Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Havana: Day 1

Dave and I visited Havana, Cuba, at the end of April, and these are my retroactive posts! (Cuba doesn't have great Internet availability at the moment, so it would have been difficult to post these during our visit.)

We have been wanting to go to Cuba for a while now; my husband's boss went and came back with really cool pictures, and I am interested in going anywhere new and interesting. It was also our first visit to any Caribbean island!

We decided to do a tour group because it's still sort of hard to plan your own trips to Cuba (see above reference to lack of Internet), and I don't speak Spanish well. Plus, the tour operators have good set-ups to get you enough educational and cultural activities to meet current US visa requirements. We used OnCuba Travel, selecting the food program Yuca y Mojito. As you will see from these posts, we were very pleased!

We flew to Miami on Monday night and caught an early flight to Havana on Tuesday morning. We dropped off our stuff at our casa particular - basically a private bed & breakfast. Many Cubans are supplementing their state income with private businesses - like B&Bs or restaurants (paladares) out of their homes. These can be a very economical and personal way to support the Cuban people.

We headed over to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) for a walking tour to see the four main squares and connecting side streets. This dapper gentleman at left is Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who stands in the oldest square, the Plaza de Armas. Important buildings line this square, such as the former mayor's residence.

Our guide, Gretel, showed us churches, architecture, and shops along the way. We stopped at the Museo del Chocolate for some tasty little bites and visited an old-style apothecary.

Another square is the Plaza Vieja (Old Square), and you can see why this is a lot of people's favorite squares. It used to be a central market for Havana and now hosts some lovely hotels, museums, and even a brewery!

From there, we walked over to the cathedral for more history, strolled by La Bodeguita del Medio, and headed to lunch. We were a little early, so we visited an art shop at the end of the alley, Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana. In the workshop, artists use old-style printing presses to produce screen prints and other beautiful art pieces. I loved it!

We had our first ropa vieja (shredded beef) and picadillo (ground beef and olive stew) at Doña Eutimia, a delicious little restaurant. We hadn't walked that much around Habana Vieja - it's pretty small - but we still feel like we earned it.

After lunch, we got a tour around Havana in a classic car - a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air in metallic lavender. This is the thing that Dave had really been looking forward to. 

You can tell that these cars are kept up with a lot of love and ingenuity, but you wonder how much longer the island can keep so many of them running for tourists like us.

The tour was wonderful - we drove through a lot of neighborhoods in Havana, the Malecón (Havana's version of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago), and stopped at Morro fortress for some views of the city.

I was very alarmed at this point that I hadn't put on enough sun screen, but it turned out I got through the day OK. (But if you go to Havana, bring a hat and more sun screen than I did.)

The classic car driver dropped us off directly at Almacenes de San José on the Port of Havana, an open-air arts & crafts market. All of our guide books had strongly recommended a visit to this market, and you can see why. There's artwork, tourist tchotchkes, cigar accoutrements, and artisanal products. I bought some wonderful-smelling soap from a friend of our guide.

Right next door to the market is a brewery I had heard about from some beer travel blogs, Cervecería Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y Tabaco. The brewery is housed in an old tobacco warehouse on the port, and the outdoor porch allowed us to enjoy some beers outside and face the port.

I have to say, the beers were delicious. I had the clara (light), which was flavorful but perfect for a hot day. Dave had the negra (dark). We have had a fair-sized sampling of beers in Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, and now Cuba, and this was by far the best.

We went back to the hotel for a little rest, because I think we were operating on something like four hours of sleep from our early flight. We had dinner reservations at Tatagua, where we enjoyed more traditional Cuban food. They made these delicious little taro root fritters, and I had roasted pork. Dave tried a national Cuban beer, Bucanero Fuerte, which obviously didn't compare to the craft beers we'd had earlier in the day.

After dinner, our guide dropped us off at La Zorra y el Cuervo, a classic Cuban jazz club that now seems to be populated mostly by tourists, although the music was very good. We saw Zule Guerra & Blues de Habana, who were fantastic. Her dreamy, staccato singing paired very well with the very talented musicians in the group.

Apparently they are so awesome that they are playing at the Kennedy Center later this month! Now I feel especially lucky to have seen them live in Havana.

At the end of the night, we walked home and stopped at a park with WiFi - this is how most Cubans currently access the Internet. Everyone goes to the WiFi park with their smart phone, logs on with a prepaid card, does their business, and logs off. You can tell these parks apart because they are full of locals at 11:30 p.m. just sitting around on their phones. We posted some photos, I did my Duolingo lessons (I didn't want to break my streak!) and we headed back to our casa.

I thought I would be worried walking around the streets of Havana after hours, but it felt very safe. Maybe we just had a good experience, or maybe things have been cleaned up since our guide books were written, but I didn't feel a risk of mugging or pick-pocketing like I have in some places in Europe, or in Lima.

No comments: