Cast back in time in Havana, Cuba

Posted on August 11, 2013

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IMG_4370I just don’t know where to begin with Cuba. At first I felt like I had been delivered into the film ‘Grease’ with greased back haired men driving 1950’s Cadillacs and Chevys, elbows nonchalantly resting on the window. And Havana is full of throwbacks, it’s like nothing has changed in the last 60 years. Nothing.

All advice received told us to stay in Casa Particulars rather than the hotels as it gives more of a glimpse into life there plus the food is better and people are lovely. We contacted the top 15 listed on TripAdvisor, and within three days we received just four responses, all negative. Casa Ana suggested a friend of hers close by, Casa Margarita at the same price of $30/night. The house was magnificent, art deco at every turn. And it felt like we were staying with an old Aunt.

Frankly speaking, food is terrible. We had been warned before, and when we arrived we were strictly told not to eat any street food, not to drink from cans without a straw, and to make sure restaurants and shops opened any bottles in front of us. Yikes.

Breakfast at Margarita’s started every day with a plate of fresh fruit, a good start. Then arrived eggs. Pretty good. Served with some dubious cheese and sausage and some canned green beans. Hmmm. Still it was pretty good overall and filled us up. As each day went by she catered to our tastes. The sausage disappeared and avocado was introduced.

Margaritas was in Vedado, the ‘newer’ area of Havana. We were warned off Old Havana as dangerous as night anywhere outside the tourist area (where the casas particulares are) and during a late night taxi ride through the area we realised it was good advice  for two females travelling together.

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The first day we went to the cemetery, and were offered a free tour at the entry. An interesting place which housed Hemmingway’s barman (he died a rich man by association), and many beautiful love stories within. Our guide was passionate about the cemetery and, err, a little theatrical sometimes shouting which so we decided half an hour was enough on a hot day and went in search of food and water via Revolution Square.

The square is a natural stop off with the infamous images of Che and Fidel. A tour guide will give you the back ground we didn’t have. We had been used to researching sites online before or after days out but were stumped in Havana as only large hotels had internet access, sometimes, within business hours, for CUC$8/hour. That explained the lack of response from the casas particulares too – I had emailed them all. We later found out that only businesses were allowed internet and then it was heavily restricted. On another day our driver told us that he was studying Social Communication. By probing a little we found that he had access to internet at university only during certain classes to learn. He did have a Facebook Account but didn’t know much about Twitter or other networks. Fascinating, a third year Social Communications university student who   didn’t know much about social networks. When we later asked someone what the logic was behind the internet restrictions he replied simply ‘Ask Fidel’.

Back to our walking tour of Vedado. There are beautiful avenues and buildings that should look impressive, could look impressive, but had been left to ruin. They obviously hadn’t had any attention in many years, which I guess makes sense when you look at the ownership, or lack of, in Cuba. The waterfront that we’d heard about, Mercado, was along a main road, not pretty and had handfuls of teenagers jumping into the sea of the wall.

Unlike the other countries we’d been to on this trip w didn’t feel like we’d got under the skin of Cuba, it just didn’t make sense.

It was only when we went back to the seafront at night that it made sense – it was packed and buzzing. People drinking and playing music. Almost like an enormous outdoor bar that doesn’t actually serve drinks. It’s of course cheaper than going to bars and restaurants and fits more with the social, fun Cuban way.
Our second day we had booked ourselves on a tour with Ana’s husband Pepe. The tour has become infamous to those that have stayed with their network of friends and we were looking forward to getting some of the history. We started by piling into one of the old Chevy’s that we’d seen and taking a drive around Vedado and Centro Havana to get our bearings. We finally pulled up by the port ad were pointed to the stature of the lady that appears on Havana Rum bottles. She’s an emblem of hope, fidelity and peace, waiting at the harbour for her husband to come home from sea (he never did though).Our first meal fit the description that we had heard so many times: bland, bad food. We’d walked for three hours, hungry after the first hour and in a built up area, it took us another two hours to find a restaurant. We’d been delighted that we could get into some air con and took the waitresses  recommendation of the special of the day, an italian platter for two which was ‘muy rico’ (delicious). A platter indeed arrived, piled with microwave type pizza, overcooked spaghetti with a sauce Dolmio would have shied away from, plus lasagne and cannelloni which we couldn’t distinguish between and would have sent back to Findus if we could have. It was actually quite funny, especially for two girls that had dated Italians. Sustenance nevertheless we aimed to get some better recommendations, and stock up on supermarket snacks for the rest of the trip.

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We saw the obligatory cigar rolling and were taken to buy cigars (Pepe insisted on certain places for good prices which probably worked eel for him as well as us), took a tour of the Havana Rum distillery (skip this unless you are particularly interested in rum), and an incredible roof terrace which gave views all over the city.The tour was many centre red in Havana Vieja. It was entertaining and we got a lot of the history. I hadn’t realised that in it’s heyday Havana was one of the biggest cities in the Americas. As a port it was the junction between Europe and the Americas. It has influences from all over the world but most predominantly from Spain, France and Italy.

Old Havana is easy enough to get around in the day. A tour such as Pepe’s is a rest starter but be sure to walk around yourself and go off to the back streets as you get a different perspective altogether. It’s only relatively recently that Castro has realised the value of tourism. The main streets have been redone and are simply beautiful, a colonial city fully of charm. But outside this area Cuba tells a different story, of more poverty and everyone doing what they can to earn a living: the casa particulare do so by having people stay; almost anyone with a car seems to be a taxi; women dress in traditional outfits for photo opportunities; small shops are set up in peoples homes; tours are offered.

Hotels are another anomaly in Cuba. Rather than being places to stay they are attraction sin themselves. For a treat, sit and watch the sunset as the famous Nacional (the hotel where all celebrities stay). To be thrown back in time go to see the old Hilton, now Havana Libre. A friend also told me that she enjoyed drinks on the rooftop bar of the Hotel Inglaterra in Parque Central.

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The real fun time in Havana is at night though. When the sun has gone down, the city cools down and the bars heat up. We popped into Hemmingways old haunts: My Mojito is Bodeguita, My Dacquari is Floradita. It was Bodeguita that captured us with it’s live music and superb mojitos (Hemmingway knew what he was talking about), ordering only by signalling how many you would like. Fantastic.

By this time we had become used to being a curiosity to Cuban men. It was almost as if to was an instinct rather than a thought to blow a kiss or make a comment. No more was this true than at the late night haunt Casa de la Musica.

We had decide we needed a night out, especially after a few mojitos, and wanted to see more live music. Casa de la Musica is famous and has live music every night. At 10CUC entry we knew it would be expensive for locals and were surprised to find so many there.

Beside beautiful made-up Cubans we stood in day dresses at the bar wanting to spectate, but found ourselves being hit on by Cuban man after Cuban man. Offering to show us how to salsa, we were then claimed for the evening, by our side at every turn. Only a direct brush off worked with much explanation. And then the next set came in. Good for dancing but a little hard work, and not one of them offered to buy us a drink. It turned out to be more entertainment than the group they had on.

If you have time there 1830’s on the waterfront in Vedado is a great spot and apparently packed at weekends. They have live bands and the venue is well laid out and on the waterfront. We loved it there. Also there is the cheaper and more local Abanehacienda, around the corner from Casa de le Musica.

Only having a few days we stayed mainly in Havana but wanted to take a day trip so hired a car and driver with an Italian couple we met. Pepe, the tour guide had organised a car but it turned up and was more expensive than we had been told. Margarita, who ran our casa didn’t want to step on toes (it’s all a big political network and one that wasn’t worth her disrupting as she gets good business), so we headed to Calle 23 to try our luck with the the taxis.

A large gold Chevy pulled up with a young driver, tattoos down one arm (which later turned out to be a tattoo sleeve) and we agreed a priced of 50CUC to take us to Hemmingway’s house and then Las Terrazas.

The driver was 25 years old and tried his English, but we mostly got by on a mix of my very limited Spanish and lots of hand actions. He was very sweet and seemed to have no idea what he was doing – he had to call friends or stop and ask for directions at virtually every turn. We then found out he had only bought the car in December so the Taxi business was new to him and was on the side to his studies.

En route to Hemmingway’s house we stopped to get petrol. At his grandparents house.  Petrol in stations is a lot more expensive than on the black market (more than three times) so on the black market they buy it and store it at home. We were invited in for drinks and met the family who were hospitable and showed up the house. This is the Cuba we had been looking for. Happy, relaxed Cubans. Many to a house but it was comfortable. Seats outside to watch the world go by (we saw a lot of this in Havana too).

If you are a Hemmingway fan, or like seeing international property, then the stop off is worth it. Hemmingway had taste. Las Terrazas was also a good day trip to get into the countryside. We spent most of our time at the Banos San Juan, natural swimming pools in the river, surrounded by forest. At 10CUC each to get in also gave you a voucher for 8CUC to use in any of the restaurants inside. This later bought us a hefty lunch and a drink. Bargain really.

The only restaurant that I can recommend is DeCameron which is on Linea street between Paseo street and 12 street.
If you have more time that we did we heard that Trinidad and Vinales are both worth visiting. Plus the Sierra Maestra mountains where Che and Fidel launched the revolution.
Taxi’s from the airport cost 20CUC. Be wary of being taken to the correct address when you get there – an old trick but one that seems to still work – and it’s easiest to get the hotel or Casa to arrange one for you so that someone is waiting.
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