Out and about today, like so many tourists, in a classic car. Not a convertible (original wish), but a 1956 black Chevrolet, which proved a much better choice on a hot day – we had closed windows and air-conditioning! No dodgy hair para mi…and it had a DVD player! Driver, Luis Alberto, was proud of his vehicle and clearly took good care of her.
Our Cuban morning history lesson took us to Parque Morro-Cubaña across the channel (or rather, under the channel). Many visitors don’t to get to this part of Havana, but the view of the city is certainly worth the short drive. The sprawling fortress complex consists of two separate citadels. The Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (commonly known as El Morro) is perched on the headland of the entrance to the bay, and was built in the late 16th century. The second fortress, Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña is much larger and impressive, with its many cannons and guns along the wall, still standing as though in readiness to defend Cuba.
The open-air museum just near the fortresses had on display machinery and weapons used in the Cuban missile crisis, and what was left of the US plane they shot down. Everything on display is original…except for the nuclear missile, of course! Our guide was appalled that we had to pay an entry fee to a museum that was outdoors (as I mentioned in the previous post, he doesn’t usually work as a guide – we had a substitute!).
The Statue of Christ (El Cristo de la Habana) is also on this hillside overlooking the fishing village of Casablanca and watching over all of Havana. It’s 20m tall, sculpted from Italian marble and was commissioned in 1958. Finished not long before the revolution, it is one of the last religious icons erected in the now communist country.
Back in the Chevy, we drove to Centro Habana and the Hotel Nacional. This flash icon of Havana has had many a famous visitor come through its doors, and the ‘Hall of Fame’ Bar has photos of nearly every single one of them, some even have bronze busts to commemorate their visits! Lots of movie stars, Al Capone, Nat King Cole, Yuri Gagarin, presidents, musicians, writers…all flocking to this Caribbean island even after the revolution made things more difficult to visit (especially for US citizens). Thought I’d use the facilities before heading off and was amused to hear a woman from the US complaining about having to wait in line to use a toilet, so she left and sought relief in another bathroom. Have to admit, the loos were NOT all that flash at this flash hotel (rooms starting at about $350 a night) – dodgy locks and in need of a good clean.
We stopped at the recently reinhabited US Embassy (a very unattractive building), in use as an embassy again for the first time since 1961, when Eisenhower severed relations with Cuba after the 1950s revolution. In the interim, it had been operating as the US Interests Section, under supervision of the Swiss, but in that time, the US diplomats made the most of the prime real estate location to communicate to the Cuban people in a country with a state-controlled media. They created a gigantic electronic billboard along the 25 windows of the top floor that ran 1.5m tall red-lettered ticker tape messages of freedom and equality to the persecuted and disenfranchised. Castro’s response was to have erected in the plaza opposite (called Anti-Imperialist Park) 150 large black flags to obscure the messages. In 2009, the Obama administration shut the ticker off – the first step towards rebuilding the Cuban/US relationship. Now there is a single Cuban flag flying on one of the flagpoles.
Plaza de Revolucion
With the name Plaza de Revolucion, you would expect this open space to be…well, impressive. In reality the tri-fold images on the bordering government buildings look down onto a vast bitumen area that is beyond ordinary – it’s just a huge carpark. The gigantic Che Guevara memorial is a familiar image to most of the world, but the José Marti (poet and national hero) and Camilo Cienfuegos (revolutionary) memorials had to be explained to us (especially Cienfuegos’ one – it looks like Osama bin Laden!).
Necrópolis de Colón
Our guide shared with us the story of the miracle of the Necrópolis de Colón as we wandered through the avenues of head stones and tombs. Colon Cemetery is one of the largest in the Americas, designed in 1868 to be able to accommodate the dead for well over one hundred years. The tomb of Amelia Goyri de la Hoz is perpetually covered in flowers and tributes with a guard standing by, because of the supposed ‘miracle’ that happened after her burial. She died in childbirth, with her baby following her within minutes, and was entombed with the baby at her feet. During a routine exhumation the following year, her body was discovered holding the infant. Miracle? I don’t know, more likely her death in 1901 was miscalled and she was alive when they buried her. Poor woman probably regained consciousness, discovered where she was and the corpse of her child at her feet and held it until she herself died. So sad.
Callejón de Hamel
Our host, Hilda, had recommended a few points of interest on this day out (in case our guide missed some of the best in his inexperience), and one of hers was next on our itinerary – Callejón de Hamel. This is a street that has been reclaimed by the Afro-Cuban community, and every surface is covered by the murals of artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona. Luckily for us, it was Sunday, the day this ‘high temple’ to Afro-Cuban culture pulsates with loud, wild rumba music. The community were all dressed in white, gyrating and testifying simultaneously, having an evangelical time of it all. After a while the amplification of the music through the speakers became a bit overwhelming, and we moved on. But what a trip!
Another gem that Hilda recommended (we really wouldn’t have seen either of these unique places without her wisdom) was Fusterlandia; an extraordinary little neighbourhood that has succumbed to the passion of one particular resident and his obsession with Gaudí. José Fuster decided a few years ago to turn his house into a bit of an homage to Spanish artist and architect, Gaudí. The result is an urban landscape of brightly-coloured, tile-covered creations where you have no idea where the house finishes and the art ends. The rest of the neighbourhood allowed Fuster’s talent free-reign, and now tourists come in droves.
So as we were getting a bit peckish by this time, our driver (who knew the area well) suggested a paladar for lunch – Le Laurel [SIDEBAR: paladars are a growing industry and the only thing approaching free enterprise the government allows – a privately owned restaurant, often operating out of their own homes, supposedly with only 12 guests in attendance, and government prices must be charged]. When our guide asked was there anything for vegetarians the waiter made a disapproving face and said no. But we risked it, and ended up with rice, beans and sautéed vegetables accompanied with a Buckaneero beer (nicer than the Cristal).
Bosque de Habana Municipal
Our guide and driver felt that they had to keep showing us stuff throughout the afternoon cause we were paying for their services, so we headed to – The Bosque de Habana Municipal – now this was nothing like we expected. We expected a walk through tree lined, albeit rustic, paths. Instead, we were greeted with rubbish everywhere, chicken carcasses and strewn feathers left over from ritual sacrifices, a couple having a ceremonial cleanse in the river, and a dude with his wang out whacking off on the other shore. Nice. The best bit about this experience was explaining it to our hosts, Hilda and Alejandro, when we got home! They were in hysterics!! As were we!
And at this juncture, we said goodbye to both driver and guide and set out again into Havana on foot, wanting to savour every moment in the short time remaining. They dropped us at Plaza des Armas and we meandered our way through the streets to Hotel Ingleterra’s rooftop in time for sunset. The Hotel Ingleterra is an authentic excursion back to the 19th century, including the trip in the lifts to the rooftop bar (it’s the oldest hotel in the country, opening in 1856). The dark, old wood ceilings, ochre and gold majolica tiles of the foyer and the covered footpath where guests lounge in cushioned rattan and watch the world go by almost make you believe it’s 1875 again…except for the fact that girls are in cut-offs and midriff tops, and guys are enjoying that view from behind their reflective sunglasses.
We found our way back to 304 O’Reilly for our appointed drinks and dinner and had a wonderful last night in Havana. Started with the mojitos of the day – me with passionfruit, John with watermelon, ordered our salad, deep fried malanga (like yucka) and grilled vegetables, moved on to red wine (a French merlot) and finished with a Santiago rum. Delicious.
We finally had a bici taxi ride home after O’Reilly’s. The young, cheeky pedal-pusher quoted some ridiculous price, and I grinned back and said, “Sure, Feliz Navidad!” – he laughed and we got in (can’t take CUCs out of the country anyway, so may as well pass it on!). He had a sound system in the roof that was pumping out some rap that was not at all our usual taste in music, but we didn’t care – we were in Havana, we had imbibed, and we had the made the night of some random young guy who was simply trying to “make his own way.” Mi gusta Habana!
And, here, our Havana story ends…
Read our full Havana story here:
Part 1: Arrival in Cuba
Part 2: Exploring Old Havana
Part 3 (current): Classic car tour
Havana Accommodation: Casa Hilda y Alejandro