We arrived in Havana, Cuba in the midst of an apparently unseasonable rain storm of biblical magnitude. Just like everywhere else we have visited in the last few years, the locals told us ‘this shouldn’t be happening at this time of year’. Global warming in action?
Our flight with KLM was excellent. The food was lovely and the lie flat seats very comfy. I even watched 4 films, but highlights were clog cruet sets, and being given miniature Delft pottery houses containing gin! This is a tradition dating back to 1949 and a new design is added each year.
We were met at the airport by Felipe, manager of Wij in Cuba, a small local tour company. His colleague Tony will be driving and guiding us during our stay.
Our bed for 3 nights is in a Casa Particulares in the heart of Old Havana. This is a room in someone’s home.
This one is simply furnished, very clean and with a very blue loo!!
Also ample breakfasts which take care of our 5 a day in one go!!
Arriving late in the evening, we have only glimpsed the city, but can already sense the faded glory, and the passion for music… salsa rhythms resonate from shops, cafes and verandas.
What will we discover tomorrow?
Thursday started overcast, and a cloud burst had affected parts of Cuba. Tony took us on a super walking tour of Havana, gradually introducing us to some history and culture. Yes there are amazing old American cars everywhere. The best ones are pressed into service for tourist trips. More impressive are the 30 and 40 year old Fiats and Ladas, covered in rust but still struggling on.
Sometimes people are shocked in countries like Cuba, because everyone seems to be ‘on the make’. Shortchanging you a few pesos, short measures on the drinks, 5 minutes less on your 30 minute ride. Chatting to local people, we found out that Government employees are paid the equivalent of US$20 per month. People explained that this wasn’t so bad when you got coupons which ensured you got essential foodstuffs, access to Doctors and medicines etc. That has all but gone, but the incredibly low salary remains.
To put this into context, a 20 year old Lada could cost 30,000 US$. Medicines seem really scarce and hugely expensive, even for basics like Aspirin. Some food stuffs are very dear. There are shortages of basic items, and very little choice of brands or quality. Currently soap is in short supply, and it is common to see queues outside shops.
So what might you and I resort to as a way of making those dollars go a little further. A job on the side? A little fiddle here and there? Even professionals like Doctors and Teachers need to supplement their income somehow.
Havana was founded in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, and ruled almost continuously by the Spanish until 1898, apart from short period of British rule in 1764 . Then Britain gave it back to the Spanish, swooping it for Florida!! Then in 1902 Cuba became Independent.
Havana’s architecture is grand. Many buildings were erected during opulent Spanish rule, and photos of Havana’s heyday show it prominent on the World stage, visited by celebrities. Sadly, many of these buildings are falling apart. Many would be condemned in Britain, but faint lights, or some drying clothes show them as still lived in. UNESCO are helping with some restoration, and parts of Havana are returning to their former glory, but it felt as if the luxury hotels and restaurants they now house are mainly benefitting tourists, overseas multinational owners, and some local fat cats, rather than reaching the majority of the population. Having said that, without tourism, Cuba would be lost at present. It is just important to try to direct your tourist spending to local people.
Highlights in Havana are:
The Cathedral, built in 1777:
The 19th century pharmacies.
The 16th century aqueduct:
The old fort and walls:
The old sea terminal, now used for massive cruise ships:
The wooden pavement, put in so the carriages would make less noise, not disturbing the Spanish Officers during their afternoon siesta!
Beautiful squares with 18th and 19th century Spanish, or Art Nouveau buildings.
This last one shows where the slaves would have slept.
The revolution museum containing the story of the revolution, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis.
Women played a large part in the revolution, some holding quite senior ranks.
Also the story of Che Guevara.
Rather strange to visit another site where vehicles and missiles were on display, partly hidden by palm trees, and it was a chilling reminder of perilous times.
We also drove along the Malecon, the coastal promenade, in a 1951 Chevrolet, with waves breaking over the road. The driver immediately turned off the prom for fear of damage to the car. Not surprising, as we later found out that with an original engine, these cars could be worth 80,000 dollars!
The high waves after the rain shows how vulnerable Cuba is to storms and rising sea levels.
References to Ernest Hemingway are everywhere. He had a house here for many years, and was a great sea fisherman. He wrote ‘The Old man and the Sea’ here. We visited his farm house in Cojimar, which was charming, and saw the bars where he drank his Mojitos and Daiquiris.
Hemingway’s bathroom with scales and his weight written on the wall!
Anne has discovered she quite likes a Mojito if it is not too strong!!
We were led to believe that Cuban food was bland and uninteresting, but so far we have been very pleasantly surprised, having some very nice meals.
Not too many birds around, but we have seen Pelicans, Frigate Birds and Turkey Vultures.
We feel very safe here, and walk happily at night in central Havana, despite limited street lighting and the biggest potholes in both pavement and the road surface that we have ever seen. It is a loud, bustling, musical city, whose vibrancy is infectious.
Tomorrow we leave Havana and head west!