Wed 22 Jan, 2014

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.

Hotel Santa Isabel
Hotel Santa Isabel in Plaza de Armas
Hotel Santa Isabel
Hotel Santa Isabel at night
Our room
Our room in Santa Isabela
The Attic of Santa Isabela
The Attic of Santa Isabela Hotel
The Veranda
The veranda of Sanata Isabel hotel in Havana

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.

Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja, Havana
Estacion Central
The central railway station of Havana
Havana Church
A church in Havana Vieja
Plaza de San Franscisco de Asis
At the Plaza de San Franscisco de Asis
Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja, Havana
Plaza Vieja
Plaza Vieja, Havana
Basilica Menor de San Fransisco de Asis
The Basilica Menor de San Fransisco de Asis in Havana Vieja
Havana Vieja
An old building in Havana Vieja
Hotel ???
Hotel ??? in Havana
Plaza de la Catedral
Plaza de la Catedral in Havana
Museo Municipal
Museo Municipal in Havana
Havana Alley
A narrow street in Havana Vieja
Old Building
The oldest building in Havana
A restored pharmacy in Havana Vieja
Old Bulding Detail
An old building in Havana Central
Plaza de San Franscisco de Asis
At the plaza de San Franscisco de Asis in Havana vieja
San Franscisco de Asis
The interior of San Franscisco de Asis
Castillo de la Fuerza
The Castillo de la Fuerza in Plaza de Armas

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.

The Trumpetist
A street musician in Havana
Street Book Store
A book bench in Plaza de Armas
The Gym
A gym in Havana
Easy Ride
Street scene in Havana
A guy walking the streets of Havana
Christmas with Che
Christmas decorations in a small shop in Havana
The Alley
An alley in Havana Central
Young Lady
A young girl waiting in a bici taxi
Two guys in the streets of Havana
A Cuban fixing an old armchair
Mother and Daughter
Mother and daughter selling flowers at the local market
Cigar Smoker
One of the few locals smoking a cigar in Havana
At the local market
At the local market in Havana center
Horse Carriage
A horse carriage in Havana
A street scene outside a grocery store
Reading the news
A Cuban reading the Grandma in Havana
An elder lady selling the Granma newspaper in Havana
The Barber Shop
The Barber Shop
Elder Lady
An elder street seller in Havana
Modern Cuba
Two guys chatting in Havana center
Cuban Elder
An elder in the streets of Havana
Break Time
A waiter smoking a cigarette during his break at the back door of a local restaurant
Number 9
A young guy dressed western style in Havana Vieja
Havana back streets
A street in Havana center
Cigar Smoker
Cigar Smoker
Street Barber
A street barber and his client in Havana Vieja
Cuban Ladies
Two women in the streets of Havana
A woman walking the streets of Havana
A fruit seller in Havana
A drug store in Havana Vieja
The Stairs
The entrance of an old residential building in Havana Vieja
Clarinet Man
A musician playing clarinet in Havana
A street cleaner with a santeria doll on his chariot
Havana Central
A dead end street in Havana Central
Old Cuban
An elder Cuban resting in Havana
Havana Store
A store in Havana

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.

Blue Chevy
A blue Chevy in Havana center
The Capitol
The Capitol building in Havana
At the Capitol
In front of the Capitol building in Havana
Streets of Havana
A street in Havana
Green Taxi
Green taxi in front of the Capitol
Streets of Havana
A street in Havana
Havana Blue
A classic car in Havana
Some tourists riding a classic in Havana
Havana Classic
A street in Havana Central
Centro Cultural Payret
Pink Chevy
A pink Chevy in Havana
An old car in Havana
Havana Taxi
A taxi behind the Havana Capitol building
Havana Vieja street
Green Lady
An American classic in the streets of Havana
Red and Green
A red Chevy against a green building in Havana
Fast Ride
A classic car in Havana
A classic for hire in Havana
Green Classic
A green classic car in Havana
Taxi in Havana Vieja
A taxi in Havana Vieja
Brown Chevy
A brown Chevy in Havana
A classic in Havana
Havana Vieja
Near the train station of Havana
Basic Colors
Red, green, blue in Havana central
Havana Central
A street in Havana Central
Havana Classic
A classic in Havana central
Yellow Plymouth
A yellow Plymouth taxi in Havana

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.

La Catedral
Havana's Catedral during the evening show
Mama Ines
The Mama Ines restaurant in Havana Vieja

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.

Che Guevara on the wall of the ministry of interior in Plaza de la Revolucion
The Jose Marti Memorial
The Jose Marti Memorial at the Plaza de la Revolucion

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.

Havana panorama
Havana form the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana
The missiles
The soviet missiles that caused the Cuban crisis

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.

The Malecon
The Malecon before sunset
Breaking Waves
Breaking waves on the Malecon
Driving into the sun
A red convertible on Havana's Malecon
Cubanos in Love
A young couple on the Malecon
Fishing at the Malecon
The Malecon
The Malecon at sunset
Nice ride
A classic crusing on Havana's Malecon
Malecon Drive
On the Malecon in the afternoon
Red Convertible
A red convertible on the Malecon
The Malecon
The Malecon in the afternoon
Along the Malecon
A classic crossing the Malecon
Hotel Nacional
Hotel Nacional

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

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.

The old Partagas factory
The old Partagas factory
A model for passing photographers in Havana Vieja
Sophisticated Lady
A working dog in the streets of Havana
Street Artists
A group of street artists in old Havana
A carnival group wandering the streets of old Havana
Street Artist
A young Cuban entertainer in the streets of Havana
In Good Company
Chatting with a local in Havana Vieja
In Good Company
Efie with a local in Plaza de la Catedral
Che for Sale
Che in a souvenir shop in Havana
La Bodeguita del Medio
The sign on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana Vieja
At the 1791 perfume store

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.

Steam Car
A steam car in the museo municipal
Museo Municipal
In the Museo Municipal

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.