Captivating Cuba

[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_single_image source=”featured_image” img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Story and photos by Anne Burns

Havana had long been on our wish list, so when the U.S. and Cuba shook hands recently we decided we should go there soon, before the city becomes swamped by American commercialism. It seemed as though many people had the same idea. We started looking for a hotel in January and it took us until mid April to find accommodation. We wanted a traditional Cuban hotel in old Havana, cleanliness and a central location being the important factors.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Four of us arrived at Hotel Seville very late at night and were welcomed in English. Our perfectly clean, very comfortable rooms had large windows looking out in two directions over the city. Although there was some similarity to the Marigold Hotel, we had brought open minds and a sense of humour. The cheerful, hard-working staff more than compensated for any glitches, such as the ongoing restoration and painting work, which entailed guests in dodging around ladders and tarpaulins, and enduring daily drilling and hammering.  The building truly deserves to be returned its former elegance. Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene were frequent visitors there in the Seville’s glory days.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

It’s worth noting here that hotels in Havana are government controlled. Star-rating there is somewhat different from that in North America and while prices are high, standards can be rather hit-and-miss. For us, it was less a question of selection than the decision to take what became available.  After all, we wanted an authentic experience and were pleased with our decision. I would definitely choose to return to the Seville.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

We set out on our first morning to explore the area on foot, to try to get a feel for the culture of the city and see Cuban people doing what they do on Saturdays. We started along Prado, a beautiful wide, tree-lined boulevard, where a bride and groom were posing for wedding pictures. Small children flew kites while others practised soccer. Groups of giggling teenage girls strutted in their finery, ignored by passing teenage boys. Couples were strolling, or sitting on stone benches under the trees, watching the world go by. Laundry hung from many buildings, while other adjoining buildings were completely derelict.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Due to Cuba’s inability to import construction materials since the US embargo began, there are many beautiful ruins in Havana in desperate need of restoration. Some, which have been renovated, are truly magnificent. Most of the side roads were in total disrepair. We watched in horror as a car fell up to its axles into a pothole so deep that we were amazed when it was eventually lifted out by the occupants and onlookers, and driven away.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

To our delight, we discovered the first-ever Sloppy Joe’s bar, next to our hotel. Jose Abeal y Otero bought the building as a dirty old warehouse and opened it as a bar around 1917.  With its cool interior and walls lined with signed black-and-white photos of its 1950s celebrity clientele, such as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, it became our regular lunchtime venue for snacks and cold local beer. With unusually high outdoor temperatures this April, a daily siesta then became essential.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Despite the poverty, Cuba has no drug problem, and crime and unemployment rates are extremely low. Every Cuban has access to housing, free medical care and education. The infant mortality rate is lower than in the USA, and the literacy rate higher. There are after-school lessons for any children who show talent in the arts, and we were often delighted to watch chattering groups of young ballerinas waiting for their classes to begin at the National Ballet School across the road from our hotel.  Live music is everywhere in Havana, in hotel lobbies, clubs and on street corners. We were treated to a different performance every evening in the lobby of our hotel.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

We were not on a tour, nor did we even have much of a plan except for a list of places to see. The hop on/off bus gave us a breezy two-and-a-half hour overview of Havana’s major points of interest. The commentary was sparse and almost unintelligible, but it was a useful introduction to different areas of the city.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Later in the week we revisited many of the sites, in a gleaming red, lovingly restored 1955 Cadillac convertible, driven by its proud owner for a total cost of $40 an hour. We had selected the car from a rank of vintage models available for hire in Parque Centrale. Of course, many photo ops ensued and we felt very grand as we were dropped off back outside the hotel entrance.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Another day we went by taxi to Hemingway’s beautiful home, set among restful, leafy gardens outside the city. The house is meticulously maintained as a museum and its interior rooms can be viewed through large open windows from the flower-covered verandas surrounding it. A guide gave an excellent talk about Hemingway’s life there, including many personal details. Hemingway’s boat, for instance, is the named Pilar, which was the name he also gave to each of his wives!

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Another highlight of the holiday was our visit to the Camera Obscura, in Plaza Vieja.  A replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s original design, the camera was given to Havana by the council of Cadiz, Spain.  For $2, and a climb up six long flights of stairs, we were treated to an amazing 360 degree bird’s-eye view of Havana, projected through lenses and mirrors on to a concave screen. The projectionist rotated the lens to show us live close-ups of landmarks and daily life going on throughout the city, and even of the people walking around our hotel!

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Back again in bustling Plaza Vieja, we stopped at the Chocolate Factory for a delicious glass of iced chocolate. Absolute decadence for another $2.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

We had been warned about Cuba’s boring food, but (perhaps because we didn’t stay at an all-inclusive resort?) found the complete opposite. Havana has many restaurants serving high-quality meals for very reasonable prices. Fish was always from that day’s catch, professionally prepared. I would return to any restaurant in Toronto or London for a ceviche dish as fresh and tasty as those we enjoyed in Havana. Particularly memorable restaurants were Habana 61, five minutes’ walk from our hotel, and La Guarida, a wonderful quirky place serving fantastic food, at the top of a building looking so run-down we were hesitant to go up the high spiral staircases to reach it. Memories of those meals could be compelling enough reasons to return.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

Viva Habana! We will remember you fondly and hope to return to continue our acquaintance some time soon. There is so much still left on our list of places to see.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

IF YOU GO

  • Be careful when using websites to research hotel vacancies; a legitimate-seeming site turned out to be fake and we were glad to rely on Jill at Travel Society to organise our trip. We stayed at Hotel Seville in Old Havana
  • Book as far in advance as possible. We ended up being very happy with our hotel but it really was the only option since it seems as though the whole world has the same idea of seeing Cuba while it is still locked in time. Strangely, although hotels in Havana were completely full, we rarely encountered other tourists outside the hotel.
  • We loved Old Havana and would highly recommend a hotel in this area, but be aware that there are a lot of tumbledown parts and the roads are in dreadful state of repair.
  • Flights direct to Havana were more expensive, but it was very convenient. Otherwise it is also possible but much less convenient to fly to Varadero and take a taxi (about an hour).
  • Don’t hesitate to use taxis, they are very inexpensive and prices are very negotiable. Check with the hotel concierge if you need a rough idea of a reasonable fare.
  • Make dinner reservations ahead, again with the help of the concierge, especially if you don’t speak Spanish!
  • We particularly enjoyed Habana 61, (five minutes’ walk from our hotel), and La Guarida
  • Tipping is very much appreciated. Wages are very low so $1.00 – $2.00 is usually adequate, per day for the room maid and per booking for the concierge.
  • Currency: we found the best rates at Havana airport when we landed, and remember that CUCs are necessary for your first taxi ride to the hotel and for the porter who delivers your luggage to the room.  Later, we changed our Canadian dollars at the hotel at a less favourable rate.
  • You will need to keep back 25 CUCs for departure tax as you leave.

[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”10060″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”A lively street scene in Havana”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10051″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”Ruin and restoration, cheek-by-jowl”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10059″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”Plaza Vieja, Old Havana”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10053″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”The Revolution Lives!”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10066″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”Inside Hemingway’s Havana Home”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10064″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”Budding ballerinas”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10061″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”Sloppy Joe’s bar, next to our hotel”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10062″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”The hotel’s lovely pool”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10063″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”Our room in the Hotel Seville”][vc_empty_space][vc_single_image image=”10058″ img_size=”350×350″ title=”A universal situation!”][vc_empty_space][/vc_column][/vc_row]