We found flights with Copa Airlines for $650 each (Quito to Havana return) so jumped at the chance to travel to Cuba for 9 days…bit of a detour from South America but it’s Cuba! As we were in the Galapagos we took a flight from Baltra to Quito and overnighted at Quito Airport Suites ($49) about five minutes drive from the airport in Quito – they had some English language TV channels so a nice little treat for us. Our flight to Havana was routed through Panama with a 2 hour layover…so obviously we had to get the ol passport stamp. John got a pretty unfriendly customs chap in Panama who wouldn’t let him through but my guy was a lovely fella who understood that my Panama hat had to visit Panama (obvs) so stamped us both in; tick! I don’t think it counts to be honest since we saw absolutely zilch of Panama but it’s a reason to return I guess (took us about an hour to get back through customs and security). Since I’ve had to go cold turkey on my magazine habit it was lovely to pass through Panama and pick up the latest InStyle (you can pay in USD in Panama) which I shall treasure for the next few months.
We landed in Havana and customs was only about ten minutes (which included a very thorough official asking a million questions about whether a portable battery pack was capable of receiving the internet…thinking they might need some additional training…) but our bags took over an hour to come out. Lazy pups. Anyhoo as it was after 11pm when we arrived it only took about 25 minutes to get to our Casa Particular from the airport. We decided to go with a Casa Particular or homestay as it felt like the best option to experience the real Cuba. Our hosts were Anna and Miguel (who I actually believed was a bull-fighter because of a mock up poster he had. Ha!) in Centro Havana…who spoke no English…which was perfect as it ensured we had to communicate in Spanish. Our Spanish has improved a lot in since September – we definitely understand a lot more and it’s making for a much better trip.
Havana city is comprised of 3 areas – Havana Vieja (Old Town), Centro Havana (grittier than Havana Viejo but definitely makes for more of a local experience as it’s where the majority of locals live) and Vedado (in my opinion the most soulless area where a lot of the hotels are located). Our casa (La Terrasa – 25 CUC per night) was on the cusp of Havana Vieja so we were only about a 15 minute stroll to the main attractions. There are two currencies in Cuba – tourists use the CUC (Cuban convertible: 1 CUC = $1 USD) and locals use the CUP (Cuban pesos, which are worth a lot less than the CUC) so there’s a dual economy. Our first day started with the mother of all breakfasts from Anna (4 CUC) – I’m talking eggs, plantains, cheese, massive plate of fruit, smoothie, bread, tea and coffee. We didn’t have to eat until dinner but we obviously did anyway. We strolled to the beautiful Plaza Vieja in the old town which has a lovely fountain in the middle and is surrounded by wonderfully renovated colonial buildings. There’s a brewery on one corner, a very popular cafe called Cafe Escorial (tasty lemon meringue pie) on another and the very worthwhile Camara Oscura on another corner. Here, for 2 CUC you can take a look down on the Plaza Vieja and across the rooftops of Havana from the terrace. There’s also a tour per se – the camara oscura is a telescope lens which displays 360 degree images using mirrors; you go into a dark room and the guide turns a lever which displays the surrounding city on a circular table of sorts and points out points of interest…and makes terrible jokes about being able to see you coming out of the brewery, people washing their laundry etc. groan-inducing but you can’t help but laugh. The Plaza Vieja is also home to the Museo de Naipes (free entry), a small playing card museum which is definitely worth a quick browse. We had some drinks in an upstairs bar called Azucar too (hands down best bathrooms in Havana…it’s really hard to find a bathroom here and you’ll pretty much always need your own toilet paper). Down the street from the Camara Oscura is the Museo del Chocolate. I wouldn’t really call it a museum; more of a cafe with some posters on the walls and some chocolate moulds from Belgium. The hot cholocates here are 55 cents. Yep. They have awesome chocolate figures too, vintage car anyone? (7 CUC but they have little guitars, hearts and other random figures ranging from about 4 CUC up to 11.75 CUC for a bear). Also around here is the Museo de la Farmacia Habana (technically free entry but they ask for a contribution for its restoration even though it looks fully restored and they keep a log of contributions in a ledger; typical pharmacy eh?!) which is an old school pharmacy with hundreds of branded porcelain bottles stored in floor to ceiling ornate mahogany cabinets. Locals still queue here for some of their homemade concoctions. The Camara de Representantes in Habana Vieja houses some paintings and furniture of past presidents. Here we had our first WTF moment when after our free guided tour we were summoned to a corner by the guide and asked for a contribution for her family of 10 CUC for about a five minute stroll around the ground floor. Some pup I tell you. They whisper to you to make sure that others (i.e. security) don’t see them hitting you up for cash. So annoying but it pretty much happens in every museum so be forewarned. Just down the street is the Hotel Ambos Mundo where Ernest Hemingway spent a lot of time. You can visit room 511 for 2 CUC but when we got up there somebody had broken something in the room so we could only look in from the door. To be honest it just looked like another hotel room. You can visit the famous La Bodeguita del Medio where Mr. Hemingway frequented when it was a quiet bar – it’s now full of Nikons snapping away.
Just down from here is the lovely Plaza de Armas which has beautiful trees and is surrounded by a local book market (except Mondays). It’s probably the most beautiful square in Havana and is surrounded by some beautiful buildings and one evening there was an orchestra jamming away. Very special. The Cathedral is located, rather shockingly on Plaza de la Cathedral. It’s a stunning building and you can potter up the tower if you so wish for a nominal fee.
The Havana Club Museum (guided tours only; 7 CUC) is definitely worth a visit. They have tours in lots of languages and we just had to wait about twenty minutes for an English tour. There’s a bottle called Maximo which they sell for 1700 CUC and so far only a couple of Chinese, Russians and Japanese have purchased them. They have a scale model of a working sugar plantation with moving train which is pretty cool. At the end of the tour (which is only about 20 minutes) you get a shot of Havana Club (aged 7 years) in a 1930s style bar and then you’re whisked off into the shop should you wish to purchase the 1700 CUC bottle. The other bottles start at 5.55 CUC.
Shopping in Cuba is an odd affair. There aren’t any department stores – just sparse rooms essentially with glass counters as you walk in the door which block you from actually manhandling anything. The staff have to get you whatever you need. Quite strange but obviously it’s what they’re used to – maybe it will change with the easing of relations with the USA. Speaking of the US, there’s a building on the cusp of Habana Vieja which is a mirror image of its namesake in Washington D.C., the Capitolio. The main tourist street for wandering is Obispo and there’s a really good spot called Patio de los Artesanos where you can gather up handmade buys and colourful souvenirs for very reasonable prices. There’s also a cool market down by the port in an old train station where you can buy paintings and anything you can think of stamped with an image of a cigar.
Something you have to do in Havana is the walk along the Malecon all along the sea. It’s windy as hell but a nice stroll should you wish to get that windswept look.
We took a 3 day trip to Trinidad too so I’ll pop that post up next.
Loads more pics!!
Some pics from Centro Habana
The Vedado Area
Next stop: Trinidad, Cuba.