Published on November 29th, 20154
|O.k. let’s just spit it out here from the get-go:
There. Now that I’ve got THAT off my chest, we can move on to how I managed to slog my way through the (did-I-mention freekin’?) heat and humidity and honestly (otherwise) had a super great time in Cuba.
It’s just that I’m not used to constant sweltering temps like that. This is a lass who CHOSE to live in the temperate year-round bliss of Seattle for nearly 3 decades, and now PURPOSEFULLY chooses to live waaay up here at 8,000+ feet amid the likewise year-round spring-like climate of Cuenca, Ecuador.
Sorry Cuba, but I just had to get that out.
Now then, onward to the many Cuban tales I have to tell – starting with the legendary city of Havana.
When it comes to travel destinations, I’ve never been a fan of large cities but rather, much prefer to spend my precious travel time amid the back-roads, gawking at wildlife, snorkeling beneath aquamarine waters and/or ambling through quaint rural markets. Thus for my 15 day visit to Cuba, I initially figured a few nights at most in Havana would do. But as I delved deeper into researching for my Cuba trip, it seemed there were so very many interesting museums, sights, and activities in Havana, that I re-sliced my tentative itinerary to allow for at least 4, possibly even 5 (fully a THIRD of my entire Cuban itinerary) nights in Havana.
As it turned out, I spent 4 nights there (the first 2 nts. and the last 2 nts. – about 3 full days), and never wanted for something new to do. So many different things that I’ve necessarily opted to streamline my Havana tales via a series of collages and slide shows.
But before I get into the visuals, let’s back up a bit to a most interesting little anecdote:
Exchanging U$ Dollars on the Cuban Black Market
Necessarily no pictures here of course, but suffice that – as I mentioned in one of my Cuba Prep posts – U.S. bank issued credit/debit cards are but useless hunks of plastic there. And changing usd legally is economically painful (i.e. there’s a flat 10% penalty on top of the usual 3% exchange fee – ouch!). Normally I don’t quibble over a few cents on currency exchange rates when I travel, but as I necessarily had to bring in ALL my travel funds for my entire stay in Cuba (see “credit/debit cards…useless” above), the legal exchange rate loomed dismal indeed.
Upon arrival at the Havana airport, I bit-bullet and exchanged $300 usd for Cuban pesos to get me started (at a loss of nearly $40), but then hoped to get a better exchange rate on the streets of Havana (as my trusty Lonely Planet Cuba forum vets advised). Then after settling into my Havana casa particular, I asked my hostess if she knew how I might exchange usd on the street. She swiftly telephoned a contact, and even escorted me down a backstreet for the “drop”. Easy-peasy enough, but I must say – much like a similar dong-for-usd exchange in Vietnam – it felt a bit clandestine ducking behind a dark doorway in a crumbling Havana building to shuffle the cash. Nonetheless, I did get a much better exchange rate of 92, plus such murky international tête-à-têtes make for great travel memories.
Now on to the visuals: First up…
Casa Luly – my Havana “Casa Particular”
As I discovered in my pre-trip research, one of the unique attributes that sets Cuba apart from the many other countries I’ve traveled is Cuba’s pervasive system of “casa particulars” (staying in a spare bedroom in a Cuban family home). As always, while I strongly favor keeping my itinerary loose when I travel, I pre-booked a reservation in one of these casas for my first night in Havana:
And I must say, I seriously lucked out in choosing Casa Luly – the location in Habana Vieja was exceptional, just a couple of blocks from the sea, within walking distance of most all the Old Havana sights, and a fantastic view of the Museo de la Revolución. Even better, my lovely hosts Lourdes (a.k.a. “Luly”) and her 86 yr. old mother proved super helpful and exceedingly gracious.
Moseyin’ Around Havana
My most memorable day in Havana, was the first – which I spent aimlessly walking down the back streets, chatting with vegetable vendors, chess players, and old folks that just wanted to shake my hand.
The best part was when I popped into a school and announced that I was an English teacher (“Soy una maestra de Ingles”). The kids spoke a smattering of English and we had a little fun playing a simple numbers game on the blackboard (btw, it was a real *BLACK*board, not a white-board, nor even a green-board – we’re talkin’ a schoolroom straight out of the 1950’s!) The teacher told me that the students lacked the simplest of school supplies like pencils, erasers, and notebooks. So I said I’d come back at the end of the school day with a few of these items.
From there I headed to a stationary store and bought enough school supplies so that each of the 24 students had at least one. The shopkeeper put all the items in a clear plastic bag, and I continued on my way around Havana. Carrying the bag, I took the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus to the Vedado area of Habana and hopped off at Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón to find an Earthcache. After, I walked to Lennon Park for another geocache, then took a taxi back to Parque Central in Habana Vieja.
But here’s the thing: As I walked around Habana, at least A.DOZEN.TIMES. Cubans stopped me and pointed to my bag of school supplies, asking for something for “mi bebe” (my baby). Some even FOLLOWED.ME. down the street asking for a pencil. As I only had enough for the students I’d promised at the school, I had to gently say no. But it was very revealing just how short Cuban schools must be on the most basic supplies. Sadly, it’s much the same in many of the schools in Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia, etc. We who have so very much, often forget that even a pencil is a precious thing to many children ’round the world.
Things that go BOOM! in the Night
Every night in Havana at precisely 9 pm, you can hear a loud BOOM! of canon fire. It’s the nightly reenactment (in full 18th century regalia) of the canon ceremony at the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña (the fortress on the east side of Havana harbor, completed right around the time that we Yanks were busy with our own American Revolution).
The night before I left to explore other corners of Cuba, I opted to attend the ceremony.
My own video of the event proved less than spectacular, so I offer instead a 45 second YouTube video to give you a more sensory sample of the ceremony:
A Morning Spot of Rum, My Dear?
Before boarding a (blissfully a-i-r-c-o-n-d-i-t-i-o-n-e-d) bus to Viñales the following morning, I headed to the “Havana Club” Rum Museum. Yep, I knocked down a swig of rum at 10 am in the morning!
Whaa? Are We in Washington D.C.???
And here’s a potpourri of Havana landmarks – including the only recently reopened (just last August) U.S. Embassy along the Havana Malecón, as well as Cuba’s Capitol building that’s strikingly similar to the one in my native land:
top: U.S. Embassy; bottom-left: view of the Malecón from my Havana casa particular bedroom window; bottom-center: Castillo Del Morro guarding the entrance to Havana Bay; bottom-right: Cuba’s (eerily familiar) Capitol building.
Um… What Say We Start a Wee Revolution, Che?
A Peek inside the Museo de la Revolución:
Note that the (glass-encased) yacht “GRANMA” that carried Castro from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 was loaded with 82 members of the “26th of July” revolutionary movement (the yacht was designed to carry but 12).
Seriously – Where’s the Air Conditioning?
Whilst traipsing about in the sweltering heat, my favorite (did I mention, blessedly air-conditioned?) hangout was a well-known Havana icon: “Sloppy Joe’s”. Ever the treat to drop in for an icy glass of sangria and a juicy plate of “Sloppy Tacos”.
And in the “Obviously Each Traveler is Different” Department…
We have a sample of some of the “awesome!” trinkets that a Canadian couple I met in Playa Boca empahtically said I’d find at the “Don’t miss!” Artisan Market in Havana. So naturally I skipped over there on my final day in Cuba…
Have ya had enough Havana photos yet? I TOLD you there was a ton to see and do there. Amazing actually, how much I was able to see in but 3 days.
Almost done here – just a final Havana collage of stray images, including:
• the tourist-magnet “Floridita” restaurant (“Birthplace of the Daiquiri”) where apparently Hemingway used to sip them as he penned the pages of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. (Apparently much like Hemingway’s first visit), I too but dashed in one day just to pee. But unlike the Nobel prize winning author, I didn’t stick around to sip an overpriced cocktail.
• the (highly recommended for just 5 CUC) double-decker Hop-On-Hop-Off bus
• a pic of the HUMONGOUS breakfasts served at Casa Luly
• one of the many peditaxis that ply the streets of Havana
A Street-Art Treat: The Callejón de Hamel
And finally (after exploring other corners of the island), on my last morning in Cuba I jumped into yet another peditaxi and headed over to the Callejón de Hamel neighborhood in Central Havana – a fanciful urban nook filled with all manner of eclectic street art.
Note the old cash register in the upper right corner pic – the locals call it “The Cuban Internet”. And as rare and slow as the wifi is in Cuba, I would agree – the entire national internet system must surely be generated by a rusty old cash register!
Quite the little Havana marathon here. Nearly *2,000* words and no fewer than *60* pics (culled down from 178, culled down from the original Havana batch of nearly 300).
I’ll be pecking more posts (including details and nitty-gritty on costs and logistics of visiting Cuba) so stay tuned for more pics and tales of Viñales, Playa Larga, Trinidad, and Playa Boca.