1953: the year when the Cuban Revolution began and as if the time in Cuba stood still, owing to the American embargo. The El bloqueo had Cuba preserved as an open-air museum of communism without the American influence – the country has no American chain stores, no American fast food, no Coca-Cola (that sold officially), no Starbucks, and even not much outdoor commercial advertising… the country, to a lot of travelers, is unique and fascinating.
I wonder if the recent loosening of America’s embargo would change the uniqueness and mysteriousness of the country. Until now, however, there’s still no direct commercial flight from anywhere of the States to Cuba. In December 2014, I left L.A. and headed to Havana through Cancun, the most convenient stopover from the West coast. Other possible hubs would be Toronto or the Mexican City. For years, “Havana” equals to “Central American” to me, and it’s a paradise for those who love a tropical, retro-vibe.
The flight to Havana was a bit old and dusty but fortunately, it was only an hour from Cancun, Mexico. A lady sitting next to me in the first row was obviously familiar with the crew on board. She was talking loudly to the crew in fluent Spanish and no one intended to stop her when she was playing with her smartphone during taxi or takeoff.
Once took off and the flight was steady, I was finally aware of the fact that I am entering a different world. There were two kinds of juices on the flight the box says “product de Cuba”. I was looking at the juice box and I believed I was not the only one doing so. I chose the pear juice which was a bit thick and too sweet….
Anyway, once I landed and I got out of the custom, it was horrendous… The airport hall was packed with people and queues everywhere. It took me more than almost 2 hours to go through luggage claim and got my Cuban Pesos; and oh yes, my mobile roaming coverage covers Cuba but welcome to the world of no 3G roaming J~ at 9 pm, I was exhausted, starved and pretty much gross, I pushed my belongings to the taxi stand and mid-way, an old man stopped me and asked “Taxi?”… Before I could compose myself and bargain, he grabbed my trolley and pushed my luggage towards the darkness. I followed suit and just when I was about to wonder “is it safe?”, I gasped in amazement as the taxi driver stopped in the deserted car park with his vintage cab. I admired the car for a second (for something that I have never seen), and didn’t even know how to open the car door.
One of the living fossils walking on the road… well, I could never drive a stick, my tour guide friend arranged this vintage car to take me around the Miramar district…
When Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba after the revolutions in 1959, American cars and parts were prevented from importing to the country. As a result, for the last almost 60 years, Cubans have played the role of Doctor Frankenstein, tinkling and repairing their old Fords, Chryslers or Chevrolets, passed it down generations to generates to keep their American cars alive. Some drivers even painted and put a sticker of “1953”, “56”, “59” on their vintage cars! (And yes, you could find some modern cars on the road, even buses imported from China)
It turned out the experience was special. The taxi was rather small and it could only fit one of my many giant pieces of luggage, and the rest of us were crammed into the car while instinctively I was reaching for the safety belt (not that it had any belt), the taxi driver waved and said “—eh”, and there we went. Rolling down the car window we were heading to the city. Everything looks different, even the sound of the engine was different. It was like I took the time machine and I was not looking at a vintage car in a museum or gallery, I was, actually sitting in a vintage car and used it as transportation…
The driver and I started talking with a limited English vocabulary. He started with some local travel information to global news. I found it impressive since the driver seemed to catch up with the global issues pretty well, from Sony Pictures / North Korea dispute to occupying Central in Hong Kong (at that time). Although they have their own “Truman Show” in the communism, they are very well aware of what’s happening “Out There”~
After a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport, I settled down at the hotel. The room was not so bad – it is a spacious room on the 7th floor with vintage décor, new aluminum window frames and a stunning night view of the city and the dome of the Capitol. I turned on the TV, switched to the CNN, freshened up and I went to the rooftop restaurant in the hotel for a quick dinner (my first meal in Cuba!). Then, I got a call from the tour company about my city tour tomorrow morning; it was the same day the Obama announced the conversation with Cuba and the guide was excited about that. Looking forward to it.
The next day in the morning I was supposed to meet the tour guide at the Hotel Telegrafo – the building is right at the corner of the main street Paseo de Marti, I was there 10 minutes earlier, yet I didn’t see any big group standing outside the hotel. 10 minutes later, I was approached by a young lady who told me she was supposed to be my tour guide of the day! I didn’t expect it as a private tour, and we had a lot of interactions for the day.
Quickly we walked through the small Central Park on the opposite side of the hotel and entered the shopping walking the street of Cuba – the Bishop Street (Calle Obispo). The road connects to the Plaza de Armas, one of the four main plazas in the Havana old town, on the other end. It is the main tourist area where restaurants, cafés, and shops were lining up on both sides of the street. It was still early in the morning, but it gets a lot more crowded at night.
The mission for the morning is to visit the four plazas in the Old Havana, a Unesco World Heritage Site that contains the core of the original city. Havana is the largest city and major port of the country established by the Spanish in the 16th century. Apart from the heritage spots within the area, Havana is also filled with stories and antidotes about the legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Havana for 20 years and completed his Nobel Prize-winning novel “The Old Man and the Sea”, and bars and restaurants where he had been to and loved.
My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway was a frequent customer of both El Floridita and La Bodeguita, and El Floridita was the first place we saw entering the street. It is a historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar with eye-catching pink-painted walls and old-fashioned light sign at the front door. The restaurant is still in operation. Inside, there were lots of photos hanging at the back of the bar, and a life-sized bronze statue of Hemingway was on display. Walking along Bishop Street, my new tour guide friend has shared stories of their daily lives, with no surprise, slightly different from what it seemed like as a tourist. J We walked passed the Johnson drug store, a pharmacy opened from the 18th century, while it’s still in operation today, it has become a tourist spot more than actually selling medication to the local community from the beautifully polished old porcelain apothecary jars.
1. Plaza de la Cathedral
The Plaza takes the name from the landmark – Havana Cathedral, or the “Catedral de San Cristóbal” in the center of the old town. It wasn’t a grand European cathedral, but it has the historical value of once being a Spanish settlement. The church was built in Baroque style, and the façade of the cathedral has a unique asymmetrical feature – the two bell towers are not in the same size. Apparently, the right tower is obviously bigger and taller than the left one. Another interesting thing in the square was a life-size brass statue leaning against one of the many pillars on the Palacio del Conde Lombillo on the right side of the square – it was Antonio Gades, a famous flamenco dancer from Spain!
2. Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas was at the riverfront, the end of Bishop where all the shops, hawkers and tourists were. It was early in the morning, and they are already set up for the day. It was an exciting market that I would be returning to by the end of the day. Besides, restaurants and cafés were on all sides of the square, and it has been a social hub in the city for more than five centuries. Outside the Palacio de Los Capitanes, a walkway was paved by wood instead of stone because it was once used for horses, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza is another landmark of the area. It is an eye-catching, star-shaped colonial fort built in the mid-16th century.
3. Plaza de San Francisco
To me, the Plaza de San Francisco looks more “modern” because the buildings around the square were carefully restored with one side opened to the riverfront, and so the sunlight came in the plaza and the shine on the well-paved cobbled stone floor. The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis (and so that’s how the square was named) features a tower that offers breath-taking views of the city of Havana and the sea beyond.
Outside the cathedral stood an old man’s statue, and I was told the believers could shake his hand, and make a wish putting up the number of fingers that means the number of children you wish for, and you have his blessings. I saw everyone sticking up 5 or even ten fingers…. maybe just in case if they were under-promised.
Besides, there were some ladies dressed up in native costumes, playing some traditional instruments and handing out flowers. Beware not to take photos of them without asking as they might approach and ask you for money.
4. Plaza Vieja
“Vieja” in Spanish means “old”, but the plaza did not look old, better yet it was very much lively with Cuban Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture peculiarly next to each other, surrounding the area, with outdoor cafés and shops filling up the open space. In the old times the plaza was originally used for military exercises; today the Plaza is an open-air marketplace and an exercise yard for students from the nearby Angela Landa primary school!
After that, we were headed out to a local “Tripadvisor” recommended rooftop restaurant for lunch and the vintage car ride into the modern part of Havana.
Havana – a capital city of a communist country; wherever I went, it was like I just traveled through time and went back to the 1950s. Previously I was talking about how pleasantly surprised I was waiting in front of the Hotel Telegrafo, little did I know that it was actually a private tour and we spent the morning exploring the four main squares of the old town Havana: Plaza de la Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco, and Plaza Vieja. Afterward, I was brought into the business area outside of the old town to have an “intimate” lunch with my guide on the rooftop of a small building, without big billboard or road sign – a place that I would never know if I was not accompanied by a local. 😛 (Though I saw numerous recommendations from different travel media at the front of the kitchen door).
Lunch at Restaurante Paladar Café Laurent
It was a quiet restaurant with homey and comfy décor, and we sat down in the balcony overlooking the Havana skyline, with views of the Gulf of Mexico. The owner of the restaurant was friendly and he insisted on treating me a glass of Cuban Mojito. The Mojito has more rum than the typical ones and I felt like he added syrup in there so it was sweeter. We had a selection of chicken, beef or fish as our main dish so I went for fish. Although it didn’t exactly taste top-notch and amazing, the dish had a nice finesse when it was brought to the table. Imported Coca-Cola was still available in the city, I was tempted to try Cuban Coke which tasted great and I couldn’t tell if it was any different with Coca-Cola. 😛
As we were having lunch, my guide and now friend shared with me a lot about the Cuban daily lives and how they got in touch with the outside world. She told me, the income of doctors or lawyers are lower in Cuba than being a waitress in the US… and many used to pay a lot of money just to get a Mexico visa, and then find a way to sneak into the U.S. … Apparently, the closed country was not that closed after all as there were ways to stay connected with current issues (the taxi driver talked with me about the news in China, the travel operator was aware of the US-Cuban relationship the same day with the rest of the world). She also told me she would love the opportunity to travel and see the world; I appreciated a lot the freedom that I had– and how I should defend it and not take it for granted. More about the restaurant: here.
Enjoy the tropical breeze in a vintage car in Miramar
After lunch, the vintage car driver was already waiting outside for a spin! As I was told the drivers were quite lucky to have inherited a vintage car and so they could make a living in the tourism business. Besides, there was a lot of fixing and repairing to keep it functioning! The driver offered me the car to drive it, I turned it down as the only time I drove a stick was in a driving lesson and I didn’t want to crash. Took a front seat we began our journey in the Miramar district, a residential neighborhood where upscale condos, international schools, and embassies are located. Driving along the Quinta Avenida, it is named Havana’s “Fifth Avenue”, we enjoyed a nice afternoon breezed under the shadows of tropical trees that lined up on the sidewalk. We soon arrived at the Revolution Square.
Admire the national heroes at the Revolution Square
The city square is an important area as being where many political rallies took place including Fidel Castro’s address to more than a million Cubans on countless occasions. One of the most striking features of the square was the José Martí Memorial, a 109m-tall, a star-shaped tower that pays tribute to the national hero, José Martí. Another photo-shooting moment was the steel memorials of another two important figures of the country, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, that were built on the façades of the opposite two buildings, the office of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications.
There, I got a surprise from the guide as she said she was going to surprise me – a three Cuban Peso-dollar note. She told me as most tourists used US dollars in Havana, they don’t usually receive Cuban Peso and some of them would love to keep one as it was printed with a Che Guevara Head. What an amazing gift! For some time, I kept this dollar note together with my lucky one US dollar note in my wallet, hoping that the “two national leaders” could have a nice time in there. 🙂
Sip drinks at the Hotel Nacional and what a gorgeous sunset at the Malecón!
Then we had a spin around the Colon Cemetery and went through the Parque Almendares, where the giant trees were grown hundreds of years in the “Havana’s forest”, and the Flora and fauna were stunning as a green lung to the city. I was amazed by the volume of greens in an urban park I literally felt like I entered a rain forest.
Soon we headed back to the city and we were on the waterfront main road. It was a sunny day and driving along the road was pleasant and enjoyable. We went passed the highly guarded US embassy and quickly turned we entered the city for a drink. Originally the guide planned to bring me to El Focsa, yet it was closed for the day for a private function so we walked to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which was pretty nice too as it is a very important hotel to the city, and the yard at front has a great panoramic view of the ocean.
As I headed back to the old town after a vintage taxi ride, I walked along the Malecón, an 8 km long waterfront esplanade facing the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. On a rough day, waves could hit the walls and wet the passing cars. But that day was not the day. At the perfect twilight, everything looked pink. People sat on the side of the road in front of the ocean, chatting and chilling, and as for me, I sat there, looking at the Morro Castle, soaking in the beauty of the sunset, and enjoying the weird feeling of isolation as I had no signal reception (for once) that connected me with the rest of the world.