Lets just get this out the way, there are a lot of nice old motors in Havana:
After landing in Cuba and waiting ridiculously long for my bags I wandered out into the sunshine. Emilia the lady who's house I'm staying in had kindly arranged me a taxi into the city. I followed the taxi man out into a car park filled with 1950s Chevrolets, Fords and other classic American cars of the era. It was a great first taste of Cuba. As we neared a shiny racing green and cream soft top, I felt a pang of excitement! Then we passed it and got into an old rusty banger parked behind, possibly from the soviet era. However this wasn't why I was ‘havana problem’.
To kick things off my debit card got eaten by an ATM in Costa Rica shortly before my flight, then I stupidly entered my credit card pin number wrong and locked my credit card. Not an ideal situation arriving to a country that is a little behind the times. To give an idea, the internet only arrived a couple of years ago, the Rolling Stones only arrived last year and since the revolution many of the population are still living in the basic rations from the government. Luckily I had a few £20 notes I could exchange into Convertible Pesos (CUC) to last until Dan (my brother) arrived. Hopefully he brings money and plastic or we're both fucked.
After failing to withdraw cash at numerous banks and arriving at the tourist office to ask for help five minutes after it closed, I felt a change of perspective was in order. With nothing more I could do to change my financial situation I wandered along the waterfront and the streets of Old Havana for a while before settling into the corner of a charming little bar called El Dandy. I sat at a table in the corner and ordered dinner plus a number of Mojitos. When they are the same price as cola or beer why the hell wouldn't you… unless you were having money issues, which I was, but I had forgotten by my second cocktail.
A Cuban lad called Lazaro, a German guy and a Swedish girl (their names escape me) sat at my table and started asking if I was into philosophy. My copy of Cosmic Banditos (the drug and alcohol fuelled adventure across Central America by an enlightened bandit who stole a book on Astro Physics and is trying to find meaning in his life) lay on the table next to me. It has been known to crop-up on philosophy shelves in some book shops, however I decided it might not quite be the philosophy they were after and slipped it subtly into my bag.
It turned out Lazaro had been kicked out of university due to his political and philosophical views which did not match that of the state. He was now working as an unofficial tour guide which is also frowned upon. He may have been a good talker and thinker, but he was a bad drinker. After two mojitos he was a goner. I left them all too it.
In Havana and most of Cuba there is a distinct lack of hotels. The few that are about are incredibly expensive, plus all of them are owned by the government. However in recent years the state has allowed families to rent out rooms in their homes. Not only is this much cheaper it also funnels money to local people. If you’re lucky as I was on this occasion, you might meet a lovely lady like Emilia. She was super bubbly and happy. I instantly felt at home as she welcomed me to her fifth floor apartment tucked away off a side road in Old Havana. She didn't speak a word of English, but kept her Spanish slow and simple so I could understand. Soon we were chatting and laughing like old friends. It felt like I had gained another mother.
On a couple of the days during our stay Emilia prepared us some amazing breakfasts of fresh mango, banana and pineapple, mixed fruit juice, coffee, scrambled egg and bread. Even Dan (with his anti-fruit outlook on life) ate the lot and that's saying something. However to be fair the fruit out here is far superior to the imported fruit at home. If you are in Havana you can contact Emila at email@example.com or (+53) 52428875.
Centro Havana is where most of the habaneros (local folk from Havana) live, according to a rickshaw rider 80%. It makes touristy Old Havana Viejo look practically new. It doesn't have much in the way of tourist attractions however the streets and alleyways are full of life. Similar to some of the big cities we visited in India, life is lived outside, where steps, stoops and doorways become make shift bars, chess arenas and playgrounds. The streets are a maze of tired dilapidated sun baked buildings showing their age with the numerous coloured layers of peeling paint, like counting the rings on a tree. Some of the buildings are so tired they have fallen over. There was something quite enchanting about walking amongst these old ruins with washing, loose wires and Cuban flags dangling from balconies, spotless classic cars parked next to piles of rubble and salsa music echoing from some far off room.
I had a day to kill before my brothers flight landed and spent the majority of time walking the streets wide eyed. A mechanic slides out from under a car and tries to sell me cigars. When I say I don't smoke he tries bags of coffee. I end up sitting in his front room with his family and having a quick cup. Everyone in Cuba seems to have something to sell, be it tours, cigars, drugs, tickets to shows. They are referred to as "Jinteros" (Touts) and generally best avoided. However in this case I did really fancy a coffee.
I round a corner and see three skinny kids of various ages hunched round a circular gravel filled pothole in the road. There was an intense game of marbles in process. Suddenly one shot out and bounced off down the street. The youngest was sent to race after it.
Not far away I pass a heated game of speed chess on the curb. I stood back and watched for a while. I haven't the foggiest how to play chess but it was kind of fascinating how fast they were playing, banging the stop clock every few seconds with a satisfying thud. It was as if someone had pressed fast forward.
My attention was diverted by another echoing banging sound and cheers coming from a courtyard in the next street. I wandered over to find four guys playing dominos and drinking neat rum. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Whilst walking back to the old town I noticed an art gallery in what looked like an old cinema. I popped my head it to find a solo exhibition by Indian born, British educated artist Anish Kapoor. It was his first exhibition in Cuba. A girl took me around and explained the ideas behind the pieces. Most of it was arty waffle that went in one ear and out the other, however the actual pieces themselves juxtaposed with this tired shell of a cinema was amazing to look at.
On the edge of Central Havana is the Verdado neighbourhood, sometimes referred to as ‘New Havana’. This is where you can find some of the newer hotels and some more modernist / 50s buildings probably from after the revolution. However with the intense Caribbean sun and lack of money for the upkeep, you may be forgiven for missing the border between the two areas.
I had read about a roof top spot for lunch called Café Laurent. They apologetically said I had to sit at the bar which turned out to be fantastic as the bar was along the edge of a balcony with a view out over the city to the sea. It would have sucked to be sat on one of the tables with a lovely view of my sweaty back. I ordered a mojito and ate a creamy rich seafood risotto full of shell fish, it was very good.
For dessert I headed over to a leafy square home of Heladería Coppelia famous for its ice cream. The queues for the locals (paying local price) was round the block. However there was smaller pricier tourist kiosk with no queue. If I'm honest it was good but not great, however I think I have been spoilt by the expat Italian ice cream parlours in Central and South America.
I found a rusty phone box close by and sang happy birthday down the phone to H in Spanish. I missed her and wished she was here but it sounded like she was having a good time back in London with all our friends.
Dan meet Cuba
I didn't want Dan to walk through the car park of classic car disappointment like I did, then climb into a boring set of wheels. Instead Emilia helped me arrange a beautiful blue Chevrolet to take me to the airport to collect him. Gary was our driver, he was also the son of Emilia's friend. He said that the car used to belong to his father and before that his grandad.
Dan eventually appeared at arrivals and after a big hug I showed him our ride. His grin was from ear to ear, and as we drew closer and closer to Havana, Dan's eyes grew wider and wider.
Whilst meandering aimlessly through Central Havana earlier in the day I stumbled across (many things due to the terrible state of the pavements and roads) a small festival setting up outside of Hotel National on the sea front. It's a grand old hotel that apparently on a clear night with binoculars you can see the glow of Miami from its seafront rooms. Down below a man setting up a food stall said to come back round 6pm for food and music. He then opened a rudimentary BBQ fashioned from an oil drum to reveal a full blown pig on a spit. It was a no brainier what me and Dan were doing tonight.
We returned round 20:30 on a rickshaw to see a mass of twisting and turning salsa dancers and pigs on spits. It's so hot out here pigs don't need blankets they need hats. We sat back and ate a large pile of rice, peas, pork and fried plantain. It was simple yet delicious.
In a gap between two old buildings behinds us a cheer rose from a large crowd. We wandered over to see a stage, a bar and scattered plastic chairs and tables which marked out a dance floor. We cracked open some tins of beers and watched the night unfold. My favourite moment was when an old wrinkled lady with a wicked smile and twinkling eyes, shakily salsa’d over to a young lad in his late twenties. They both could dance and completely stole the show.
Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club are a famous collection of musicians that have a revolving line up due to the age of the performers. The style of music is called 'Son' a type of Eastern Cuban country music blending African rhythm and Spanish melody that greatly influenced the music of Latin America. After being offered tickets from "Jinteros" (Touts) all over town I dropped into the tourist office to find where the real BVSC played. It was a bit of a variety show as the special guests that joined some of Buena Vistas original line up did some solo performances. My favourite had to be this sassy lady in a sparkly dress who had the swagger of Jagger. Mid way through a big number she samba-ed her way through the crowd looking for victims She reined in on Dan, he was sitting in the aisle trying to keep a low profile adamantly staring down at his beer. I saw this situation coming a mile off and grabbed my camera as she shook and swayed her way over. She let out a belting whale and arched her back and shimmied over Dan, who hadn't a clue what to do. I knew exactly what to do which was take photos and encourage her.
Another highlight was watching a poor waitress with an handful of plates get caught in a conga. It took ages for her to make it to the kitchen.
One of the days we took an open top bus around the city. It was a good way to get our bearings and see some of the sites and amazing buildings. Unfortunately it was Dia de las Madres (Mother's Day) in Cuba and the bus was rammed with families. We sat downstairs waiting for our opportunity to make a break for a seat on the top deck.
One of the stops we actually got off at was Revolution Square renamed after the revolution in 1959. It's home to a collection of soviet era buildings that house the National Library, National Theatre and a couple of military buildings. Two of the buildings support giant iron sculptures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos looking down over the square. There is also a bloody great 109m grey marble tower representing the five pointed communist star, built to commemorate José Martí. We took our souvenir photos and then hopped back on the bus.
When finally made it to the top deck of the open air bus. Dan sat by the window (kinda). Unfortunately Sod and his law realised what we were up to and sent a thunderstorm our way. We hopped off and took shelter under the ornate arches of a posh hotel's restaurant. As luck would have it, a salsa band had just kicked off. Not a bad place to wait it out. Just as the rain stopped we headed back to the bus stop only, Sod wasn't finished with us yet and sent another rain cloud. We used this as the perfect excuse to drink coffee and beer in near by Sloppy Joes. A dark wood traditional American bar that turned one hundred this year. We finally hopped back on the bus in the late afternoon and completed the circuit on the top deck.
Callejon De hammel
Callejon De Hammel is a eclectic alleyway down in Centro Havana filled with (questionable) murals, art and sculptures. However every Sunday it wakes up and dances to the sounds of Afro-Cuban Rumba. We stopped by for a drop of rum and rumba.
We dedicated one day to wandering the squares of Old Havana. This part of the city is much better restored than Central Havana with beautiful detailed balconies, facades, arches and doorways. Almost all of the buildings date back to the colonial times and have been restored back to their former splendour. It's pretty touristy, but also pretty pretty.
We started on Plaza Vieja (Old Square) and took refuge from the sun on a small cafe balcony overlooking the plaza. A school at the far end of the plaza had just broken for lunch and the square was full of young kids letting off steam. Samba music was echoing about from somewhere and a couple of tour groups with matching stickers wandered through. We lingered by a tour group to pick up a few facts. (None of which I can remember.)
Moving on we headed up Calle Mecaderes (Market Street) the plan was to have lunch in an old printing works. When we arrived it was fully booked so we exchanged the old iron printing presses for an old iron balcony across the street at Paladar Los Mecaderes. It was a beautiful airy first floor dining room with double height ceiling and shuttered windows. We luckily bagged a table on the balcony overlooking the street and the printing works. Something appeared to be missing, then suddenly a band started playing Spanish music in the corner and the scene was complete. We ordered lobster in a pineapple sauce with plantains, rice, beans and some sort of root crisps. It was one of the best meals I have had in a long time.
We carried on our stroll through Plaza De San Francisco De Asís near the harbour. Then popped our heads into the Princess Diana Memorial garden. It was a tranquil place set round a sculpture / fountain.
Further up Calle Mecaderes we came to the grand salmon pink Hotel Ambos Mundos. It's famous for being Hemingway's go to hotel in the city. He spent a lot of time here and wrote ‘Death In The Afternoon’, ‘Green Hills of Africa’ and ‘To Have And Have Not’ from his fourth floor corner room. Even though neither of us knew anything about the guy other than he was a writer, we decided we could use this as an excuse to have a "cultured" drink on the hotels roof terrace as it's where Hemingway also spent many hours.
Near the hotel is the Plaza De Armas, home to a leafy park, a strong old fortress and a few more lovely old buildings. The little statue on the top of one of the fortresses towers is famous for being on the Havana Club label.
We were beginning to get a bit squared out by this point but I was adamant to finish our route, so we trundled over to our final square of the day Plaza De La Catedral, dominated by the Catedral De La Hanabas. It was a lovely old stone building with mismatching towers.
At the end of a cafe lined alleyway leading away from the square was Taller De Experimental De Grafica. An old screen printing factory home to many of Havana’s artists. As we walked in, the smell of the inks, paint and glue took me right back to art college. It was full of vintage printing presses and a handful of guys were working away on various posters and projects. The great thing about this place was you could meet the artist and buy directly from them. I had to buy something, it was a no brainier. I nearly bought a massive A2 print of two skeletons in a samba band then thought better of it when I saw the price and bought a little screen print of an abstract coffee percolator instead. We chatted to one of the artists for a while in broken Spanish as he rushed about showing us his work and some of his other personal favourites from other artists work lying around in the factory. This was my favourite part of old Havana!
We returned one evening and ate outside the factory in one of the many charming cafes on the cobbles. When lobster and a mojito is $12 why wouldn't you. Just keep an eye on your bill. Ours somehow crept up to a crazy figure until I made a scene in my broken Spanish. This knocked $10 off our bill which we then used to get hammered with beers from a little local cafeteria for a dollar each.
Below are a few spots in Old Havana worth mentioning…
Floridita is a lovely traditional cocktail bar which also happened to be another of Hemingway's haunts (So we classed this as a cultural visit). The house drink was a rum and lime daiquiri, which was sharp, crisp and delicious. Just what was needed after walking in the burning afternoon heat.
La Bodegita Del Medio
La Bodegita Del Medio was recommended to me by a Cuban man in Panama airport. He said it’s where the mojito was invented and where many famous Cuban cocktail makers learn their trade. Obviously this too could be counted as a historical and cultural visit, so one evening we wandered in. The bar was rammed and spilled out into the street as a samba band were in full swing. I eventually muscled myself up to the bar to see the bar tender with his arm outstretched, pouring Havana Club up and down over ten mint and lime filled glasses.
A little tapas bar down the street from our apartment that makes silly looking cocktails. Many people have said they are worried that Cuba is changing, well i'm worried that Dan might be. I can't wait for this photo to make its way to the Vaults Bar in Knowle. (Dan's local)
Patagas Cigar Factory
The Patagas Cigar factory is one of Cubas most famous cigar producers. They employ roughly 470 people who work the same job day in day out pretty much for life. This may sound a bit repetitive but in Havana this is a good job.
Our guide was a bit of a diva with a deep husky voice (probably from smoking a lot of cigars). She conducted the whole tour with a cigar between her lips and told it like it was. I instantly liked her but wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of her either. She said Cuban cigars are good for bad spirits and we should smoke at least one per day.
The workers here get paid slightly more than most jobs in the city and take home five cigars each a day. I think this is where all the "Jinteros" on the streets get their cigars from. Different leaves are used for the inside and outside. These are carefully sorted and selected by hand in the factory. The tobacco leaves for the inside are then rolled and left in a mould to set. They are then taken to another area of the factory where the outer leaves are wrapped around them. The speed of which they are cut and rolled is mesmerising. Unfortunately they are rolled on old wooden blocks, not the thighs of virgins as I was lead to believe.
They are then taken down stairs where they have their labels attached. The workers here stick 2300 labels a day. They are finally packed into cedar wood boxes and are good to go. Although the boxes are made in a different factory, they are decorated here. There is a whole room dedicated to pasting on the colourful graphic labels. Each person is expected to decorate 300 boxes per day.
The factory make all kinds of shapes and sizes of cigar each with different blends of tobacco leaves to effect the taste and strength. We bought a couple at the end to accompany a nice local rum, when we find one.
Museo De La Revolution
In a colossal, grand, bullet holed palace in old Havana is the Museum of the Revolution. It's a beautiful building packed full of photos and dusty artefacts about the 1959 revolution lead by Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Carlos Cienfuegos. If I'm honest it was all a bit much to take in and was missing a basic overview of the whole situation, plunging visitors straight into a mass of detailed exhibits and old photos before you could really get a grasp on what was going on.
We wandered around the palace and picked up a few bits and pieces about Che and Castro then wandered outside to look at some of the vehicles they used. Our personal favourites were farmers tractors converted into armoured vehicles.
Museo Arte Cubano
We spent a few hours wandering around this massive art gallery just behind the Museo De La Revolution. As we entered, Dan asked me if there would be any Cubist work. Missing the joke I started to tell him about Cubism while he just looked at me laughing.
It was a pretty good gallery compared to many of the gallery's we have visited in South and Central America. This time the art was actually better than the building that housed it, although I hadn't a clue who any of the artists were.
A trip to Havana wouldn't be complete without a ride along the Malecon (seafront) at sunset in a 1950s soft-top Chevrolet. We flagged down a nice blue one in Parque Central and went for a ride. He took us for a spin around the town then along the Malecon at sunset. It was like driving through a movie set. We eventually took the tunnel under the estuary to Fortaleza De San Carlos (San Carlos Fortress) in time to see the sun slip below the horizon.
There is a traditional ceremony that takes place each night at Fortaleza De San Carlos. After a fancy precession by armed soldiers in 18th century uniforms, a canon is fired at 9pm on the dot. It dates back to Spanish times when a canon was fired at the end of each day to tell the citizens the city gates were closed and the harbour had been blocked by a chain. We joined the tourist masses to watch five or six guys marching and trumpeting about the place, dressed in wigs and long white coats. However no one was here for that. Tension grew as nine o'clock neared and one of the soldiers lit a stick whilst two others packed the canon. Then at 9pm on the dot the fuse was lit. There was a small hiss then a monumental bone shaking boom. This to us signalled bedtime as we had an early pick up tomorrow as we were heading east into the Cuban countryside.