Feb 28

El Captitlo (Destination: Havana)

Traveled Nov, 2016

We spent 2 nights in Cuba at the beginning and 2 in the end of our 14 days in Cuba.

The immigration queues were pretty long when we arrived and the line for currency exchange looked even longer.  The taxi driver sent by our guesthouse looked a bit impatient and we wanted to get to the city so we agreed to pay him in USD and we headed off in the Lada to the city.  Our guesthouse (casa particular) was located between Vedado and central Havana.  After checking into the 3rd story apartment, we headed out in search of a currency exchange.  Finally after walking quite a while we found an exchange bank.  With cash in hand, it was getting darker so we headed back to the casa, looking for a spot to eat.  Somehow we ended up at a kiosk and we got a couple cheese pizzas for 40 cents apiece.  I wasn’t crazy about it – the sauce was more like ketchup!  After a shower and freshen up, we headed out for the Saturday night and ended up at La Zorra y El Cuervo (the fox and the crow) jazz club.  The 5 piece jazz band incorporated electronics into their show and the $10 cover charge allowed us 2 cocktails – Cuba Libre (rum & cola), Mojitos, or Ron Collins.

On Sunday we did a long walking tour, circling the barrio known as Vedado.  We first headed to the Plaza de Revolucion.  Several of the buildings have metal murals of revolutionaries – the most famous being Che.

On the south side of the plaza, is a large tower to celebrate Jose Marti.

As this is one of the top tourist sites of Havana, there’s a high concentration of nicer maintained 1950’s cars that double as tourist taxis.

Just further south, we saw the Communist Party building where the guard forced us to cross the road to stay more than a full block away.  From here we headed west to the gigantic Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) cemetery. There were some amazing statues in this cemetery and in the chapel in the center we came upon a funeral.  The hearse was an old station wagon!

From there we walked up Calle 23, one of the main streets.  We walked around the Coppelia ice cream shop but chose not to eat because the line was around the block.  The next stop was an Alley called Callejon de Hamel where there is Santeria dancing and music on Sunday afternoons, in an alley full of modern art by Salvador the artist.  We visited his galley and actually got to meet Salvador himself.  For dinner we ate at a Paladar – a non-government run restaurant – I had breaded chicken, rice and beans, and a Cristal beer.  This was the paladar made famous by Anthony Bordain.

We checked out the historic Hotel Nacional and walked by the US Embassy.  An interesting thing about the embassy is that there are dozens of flag poles in front of the building that faces the city of Havana.  When US-Cuba relationships weren’t so good, and before the building was an embassy, the US posted anti-Cuba messages on a ticker at the top of the building.  So Cuba put up all these flag poles and when they flew Cuban flags it was difficult to read the ticker messages!

From there, we walked down the Malecon, a wide street with a wide sidewalk next to the sea.  I joined a photography group and got some lessons as we waited for the super moon to rise above the fort across the river from old town Havana.

For the last 2 nights of the trip, we had taken a private car with a Polish couple from Playa Larga to Havana for $20 per person.  We stayed at Rolando’s Backpackers – I was curious what a hostel in Cuba would be like.  We paid only $9 per person per night and we were given a lot of info in Spanish as we checked in.  The location was right in the middle of central Havana.  The street was teaming with activity.

After dropping our bags, we visited the vegetable market we had spied on our taxi ride to the hostel.  Tropical fruits were incredibly cheap.

We stopped at a very eclectic restaurant.  Although it was completely empty, they claimed they were full with reservations but they let us look around.  On one wall they had pictures of famous patrons that included Beyonce, Jay Z, and Michelle and Barack Obama.

We had most of the day left so we decided to do the hop on hop off bus for $10.  We headed very far west and got off at the western most spot.  From there, we caught a taxi to Fusterlandia, an interesting house made of cement and mosaic tiles designed by the artist Fuster.

Back in town, we had dinner in Chinatown – for some reason they only had about 25% of their menu available as their grill wasn’t working.  After dinner we hung out at the hostel and met one couple that had been in Cuba just two years earlier and they said there had been incredible change in that period of time.  The next day was our day to hang out in old Havana.  The architecture there was amazing, and much more restored than central Havana where we were staying.  Old Havana had lots of Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts, and we stopped at the Capital, the Cathedral and a small fort.

We had cold chocolate shakes at the Chocolate Museum.  Oh the smell of that place!  You entered the very air conditioned building and were overtaken with the smell of chocolate.  We checked out some shops and when we heard one of my favorite songs of Cuba, Daddy Yankee’s Shaky Shaky, the shop owner was so excited she showed me several videos of Cuban stars.  Their music videos are so funny – almost all of them include videos of sites around Havana and dancing girls.  By late afternoon, I was done with sightseeing so I headed to La Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar and the birthplace of the Daquiri where I luckily found a seat at the bar and had a couple of the most expensive cocktails in Cuba (at a whopping $6 each!) while listening to an amazing band.

We had dinner at another place in Chinatown, but it was way overpriced.  As it was Friday there were sometimes boxing at an arena called Kid Chocolate named after a famous boxer but unfortunately there were no fights tonight.  I met up with others and we went to a night club/art installation in an old church called La Fabrica.  There were 1000’s of people there and it seemed like 50% of them were Americans.  There was a huge queue by the time we left at 10:30.  I wanted to get some sleep before heading to the airport at 3am.

As the taxi took us to the airport, the streets seemed very quiet.  There were people on the street but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  It wasn’t until we arrived in Mexico City a few hours later that we discovered an announcement had been made just after midnight that morning that Fidel Castro had died.

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