Monday, June 4, 2012

Varadero to Havana

We had planned to spend the last leg of our trip relaxing at the beach outside of Havana, as we had read that the area was frequented by more locals than tourists, and populated with more casa particulares than large resorts. However, as we began to look into accommodation from Santa Clara, we found that many places were full, or else difficult to get information on. Varadero, famous for its gorgeous beaches but also its secluded all-inclusives, began to look like the safer option. We considered making other plans: James bluffed that he wanted to spend our last five days taking a fifty-hour round-trip bus ride to the Eastern side of the country to see Santiago, forcing Antonia to grudgingly admit, “… I want to go to the beach.” Thus James believes he earned the right to blame Antonia for our extravagance, even though everyone knows that James is the one who had been campaigning to spend the whole trip at the beach while being dragged around to historical points of interest by Antonia. (Editor's note: heavy bias by the author of this part).

So here is where we sheepishly confess that, after seeing all of that revolutionary history, we proceeded to spend five days at an all-inclusive resort. We consoled ourselves with the argument that tourism is an important factor in keeping Cuba’s economy afloat in the face of the American embargo.

Varadero was very relaxing, and we finally realized how some people achieve the ‘vacation’ part of travel. Getting there, though, was anything but relaxing, since we were still approaching the situation as backpackers. Most of the time, we simply arrive at a destination and walk around until we find a good guesthouse. Apparently, that is not how things are done in Varadero. We got off the bus from Santa Clara and began walking down the main strip of resorts. We went into a few that we had read about online, and the staff seemed shocked to see two dusty, travel-stained backpackers with hiking sandals and no reservation. They informed us that it was impossible to book a room in person – we could tell that there were rooms available on their website, but they hardly knew how to process people who just washed up into their lobby in the flesh. We began wandering between resorts and making inquiries, but the long distance between the huge resorts made this a more exhausting task than usual. As resorts got larger and further away from the central area of town, we were the only pedestrians trudging along an ugly highway of taxis and tour buses. Finally we found a place that would give us a room for a decent price, and we flopped down at the Playa del Oro resort.

There is not too much to write about our time at the resort, because our days became a pleasant blur of sitting on the beach, swimming in the ocean, swimming in the pool, napping before dinner, and sunsets back on the beach, all washed down with limitless piña coladas. Or, if we wanted a mojito, the bartender would pick some fresh mint growing by the pool. Yep, it was pretty nice.

Finally, it was time to leave our beachy bubble and head back to Havana before our flight home a couple of days later. This time we decided to stay in the heart of Old Havana among our beloved plazas. We found a casa particulare in the most beautiful colonial mansion we had seen so far, with ceilings twice as high as the rooms were wide. The rooms were fitted with marble columns, beautiful wooden doors that reached the ceilings, stained glass and crystal chandeliers. We had dinner at the brewery in Plaza Vieja, and this time we got to enjoy the nighttime atmosphere, the fountain and buildings all lit up.

We continued down to El Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar. It was very elegant, and with the statue of Hemingway at the bar, It is a staple of the tourist circuit in Havana. It is also very expensive. After one six-dollar grapefruit daiquiri each, we tipped the band and headed down the street to the more down-to-earth Monserrate bar, where we enjoyed delicious piña coladas and Cuba libres (rum and coke with lime) for half the price, entertained by another great band.

The next day we headed down to a great art gallery that we had visited before. The space not only displays artwork, but has a studio where we could watch artists at work, and a store where we could peruse their pieces. We picked up some art as souvenirs, and we were able to meet the artist of one of the prints we bought. Another print that we acquired was by Rafael Zarza Gonzalez, whose work we had seen at an exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

We had a lunch of rice, beans, and plantain chips in the Plazas de Armas. Here, James tries a Bucanero beer, which he declares is far superior to the other national brand, Cristal.

After lunch we hired an English-speaking guide to lead us through the Museo de la Ciudad to learn about Havana’s history. It is housed in a former mansion for Spanish governors and Cuban presidents, before the revolutionary government declared it a public space. Among the most interesting sights were the oldest portrait of Columbus and the first Cuban flag. I asked the guide which year Cubans regard as the beginning of independence. He explained that Cuba has been independent since 1959, because although Cuba won independence from Spain in 1902, every President before the revolution was only a puppet of the United States, and thus Cuba was not truly independent.

It was then off to another cultural institution, the Museo del Chocolate – less a museum and more a chocolate-lover’s dream cafe, with every kind of chocolate served, hot and cold, liquid and solid (to be fair, there are also artefacts from the history of cocoa production on display). On the way, we passed a man selling freshly-made churros on the street, and we had to stop. We took our still-warm churros into the chocolate museum and dipped them into our rich chocolate drinks.

After waiting out the rain in our casa, we ventured out for one last drink at Antonia’s favourite place, the restaurant at Plaza de la Catedral that is “possibly one of the most romantic spots on earth.”

During our taxi ride to the airport the next morning, we tried to soak up the Cuban atmosphere one last time. We appreciated the old cars and the lack of billboards, except for political ones (this was one of our favourite things about Cuba, actually – no advertisements and no billboards obstructing the landscape. We really noticed the intrusive billboards in Montreal upon our return in a way that we wouldn’t have before). We passed a taxi station and noticed that it had a large sign in front. Where in Canada this would have advertised special rates or promotions, this one listed the five political ideologies of the company, each one in defense of socialism and the revolution. We love Cuba.

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