About a year ago, we took a trip to Cuba to celebrate our tenth anniversary. We are now preparing to leave on our next big trip in only a few short days, and we realized we finally need to document our time in Cuba before our minds are filled new adventures. So here we go!
One of the first important decisions that we made in planning our Cuba trip was which airline to take. Air Canada could take us, or we could go with Air Cubana – a much cheaper choice. We also read that It has one of the lowest safety ratings in the world, and still flies Soviet-era clunkers. Naturally we decided to roll the dice and save some pesos. When we arrived at Trudeau airport, we were confronted by extremely long lines and frantic summer travellers, and we worried that we might miss our boarding time – until we spied the counter for Air Cubana. It was eerily empty, the staff waiting patiently for a potential customer while thousands of people crowded around every other counter. Was this a bad sign? We shrugged and provided the Air Cubana guy with some business. The flight was fine and our gamble worthwhile.
We landed at night, and when we awoke in Havana the next morning, we were glued to our hotel room window watching all of the fantastic old cars go by. We took an embarrassing amount of pictures, somehow not realizing that old cars would dot all of our pictures for the next three weeks. After enjoying the hotel’s buffet breakfast (by the way, pancakes don’t come with maple syrup here – obvious, maybe, but a bit surprising at first –, instead their syrup is fruity! Antonia liked it better. James accused her of being a traitorous Quebecker), our first task was to find a casa particulare – a private home authorized to take in guests. We loved the casa particulares we stayed in – they are much cheaper than hotels with the added benefit of being able to get to know a Cuban family and see a tiny part of their real lives. Most Havana houses are also old colonial buildings, and we stayed in some beautiful homes that could have been chic hotels beyond our means in any other setting. Communicating was a little difficult as we are not Spanish speakers, but through the use of charades and with a background in French to provide us with clues, we were always understood. It was fun to learn a few phrases, and the Spanish environment provided another advantage: Antonia was pleased that, for once in her life, no one had any trouble learning her name, but had difficulty with James’.
Once we were settled into what would be our home for the next few days, we ventured toward the centre of town along the Malecon, which is a long sea-side street and a favourite place for locals to stroll and gaze at the ocean.
It was a great introduction to the city – landmark buildings on one side and blue-green ocean waters crashing into the sea wall on the other. We were still taken with the novelty of the old cars, as well as with the children jumping from the wall into the ocean waves.
After awhile we turned onto the Paseo del Prado, another beloved esplanade. The del Prado was paved in the 18th century with a wide walkway in the centre of the street lined with trees and marble benches. Surrounded by the most important buildings in the city, it became the heart of a vibrant downtown that includes plenty of greenery and pedestrian traffic. We proceeded to follow an architectural walking tour suggested by our guidebook, and saw some gorgeous old hotels and theatres.
We also saw the Capitolio Nacional- the seat of the pre-revolutionary government, now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. If it looks familiar, it was modeled after the White House.
We found a restaurant for lunch in touristy Chinatown among bicycle-taxi drivers always trying to give us a ride. They would pick out those who looked most touristy and therefore most likely to accept a reprieve from walking in the heat, and call out “Taxi! Taxi!” As we exited the restaurant, we must have looked especially touristy. A particularly enthusiastic driver took one look at us and exclaimed, “Oh my God! Taxi!” as if we were the most dorky-looking tourists, and easiest marks, he had ever seen. But the joke was on him, because we are dorky and too cheap to take a taxi.
The next day we set out to visit Old Havana but Antonia got turned around a few times, prompting James to snatch the map away with a huff that we will assume was exaggerated for comedic effect. The confusion was all worth it, though, when we finally got there. The area is a Unesco World Heritage site, centred around four public squares that were established by the Spanish in 1519, and it is very beautiful. Antonia’s favourite plaza was Plaza de la Catedral, with the oldest cathedral in the Americas and a restaurant described in our guidebook as “possibly the most romantic setting on Earth.” James’ favourite was the oldest and largest Plaza Veija, with brightly painted colonial buildings surrounding a large fountain, and Havana’s best beer served at a brewery on one corner. We spent a lovely afternoon there watching life in the square and sampling the brew. We spent the rest of the day wandering the Mercaderes and other similarly-charming, narrow, cobbled streets with parks on every corner.
Our visit to the Museo de la Revolucion the next morning was definitely a highlight. The expansive and ornate former presidential palace is full of history, covering the wars of independence, the revolution, and current relations with the United States. The history is not only in the form of displays, but actual damage done to the building from bullets shot during an attempted assassination of President Batista. There is also a delightful amount of hilarious anti-US propaganda.
The same afternoon we visited small but pretty Parque John Lennon. Interestingly, Castro banned Beatles music as capitalist excess until John Lennon denounced the Vietnam War and became known as a peace activist. In a complete reversal of policy, Castro not only allowed Beatles music to flood the country, but dedicated a park to Lennon, with a plaque that reads, in Spanish, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m no the only one,” and later including a statue. The life-sized statue is seated on a park bench complete with wire-rimmed glasses. Since they are not attached to the statue, the glasses have been stolen several times. Now they are not displayed, unless the sweet 90-year-old guard notices you getting ready to take a picture, when he will rush over to pull them out of his pocket and place them gently on John’s face. This is him with the statue he spends all day defending:
From there we headed for a walk in the lush gardens of the historic Hotel Nacional. Built in 1930, it was a top destination for American celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Marlon Brando before the embargo, and the setting of a mafia conference in 1946. Its gardens are open to non-guests, and are perched above the Malecon with a view over the Florida Strait. There are two outdoor bars and peacocks roaming amongst the tables and chairs. We found a table in the shade but close to the water, and stayed for a long time sipping the best mojitos we have had, mesmerized by the ocean. It was so refreshing and relaxing. When we travel, we always feel the need to see and do as much as possible in each new location. It can be exhausting, but we hope that we will learn a lot and have wonderful experiences, if not quite a vacation. But on this afternoon, we resolved to allow more down time in our usually busy sight-seeing schedule.
We stayed only a block away from the University of Havana, and one morning we decided to visit the campus. It put every Canadian university to shame. Beautiful marble columns surrounded courtyards of tropical trees. We wandered into the math department , with its open-air hallways and trailing vines, and Antonia led James away before he could set his heart on staying forever. We continued to the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes to view the collection of Cuban art spanning the centuries. We then proceeded to the Plaza de la Revolucion, an enormous public square used for political rallies and site of most of the government ministries. We got there just in time to go up the impressive Jose Marti memorial tower, dedicated to the writer and philosopher who rallied Cubans against Spanish colonialism and American expansionism. The highest point in Havana, the top of the tower affords a great view of the city and the ocean. We got an English-speaking guide to walk us through the Marti museum in the base of the tower and learned a lot about his life and the history of the Cuban independence movement.
Most evenings, we would sit on the lovely little balcony of our room and enjoy the cooler air while we wrote in our journal or chatted/charaded with our hosts, Carlos and Catalina. Catalina would make breakfast for us every morning, always a variety of tropical fruits with bread and coffee served in a porcelain serving set. However, the coffee was served in the small jug that usually holds the milk in Canada, and the large pitcher was full of warm milk. We learned that we were meant to drink a tiny cup of coffee and then a tall glass of hot milk, which was one local custom that we just couldn’t get behind on a muggy morning.
One of our favourite things about Havana was the music. There are live bands and buskers everywhere, and they are all very talented. Antonia’s dad, being a seasoned Cuba traveller, had given us guitar strings to give out to the musicians because apparently they have trouble acquiring them. It was wonderful to give them away- the musicians would light up at the sight of them and were so appreciative. We met the man below on the Malecon our first morning and we didn’t have the strings with us. We promised to come back the next day but we couldn’t quite communicate that it would be with guitar strings. When he saw us again the next morning he was pleased, but he was ecstatic when we pulled out the strings. We sat for awhile listening to him play and he introduced us as his friends to all of the other passersby.