We booked Havana Air for our first visit to Cuba, flying from Miami to Havana for a brief 45 minute flight. At the time of booking, I didn’t realize it was part of the new Eastern Airlines until check-in. A group purchased the once famed but defunct airline’s intellectual property including their trademarks. The flight was full and check in slow since most of the flight consisted of Cubans carrying 8-10 bags of goods they couldn’t buy in Havana. Fashionable clothes, shoes and food, all having to be weighed for the flight. My husband and I carried only our carry-on, weighing less than 20 lbs.
In Havana, it took us an hour and a half to clear customs, wait for our prearranged rental car and change money. We arrived with Canadian currency for a better exchange rate since it’s a 10% penalty for American dollars. We also had to leave the rental company an extra $250 deposit we weren’t expecting.
Our Hotel Habana Libre, sat in the heart of Havana near the Malecon. It’s a high-rise full of character and history. Once the Havana Hilton, nine months after it opened Castro’s revolutionaries took it over and Fidel ruled the country from a suite on the 24th floor. The leader’s pictures and propaganda are documented in the lobby, near the bar where we sat for our first mojito. This refreshing rum drink became my drink of choice for the rest of our trip.
My immediate impression of Havana, it’s unlike anywhere I’ve been. A city stuck in time with antique cars, beautiful but dilapidated buildings, and bustling with locals and tourists. The air smelled of diesel and gas outside and cigars and dust inside the hotel. Horns and music blared on the streets. People gathered near a TV/media building to access the internet on their smart phones and tablets. It had a good and positive vibe.
We had dinner just two blocks away at a local joint recommended by Anthony Bourdain called Los Amigos. It was a small place but it had good cuban food and a nice ambience.
The following morning I ran along the Malecon, a historic stone sea wall. The United States Embassy majestically greeted me as I began my trot. Men fished off the wall, lovers walked holding hands, and fellow joggers and bikers passed by. I grinned and danced around dents in the pavement. Most smiled back, while a few mimicked my movements. A stone fort-like building turned restaurant signaled the end of the Malecon, and my turnaround point.
We spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets of Habana Vieja. We explored shops, bars, plazas, churches, and street art. We had an average lunch at a restaurant in Plaza De Armas. The location was great for people watching, but the food pretty bland. Stray dogs and cats gathered around the tables for scraps. The cats didn’t mind pieces of my soggy pizza, but the dogs were a bit more picky. I didn’t blame them, since I was also unimpressed. Hopefully they were just well fed.
We checked out two random wooden boats slightly bigger than a canoe. A local in overhauls was busy working on one of them. With the help of a translator, my husband had a fishing conversation with him. They discussed types of fish he caught, methods used, and while laughing they exchanged fishing stories.
We walked down Calle Mercaderes and Obispo, stopping to admire the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived and wrote between 1932-1939 in room 511. We also visited a few places where he drank, including the famed Floridita. While having mojitos at Cafe Paris, we watched dancers on stilts perform a traditional dance.
We drove through a tunnel arriving on the other side of the harbor at Castillo del Morro, and learned about the British invasion of Havana. The view of the city from there was amazing. We parked out front and meandered through the exhibits, all written in Spanish, but we figured out the gist of it.
We unknowingly chose a state-run restaurant for dinner. Although the menu looked promising the food was horrible. I laughed myself into tears over how someone could mess up pasta with olive oil. Well they certainly did. A late night dance performance at our hotel saved the evening.
My morning run along the Malecon in the other direction towards central Havana provided stunning views and I had a perpetual grin for five blissful miles. A wave crashed over the seawall and left me drenched, so I crossed the street and ran alongside a quiet stretch of buildings until I noticed large chunks of rubble on the sidewalk. I imagined one of them falling off the building onto my head, but I took the risk.
We drove a half-hour outside of town to the Hemingway Marina. The drive was along a beautiful neighborhood and the Marina itself was pleasant but quiet without much to do. A restaurant back along the Malecon had decent local cuisine and live music. By now we started to realize if we ran out of pesos we’d be screwed since our American credit cards didn’t work in Cuba. For me, becoming stranded and cashless became a big fear and we budgeted accordingly.
A drive through Chinatown proved there really weren’t any Asians left in Cuba as they fled at the first mention of Communism. An a cute artistic area with Afro-Cuban roots called Callejon de Hamel was full of murals, rumba, Santeria, cafe’s, and culture-seeking tourists.
We visited the historic Hotel National for a
mojito or two and awaited the firing of the canons at 5:00 each day, except Sunday. Well our visit was on Sunday, but we did learn about the missile crisis and the history of who stayed there including Lucky Luciano, Frank Sinatra, Vladimir Putin, and Winston Churchill.
The following day, we left Havana for a three-hour drive to Cienfuego’s for a few nights. Next week I’ll blog about our experience there.