tours. It was easy to communicate with them via email and they responded quickly emailing our vouchers so that we could use the reference number to get our bus ticket. I would definitely recommend them if you come to this part of the world.