It’s been a while and I have LOADS to catch up on, lets just say life got in the way. I’m pleased to introduce our Cuban coverage starting in Havana!
The first morning in any new place is always a little bit daunting, especially when you don’t really speak the language and you’re staying in someone’s home! Despite this we had to get up and get going as we’d agreed for breakfast at our casa that morning, so after a small lie in we appeared not really sure what to expect.
I’d read a lot before travelling to Cuba about the cuisine – or lack of – so wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest and fair it was okay as breakfasts go, better than the one we had in Brussels a few weeks earlier! Mainly consisting of eggs, fruit, very crunchy cold toast and a ham & cheese toastie it was pleasant. The coffee was good as was the fresh guava juice. The overall experience was a little strange as there were two Slovenian (or Russians as the casa host explained) who spoke some English and zero Spanish plus looked to be a tad worse for wear!!
The plan for our first proper day in Cuba was a half day walking tour of Havana Viejas, followed by a classic car trip and mojito making lesson however this wasn’t booked until the afternoon. This left us with a block of time and nothing to do! I’d assumed we would have been more jet lagged then we were so hadn’t really planned anything. We opted to head out towards to Malecon for a wander into the city.
We came out next to Hotel Nactionale, which I didn’t realise until later(!!), and walked all the way to Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta which doesn’t seem far when you put it on paper but it did feel a long way. We stopped as we went to enjoy the views across the Caribbean sea and do a bit of people watching.
The Malecon is used by so many local people for all sorts of things, fishing, hanging out, resting and selling their wares – it was really interesting to see how things work. The seafront suffers a lot of damage in the ever present hurricane season so the buildings did look a tad more dilapidated then they did in other parts. Great for tourists as its part of the charm of Havana however I can’t imagine it’s great for the locals or for the people who used to live there.
That seemed to be the theme of the trip. Cuba is excellent and interesting for visitors but those things make it much harder for the locals.
Once we’d made it to the end we had our first experience with people asking us for money. It was something that happened a fair few times ever we travelled. It’s very hard to know what is best to do, on one hand they really don’t have anything, on the other hand are we encouraging the behaviour by giving in.
The meeting point for our tour was outside the famous Hotel Inglaterra so we took a direct route down what happened to be a shady tree lined avenue called Paseo del Prado. We also found out they hold a craft market here on the weekends too!
We opted for a quick drink and a snack before our tour in Parque Central at the Hotel Telégrafo. This was the first time we had really ordered anything and weren’t accustomed to the wonders of Refresco Nationale so we had a Pepsi (Mexican version), a couple of beers and some VERY soft asparagus wrapped in ham with bread. It was an interesting texture experience and not one I would like to repeat any time soon.
It was soon time for our walking tour, after meeting our guide (whose name I cannot recall nor did I write it down, another theme of the trip!) we set out to wander the streets.
It’s hard to really pinpoint what we did in what order as all the streets are intertwined and lead into each other from various squares. The whole atmosphere was energetic, helped mainly by the music that seemed to follow you wherever you went along with a fair few tourists.
Havana is a base for cruise ships, there were two huge ones docked while we were in the city with their thousands of visitors filling the roads. It’s bound to get a bit busy.
The places we did visit were:
The Capitolio building – A neo-classical building based on the Capitol building in the USA which was home to the Cuban government until the Revolution in 1959. It’s now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences, you can go on tours of the inside but we didn’t opt for that (this time). There has been some restoration work happening and the very top was still covered in scaffolding (hence the need to come back). Even so it was a pretty epic building.
El Floridita Bar – On the outside a pretty unassuming pink bar but it’s the inside where Ernest Hemingway made the frozen daiquiri famous giving the bar the nickname of ‘the cradle of the daiquiri’ or ‘la cuna del daiquiri’ in Spanish! We didn’t opt to go inside, which is a small regret as I later discovered I am partial to a daiquiri but stopped for a quick selfie outside.
Obispo Road – the main shopping street in Havana where there were loads of small shops and cafes. Plus long queues for the “internet shop”!
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis – One of the closest squares to the harbour Plaza de San Francisco used to home to a market before the church was built and the market was kicked out! Today it’s like many other squares in Cuba but had a nice atmosphere even if it was right next to the cruise port!
Artwork – added in 2012 ‘La Conversación by French artist Etienne, shows two seated people talking.
Plaza de la Catedral – As the name suggest this square contains a cathedral. The Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana to be precise. The main cathedral in Havana and the home of the Roman Catholics of Cuba. It was finished in 1777 in the Baroque style with two towers of differing widths. The reason for the difference in width is to allow rainwater to flow out to the harbour rather than getting stuck in the square!
We had a really good ice cream whilst looking up at the outside from a quirky shop called ‘Al Pirata Heladeria’. We popped our heads inside but due to the fact it was rather hot I wasn’t dressed in cathedral appropriate clothing.
Plaza de Armas – The oldest square in Havana it’s now surrounded by buildings and has loads of trees and benches in the small park. It was a really pretty square and in hindsight it would have been a good place to take a rest with a good book. I also suspect it was a wifi spot! (Much more on wifi spots to come!!!)
We also stopped by a small book market and popped our head into a Cigar & Rum shop – there were many of these everywhere in Cuba, one good thing is the rum prices are pretty set so you will pay the same in an official shop in Havana, small shop in Cienfuegos or at the airport!
We were rather tired by this point so it was good that next up was a classic car tour. What’s’ the first thing you think of when you think of Cuba – ignoring the rum, cigars and sunshine – classic cars.
Most of the classic American cars date from the 1950’s before embargos were enforced on Cuba. Now they are the main form of transport. It’s a surreal experience to see all these cars, in varying states of repair, driving round. Some were being used as cars for tourists, some for taxi colectivos and some, mainly the ones barely still together, for general day to day use.
Obviously the ones for tourists were very well kept and were almost in pristine condition. They weren’t our favourites though, it was the slightly more battered and beaten cars that had different wing mirrors on each side and where the dials have been replaced with whatever they can find. Their paint work wasn’t bright and colourful, a bit more faded but it tells the story of what the cars have endured in the last 60 years.
The car tour took us round some of the other neighbourhoods of Havana stopping at Revolution Square so we could take some photos. We came back the next day as well to take a few more!
In the UK these cars would be worth a fortune and it’s not common for you to see them in large numbers so it was a privilege and a great experience to see them all!
Our tour was almost over but first was something very Cuban – a mojito! We headed up to a rooftop bar that was owned by the tour company to watch and then make our own beverage. The views were great, the drinks were better.
I was pleased to find out that proper Cuban mojitos are made with sparkling water and not soda water that I keep finding in the UK version. We have now mastered the skills and I’m pleased to say they travelled back with us!!
After a couple of Cuban measured drinks our tour was done and it was time for some food!
We’d been recommended ‘El Del Frente’ and ‘O’Reilly 304’ as options for some tapas and good cocktails. We only had a table for an hour in El Del Frente and I wish we had made it back here as it was wonderful. A nice outside space with even better cocktails and a sweet tomato salsa to die for! It was perhaps the best thing I ate in 2 weeks.
We headed across the road to O’Reilly 304 for some more drinks, more empanadillas, tacos and papas bravas at the bar before walking home. This was a slightly drunken decision as it took 40 minutes!
Overall our first day in Cuba was pretty good, filled with the things you expect from this unknown Caribbean country and a few surprises thrown in for good measure.
I’m working on the next posts so stick with me they won’t be long!!
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