Cuba: Three days in La Habana

Ah Havana. Or La Habana in Latin nomenclature. One name which conjures up so many evocative images. Daiquiris with Hemingway, the warm breeze from the ocean as classic American cars glide by, elegant dilapidation on sun-kissed colonial buildings. Yep, I had high hopes for my Latino swansong.

The journey from Vinales went without a hitch. Obviously, I was lied to on two occasions as is the custom- Firstly about the price which rose 33% between booking and boarding (I suspect the extra 5CUC went straight into my charming casa proprietor’s pocket) and then secondly about the fact that I definitely wouldn’t be changing cars. This is a common ruse where you start with your own seat and end up packed into a chicken wagon sitting on the floor for 3 hours.

A veritable procession of classics leaving Vinales

Our steed from the village

Ride no.2: A Buick Century

To be fair, the price still wasn’t unreasonable at 20CUC and the change in cars turned out to be no biggie. We started our journey in a big old Ford V8 diesel, 7 up- A good little earner. No wonder the cabbies are the ones swanning around in designer gear. At a service station outside the capital I was shuffled into the back of a venerable old Buick Century- Much to the chagrin of the small Australasian woman who wanted the entire cavernous back bench for her and her boyfriend. Hmph!

Amusingly, she was wearing a proper fume mask and he had a linen handkerchief clapped to his face for the duration of the 40mins or so into Central Havana. I mean, it’s sometimes a bit fumey in the back but come on, there’s bigger stuff to worry about surely? I was desperate to take a covert photo of the strange couple with their shades and masks a la Michael Jackson in his Blanket over the balcony days but just couldn’t manage it.

As it turned out, the taxi driver both didn’t know Havana well and/or was a complete dick. He dropped the German couple up front off successfully and then made a less-than-token effort to find the casa for the Australian couple, basically trying to drop them at number 221 of a completely different street and rudely waving away their efforts to direct him with, uh, the map. They gave up and got out in the end, wishing me good luck (no mask).

After driving another couple of streets huffing away to himself, it turned into a full-scale toddler strop whereby he pulled over to the side of the road and refused to go any further, saying that he didn’t know the way and I could just get a bike taxi. Neither would he ask anyone directions, so we were just sat there. So, after ME asking directions he drove off a short way, still moaning. I was by this point completely fed up with it and lost in the will to live, so told him to stop the carro maldito and cut my losses.

By this point I was at least outside the Capitolio.

The magnificent Capitol Building

This did have the appearance of somewhere that definitely would be on a map, but I just couldn’t find it in my Lonely Planet. I asked a few people and was still none the wiser. In any case, since it was opposite Parque Central I figured it would probably be a fairly reasonable place to lodge for 3 nights. So, I walked past the Iberostar Hotel and other glittering establishments that I definitely couldn’t afford and onto a side street that felt like I was going through the wardrobe to downtown Beirut.  

A block down and the telltale accommodation sign popped up. It didn’t look much cop, but I could at least ask. A friendly older guy Luis led me up some steep and narrow stairs to a classic garret, a proper aspiring writer/student style hovel. Which was actually clean, quiet and with everything I needed. Marvellous. Despite this, the elephant in the room remained, namely that I still didn’t have the faintest clue where I was. However, consulting the Havana Centro map rather than the Havana Vieja map, it turns out that I was no more than 4 blocks from the main sights, and only about 6 from where I was aiming for in the first place. Superb. An amazing bargain at 20CUC per night too, on Calle Neptuno. But yeah, it’s like Beirut outside.

Chez Sam for the duration

I set out in the late afternoon for a bit of light exploration, my wanderings took me first to an establishment which would form a regular haunt during my time in Havana. An unlikely den of sin, however den of sin it certainly was, the Pastelera Francesa opposite the park. First and foremost it’s a Goverment purveyor of pastries and coffee in an otherwise expensively upmarket tourist trap area, but more than that it’s a hub of local life.

This den of iniquity, during my time, played host to unsuspecting tourists, prostitutes, pimps and the type of guys you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Talking at the tables, meeting friends and then a hive of activity past the public area in the shadowy back corridor. The very height of my people-watching career.

Credit: Tripadvisor

The colourful clientele (Credit: Robin Thom)

I didn’t get hassled much in Havana. There were plenty of far, far easier targets amongst the crowds of fresh off the boat cruise passengers. The ones that did hassle me were kind of funny. You think you’ve sussed all of the ‘approaches’ and then a new one takes you by surprise. This happened down by the Malecon, the seafront in Havana overlooking the castle.

“Hey, can you take my picture?” South American guy. Yeah, sure. Picture taken. “De donde estas?” Oh, problem. He wasn’t expecting this. “El Salvador”. Interesting one. Whilst I’d definitely knocked him off track he was soon back on it. “I’m here for a festival, but it’s cancelled. I’m going to buy cigars instead. I know a shop…” 

Oh FFS. Inventive definitely. I laughed and wandered off. My first day’s potterings included the wide boulevard down towards the sea, a real dividing line between the grand buildings lining it and the poverty of Habana Centro beyond.

From there I headed to the nearby Modern Art museum, one half of Havana’s grand pair of galleries and ostensibly the more interesting one. Three floors of fantastic work but with a strict ‘no pictures’ rule and grumpy guards! Entrance is a reasonable 5CUC ish.

Coffee sculpture in one of the bits you can actually photograph- The cafe!

I didn’t want to overdo it on night one- Habana Vieja could wait until tomorrow. Just a wander around Parque Central and an early night. Unfortunately the death of a national icon completely puts the kybosh on most nocturnal forms of entertainment, even bars, so this was to be the form of my Havana experience.

First stop the next day was to be the Museo de la Revolución, a grand building which is benefiting greatly from sympathetic restoration, and which is regarded as one of Havana’s ‘must visit’ sites. Charting the history of Cuba, it provided a fascinating insight into recent history from a distinctly non-Western viewpoint. Albeit slightly anti-American viewpoint!

No translation needed

Besides this, the building itself is beautiful. It has benefited greatly from the support of Habaguanex, a social enterprise which has achieved staggering results despite the crippling effects of global economic sanctions on Cuba. Habaguanex restores old buildings but also runs restaurants and hotels, funnelling profits back into more restorations, and spending over $100m per year doing so. This is no quick paint job either, some of the restorations I saw were truly staggering in scale and attention to detail. And the restaurants weren’t half bad either.

One of my lunch stops, a pleasant little place

One fantastically innovative place La Imprenta was themed around printing and fonts, and was housed in a well-restored former print works. The quality and scale of the menu was quite something given Cuban shortages, and the profits all get ploughed back into restorations. Ideal! A bit more lively service than most of the normal Government places too.

Havana really is a major Cuban artistic hub too. Normally I gather the streets would be alive with music and energy, however due to Castro’s death I had to make do with the hidden treasures, the artistic back streets…

From the above modern art collective workshop/studio situated just yards from a tourist hotspot, but largely unvisited.

…to one of the many small galleries.

There really is plenty to fill at least 3 days in Havana. So much to see, even if you don’t touch many of the slightly shonky and overpriced “museums” of rum and chocolate. I briefly contemplated these however was immediately dissuaded by the horde of cruise tourists within. Anyway, Havana’s more than SIGHTS. It’s about atmosphere and just spending hours wandering around Habana Vieja getting a bit lost in the maze of streets and squares.

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Chinatown’s worth a visit too. It’s about as Chinese as my right foot due to most of the population leaving soon after Fidel’s ascent to power, however apparently Chinese families are starting to move back, and there are some cracking restaurants too. Makes a change from the standard rice and beans!

As it happened, the time that I had in Havana was just about right for what I wanted to see and experience. I’d expected to be bored, but actually it does take a bit of time to absorb the city’s charms. For my final night I knew what needed to happen. A good pasta meal at my favourite place on the Parque Central, dessert at people watching capital Pastelera Francesa and then a ride in an old classic car. My souvenir and gift hunting had yielded some decent cigars, so I slipped one into my pocket as I left the guest house.

Ford Thunderbird, the Malecon at night and some bracing Cuban sea air. That’ll do, pig. The driver was a nice guy, it was undoubtedly an expensive 15min spin around the block at 10CUC but he was happy enough, and it really did need to be done. The other cars on offer weren’t quite…garish enough.

Honouring my mother country at Parque Central

Coco cabs. These aren’t nearly as cool…

…as a big old T-Bird with a gringo in the back

A happy Sam

I was slightly disappointed at his lack of technical knowledge regarding the vehicle’s precise engine capacity and MPG although he did give me a brief run down of relevant stats, and it did have a lovely wuffle to it. I love a good ole V8. #cargeek

So then, that was Havana done. Cigar burnt to the nub, and time to navigate the dingy street back to my lodgings. I’ve previously spoken about the Cuban love of using cannons as bollards and can confirm that walking into them in the dark bloody hurts. One dead leg, thanks. 

Leaving La Habana was all positive. After my evening air in the Thunderbird and then a decent meal I was all set. Luis, my guest house host, had organised me a taxi for the morning, but the sly old goat had a surprise up his sleeve… The taxi was his. A beautiful 1959 Pontiac. A fantastic way to finish my time in Cuba, pottering to the airport up front with him on the sofa-like bench. It was so sweet the way he brought it up to the front of the house without me knowing, and then revealed the surprise of him driving!

I really liked Luis, the kind of genuine, decent person who for me is at the very heart of Cuba’s unique appeal. He’s a retired History teacher and his wife a retired Social Sciences teacher. Now they have the Casa and he drives the taxi. Mainly airport runs, as he explained he can’t be bothered with touting around town for the odd CUC.

Luis seemed genuinely affected by the passing of Castro, talking with a catch in his voice about the man who for him had steered Cuba on the right course. He was pessimistic about the hopes for the future with Trump in charge. Luis and his family typified the kind of people for whom Socialism is a lifelong commitment and for whom the state is both a benefactor and something to work for, live for and moreover, view with pride.

His daughter is now a doctor in the East of the country.

Too flipping early so it’s still dark… But here’s Luis’s cab.

Goodbye Luis!

Luis dropped me at Terminal 2 at Havana International. He’d previously asked me which terminal and I didn’t know, sadly this is not information American Airlines had deigned to provide on their tickets. As I got out I saw signs for Frontier airlines, so thought the going was good.

Er, no. Terminal 2 is charters only. I needed Terminal 3. Now in most places this wouldn’t be a problem, but in dear old La Habana Terminal 3 is 3.5km away. Feck, feck feck feck. Lucky I still had a few pesos in my pocket. I approached one of the airport cabs and asked for T3. He wanted 10CUC. He must have seen the desperation in my eyes when I said “Tengo cinco” because he agreed straight away. Half the price, still pretty steep but I was definitely a beggar rather than a chooser.

Reader, I made it. And once we were airside, booze was available to be had. A small bottle of Havana Club to warm the throat and jog memories and then out to the gate.

With my final CUCs I needed a coffee. At the gate cafe they had Cafe con ron, and I could afford it. In an almightily timed Godsmack two priests from the US approached the counter. “What coffee do you have there?” “Er, coffee with rum”, I uttered, shamefully. I did however explain that with the time difference it was actually lunchtime in England, which they agreed was as good a reason as any.

Random places you can fly from Havana…Luanda, Angola no less. BUSINESS CLASS!

One final footnote, and a plea if you visit Cuba. Please, please consider taking extra clothes and maybe even some cheap digital watches. Until I visited and saw it for myself I genuinely didn’t understand how debilitating the US Blockade is, and how little some people had. 

By this point I had left most of my spare clothes with the sadly completely ungrateful other teacher in Santa Cruz, but I desperately wished I had brought them to Cuba. Everything like clothes and shoes is prohibitively expensive here. I managed to donate my final, nearly “spare” t-shirt to a guy on the streets, and desperately wanted (and tried) to find him the next day to give him my walking boots but couldn’t find him. I left them with Luis and am confident he’s the kind of guy who will find someone in true need. 

Seriously though, take some extra clothes you don’t need. When you’re going around Havana put them in your daypack. You’ll know who needs them and trust me, they will be grateful. 

Peace out. Let’s do America.

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