There is much to love and celebrate about Havana. Granted, we were only there for two days — hardly time to develop an informed opinion. And yet. Havana strikes me as a study in contrasts symbolic of Cuba, at least as much as we experienced in our whirlwind circumnavigation of the archipelago.
On one hand, grand old buildings beautifully restored. On the other, crumbling architecture and abject poverty. Tourists careening around corners in neon-bright old cars; dingy and crowded public transportation. Large plazas and ample social space, often with militaristic theming; crowded and humble personal dwellings. Miles of Malecón, the seawall “sofa of the city” where waves roll and crash; dusty and rusty recreational spaces, sunburned dry and brown where fountains lie empty. Security and safety, night and day; blackouts, isolation, poverty, and conditions ripe for crime in any other country. Government laborers toeing the party line; private entrepreneurs creating a new social class. Those were my first impressions.
We entered port early, the sun rising over military vessels as the moon set over the old city. I’d been up for hours, watching the shoreline appear through the moonlight. To get to the pier we navigated another long channel into a perfectly sheltered harbor (map); Cuba seems particularly blessed that way. Cristo de La Habana greeted us from the hillside opposite the Malecón as we sailed slowly on. San Francisco pier alone of the piers in port was nicely restored; the others in decay, almost ruins.
We became acquainted the best way: an Old Havana historical walking tour. This included visits to several city plazas: San Francisco Square (on the backside of the pier), Saint Francis of Assisi Square, Cathedral Square, Old Square, Arms Square. I must admit I wasn’t paying much attention to the tour guide’s descriptions of these sites, taken up in the sights, sounds and smells of Habana Vieja — a veritable feast!
Most cruisers returned to the ship for lunch but we were determined not to miss a Habana moment. We meandered through a fascinating book sellers market tucked away on a narrow side street. Old books and books in many languages were on display, most were subjects of the Revolucion. I found an English trade copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and purchased for 5 CUC. It was published in the U.S., a delightful irony, don’t you think? On our tour guide’s advice we returned to the paladare la Moneda Cubana for a lovely celebration (recounted here).
We returned to the pier in time to join the afternoon tour required by our people-to-people program. We boarded the bus with Group 5, the independents. Every bus used throughout our travels was first-rate coach in like-new condition, which is quite a feat in our Caribbean experiences. The explanation is simple: state-owned transportation.
We spent the next few hours in a panoramic tour which means mostly driving by sites of interest in a scramble to fit them all in. We were weary from miles on our feet in the heat, so it was not a huge disappointment. However, iPhone images snapped from the bus leave something to the imagination. We drove through Central Havana and other neighborhoods less accessible by foot. We had some time on the ground at Revolution Square, the largest of public plazas in the city, blacktop steaming in the midday sun. Here the old car taxis line up for tourists, adding a fun element to an otherwise stark stop.
We drove past the Old Capitol Building under renovation (remarkably similar to the U.S. Capitol), the University of Havana, up and down La Rampa, as our guide pointed out the Yara theater and Copelia ice cream parlor, the former a social icon and hub and the latter renown for affordability and modernist architecture, a la Revolucion. She made a big deal out of the Habana Libre, formerly a Hilton, quickly nationalized after the Revolution.
The Habana Libre was only the first of several “excellent” hotels cited by our tour guide which looked to us like 1950s throwbacks in desperate need of renovation. In fact, there were very few Havana hotels that warranted a second look if we were to consider a longer stay. One exception was the Saratoga, sporting a U.S. flag and favored by celebrities. We were quite surprised to see U.S. flags flying in numerous public locations — and not surprisingly at the recently opened U.S. Embassy.
There were multiple references to Ernest Hemingway, morning and afternoon. He seems to be Cuba’s favorite import. The Hotel Ambos Mundos was his residence for a time, we’d passed by on our walking tour as a band played and drinks flowed early in the day. He was also fond of the Floridita. I came to appreciate both the Floridita (lemon) and Hemingway’s Favorite (grapefruit) daiquiris for the crisp and refreshing citrus in the Caribbean heat.
Our excursion concluded with a brief stop at an indoor craft market, where selection was poor and prices high. Nonetheless, I purchased children’s baseballs with the Cuban flag for the grands at an exhorbitant price (8 CUC each), uncertain of shopping opportunities ahead. The Hubs was not enthused, considering these just one more in a pile they undoubtedly own. It seemed unique to me but in fact, we found plenty more before we were through at half that price. None with the Cuban flag, so I wasn’t unhappy with my decision. Besides, he was suckered into purchasing a horrible caricature of himself — drawn in sharpie on cheap cardboard — five minutes off the pier. Worse, when the price suddenly doubled to 10 CUC to “support the arts” he still shelled it out. How can he complain about my baseballs? Ha!
~ René Morley
Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba