La Habana stands proudly on the edge of the water, with its 8km malecón buttressing the breaking waves of the harbour. To delve into the streets of the old city is to find the sound of timba performed by local quartets, to spy at life played out in open doorways and spilling onto the alleys, and to discover amidst the sun-cracked and dust-caked surfaces a Latin American vivacity and a particularly Cuban doggedness of spirit.
Its buildings and fortifications have stood through ages of gold, of music, of warfare, and of the blood of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Now, in our capricious epoch, where the roads to Cuba are restricted and embargoed though the world seems ever closer with so many mediums of travel and communication, the buildings still stand. We are in a time when Fidel and Raul remain the last of the centenarians, and in their old age look often upon the statues, busts and posters of their fallen comrades. Yet the glory of those ages that the city has lived through still swell in the bosoms of the people, especially the elderly who were alive when the Revolution came to their land.
In the two days that we spent wandering around Habana Vieja in the agitated element of heat and dust, we were not only thrilled by the sights but left with a lot to contemplate. There is so much polarity regarding the country, both from outside and within, and there is a lot of misunderstanding as well as intrigue. Che’s bearded visage staring out menacingly with a red star emblazoned on his cap is an emblem recognised the world over, regardless of how familiar one was with the true history of the Revolution. But how much do people really know about the Cuban revolution? Che’s legendary emblem aside, the actual state of events may well be overshadowed by the fact one of the largest powers in the world, the United States, have long held embargoes on the country as well as restrictions on exchange of culture and trade, giving the impression of animosity and moral disapproval. As we were living in the States without being permanent residents or citizens, we were not bound to those restrictions, but the lack of official contact between the US and Cuba necessitated that we planned our route via Mexico.
We wanted to make the most of little week in Cuba – nuestra semanita – in order to better our own understanding. I can happily report ahead that our travels to various regions and our interactions with people left us with an overwhelming feeling of love. But right now, our tale remains within Old Havana.
The architecture here was striking, with the grand designs of neoclassical, colonial and baroque styles present even in the poorest boroughs. However, the majority of the establishments were separated from the most derelict by only several degrees of disrepair. How thirsty they looked for a bit of paint! The walls with their bas-relief and ornamented cornices were showing their age and beckoned the mind to imagine a past grandeur. This ancient feeling was heightened by the common sight of old American automobiles cruising the roads – Pontiac convertibles and Buick sedans with their regal wings, torpedo noses and retro stripes. They shared the road with vehicles aimed largely at tourists: horse carriages, tiny taxis, and rickety trishaws like the one belonging to Leo, the first punter to attract our business.
Leo accosted us with a smile and a fairly good command of English, though when he found us passable at Spanish, it was in this medium that he conducted his tour. He was a boxing teacher, he said, and a proud father of 2 month old baby. He offered a comprehensive tour of the city’s monuments and hot spots for $5 per person per hour. Having planned this trip so scantily, with not even a guide book to flip through, we figured it can’t be a bad way to get to know the city.
One of the first monuments we visited gripped my heart. It was a wall against which 8 medical students were sacrificed, for having voiced their dissent against the dictatorship. Across the way, stood the former Presidential Palace, now the Museo de la Revolucion, where tomorrow we would learn a great deal more about the fight for freedom.
Among the other places he took us to were the Palacio de Artesania, a blue building which housed art studios, a live band, as well as shops selling the famous Cuban cigars and rum – La Bodeguita del Medio, a cramped but lively bar once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, its wooden surfaces scratched with a million people’s names – Obispo, one of the main commercial roads, which also houses the city’s oldest Drogueria or pharmacy – and the colorful Plaza Vieja. He chattered away amiably, proud of his city. I relished in the everyday sights on the streets.
I saw little girls in a wooden doorway, standing belly to belly as they fixed each others’ hair. On one of the corners we passed, there lay a pig’s head flanked by bottles, an ominous voodoo offering. In wooden cartons lashed to the back of tricycles were giant avocados, mangos and bananas for sale. The balconies overflowed with potted plants, newly washed clothes and residents leaning out to watch life go by. Some of the upper levels ones were ingeniously fitted out with pulleys, in order to pull up objects from the ground floor by way of a small basket attached to a rope.
Some buildings have been pegged for repair, and were covered in scaffolding. In one of the side streets, schoolboys played on the work site and no one thought to reprimand them. The Cubans seem to have a casual relationship with safety laws. Later that night, we went to watch the 9 o’clock canon from the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, stumbling blindly on the unlit rock and turf path. People climbed onto the large stone walls of the fort to catch a glimpse of the ceremony preceding the firing of the canon, unfazed by the steep drop down the cliffs below. In Europe, there would’ve been rails, nets, or at least signs of admonition. Here on the streets, old Buicks sailed by like ships and pedestrians crossed without care, neither of them too bothered about upholding ‘right of way’. Leo would nonchalantly park his trishaw by the side of a large avenue and stroll across with us to see a monument. You’d sooner impose traffic laws upon chamois on their own mountain tops.
Leo was obviously unperturbed by the disorderly commotion which he plowed his trishaw through, laughing and chatting charmingly ‘til the end. And at the end? A request for a little more money. If the initial sales pitch was, “I can show you around no problem, I’m a boxing coach, we can see all the sights!”, the coup de grâce would be, “It’s been 2 hours and my legs really hurt now.” On the streets, someone may come up smiling at you like a friend before serving up a sob story and asking for a bit of charity. Sometimes I would see S’s face fall when what we thought was warmth gave way to a plea, and it did spoil interactions for sure. But perhaps it’s too easy to judge insincerity when we have EVERYTHING in our day to day lives.
A word on CUCs (and yes, you can pronounce it ‘kook’!) … The currency in Cuba is divided into pesos convertibles or CUCs, which are what you receive when you exchange foreign currency, and the currency with which tourists trade commercially. At a local level, citizens use pesos nacional. 1 US dollar is roughly equal to 1 CUC, which is equivalent to about 24 pesos nacional. Apparently pesos convertibles and nacional will be unified into a single currency early next year.
My souvenir for the day was a white crocheted shoulder bag. I purchased it on the Prado, a raised walkway traversing the city from Parque Central, a quieter version of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. In the back streets, I had spied an old woman contentedly crocheting on a rocking chair, with her finish products hanging down from the ceiling of the room all around her. We found ourselves gravitating towards one of the marble seats on Prado, tired but contented with the first day’s exploits, and we closed our eyes to the clipping of the horse carriages as they passed, garnering some energy to think about how to get home.
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What is the plato típico or typical dish of Cuba? It’s got to be lobster or langosta. As you have never had it before.
First of all, it isn’t the extortionate luxury food you may be used to. Cuban lobsters are huge and are often served with generous accompaniments, for a grand total of $12. This gargantuan crustacean is served shell down with the flesh separated from the concavity and connected only to the tail fins. It is as thick as a piece of steak. Until I came to Cuba, I had never thought it possible to be ‘lobstered out’.
This place was so full when we entered that we had to wait at the bar before getting a table – a promising sign of good food. The wooden decor and colonial design gave it a grand appearance, and light poured into the restaurant from a central open courtyard.
Palador Los Mercaderes
Right across from La Imprenta, a waiter coaxes passers-by to try their fare. “You don’t like, you don’t pay,” he says as we walk up the stairs to the dining area. The table service is impeccable, and a musical trio is installed on the balcony to serenade you. Best dips and bread I have ever had in my life, and yet another whopper of a lobster.
Comunidad #1, Casa 10, Havana, Habana del Este
Maceo y Beatriz Tel: +53 7 8636048
Operating from a house in the suburbs of La Habana del Este, you go through a wooden fence into a gaily decorated garden. So unassuming from the outside, the interior is thriving with customers. The selection is small, but the portions are very generous. S swears that their octopus is the most succulent, tender and delicious that he has ever tasted.
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Our experience of accommodations in La Habana deserves its own special mention. In many places, especially in smaller towns, casas particulars are a common accommodation option, and a refreshing alternative to hotels. The idea is that you could rent a room within a family home, or at times, even a whole villa, and that meals could be provided at your behest. “Estan en su casa,” the matron would often warmly announce. “You are already home.”
In La Habana, we stayed at Casa Blanca, and I cannot recommend this enough.
Cell : (53) 5-294-5397
Phone : (53) 7-206-5772
The villa consists of 2 large rooms with en suite bathrooms, a living area, dining areas both inside and outside, a full kitchen and a garage. The house is tastefully decorated with art work, including original sculptures by the owner’s husband, and supplemented with novels, maps, and DVDs. As if that wasn’t enough, it has an amazing garden with a several fountains, lush foliage, hammocks and a sense of serenity.
Margarita, the proprietor, picked us up from the airport – a service which was free of charge – and we were pleasantly surprised to learn that she was also a doctor.
In the morning, we were greeted by Yuly, a sweet and earnest girl who prepared a full breakfast for us in the patio. While we dined, she tidied the room and living spaces, and as we cleared away our plates we would often chat to her about life in Cuba. She’s also helpfully arranged for our transport to the city every morning. From the villa, it’s possible to walk to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, where the custom of firing a canon every night at 9pm has been kept from colonial times.
Photos by author