Travel | 15 comments
Traveling Cuba – Part 1.
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Havana – Casa particular
The best vacations are when you travel without schedule. I refuse to go on one of these “All inclusive” tourist packages where they give you a schedule and they say, “O.K., from nine to 10 we’re going to go to the museum, and then from 10 to 11, and we are going to the art museum, then we’ll stop for a lunch”. That to me is like being in school; that’s not a vacation.
Vera and I like to jump on a flight and fly to our destination, while carrying minimal luggage with us and without any hotel reservations. We usually rent a car, and just find small B&B or motel as we drive around the country. We do that every time we travel, and it is really liberating, a real adventure. We never know in advance what will happen and where we’ll end up. Sometimes the idea of a good vacation is not plan anything and be spontaneous as possible.
This time Vera and I came to Cuba to stay in Havana for few days, and than start a week-long road trip with rent a car and drive around the island on our own. Our friend from Toronto, Ljiljana was joining us for the first week in Havana and we are all planning to go west to visit Pinar Del Rio and Vinales region where we’ll be touring tobacco factory among other interesting sites.
Canadian tourists in Cuba
For the second week Vera and I are planning to tour the country on our own, heading southeast to Santa Clara, then south to Trinidad, a living museum of Spanish colonial times, before relaxing in playa Ancón – for Mojitos and hammock time. After that we would head from Trinidad west to Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage city, and continue to Bay of Pigs and Playa Large.
We flew with Air Transat charter flight directly from Edmonton to Varadero. We packed strong sun-block, good hats and, for the easy-to-burn one, a long-sleeved cotton shirt. Do not assume you can just pick up things in Cuba. Often you can’t, or they are very hard to get, or outdated.
Finally, after months of curiosity, Varadero came into sight under our plane’s window. Cuba is the largest island in the Greater Antilles. A long extended claw that is home to Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, as well as about 12 million other Cubans. At 21-23 degrees north, Cuba lies on the same latitudes as Algeria, Egypt, India, Mauritania, Oman, Vietnam and Hawaii. Our stated purpose – necessary for the Cuba’s immigration officers to grant us entry visa – was to simply be a tourists. But what we really wanted was to explore the land of Rum, Rumba and Revolution for the next two weeks. We were hoping to have a nice warm and sunny weather while there. Little did we know….
After some heavy turbulence while plane was descending, we landed in Varadero with no problems. The weather wasn’t what we were expecting. In Varadero it was overcast with showers and wind blowing the rain sideways. Not the perfect day to begin vacation.
Customs was a bit Russian-like: You go to the booth one at a time, and once cleared, are allowed to pass through the restricted zone door. The humidity and rich Caribbean air was intoxicating, but we were happy to finally be here.
Viazul bus Varadero – Havana
When we landed in this warm country, our first task was to find the best way to get to Havana from Varadero airport, avoiding all local scammers, who are waiting at the airport exit. Luck was on our side, as after exchanging our dollars to convertible pesos at the airport (for CAD $100 we got 87 CUC), we noticed that regular 8:30 am Viazul bus has just arrived. For 10 CUC per person, we managed to board the bus and very soon afterwards the bus hustled us off into the early morning Cuban countryside. The bus made one stop at the restaurant somewhere on the road before Havana, so the driver(s) could have a bite to eat. Two and a half hours after we left Varadero airport, we were in Havana at the El Vedado Viazul bus station. It was still raining quite heavily.
Canadians in Havana
Tobacco factory on Central Plaza
Interesting building in Havana
We took taxi and after a short taxi drive (only 3.00 CUC) we were facing our B&B – they are called “casa particular” in Cuba, where we had reserved accommodation for next four nights. Ljiljana arrived in Havana a day before so she was already waiting for us at the casa Diana.
Once we had determined that we wanted to stay in a casa particular (and if you are interested in local flavor, you MUST do this), I contacted several casas over the internet just to see what is available and check how much they charge per night. Casas usually cost between 20-40 CUC per room per night, sometimes including breakfast, dinner extra.
So, using the Internet, we have picked one “casa particular”. Our choice was Casa de Ana in the old part of the city. However, we didn’t actually stay at Casa de Ana, because she was already booked, but she recommended her friend, Casa Diana, and when we arrived we were blown away!
To our delight the Casa was beautiful, situated in Vedado – the suburbs of Havana about 3 kilometers from Old Havana. Our room was comfy and it had everything we were looking for. Since it was heavily raining outside, the roof was leaking a bit, but as Tony put it: “It leaks only when it rains!” we didn’t complain.
Breakfast in casa Diana
Our hosts in Havana: Diana and Tony
Diana and Tony our hosts were great, advising us on where to go and where to eat etc. Diana if you’re reading this, thank you for recommending ”Union Francaise de Cuba” and even better “De Cameron” restaurants to us. They were great and great prices too. Diana and Tony are an older couple with a beautiful home. Diana’s family bought the house in 1942, but was later forced to leave the house and move to Mexico. In 1959 they moved back to Cuba and got their house back. In the house they have huge library. Tony has an amazing life and if he doesn’t offer it ask about his time in the police force. He has fantastic photos.
We stayed with Tony and Diana and they really made us feel at home. They also helped us plan our time in Cuba and made reservations for us at our next destination Pinar Del Rio.
Ready to face this
There are few obstacles you should expect when travelling to Cuba. I would recommend to be prepared to face them. Nothing is perfect in this world so you have to adjust /adapt to it. First of all, there is too much pollution. Even thought I like the old cars, I hate the smoke/pollution they make. For the first few days, I felt some pain in my throat and found out it’s the pollution I’m not used to. Anyways after few days, I got use to it…no big deal.
Oldtimer on the streets of Havana
Oldtimer on the streets of Havana
Second, there are scams everywhere. You should know it’s a third world country and people will try to get every penny out of you. If you are careful then I guess you should be ok. I don’t mind giving money to poor people but hate when someone tries to cheat me. We actually took some pens, pencils, and clothes for needy people. We wanted to make our vacation something meaningful and help poor people but at the same time we were careful with the people who tried to cheat us. I had to admit we were cheated few times (Eg: every taxi driver without meter), but it’s all an experience. Since it was our first time, we didn’t know all the scams, now we know and that’s what I wanted to share with you.
Movie theatre in Havana
The best known tobacco factory in Havana
Tips on saving money:
-If you are travelling through Varadero, take Viazul bus. You can check the schedule online and book the flight according to it. If your flight was delayed, then you will be left to rent a car or take a taxi.
-If you want to go to beach or look around Havana, then take the tour bus for 5 CUC. Most of the tour buses will come near a hotel and you can take that and connect to other routes as you wish. T1, T2 or T3.
-Learn some Spanish or take a Spanish translator (PDA, phone and etc) with you. There is tons of Spanish translation software available for your PDA or phone.
-Exchange money at the ban, better than at the airport. If you do exchange at the airport triple check/count your money.
-Please do your best research before you go!
Smoking cigar’s… just a show for tourists.. it will cost you up to 5 CUC!
Cuban lady selling peanuts on the street
The streets of Havana
We explored Havana on foot. We would leave our casa in the morning and would return in the evening, just to change and leave again for dinner. Occasionally we used local taxis, and tour bus T1 and T3. Route for tour bus T1 goes thru old Havana and is perfectly designed for seeing basic points of Havana. The tour took about 1 hour.
Tourist bus that took as around Havana
Young and beautiful Cuban girls
The “Camilo Cienfuegos” is legend in Cuba
The best thing about Havana is the city itself – its architecture, streets and famous promenades. Especially famed is the historical centre of the city that was declared part of the world’s cultural heritage. This vibrant city is a scientific and cultural centre. Within its 47 km of coastline, you will find 20 km of beaches as well as places to go diving and deep-sea fishing.
That’s the thing about Havana – it really lives up to its postcard. The collapsing colonial palaces in pastel colors; the sultry women toting cigars as fat as your forearm; the vintage 1950s Cadillacs that cruise around town, their tropical bodywork concealing Lada engines, a motorized metaphor for the phut-phut Cuban economy. It looks exactly as you hoped it would.
Yes, Havana is sensational. The architecture will move you; the live bolero music in every cafe will have you dancing at three in the afternoon; and the sheer buzz of Habana Vieja will still be ringing in your ears when you climb back on the plane home. But Havana is not the complete picture – it’s merely one lovely pixel.
Central plaza in Havana
Another oldtimer on the streets of Havana
Las Playas Del Este
The best way to get from Havana to Las Playas Del Este for a tourist is the red tour bus T3 that leaves every half hour from opposite Hotel Inglaterra. It costs 3 CUC return ticket and you can get on and off as many times as you like. The best beach is Santa Maria Del Mar, which is at the furthest point on the bus route about 20 minutes from Havana.
Tourists on the beach
There is also a public bus, which will cost you the equivalent of about 5 cents, but it can get crowded and is not too comfortable – it is not one of the new fleet of Chinese buses that serve many routes in the city.
Beach Santa Maria del Mar
Police presence on the beach
We went to the beach on our second day and that was a good decision. It was the only beautiful day we had in two weeks while in Cuba. The beach was crowded with tourists and locals. We noticed heavy presence of police who were after the locals, assumedly preventing prostitution.
The city of Havana was established in the beginning of the 16th century, 30 miles away from where it stands today. It was called Villas de San Cristobel de la Habana before it was relocated in 1519. From then on the city was nicknamed the “Pearl of the Antilles” because of its use as a Spanish hub for treasure captured from their Latin American colonies. Spanish ships anchored at the harbor in order to store gold and other riches in Havana, thus necessitating the building of forts to repel greedy pirates. Four forts were built between 1577 and 1763, starting with the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and ending with the Fortaleza.
Castillo del Morro
Big guns at Castillo del Morro
As the capital, Havana has always been Cuba’s wealthiest and most opulent city. Luxurious mansions and buildings that exemplified the grandest in Spanish architecture lined Havana’s streets, and the city quickly became a tourist magnet. However, the Communist Revolution altered Havana’s nature drastically, as it did to the rest of Cuba, as well. The mansions that had once housed Havana’s upper class are now in disrepair, because the government has no money to maintain them. Many Habaneras (people of Havana) must live in slums or concrete tenement buildings inspired by Soviet Russia. Tourism dollars are the only thing keeping the city’s historic buildings standing, and it is often astonishing to look at the difference between popular tourist areas and the typical Havana neighborhood.
We spent only one day on the beach, and the rest of time in Havana getting to know the city! We could do this for weeks; there is so much to see. Homes spill onto the street and the early morning and late afternoon are the most wonderful times to experience the energy of the city. Don’t get bogged down by having to do specific things, open yourself and you will find the city opens up to you. When you stroll the streets, move away from the tourist areas, we found it to be safe no matter where we meandered.
Young and beautiful…
This little girl stopped for a second to pose for this shot…
Leaving Havana for the tobacco land
Havana never disappoints, so perhaps it’s not surprising that most visitors venture no further. But we were also keen to see the back-country Cuba that tourism has barely scratched: Vinales, the centre for tobacco industry on the western side of Cuba; Cienfuegos, on the south coast, where Graham Greene went to sip sundowners and gaze at seagulls; and Santa Clara, in the island’s midriff, where Comrade Che seized the country by derailing an artillery train with his army of farmhands and students.
So, after spending five days strolling through the streets and beaches of Havana, our plan was to rent a car and drive around the country. We rented our wheels from Cubacar in El Vedado. The car was Kia Rio, small four door sedan, which was in pretty good shape. We asked for instructions on getting to the main highway and didn’t get lost once. In few minutes we were driving on the main highway heading west towards Pinar Del Rio, our destination for today.
To be continued…
In Havana visit or enjoy:
- Zorra y El Cuervo, the jazz club venue down on La Rampa (Calle 23).
- Coppelia for Icecream at top of La Rampa. (Calle 23 esq. a L, Vedado.) 30,000 a day are served. Cubans love icecream.
- Calle Obispo. Very bohemian with lots of galleries, shops, cafe’s. Just around the from Parque Central and the Capitolo.
- La Floridita Bar for Daquiri (just at Parque Central and Calle Obispo)
- Plaza de la Cathedral (Cathedral Square). Classic old Havana beauty and architecture
- La Bodeguita del Medio for a Mojito. Just around the corner from Cathedral Square.
- Plaza Armas for Sunday bookfair (if it fits your schedule)
- Free Market (hard currency) on Tacon in Parque Cespedes, at the waterfront just behind Castillo la Real Fuerza for hand made souvenirs.
- El Morro Castle. Canon firing at 9:00 p.m. ceremony. Make sure to climb Faro (the lighthouse) for a fabulous view across the harbour at old Havana.
- Bocoy Rum Factory (Fábrica de ron Bocoy, Calzada del Cerro No. 1417, Cerro) or the Havana Club Fundacion Outlet (San Pedro y Sol, Ave. del Puerto #262)
- Visit the Cigar Factory – it is a great (free) tour.
- Visit the Famous second hand book market – Plaza de Armas; 9am-5pm Mon-Sat near the Castillo the la real Fuerza, it’s amazing. Only since the late 1990ties this market was officially allowed as a trading place for books-portraits and other literature – mostly of authors from the revolution period.
- Plaza Vieja at the bottom of San Ignacio for the tremendous architecture and also there’s a microbrewery in the southwest corner.
- Hemmingway Marina
- The Capitolio. 3rd largest indoor statue in the world inside under the dome.
- Chinatown. Just to the west of the Capitolo by a few blocks. Walkable distance on Dragones at the south end of the Capitolo.
- Castillo Real Fuerza. Right off Plaza Armas and very nice to walk through.
- The Malecon. Oceanfront drive that is very popular for strolling along the seawall.
- University of Havana (up near la Rampa and Coppelia)
- Parque Lenin and Las Ruinas for lunch. Very pretty.
- The other Lennon Park, with a beautiful bronze statue of John Lennon
- Partagas Cigar Factory (Casa del Habano Partagas, Industria No. 320) Phone 537-33-8060 Tours every 15 min, 9:30-11:00 and 12:00-3:00
- The Napoleon Museum
- Finca Vigia – Hemmingway’s home in southeast Havana
- Parque Alemendares, peacefull beauty alongside the Rio Alemendares right through the center of the city.
- Estadio Latinoamericano – For a major league baseball game (depending on schedule)
- Muese del Aire – Cubanacan suburb for a full aviation museum
- The museum and convent (restored) of St. Francis Asisi, in Vieja
- Camera Obscura – Plaza Vieja.