Ah, Havana, what have you done to me? You are the most amazing, noisy, confusing, fabulous place I have ever been to. I am grateful to have seen you before the likely “progress” your country will no doubt face in the near future with the softening of relations between your communist self and the USA.
If you’ve read my previous post you will know that I was lucky enough to holiday in Cuba. One, of a group of six friends, we headed off pretty well advised. Casa’s booked, some well chosen gifts in our bags and an attitude to take it as it comes. Our team all met up in Panama having come in from different locations around the globe and that worked out well to have 2 nights to catch up and acclimatise before flying with Copa Airlines into Havana, Cuba.
Havana, a city encompassed by a cacophony of noise. From loud car engines inhaling diesel, horns and live music to locals and street vendors yelling up to balconies. Beyond the well known tourist trap of Obispo with La Floridita, Hemingway’s adopted local sitting near the top, you’ll find a busy but laid back style of living.
As with most of Cuba, Havana appears to me focused on tourism as this is a main income earner for the locals in private business as well as for the Government who still own and operate restaurants and hotels throughout Cuba. However, you’ll find the accommodation, service and engagement of the locals offering their homes up for guest stays and dining, is a far more engaging experience. Because of that reason I totally recommend booking and staying in Casa Particulars (home stays) as this gives you a pretty authentic experience of living locally. You can engage with Cuban natives who are so friendly and couldn’t do more for you if you asked. Or more importantly as long as you can communicate. Our Spanish was basic but through a few choice words, gesticulations and mime we communicated just fine. Certainly our host’s English was better than our Spanish.
Havana gave us a few classic Cuban experiences. Getting through customs is a very random operation of hours of queuing. Perhaps the flights are timed in one block? We may also have made it harder for ourselves deciding to wait yet another hour to change money at the Airport. The ladies running the Money Changer decided half way through a massive queue to shut the doors for an hour while they had lunch. We waited. Our hired cars waited (just). Several days later we realised changing Euros at a hotel was just as easy and no more expensive.
Arriving much later than anticipated to Havana Veija and our Casa only to find confused owners stating there was no room as they were renovating. Odd I thought as only 2 days before I had received another confirmation from the booking agent all was as it should be. After half an hour of back and forward to booking agency and chats to the Casa owner by our friend and guide, I was politely shown to another house just round the corner. By this stage I could not care less as long as I had a clean room and was close to where the rest of the group were staying. Welcome to Cuba – this type of “rearranging” is quite common and seen as part of life there. Casa Particular owners in the neighbourhood all know each other and work together to ensure Tourists are looked after. As a visitor your contribution to the economy is highly valued so you will find you will be cared for, even if it is in a very stoic, practical way with little apology. These hiccups are just the norm as you quickly learn Havana in particular is in a rebuild and refurb phase with things like water, electricity and sometimes life getting in the way of the best confirmed booking. But you’ll never be left stuck – just go with the flow and everything will work out. Having a local to assist us language-wise was invaluable as I’m sure the confusion would have escalated if we hadn’t had that help.
We spent several days soaking up Havana, the sights and food. We were shown around initially by our friends to help us discover places, but it is so easy with a decent map to just start walking to soak up the place. Sure, Old Havana is touristy, but the location is perfect for walkers. Within a couple of days we had our regular haunts and a pretty good idea of the lay of the land. We never felt unsafe, although the locals take your safety to heart. They are very cautious on your behalf but as we were well seasoned travelers we were careful but happy to wander on our own.
I was the only one to experience an “odd” moment walking along the Malecon. I was slightly ahead of two of the guys from my group. They spotted I was being shadowed by a young guy, not much taller than me. Before I knew it he was right in my face, barely inches away from my nose. I naturally jumped and tried to avoid him, stepping quickly sideways as he was right in my path. He promptly stormed off. I have no idea if this was amorous curiosity or something else, but as it turns out I was untouched, although a little shaken. No harm done.
Havana to me is all shabby elegance, steeped in the stories and history of the Revolution with amazing restored buildings sitting next to ones that look like they might not stand one more day. The Cubans ability to restore their buildings to such glory is astounding when you realise this restoration has been going since the 70’s using what small resources they’ve been able to secure in and around the embargoes.
One such building, only round the corner from the spectacular Teatro Opera, held my attention as I gazed at the tree growing out of the side four levels above ground. On further inspection, sitting on the ledge was a small black dog! Quite settled, gazing over the street. Who knows if he has an owner, maybe not. I loved Havana for their resident cats and dogs. They’re everywhere. Some with owners but many just on their own, possibly living from the streets. They look well fed and healthy. I got the impression that the animals are appreciated and the locals are kind to the strays.
There’s lots to do and see while Havana. More on this in the next post including our visit to Hemingway’s home and visits further out to Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Do drop me a line if you’re thinking of going and want to know more.
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