On our first morning in Havana we definitely got to experience things like the locals. Our smiling host, Hilda, explained that the gas was off. As is the way of things in Havana, the gas had been turned off to rip up the old pipes, which was clearly thought to be the logical first step in the upgrade order – why lay new pipes first? But being a resourceful woman, she abandoned the plan of eggs for breakfast, and instead served up fruit, toast, homemade pineapple marmalade, freshly squeezed pineapple juice and some grilled cheese on toast (the electricity was still on, so the sandwich press was a go!). We sat in the small, cool courtyard off the dining room admiring the shade-loving plants while breakfast was prepared and mused on the simple pleasures.
After sustenance, it was still relatively early so we went to the bank (casa de cambio) to change our pounds into local currency. [SIDEBAR: when planning the trip, our research indicated that the exchange of USD was not allowed, so we took GBPs with us. But now you can swap your USD for a higher fee.] Our bank encounter was certainly unlike any we had experienced before. We walked in and all these people were sitting randomly in chairs, with no numbers and no ‘order’ in which to be served. We eventually found out that the only job for the last person who enters the bank is to tell the next person who comes in that they were the previous entrant, and so on, so that when the person who was before you gets up, you know that you are next to be served. Simple enough, and everyone gets to sit and relax instead of standing in line. All very honest, but a pain in the bum when you don’t know what you’re doing.
Meeting our guide
We made it back to our casa just in time to meet our guide that I had lined up through TripAdvisor…only our guide, Darien, was sick (with recurring Denge fever) and he sent his friend, Juan Carlos, instead. As the day unfolded, this proved to be disappointing; despite his claims to the contrary, he really didn’t seem to know what I had arranged with his friend (apart from the amount of money he was to be paid). The result was that we missed things we wanted to see. The tour lacked a focus on Hemingway or art, and we ended up not entering ANY museum throughout the day except for the rum museum where his friend worked. The main disappointment throughout this was that we ended up missing our only opportunity to visit the Museo de Bellas Artes – the best art museum in Cuba.
On the plus side, Juan Carlos did know a lot about the history of his country and we learned much about the sites he did take us to, but he confessed that being a guide was not his ‘real’ job – he was studying to be doctor…or engineer…or something equally important. And, in fact, he didn’t really enjoy the gig, he was just doing as everyone does in Cuba – “making his own way.”
The streets of Habana Vieja
The weather was actually lovely for our walking tour of Old Havana (Habana Vieja); pleasantly warm, not hot. Meandering through the streets from our quiet little residential corner near the sea towards the more touristy and lively sections of the old town gave us more than a few glimpses of real Havana, and that was precious. Before coming upon the horse drawn carriages, chrome-trimmed, colourful convertibles and sprawling plazas, we saw the dilapidated yet charming narrow alleyways with their workmen, housewives and produce vendors, all ready to flash you a grin and a nod when you attempted a greeting in Spanish.
Plaza de la Catedral
With so many plazas around and being led without looking at a map, it is easy to get confused. The Plaza de la Catedral used to be known as Plaza de la Ciénaga (Swamp Square) and is one of the most historically and architecturally consistent squares in the old town. It is flanked by aristocratic residences built in the 18th century, compact and beautifully restored.
Plaza de Armas
Nearby is the Plaza de Armas, a hive of activity at all times of the day and the oldest of Habana Vieja’s squares. The streets that border the green central park area are home to the largest of Havana’s secondhand book markets, with sellers ready to haggle or trade wares to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. The shady trees, and members of the historical society in colourful and frilly traditional dress make for a pleasant and picturesque spot to rest and gaze.
Oficios is the oldest street in Havana and leads south from the Plaza de Armas through the Plaza de San Francisco and down to the port road on the southern side of Havana. It is lined with colonial residences and is one of the most traversed streets in all Havana.
We continued ‘stop/start’ south until we hit the cavernous cultural centre Antiguos Almacenes San Jose, filled with souvenirs to suit most tastes – paintings, Cuban linen shirts, woodwork, leatherwork, jewellery and an unbelievably diverse range of items brandishing images of Che. More time and room in the suitcases would’ve yielding some interesting purchases, I’m sure.
Our amble took us northwards to the Capitolio Nacional, Parque Central, Gran Teatro, Hotel Ingleterra, Hotel Parque Central and Paseo del Prado – all tourist draw cards and worthy of much more time than we were able to give them on this walking tour. No matter, some will get another visit in the small amount of time we have in this city. Unfortunately, some of the places high on our list – such as the Gran Teatro – were closed between seasons. The theatre was undergoing major external restorations, so we were unable to even pop into the foyer for a look. Would’ve loved to have seen the National Ballet, too – they are world-renowned and their performances are less than $1 for locals. It is also the oldest operating theatre in the Western Hemisphere – no wonder it needs some sprucing up!
Dos Hermanos and El Museo Del Ron Havana Club
Needing a break and some sustenance before visiting the Rum Museum (El Museo del Ron Havana Club), we hit probably Havana’s most famous restaurant and bar, Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers). Didn’t know it was famous when we chose to eat there, they just happened to have live music and an authentic vibe. Found out later that we had accidentally happened upon another of Hemingway’s spots (other famous guests include Federico Garcia Lorca, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn and Isadora Duncan). It was all very relaxed and Cuban, which in this case translated into ordinary service and very slow arrival of food (which was also just average). But hey, it still has a bit of a seafaring atmosphere with its long wooden bar and green tiled floor.
The Rum Museum was pretty much right next door to Dos Hermanos. It is state of the art for Cuba, with informative tour, interactive exhibits, cool working model train set, all charting the transformation of sugar cane into the national 400 year old drink, and culminating in the obligatory tasting at the end. Cuban rum is easy to drink.
We gave our guide the rest of the afternoon off with the plan of going back to some of the places of interest for more thorough inspection, and headed straight for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. We arrived half an hour before closing and were told no admission. Disappointed? Understatement!
Hotel Parque Central
This called for Nic’s solution to most bummer moments when travelling – where possible, head to a flash hotel where we can’t afford to stay and order lavish and expensive drinks in a gorgeous bar. Our chosen joint for this bandaid was the Hotel Parque Central, where we had daiquiris on the rooftop at the poolside bar, with olives and a great twilight view of Parque Central, the Capitole and the Gran Teatro. Diversion accomplished. And like most venues in Havana, they had some great music going on, too, which underscored the sunset perfectly in this country where it appears everyone has rhythm and talent.
From there we strolled back through the already familiar Habana Vieja, past the other of Hemingway’s famous bars – La Bodeguita del Medio. We didn’t go in because it was full to bursting, and we had read in our guide books that it was overrated. That made the decision easier to move on to 304 O’Reilly, a small restaurant recommended by fellow travellers. Solid choice, and so popular that they were fully booked. The maître d’ took pity on us and offered us seats at the bar. No problem, and a really special vantage point to watch the slick, error-free, cocktail-mixing dance on display.
We ordered two very expensive rums ($5 CUCs each) and a humungous salad between us (delicious, with lots of avocado), and the owner proceeded to pour us another shot of cheaper rum to get us started (gratis). Cheers! We made a booking for the following night, and when I went to the bathroom, he gave John a Gladioli from the vase on the bar to give to me. Talk about classy service.
Our Havana story continues…
Read our full Havana story here:
Part 1: Arrival in Cuba
Part 2 (current): Exploring Old Havana
Part 3: Classic car tour
Havana Accommodation: Casa Hilda y Alejandro