Havana : The Heartbeat of Cuba
28th March - 1st April 2014
As we women know men can be impatient creatures at times, so rather than wait for the afternoon bus which we”d already booked to take us from Vinales to Havana, a sudden change of heart by Liam and Pete saw us catching a not so comfortable government taxi. Leaving just after 10am the two hour ride had us speeding along an impressive four lane highway with little other traffic. Clearly, the excellent road system was funded by the old Soviet Union at a time when Cuba was a favoured outpost within spitting distance of the USA.
When you conjure up visions of Cuba it’s impossible to ignore Havana, the nation’s capitol. In it’s heyday it was a magnet for wealthy Americans and celebrities from around the globe, boasting flashy casinos, lavish hotels, decadent nightclubs and a fair amount of corruption from both the business sector and the government. Ernest Hemmingway, Nobel prize winner and enthusiastic fisherman, was practically a resident, while luminaries such as Frank Sinatra were frequent visitors. It was truly a vibrant city back then in the 1950’s with a tireless appetite for nightlife.
That all changed in 1959 when Fidel Castro turned the tables 180 degrees by leading the revolution and seizing power. It could not have been more of a contrast to the former style of government. Enter the regime of communism and socialism. Havana today still pulses, albeit to a very different beat.
Friends had given us the address of a Casa Particular (B & B) right on the Havana's’ waterfront. Perched way up it had stunning views across to the Castillo (fort) on the headland opposite. Sadly though, Matha the owner had only one room available and with the three of us that wasn’t going to fly. She made a quick phone call and within minutes Manuel appeared, a jaunty fellow with smart clothes and nicely blonde-streaked hair, and he could accommodate us just down the road.
A rickety elevator took us up to Manuel’s penthouse apartment, he owned the entire floor so we were treated to ocean views and the malecon (waterfront promenade) on one side and the city on the other, although the city view was reminiscent of TV footage of Beirut after a bombing raid, it honestly looked like a war zone in places. With our comfortable abode all sorted, we set off to explore the city we’d heard so much about.
Our first impressions were definitely not what we’d expected. As we walked through the backstreets toward the heart of the city the overwhelming scene of decaying buildings, some occupied but many deserted, 50 year old cars belching smoke as they rumbled past, shop fronts with few goods inside and the scurrying of the locals going about their day was a little depressing to say the least
But once we got out into the more touristy area the scene couldn’t have been more different. The wide European style boulevard, Paseo de Marti, was lined with antique streetlamps the type you would find in Paris, there were park benches, shady trees and several statues of lions, a favourite with the former Spanish conquerors. In the centre of town we strolled down bustling Calle Obispo, a narrow cobblestone street with throngs of tourists, art galleries, music houses and heaps of restaurants whose jineteros (touts) were more than keen for our business
We poked our heads into the Hotel Ambos Mundos, a place frequented by Ernest Hemmingway. The bar area, adorned with a photo wall dedicated to him, was jammed packed with a couple of Canadian tour groups so we moved on and enjoyed a couple of cool drinks at a nearby bar with the ever-present guitar player strutting his stuff. It seems nearly every Cuban male plays guitar and sings, though the level of talent varies considerably.
Our first day was going pretty well as we soaked up the vibe that Havana is famous for but that changed dramatically when a guy who had been tailing me ripped my gold chain from my neck and took off into a side-street. I gave chase but couldn’t catch him, he was just too fast and quickly disappeared. Liam and Pete were further down the street and failed to hear my cries for help, totally unaware of what had happened until they saw me standing on the street shaking and crying. A local woman came to my aid, she’d seen the events transpire and called the police. What followed was an exhaustive period of questioning at the police station, including a visit to a doctor to determine if I had any injuries.
A few hours later still shaken and upset we headed back to our Casa. It sure wasn’t a great introduction to Havana. From our lofty vantage point on the 7th floor the sights and sounds of musicians doing their thing down by the malecon provided entertainment of sorts, we could easily hear a variety of instruments being played with gusto, though not always with great skill. Still, they were out there having a go and enjoying themselves, often well into the night.
Things improved the next day, we caught one of those popular open-top double deck buses for a tour of the city and it’s surroundings The commentary was pretty poor so we didn’t glean as much as would have liked, good thing we had our trusty lonely planet with us to fill in the gaps.
The route took us past the Hotel National which was built in the 1930’s and modeled off “The Breakers”, a very ritzy hotel in Palm Beach, Florida . In the late forties the ‘National’ gained notoriety when it was used by US mobsters to host the biggest ever get-together of North American mafia under the guise of a Frank Sinatra concert.
The old hotels and casinos of the late 50’s still stand, though a bit tired looking these days and many have been converted into residential housing for the masses. A little further on was a stretch of rocky waterfront where swimming was popular though it didn’t look that enticing to us. Next up was the Memorial Jose Marti, Havana’s tallest structure and the Plaza de la Revolution, a huge concrete car-park-like square surrounded by drab looking government buildings featuring facial profiles of Fidel Castro and his easily recognizable lieutenant, Che Guevara. Guevara’s face is on everything from books to art work and caps to t-shirts.The man is an absolute Cuban hero. The tour also drove through leafy Vededo, an up-market suburb with large, well kept homes and gardens, many of them the residences of politicians, expats and ambassadors.
That night we headed back into town to checkout the nighttime Havana, and dined at a nice looking restaurant, again with a lively musical accompaniment. The menu read well with lots of local dishes but the food was terrible. After having had a couple of disappointing experiences the executive decision was made to stop wasting money and spend it on quality meals at the five star hotels instead. By and large the quality of meals in the state run restaurants is not brilliant and quite often we found that many dishes on the menu were simply not available.
Havana Vieja is the older area of the city and it was our favourite part, a real delight. It was home to some beautifully restored buildings, impressive churches and quiet little squares tucked between boutique hotels and cobblestoned streets. The tall buildings combined with the narrow streets provided us a cool respite from the heat of the afternoon. Quite by chance we stumbled upon the Plaza Vieja. You really would have thought that we’d been beamed up and plonked back to earth in an Italian piazza. Children played around a large fountain adorning the centre of the square and up-market shops, outdoor restaurants, cafes and bars completed the picture.
There was even a very stylish brewery in one corner which, judging by the lack of vacant tables was doing a roaring trade.Our “out of Cuba” experience was short lived though. We took one wrong turn just a stones throw from the plaza and in the blink of an eye were back into the run down area of the city once again.
A popular meeting area is Parque Central, a very pleasant park right in the centre of town. Here we would regularly see groups of men vigorously debating the merits of various baseball players and games, it was pretty amusing to watch.
And just to spice up the scene a couple of young lads jumped up on some steps and hoisted cardboard signs denouncing the government and Castro. They yelled their ideas to the many onlookers and very soon, like within a minute or so, attracted the attention of the ever-present police. After a brief chase around the park both were nabbed and led away in handcuffs, their signs disappearing very quickly. It seems you don’t knock socialism, at least not publicly in Cuba, lest you run foul of authorities. Unconfirmed rumors of overcrowded jails filled with Cubans whose views don’t align with those of the Government were not uncommon.
Meanwhile back in tourist central just along from the Capitolio National, a grand building that bears a remarkable resemblance to it’s Washington DC equivalent, a beautiful hot-pink Chevy convertible with cream upholstery caught our eye. It was a 1951 classic and we just had to go for a ride with the top down. The one hour ride wasn’t cheap but it was one of those things that you just have to do when in Havana. Linda, the owner, told us it took 4 years to restore and was a constant challenge to maintain.
Due to the trade embargo parts from the USA cannot be imported, so they have to come via Mexico or Panama at extra cost or be manufactured locally. Since there are thousands of these old Fords, Chevys, Buicks, Oldsmobile's and other makes, the task to upkeep them is massive so substitution is essential. Many have been fitted with diesel engines from Europe and sport disk brakes and revamped suspension with only the body shell still original.
By day four we’d practically walked our legs off but there was still so much more to see. We took in a couple of museums with the highlight being the Museo de la Revolution housed in the former Presidential Palace. In order to keep the corrupt presidents who once resided there in the style they were accustomed, the interior had been decorated by Tiffany's New York and the grand room of mirrors complete with it’s ceiling art work and lavish chandelier was a clone of it’s name sake in the Palace of Versailles.The displays and information in the museum were quite fascinating and gave us a good insight into the events surrounding the revolution and what has transpired since.
The outdoor exhibition contained vehicles used during the revolution including tanks, planes and the 18m vessel the “Granma” in which 82 revolutionaries, including Guevara and Castro, sailed from Tuxpan, Mexico to Cuba in December 1956. The yachts sits pride of place encased in a glass pavilion and is guarded 24/7.
Next morning we parted company with Pete and were picked up by our Transtur bus and headed back to Cienfuegos and GWTW. Pete stayed in Havana a few more days before flying to Miami and on to Australia. So that wraps up our time in Havana.
We enjoyed out time here, the good, the bad and the ugly, that’s what makes the place tick. Our overall impression was that it was once a very beautiful city that has lost it’s gloss over time. Sadly it is crumbling piece by piece with no funds to resurrect it. We were glad that we’d had the opportunity to explore but were looking forward to getting back on board GWTW and exploring some of the isolated anchorages that lay ahead as we journeyed further westward.
Cruising info : Transport :Infortur offices in Calle Osibiso can book Transtur or Viazule buses to major destinations. Havana – Cienfuegos CUC 20 pp.
Internet: Excellent Wi–Fi is available at Parque Central Hotel business centre,CUC8 per hr, high speed connection.
Accomodation : Prices are slightly higher than elsewhere CUC 30-35 p/nite.
Money: ATM’s can be unreliable. Visa cards are more widely excepted than MasterCard.
Footwear: Lots of walking so take comfy shoes.