Saturday-Sunday 9-10 April, Cuba days 4-5: Various trips into Havana, with several highlights and a tad disappointed on the night life front.
Over our 10 days stay in Cuba we made various visits into Havana, the heart of which lies almost 20km east of Marina Hemingway. But our main visits were Saturday when we went by taxi, and Sunday when we took the bold move to cycle there and back on our GoCycles.
The ride into town takes us through the various and quite contrasting zones of Havana. Close to the Marina we pass the affluent western end of Havana called Miramar, travelling along wide royal palm lined boulevards that would not look out of place in California. Then onto the Malecon, the famous shore-side road where everyone gathers for sunsets. On the land side of this boulevard, we first pass “New Havana”, which does not look new at all, then Central Havana, and finally to Old Havana which is the Havana all the pictures and post cards present: old run-down but beautiful colonial buildings with narrow streets, all left from Spanish colonial days. Old Havana is where all the tourists are and is the most interesting to visit. But the other areas also have their unique character too. We visited them all.
On our bikes we made a thorough exploration of Miramar district which is dominated by mid-20th century buildings and particularly 1940-50s architecture. Along with the colourful 1950s cars that are present everywhere you look, you can easily imagine you have time-warped back to pre-revolution days, 60 years ago. Frankly, nothing has changed in this area since then. The more privileged Cubans live here along with all the embassies and no doubt their staff too. This area is quiet, shaded by big trees and strangely has a large police presence on every corner. For 99% of Cubans, it would be beyond their imagination to be able to live here.
Further east, once across the Rio Almendares, the so-called New Havana starts. This is dominated by less than visually pleasant 20th century building as Havana had rapidly spread from its colonial town footprint. Its now rather shabby 1950s & later Soviet style architecture is not particularly interesting to explore. There are a few new hotels on waterfront and the huge Columbus cemetery which was worth cycling through. Even if just to see how the old religions used to lavish the dead with amazing structures for them to be buried in. It’s not really funny, but we had to joke that the dead in this cemetery had more living space than most of the people living in Havana do today.
Another place worth a mention here is the Park Almendares which is a well-preserved small piece of nature next to the river. We drove though this in an open-top classic car, and it was quite the experience to go from ugly city into this wilderness which would likely closely resemble what the whole area would have been like before human invasion.
Revolution Square is also in New Havana. This is a large very empty parade-like square with the Jose Marti memorial tower looking over it (apparently dedicated to a hero of the revolution). On 2 buildings that look over the square are pictorial representations of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. When on the classic open top car tour, we stopped here for photos, but its more of a symbolic place for the Cuban than anything visually impressive for the tourist.
Next further east, New Havana merges into Central Havana, depicted by late Spanish colonial architecture. This area seems to be occupied by the very poorest of Havana. Here the buildings are extremely shabby with lots of them having simply collapsed over time. If you can see through the grubbiness and dirt, you can wonder at the amazing potential the architecture here still has, if ever it can be cleaned up and restored. We didn’t cycle through here, but we did transit the area during our open-top classic car tour, where we were shown old cigar factories and China town. The driver joked that it is the only China-town in the world that no longer has any Chinese. Having already escaped communist China, clearly they didn’t hang around to see what life would be like after the revolution. They already knew!
And finally, to Old Havana where the city initially grew from the harbour front of Havana port. Here is the oldest of Spanish colonial architecture, similar to the wonderful centers of San Juan in Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo in Dominican Republic. The usual mid ages fortifications, cathedrals, and plazas. In fact, thinking on this, it is quite striking what a great job the Spanish did building beautiful cities in their Caribbean islands, compared to the generally rubbish architecture seen in capital towns of islands that had been English or French, which were (and still are) anything but glamourous. To me it shows that the Spanish were serious about their colonization whereas for the English it was simply about pillage and profit-making with no money spared for pomp & frills, and certainly no notion of leaving a positive legacy behind.
We spend a whole day walking the streets of old Havana, stopping occasionally for drinks in cute bars and having a dinner in a Cuban restaurant serenaded by a singer and guitarist. Exactly the scene you imagine in Havana, except we were the only customers! As expected, the oldest buildings are on the harbour side and more recent further inland. The old town boundary with central Havana is the impressive boulevard Paseo del Prado which goes from the port entrance all the way to the Capitol building, which itself has been cleaned and looking like a new build with its golden dome. The most impressive building in Havana.
Within Old Havana are several classic Spanish Plazas (or squares) each with its own character. Cathedral Plaza and Plaza de San Fransisco de Asis are the oldest. Plaza Vieja is the most impressive, and finally the plaza in front of the Museum de Revolution. In this square a Russian tank is presented with a placard that boldly states Fidel Castro himself fired the shell which sunk the USS Houston battleship in the battle of Bay of Pigs. Slightly exaggerated, I would say, but full marks for excellent propaganda! Whoever wrote that is now likely writing the scripts for Putin!
Just as an aside, talking of propaganda. Whenever we managed to glance at a TV, the news was all about the heroic actions of the Russians in Ukraine. There was no need to guess which side the Cuban Regime is on! The other theme of the news was all the riots and bad things happening elsewhere in the world, then a less than subtle conclusion that none of these terrible things ever happened in Cuba! Oana also tuned her ear into another bulletin on the radio, where they were announcing that Cuban agriculturalists had just developed a new strain of grain that would lead to zero starvation throughout the world. What a load of …..
Hotels in Havana abound. There are several new that the Chinese have built. All 5-star. We visited the Hotel Paseo del Prado le Havana, specifically the rooftop terrace where we got a wonderful 360 view over the port and town. Looking west was an astounding contrast: immediately below us was the luxurious hotel rooftop pool with its 5-star luxury, and in the background immediately behind it, the desperate sprawl of falling down slums in central Havana. We stared at that shockingly contrasting view for quite a while.
The best hotels though were all in very nicely renovated buildings situated around Central Park opposite the Capitol building. This area was visually really beautiful and would be the pride of any major city with its architecture, gardens and walking areas. And the best spectacle for me was the classic cars. Some amazing ones were gathered around these hotels to attract tourists for a tour of Havana. All 1940 and 50 vintage, in bright colours, and all of American origin. We had our own tour in a 1951 Buick convertible for US$40. The 1-hour drive was a highlight for me, but slightly too hot for Oana.
The other hotel that is a must see is the Hotel Nacional, which was THE hotel built here in the 1920s. We visited the grounds and we were indeed impressed by the preserved interior. Again, like time had frozen. And while the outside was not so well kept, it was still impressive.
And finally, to the subject of the famous Havana night life. Well, frankly, we could not find it. Maybe it was because they had only recently re-opened after Covid, or maybe, as we had heard, the “joy” has been taken out of Cuba by all the new extreme sanctions. We tried several places in the evenings, never really finding any that came near to our expectation of Havana’s reputation.
Famous bars like La Bodeguita del Medio, made famous by Hemingway, were shabby and with no atmosphere at all. We were going to sign-up for the Cuban music night at Buena Vista, but the reviews were terrible, with many people saying they walked out halfway through. And at $70 per ticket, we were not going to risk disappointment. The jazz club at La Zorra y el Cuervo was also a let-down. They were supposed to perform 10:30pm to 2am. One night we arrived at just passed midnight to find them already closing. And another night we went earlier but they didn’t start performing until 11pm and frankly they were rubbish. You would expect more from a Cuban jazz band than a sleepy guitarist, a pianist on his last legs, and a drummer. No base, no sax, and not even a trumpet. So we left early.
The only place with any atmosphere was a converted oil factory called Fabrica del Arte in New Havana. A very interesting place. It was an old oil factory converted into many small gathering places with art on the walls, several bars, and even a choir singing in one large room. While it was very interesting and would have been a great place to go for an evening with a group of friends, it was not what you would call a Cuban experience. It could have been a retro style place in any European city. Full marks for being trendy though!
All in all we enjoyed Havana but it didn’t have the life and soul, especially on the music front, that we had hoped for. We imagined dancing the night away in impromptu street parties to the sound of genuine Cuban music. Or maybe we just didn’t look hard enough?
However, while disappointed with Havana, we were very pleasantly surprised by what we found on our driving tours in the following days. We now think that Havana is so focused on getting every scrap of money out of tourists that somehow they have lost the plot on what the tourist want from their visit. Whereas out-and-about in the rest of the country you get to see the real Cuba with all the charm it has the reputation for.
That’s in the next blog.