Havana has been romanticized throughout the centuries by countless cultures. Movies, literature, adventure and conflict have all centered around this historic city. From the first ships from the conquistadors, to the first parties of the wealthy mobsters of the United States, and to the eager youth descending on an island that has long been a forbidden fruit, the capital city has grown into its own themes.
One of the most common analogies for Cuba is as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” something I refer to here. To create a pearl, shelled mollusks coat a grain of sand in nacre, which is the material outer shells are made of. The process is actually defensive, used to prevent irritation from outsiders to the mollusk’s sovereignty. Layer upon layer of this material is coated onto the grain of sand, until eventually, the mother-of-pearl produces the coveted gemstone.
If Cuba is the Pearl of the Antilles, the capital city of Havana is the very base layer of nacre. The island pulls both its protection and its wealth through the heart of this city. Layer upon layer of history has expanded from this particular port to allow the country to grow into the coveted pearl it is known as today.
Not Just Any Revolution
Jillian and I stayed in the neighborhood of Vedado throughout our time in Havana. We chose to stay in a casa particular, or a local home-stay. The home itself will have photos featured in a post in the future, but it is simply put, a mansion.The location put us between two major main streets, which made it extremely easy to find our way. Well, after we figured out that the street names and numbers were on a small rock on the corner of each street. No street signs, just engraved rocks.
The above photo is a perfect example of some of the random historic monuments and open areas that we would come across in Havana. A few blocks north of our neighborhood, at the top of one of our main streets, was the Monument of José Miguel Gómez, a leader of the Cuban Revolution. I honestly had no idea what it was until the point of writing this post, but it makes a lot of sense that this would be such an enormous structure. The government propaganda about the revolution, and its successful government, was literally everywhere. However, it was usually more obvious in the form of Che and Fidel, easily identifiable to the international community.
Those two were pretty much everywhere. As were odes to the revolution. Case in point, as taken from La Plaza de la Revolución:
Yeah, the plaza of the revolution. That revolution. With those two guys staring at the plaza from across the courtyard.
Some of the tourism seemed to be simply a history lesson of the revolution to present day, and the strength of a government that survived the brutal punishment of the United States government. And yeah, it’s fair to read that sentence with a tone of irony, because the government-sanctioned tourism had that type of feel to it. The people were happy, the city was definitely backwards to what the Western standard may be, but it was right at a level that any capital city is expected to be at. I’ll talk heavily about the feel of tourism on the island once I get to the post about Viñales, but in quick summation: there is a propaganda story the government wants you to know about their history, and then there are hotels and beaches they would like you to spend money at.
As I said before, we stayed in a home-stay, so we got an even closer feel of life on the ground than the government would expect visitors like us to get. Some of that is talked about here, so it is safe to move on to our government-approved touristic experience in Havana as well!
Now, the first thing to understand about Havana as a capital city, is that it is not tall. There are not very many high-rise buildings, and the few you see are all hotels. We stayed on the rooftop apartment of a mansion in Vedado, outside of the downtown square. From this rooftop, in the very first hour we were on the island, Jillian’s first words were, “Where is it all?” From where we stood, it just looked like endless neighborhoods.
Remember the visual of the monument at the main street north of our apartment? Señor José Miguel? Now walk with that monument to your back for about a half mile down that main street. Turn right, and you’ve got yourself the top of the downtown square!
Mapped out in front of you would be a long stretch of small restaurants, shops and banks, punctuated by the high-rises we could see from our apartment; Hotel Libre, and its few partner buildings that housed the majority of the foreign tourists looking to experience the capital and what it had to offer. While we used these hotels for money exchanges and points of references, we noticed a plethora of normal tourists. The strange thing, however, is that we didn’t really see any other tourists once we actually took to the streets. I have a feeling the hotel tourists mostly took trips out to the beach towns outside Havana, but it was kind of a strange now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t phenomenon.
Naturally, we explored this entire strip. There were countless shops and restaurants. I’m still so sad about one particular shop, which was a book store of sorts. I honestly couldn’t get a vibe from it, and the woman was just hanging out on the front porch of her house selling these books. But, they had one book in particular, an original copy of the writings of Che Guevara during his time traveling Latin America. This time period, and this piece of writing, is known as the time period that influenced him to become the revolutionary that he is remembered as today. The piece was pretty expensive to justify buying it in the first city we were in, but when I came back at the end of the trip, the shop was closed!
It was also interesting to note that on this main strip, there were plenty of corners around the hotels that people would buy, sell and use WiFi cards. It was not unusual to see a group of 50 people sitting on the street corner with an electronic device, doing whatever it is people do on the Internet. Mind you, this method of access is one of the only ones known to the island as of January 2016.
There were two places in particular that we made ourselves regulars at.
One, a cafe restaurant on the top of the strip, that was super close to the road to our apartment. It was a good stopping point to eat, whether we were starting our day, or ending it. At this cafe, we experienced two moments of joy: 1) the most perfect sangria known to man (and that’s coming from someone who spent two weeks in Barcelona drinking sangria exclusively) and 2) our first stray kitten adoption.
And most importantly (in Jill’s words, at least) the local, and apparently national, ice cream parlor with the cheapest, most delicious ice cream I’ve experienced thus far!
Now, I was just being artsy with the GoPro fish-lens with the curve of that sign – but the entire building was structured like this. It was basically a two story, open-aired, ice cream diner. Like, complete with the curved counters and stools, like a family diner at home.
This particular location was enormous; it could fit roughly 400 people at any given time, and it constantly had a line 3 blocks down the street. If you could speak Spanish, you could pass yourself at a local’s level of knowledge, which was fantastic for us. This basically meant the difference between paying $5 tourist pricing for ice cream and paying 40 cents for two people to have ice cream, thanks to the local conversion.
This same trick did not work when we had our backpacks getting ready to go home, unfortunately sticking out as tourists, but I was definitely happy the first time! Jill was like a little kid in an ice cream shop both times…
… also known as “sea-wall,” the literal divider between the ocean and the city itself. The term “el malecón” means just that, so each along the coast has their own version. However, Havana’s is the most celebrated.
The Malecón is undeniably the longest walk we took on the whole trip, and we did not even make it all the way around the bay and over to the attractions over there. We simply ran out of time while exploring the city proper. However, the sea wall stretches all along the curves of the island. It’s literally a wall, like something you’d see in Pirates of the Caribbean when the pirate siege the forts. The wall of the Malecón is about chest high on an average height male, but rises where there is truly a fort a la Pirates of the Caribbean.
Opposite the sea-wall, across the street, are parks, shops, restaurants and bars, much like the rest of the touristy areas of Havana. This area is known for partying, canoodling and night time festivities, due to the romantic allure of the ocean.
The night we were exploring El Malecón was rather windy, and a tad stormy. The rains were coming on and off, and the wind was so forceful that the waves were crashing onto the wall and spilling far over the traffic of the street. Like, convertible 1960s cars were getting soaked in ocean water as they drove down the Malecón street. Yeah, I was a bit perturbed by that too, but they’re a dime a dozen down there, so I guess it’s fine.
We took refuge in a open aired bar and restaurant, which featured Jillian’s one and only attempt at eating seafood on the island. In addition to this embarrassing photo opportunity, we also met some fellow New Yorkers, who would go on to become the only Americans we met the entire time.
The absolute best part of the Malecón in my opinion, was Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This particular hotel has enormous amounts of history, from the very first defensive fort uses, with old artillery guns still in place, to the influence of major mobsters and celebrities, as well as a position of strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rear grounds are shown in the photo above, and this is the beauty from the entrance:
However, for this particular post, that is all I will be saying about this particular hotel. You’ll just have to stay tuned for a post coming soon all about it, complete with GoPro documentation!
There are about 38,000 steps not even accounted for in this post, as well as a classic backpacking meeting in the back of a military-cargo truck that took us from Havana to Vińales, but hey, that’s for the next post as well.
Until next time…