We woke up in 18th century Havana. I had no clue what I booked us into, but it seems that you get what you pay for, or so I thought that morning. Hotel Santa Isabel was built in the 18th century as a private house and was turned into a hotel in the 19th century. It is located right on Plaza de Armas in the heart of Havana Vieja. It has spacious rooms with high ceilings, a wonderful terrace overlooking the square, an impressive internal attic serving as a cafe and a roof garden with views to the port. We were in for a great stay, except for a minor detail. As every hotel in the country, this is a government run business and the personnel could not care less about us. During our 4 nights stay we managed to get a total of 3-4 smiles, a sluggish internet connection that costs 8 CUC/hr and one set of towels that did not change. I have to admit that breakfast was really great on the outside terrace by the square, but again served by very serious looking people that refused to smile back. Ok I got it, they are government employees, but don’t they care for the tips? A mystery.
Havana Vieja is one of the marvels of socialist Cuba. Habaguanex, the organization responsible for the restoration of the old city runs a number of hotels and businesses and coordinates an international effort that generate hard currency income which is put back to restoration (60%) and social projects (40%) to benefit the local communities. The project is very challenging given the number and architectural diversity of the buildings. The result is a marvel that makes Havana Vieja – need I say it, a UNESCO world heritage site – a must see.
Tourism has its downsides too. The old town is crowded with tourists and jineteros – meaning hustlers – that bother you every 20 meters. Whether they solicit Cohibas, casas, paladars, women or taxis is indifferent. They are just annoying. It did not use to be like this when I visited back in 1999, but then again maybe I do not remember that well. I wonder whether my hometown, Athens is equally annoying to the tourists that come to see Acropolis.
We wandered between the four classic plazas, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza Vieja and the square of Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis before moving away to the Havana Centro, to taste the everyday life in the center. Here there is no restoration projects, the buildings are in bad shape and the streets are almost tourist free. Here you can see kids playing, people lounging and grooming, vendors selling their merchandize and people carrying on with their lives just 5 min away from the greatest Cuban touristic show.
El Capitolio, or the National Capitol Building, was the seat of the Cuban government until 1959 and now it is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. It was completed in 1929 and resembles the US Capitol in Washington, only bigger, not by chance given the fact that at that time Cuba was more or less a US protectorate. El Capitolio is probably the best place to observe the great american dinosaurs of the 50s. Havana is full of Chevys, Cadillacs, Plymouths and the likes, some running on lada or diesel engines, but here you ll see the best preserved ones, for hire for a Havana tour. For a more accurate picture of their real condition, one has to walk behind the capitol building or the train station where the taxi piazzas are located. Or anywhere else in the city of course, they are everywhere. Out of curiosity, I run a count and it turned out that 25% of the cars in Havana are american 50s, one third are Ladas, mostly from the 70s and 80s and the rest are modern small Japanese or French, with the occasional BMW or Audi of the nouveau riches.
That’s right, there are rich people in Cuba, at least compared to local standards. These are the people with access to hard currency or CUC, independent businessmen, managers of multinationals, successful artists or even prostitutes and their pimps. They dress better, they frequent the tourist restaurants and clubs, they hire domestic aids and spent their hard or not-so-hard earned CUCs in the few shops that offer imported goodies.
Again, we followed Lonely Planet’s advise and had lunch at Mama Inés’s and dinner at Dona Eutimia and we did not regret it. The value you get at these examples of private entrepreneurship is superb. I still drool over the memory of the Ropa Vieja (shredded beef) with fresh french fries and sun dried bananas of Mama Inés. When we finished our dinner in Dona Eutimia which is next to Plaza de la Catedral, we emerged in a magical show. A projector located in the Museo de Arte Colonial transformed the cathedral into a colorful spectacle under the sound of pre classical music.
The next morning we headed to one of Cuba’s iconic places, the Plaza de la Revolution, a grandioze square with the José Martí memorial on one side, opposite of the ministry of Interior, with the huge Che’s graphic on its facade. The image was so successful that a similar graphic of Camilo Cienfuegos was put on the facade of the neighbouring telecom building.
The Morro castle in the Military park is located on the other side of the Havana bay, designed by the Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli and built in 1589 to guard the city from sea raids. Its first battle in 1762 was catastrophic, when the British conquered it from its landward side. La Cabaña fortress, closer to the opening of the bay was built after 1763 when the Brits returned Havana back to Spain. Behind the castle there is a military park, exhibiting some of the russian missiles that caused the Cuban crisis and a wing of the U-2 spy aircraft that was brought down by the Cubans at the same period.
You cannot go to Havana and miss the Malecón, so we didn’t. They say that the best is during a storm. In our case the wind was mild but the experience altogether great. It was before sunset and the locals were here to spend time, socialize and flirt. The buildings on the seafront are battling with sea corrosion and it shows, but they offer a great backdrop to the passing old cars.
Hotel Nacional at the end of the long walk is a symbol of Cuba and looks impressive, featuring “an eclectic architectural style, reflecting Art Deco, Arabic references, features of Hispano-Moorish architecture, and both neo-classical and neo-colonial elements” (source hotelnacionadecubal.com).
All restaurants in Havana are not created equal and that night I found out the hard way. We went out late, so we stopped at a restaurant on Obispo street, where I had the worst stake of my life and a lousy service that beats anything else i have seen, even in Cuba.
The next morning was reserved to walks, souvenir shopping and a visit to the old Partagas factory, behind the Capitol. Unfortunately, the factory is moved and the old one is closed to tours, still one can visit the cigar shop and bar at the entrance.
In the evening we went to Casa de la Musica, the hottest and apparently the saddest club in town. We queued for one hour packed together with a crowd of young – and beautiful I admit – prostitutes, refusing to pay the extra 10 cuc pp to get in front of the line. do not misunderstand me though, being in close physical contact to a crowd of 20-something cuban girls classifies as an ok experience 🙂 The inside of the club reminded me of some cheap clubs in the balkans. There are two huge screens, a dance floor and plastic chairs around the tables. The prostitutes literally queue behind every male tourist entering, a sad and hilarious spectacle.
The Museo de la Ciudad is probably the best museum in town and the one to visit if nothing else. Located in Plaza de Armas, right across our hotel, it has a variety of exhibits from old furniture and clothes to horse carriages, modern cuban art and the findings of the first cemetery of Havana.
After a really good lunch with fish at the restaurant El Templete, we got a taxi to the airport to board the Air France flight to Paris CDG and then to Athens. Hasta Siempre Cuba.