Havana – Population 2.2 Million
Havana is like all the best Spanish cities moulded into one – the edgy old town of Cadiz, the oceanside promenade and Art Deco of Barcelona, the majestic buildings of Madrid, the music & dance of Seville, the cuisine of Valencia, the bars of Bilbao, the fortifications of Malaga, the multiculturalism of Granada, the covered colonnades of Santiago de Compostela.
I visited with Mrs Wilbur in January 2017 and here is my account of four says spent in Cuba’s magnificent capital.
Havana has three distinct central districts – Vedado, New Havana & Old Havana. The common denominator is the 8 km prom (the Malecon) that runs beside the crashing waves of the Caribbean.
This is one of the great iconic ocean roads – an elongated Ocean Drive without the lycra-clad poseurs or 70 year-old ladies sporting 40 year-old faces.
Vedado is where we stayed for our first two nights in the highly recommended Casavana. Our very large double was on the 11th floor affording splendid views of the ocean, rooftops and roads arranged in grids and stocked with American classic motors.
Revolution Square & Christabel Cemetery, Havana
Fuelled by a spectacular breakfast we went strolling on day one. Along Avenida de los Présidentes to Revolution Square with the Jose Marti Monument (sadly the tower was shut) and on to the vast Christabel Colon (Christopher Columbus) cemetery with its ostentatious graves.
Having survived our first dilapidated Lada taxi experience and after a reviving pasta and coke at an excellent restaurant, we headed for our first close up taste of Malecon.
The Malecon, Havana
And you could taste it literally as the waves smacked against the rocks and the wind gusted, combining to deliver salt deposits onto your lips. It was never stormy on that sunny January day, but definitely invigorating and most certainly not conducive to maintaining a stylish hair arrangement or staying connected to your hat!
The pelicans and cormorants seemed to be faring far better than the humans in the fishing stakes. We lingered for a good while to take in the pelicans hovering above the frothing surf, before dive-bombing an unsuspecting fish for a briny sushi meal.
Every now and again a party of giggling schoolgirls or unwitting tourists got a real soaking as the waves whipped up into a particular frenzy. Hilarious to watch and thrilling at first for the victims until they then realised the reality that that they were cold & wet and far away from salvation.
Where the Malecon falls a little short compared with Ocean Drive is in the eating & drinking stakes. We however found a decent outside bar just back from the ocean, but still in view of the blue waters and hungry birds. They only served Sol Beer or Mojitos, but sometimes limited choice is very good.
After refreshments we slipped back a street or two to take in real Havana. Crumbling mansions, once the domain of Cuba’s well-heeled and now buildings of mass occupation as evidenced by all the al fresco laundry drying out. No wonder everybody smelt of salt!
It was here that locals hung out, unfettered by tourism and just going about their daily lives. Trading, playing, grooming, smoking, gossiping, gazing, laughing, singing, waiting, sauntering, nursing and most of all chilling.
It is the people that are the soul of a city and something Disney or Vegas can never replicate. In Cuba in general and Havana in particular, the locals are particularly colourful in dress, manner and culture. I will let the pictures do the talking.
After a wonderful hour or so wandering & photographing, it was time to return to the Malecon for sunset. The open-topped Cadillacs were doing a roaring trade – that was an option for another day for us.
We finished our day with rum cocktails and lobster in a restaurant on the cusp of Vedado & New Havana, a perfect end to a brilliant day.
From the moment we received an unexpected mojito welcome at the ace Casavana, our time in Havana had been brilliant. Would day two keep up the enjoyment? You bet.
Hotel Nacional, Havana
First port of call was the iconic Hotel Nacional, where we would be staying that evening as the first part of out organised tour with G Adventures. The five star hotel is perhaps Havana’s most famous.
It was here that former president Batista and his cronies used to hang-out in the mid-late fifties, a time of decadence fuelled by government corruption in partnership with the US Mafia.
Famously all the big Mafia bosses had met there at Batista’s invitation under the guise of a Frank Sinatra concert, in a ruse reminiscent of the fabulous Godfather film, albeit without the drama of a bloody shoot-out from a helicopter.
It was this type of largesse and embezzlement that inspired Fidel and his followers to overthrow the rotten regime.
Post the Revolution, Fidel set up office in the hotel for a while. Other guests have included Churchill, Hemingway and Graham Greene.
We memorably turned up at the monumental luxury accommodation in a beaten up Lada.
Expecting to be sneered at as we emptied the vehicle surrounded by pristine Cadillacs and Chevrolets nobody seemed to bat an eyelid, even when the driver untied the string that held the boot in the closed position so he could hand us our cases!
American Classic Cars, Havana
After sitting in the picturesque garden overlooking the Caribbean for coffee, we started our day of exploring with an hour long tour in an mauve & white open-top 1958 Ford Fairlane, which you can read about in a previous post.
The drive was great fun and we were dropped off right by the Revolution Museum in New Havana as requested.
Revolution Museum, Havana
I have already written about the Cuban revolution that swept Fidel & Che to power, suffice to say that the museum makes for a compelling hour or so, topped off by the actual boat called The Granma that brought the famous men and 80 others (including then leader Raul Castro) from their base in Mexico to Cuba. It is on display in a glass case in the museum’s courtyard surrounded by military vehicles from the late fifties.
Paseo del Prado, Havana
After feeling suitably educated in Cuban politics and revolutionary tactics, we headed to Paseo del Prado, known as Havana’s answer to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas and home to the iconic Capitol Building and the beguiling Opera House.
The leafy street is tourist Havana with tour buses, up-market hotels, plenty of good restaurants and horse-drawn carriages enticing visitors to part with their money.
We took to the roof of the Inglaterra Hotel for lunch with a view. Decent value for money too.
After lunch we toyed with visiting the highly recommended Arts Museum, but never a great fan of museums and a little fatigued from the extensive collection of artefacts and revolutionary facts already viewed, we decided just to wander instead.
That was great fun as well as we watched people, cyclo-taxis and classic cars going about their business. Many of the buildings were wonderful examples of neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture.
Our favourite was the Macintosh like Bacardi Building, which was requisitioned after the Revolution and still houses municipal offices.
It was soon time to make for the Nacional and our rendezvous with our G Adventures rep and our fellow tourers.
It did not go quite to plan, meaning that we missed our briefing and worried for a while about catching out organised flight next day to Santiago de Cuba. It all turned out OK in the end happily.
Having embarked on a wonderful tour of Cuba taking in Santiago, Baracoa, Trinidad, Bayamo, Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, we returned where it all began in Cuba’s mesmeric capital.
We were staying in a Casa Particulare in Old Town Havana. Casas were the staple accommodation of our trip, a cross between a State sponsored Airbnb and a traditional bed & breakfast. Accommodation was variable with pot luck on what you got.
We started with a room in a house owned by an elderly couple to the one where we now stayed – a town house that now amounted to five stories thanks to casa income funding expansion, funds which would now be significant bearing in mind the nine bedrooms available to rent.
Win, lose or draw in the casa stakes, the one thing common to all were the royal breakfasts. Our final casa was no exception in the ‘fit for a king’ brekkie arena.
Buena Vista Social Club, Havana
After relaxing with drinks & snacks back at the Nacional, it was back to the casa for a wash and brush-up before heading to the Buena Vista Social Club. We were transported to the Nacional by bicycle-taxi and back by Cadillac cabriolet, each costing around €15. When in Rome……..
We had a fine time in BVSC, I will leave details for my ‘Music & Dance in Cuba’ feature to come down the track, but suffice to say the veteran entertainers provided great energy and vibrant entertainment.
The included cocktails helped in the sleep department, though climbing up five flights of steep steps was a little tricky as a result!
The day ahead would be bittersweet. We would have a great tour of the old town, but would also be saying goodbye to our wonderful guide of the previous fortnight. Pedro did his country proud – extremely knowledgeable and an all-round good egg.
The old town area has undergone a lot of renovation in recent years and is in pristine condition.
We yomped up to the top of the cathedral bell tower for excellent views of the city and across the water to Havana’s twin fortresses.
The colour of Cuba was in full evidence once more in the produce market, stuffed with fresh fruit & vegetables and a fair few characters.
We stumbled across a bunch of schoolkids celebrating Cuba’s freedom – take a look for yourself here.
The whole town was picture perfect in the winter sunshine – atmospheric squares, beautiful buildings, local characters. Hours of fun. The area is also chocca with museums if you like that kind of thing.
Havana Old Town has everything for everybody. I really want to go back!
Casablanca, Havana, Cuba
Having visited the three main districts of Havana, it was time to cross the water to Casablanca. Not the iconic Moroccan city but the settlement on the small island across Havana bay, home to the city’s former fortifications and Cuba’s Estatua de Cristo.
We walked through the old town, past the cruise ships and over to the Casablanca ferry. We paid €1 and went through the security check.
I read that the ferry had in fact been hijacked on two occasions for Cubans desperate to get to the US to try and make the journey to Florida Keys. The fact that the dash failed was a blow to the locals, but a mighty relief for all the tourists on board!
Catch a clip of the ferry leaving port here.
Whilst we were in Cuba, the US wet foot, dry foot law was repealed. Up until then, if a Cuban had made dry American land they would have been allowed to stay and settle, if however they were caught at sea during the journey, they would be returned to their homeland.
The cancelling of this law was one of the agreements reached between the governments when Barack Obama had become the first sitting US president to visit Cuba for over fifty years in 2016. Now mostly repealed by Trump of course.
From our January 12th arrival onwards, dry foot as well as a wet foot would be returned to Cuba.
Our next task was to find Casablanca train station where the famous Hershey train begins its journey into the sugar and cocoa plantations. The train was built by the Hershey Chocolate Company to transport goods from the factories to the water for export, as well as bringing Havana residents to work.
Having taken a similar train from Trinidad de Cuba to the former sugar plantations of the Valle de los Ingenios we decided we wouldn’t make the journey, but wanted to see the station all the same.
Directions seemed to be non-existent, locals seemed ignorant as to its whereabouts and as the situation had ‘hot, sticky, frustrating & irritated’ written all over it, we decided to plough on.
For the record, the train times currently are as follows:
|Casablanca – Hershey||Hershey – Casablanca|
After a few minutes stiff uphill walk, Christ’s statue honed into view. In total it took about twenty minutes to get to his feet. Not as big as Rio’s giant, it was impressive all the same as its white stone glistened in the bright sunshine.
We decided to avail ourselves of a horse & trap to take us to the main fort (Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana) that had been built from 1763-74 to repel any invaders following the British taking Havana in 1762.
It was damned hot, so a few minutes shade and rest were most welcome. We passed a display of military arsenal and our driver insisted we stop for pictures. I wasn’t really bothered, but read the signal that the guy wanted a cigarette break so obliged and feigned interest by taking a couple of snaps.
We were soon dropped at the entrance to the fort, a place we were to remain for four hours. The huge complex covers 10 hectares and measures 700 metres end to end, so plenty of exploration to do.
The fort never actually saw combat as would be invaders realised its impregnability. It was used later on as a military prison/torture establishment/place of execution and Che’s HQ following the Revolution, where he oversaw reprisal executions against Batista’s officers.
There are a couple of small museums on site, one explaining the history of the fort and the other recounting Guevara’s time stationed there.
We would not be staying for the 9pm nightly canonaza ceremony where the age-old tradition of firing a cannon over the harbour is maintained, with actors dressed in period costume joining in the fun.
All a bit too touristy for us and we chose to linger over a cold beer and take in the beautiful sunset over the main city.
We did not have time to take in the older, smaller fort built from 1589.
It is said to be fabulous with 3 metre thick walls and deep protective moat. One for next time maybe!
We got back to the old town by taking a taxi through the tunnel.
Tonight was to be our last in Cuba, with the excellent Vixen & Crow Jazz Club our choice of venue.
Hasta la vista Havana, I’ll be back!