We arrived at the Havana International airport after connecting in Toronto. Unfortunately, Air Canada had neglected to load the tourist visas which they were required to hand out during the flight prior to arrival in Cuba. This resulted in all the passengers being unable to clear immigration. After an extremely long and frustrating wait we eventually had to pay our way through. When we finally cleared customs we took a taxi to our hotel. The car was modern, but many of the vehicles we passed were from the 50’s. We received a bit of attention from some excited locals who noticed us on the way. When we finally made it to the hotel I tried to check-in with the voucher I had purchased through a travel agent at home. I usually book everything myself, but was having problems finding a place in Cuba. It seems like most people who come here are simply on a packaged vacation. Something was wrong with the voucher and they apologized and asked me to be patient while they sorted it out. Over an hour later they explained that my reservation was not in their system and that the hotel was full. They said they were working on a solution and I’m not sure what they did but they eventually managed to clear a suite for us. We still had to wait as it needed to be cleaned, but we eventually got into the room close to 11PM that night.
We visited Old Havana the following morning. We covered a lot of ground by foot, exploring most of the area. This part of the city is about 500 years old and is filled with tremendous character. It truly was a pleasure to experience it. Many people are insincerely friendly hoping to entice you to buy something, although we did meet people who seemed genuine and were happy to just talk to us. One fellow is a fan of the Toronto Bluejays (baseball is a religion here) and said that Canadians are loved in Cuba, we’ve heard the latter a few times. After chatting a bit, he wished us well as he and his girlfriend were heading the other way.
In the late afternoon we travelled by Coco taxi, a motorized tricycle with two seats in the back covered by a rounded roof. It is an ideal way to sightsee, although it certainly struggled to climb hills with us in it. We visited the Plaza of the Revolution, where Fidel Castro gives his speeches to the public. It is a massive paved square with iron silhouettes of Ché and Fidel on the side of the closest buildings. We went by the University and over to the National Hotel. This grand place has welcomed many famous people including Winston Churchill and Al Capone. We sat out on the terrace looking out at the ocean, listening to the musicians play while drinking Mojitos. It was perfect. When the sun went down we asked a staff member at that hotel for a recommendation for a place to eat. He told us of a new private restaurant on the other side of town, and made a reservation for us. We went out and found another Coco taxi. As we had time to kill, he took us on a scenic trip along the Malecon (sea-wall). He suggested we take a look at another private restaurant and we obliged. We stopped at someone’s house. We had to wait a few minutes, we think they were staging the eating area by getting two people to sit at one of the tables, and then they let us in and showed us the menu being careful not to let us see into the kitchen. We politely declined and went on to our original destination. We ate at Dona Juana. It was on the roof top of a residential building in a suburb. The service, drinks, and food were divine. Dinner included frozen daiquiris, fresh seafood, cooked squash, fresh avocado and tomatoes and much more. For dessert I had cheesecake which was as good as any I have eaten.
On our next day we hired a local with a coco taxi to tour us around the other districts of Havana. We went all over including new Havana, one of the cities beautiful parks, the old neighborhood and homes of the millionaires who fled to Miami during the revolution. A highlight was wandering through the graffiti filled alley, Callejon de Hammel. This area is famous for its rumba music. We ended the tour back in Old Havana where we visited the Museum of the Revolution. It is housed in the decadent palace of the former ruler but is now filled with government propaganda.
We continued meandering through the old town, past the curio shops, restaurants, stores and hotels. We stopped in at Cuba’s only micro-brewery for a drink and some food. Unfortunately our table was next to where the band played, and while they were on a break when we sat down they performed midway through our time there. The music was good, but sitting so close it was loud and awkward. We were happy to get going. We zigzagged through more of the old city and finally caught a lift in a beautifully restored 50’s Chevrolet for the drive back to our hotel.
On our final evening in Havana we went to the most famous of all restaurants in Cuba, Paladar La Guardina . Based on others’ advice, we made reservations before we left Canada. This small, private restaurant has hosted Queen Sofia of Spain; International stars: Jimmy Page, Javier Barden, Clive Owen; Law-breaking Americans: Stephen Spielberg, Jack Nicholson; and crazy people like Naomi Campbell and Gerard Depardieu. I went in with extremely high expectations and it did not disappoint. Our meal included spinach crepes stuffed with mushrooms and chicken, swordfish carpaccio with a light pepper sauce, plum stuffed pork loin, honey and lemon baked chicken, yuccas fried with garlic, and a chocolate torte with vanilla cream sauce. The place was packed and efficient and had a great atmosphere. It was certainly a highlight of our visit.
We are currently waiting in the Havana Airport. When we checked at the hotel the flight departure showed 50 minutes earlier than we expected. When we arrived it was adjusted to an hour later than originally scheduled. It is easy to keep a blog while travelling when you have a laptop and time to kill. So here are some final thoughts on Cuba. The photos I had seen of Cuba highlighted the pre-embargo US vehicles which still fill the streets. While this is common and fun to see, despite the gross plums of exhaust emanating from their tailpipes, no one bothers to show that the roads are also scattered with newer vehicles. This is why I took a photo of a new Audi A6. There is nothing preventing imports from countries other than the US. This emphasizes another reality. The government here started allowing private enterprise over a decade ago. And as with the rest of the world, those who have more money live in different neighborhoods than those without.
I have enjoyed our brief visit to Cuba. The people are warm and Havana is a fascinating must-see for every traveller. Photos can be found here.