A Travellerspoint blog

Cuba

Adios Cuba

On our last morning in Havana, we decided to get a Cuba-style breakfast. We walked the streets until we found a bunch of Cubans hanging outside a window. Next to the window, a hand-written menu told us what was on offer. Inside, a lady cooked out of her kitchen. This is typical Cuban "fast food." It's a takeout window, like a McDonald's drive-through, except that you walk up to it. Also, some people will stand there and eat so that they can give back the dishes. Also, somebody lives in the "restaurant" and it's just a regular home kitchen instead of industrialized. Also, the food isn't mass produced and frozen. But, it is the Cuban equivalent. We got 2 egg sandwiches (much tastier and fresher than McMuffins), and a sandwich with "salsa" on it. Salsa is some sort of mayo-based pink sauce. I think it either has tomatoes or peppers in it, I'm not really sure. In any case, the food was decent and all 3 combined were 18 pesos (about 75 cents). We didn't take our change.

We brought our sandwiches out to the Malecon to take in the view while we ate. I am very glad that we picked a Casa that is closer to the Malecon than Havana Vieja. It's been a great experience for us. On the Malecon, local fishermen lined the walls, trying to bring in something to eat.

We had been told to get to the airport 3 hours ahead of the flight, so we had Nancy call us a cab and left for the airport. 3 hours is about right. There's not really online check-in, so the lines at the check-in counters were very long. Some people were a little confused about the process, and so some customers took longer than usual. One guy tried to check bird cages that weren't packed, were clearly very fragile, and would never had made the flight. The check-in people didn't let him check them. Another guy had missed a previous flight and needed to buy a new ticket. But the airline check-in folks couldn't sell him one. However, the lady told him to go to her private office, use her internet, book one, and then she'd get him all checked in. (That's good customer service!) And of course, there were the normal people who don't regularly fly. So, the line took a while. Then, I went to change the leftover money back to Euros, and that line took some time. Security/immigration wasn't any better or worse than any other airport. All in all, I think I made it though in 2 hours, but if something had happened or there had been traffic on the way, you want that extra time. Plus, my friend found out htat her flight wasn't leaving from the main terminal. She had to catch some sort of irregular inter-terminal bus that cost 1 CUC. Except that it's not regular, so she ended up taking a 5 CUC cab to the other terminal. Leave yourself more time for the Cuban airport than you normally would at home.

Cuban Kitchen

Cuban Kitchen


Fishermen on the Malecon

Fishermen on the Malecon

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

What can happen in a park in Havana

We awoke early and set off for all the Havana things we missed the other day. But first, we stopped for a quick breakfast at a patisserie by Hotel Inglaterra. It was much cheaper than at the casa, and it didn't leave us stuffed. We strolled up the Prado, noticing the lack of artists. A few says ago, the area was full of them, but now there wasn't a single one in sight. We passed LaFloridita- one of the Hemingway bars. Unless you're a huge Hemingway fan, it's probably not going to excite you. We briefly checked out the church by the museum, and then entered the Museum of the Revolution. They don't allow backpacks or even normal sized purses. The bag check tells you not to leave valuables there (obviously). But my pants don't have pockets. So I ended up walking around the museum with a huge pile of loose stuff (passport, wallet, phone, camera, kindle). It was rather annoying. The museum displays consist of posters (mostly English and Spanish, but some just Spanish) with occasionally an accompanying article of clothing or tool used by the revolutionaries. What I learned from this "book on the wall:" <ul><li>Cuba has had one long revolution that started against the imperialist Spanish and culminated with Castro's part. Everything in between that seemed like a stable government was clearly not. It was just another stage in the revolution. Anything since is not part of the revolution.</li><li>Batista was a tyrant. Any soldier in his army was a "soldier of tyranny."</li><li>The rebels were brave freedom fighters. Any time they were killed during battle, they were "murdered."</li><li>After they finished the revolution, the rebels brought justice to the soldiers of tyranny. Some people didn't appreciate that, and they became counterrevolutionaries or mercenaries funded by the USA.</li><li>At this point, the horrible USA tried to become imperialist and take down the revolutionaries, going so far as to destroy a shipment of toys for the Cuban tots.</li><li>But don't worry, socialism is great and the Cuban people are stronger for having battled against the big bad USA. </li></ul> We exited the main museum building and crossed to the outside area containing the tanks, planes, and boats. On the way, we saw a ceremony. Cubans stood in neat lines while various people spoke. Apparently, some of them were receiving medals for their service. The vehicles area of the museum was interesting. The descriptions had the same slant as the inside. But they had the whole boat that Castro led an invasion from, Granma, on display. We headed back to the same area of town that we had been in before because we missed a few spots. First, we got to see Coche Mambi. This is the presidential railcar. It's free to get in, but a guide will take you through the car and explain what's what. She let us sit on what she called "Castro's bed" and see behind the roped off areas, so we tipped her. I really enjoyed seeing that piece of history. We also popped into a bunch of random art museums. The many free exhibits gave us a taste of Cuban art besides the standard tourist souvenir offerings. Apparently, singing contests haven't escaped the Cubans. We passed a church holding auditions for what seemed to be some sort of kid talent competition. Throngs of Cuban kids and their parents gathered outside, but not as many as you'd expect in the states. We passed a very busy park on our way to the Rum museum. Kids ate pizza, played, and relaxed. In one corner, a group of barber school students were giving free haircuts to kids who approached them. (Foreboding music goes here.) We visited the rum museum. The tour explained a bit of the history of rum and the rum making process. It wasn't the best distillery tour, and they allowed way too many people on the tour for anybody to ask questions. The sample at the end of the tour was bad. I know Cuba is famous for its rum, but this stuff burned and didn't taste quite nice. I much prefer rum from elsewhere in the Caribbean. I was due for a haircut. At home, I tell the stylist that I'm trying to grow out my hair, but I need the back cleaned up so it's not itching my neck. I ask them to not cut the sides so much. They always cut the sides, leave the back too long, and then when I try to grow it out, I end up with a mullet. I decided to see what the guys in the park could do. I explained that I'm trying to grow it out, but the back is too long. Can he please cut a line from the front to the back so that it's even, and not this odd shape they keep giving me at home? No problem! He's the teacher and he'll do it for whatever price I feel it's worth. I sat in the chair. He covered me with the apron, and snip snip. Along the way, he explained to the students what he was doing. The wind kept blowing my hair about, but he managed ok. What he managed to do was give me something only slightly different than the crap I get at home. The back wasn't short enough. He cut the sides a lot so that it will take even longer for me to grow it out. Although, I think it might grow back more evenly and I wont have to pass through a mullet to get to normal hair again. But at least I paid about a third of what I pay at home for this crap. And, despite the low price I paid, I probably made his day. If his monthly salary is what everybody here says a teacher makes, he's partying tonight. Well, that's about as "people to people" as you can get. I had an adventure. I got a souvenir that will last months, and a story to last a lifetime. We passed Chinatown on the way back to the casa. I expected something more than an arch. But other than the arch, we didn't really notice any difference between that area and any other part of town. After a break, we realized that we ought to go eat dinner, since lunch was just some street snacks (more or less tortilla chips with sugar). We decided to follow the guide book to a Paladar. The closest one to us was La Guardia. We saw the sign, but the building looked like it was under construction and we didn't see the restaurant. A guy on the street helped us to know that it's upstairs. After two flights of stairs, we arrived at a very fancy looking restaurant. They advertise being in the movie Strawberry and Chocolate. Several posters about Cuban cuisine line the hall. The entrance table features a restaurant cookbook. A hostess was working the front desk, and seemed to be taking reservations. It was like a regular nice restaurant anywhere in the world. The menu prices matched. We did not budget for single dishes over $20. We descended and headed towards the next option in the guidebook. On the way, we passed another Paladar, so we popped in to see what they had. Here, the prices were cheaper- only $12 for a single dish, but that's still way more than anybody should pay in Cuba. As we walked on, we reentered Chinatown from the back. From this side, it looked a bit more Chinese. There were at least a few Chinese characters here and there, and plenty of letters in that Chinese-style font. One restaurant looked interesting and had reasonable prices, so we went in. I was amused that a Chinese restaurant called Bavaria, located in Cuba had so many Italian dishes (spaghetti, pizza). I was somewhat tempted to get one for the irony, but instead got traditional Cuban fried cheese balls, but with sweet and sour sauce, and fried rice. The portions are huge- a family could have eaten from one plate. The food was ok. It was a lot lighter on the soy sauce than Chinese restaurants elsewhere, but they put a bottle on the table in case you want more. It was not spicy at all. The veg was what is available in Cuba, and not necessarily traditional Chinese. (I've never had stir fried cucumbers before.) It was worth what we paid. On the way back to the Casa, we passed some guys sitting outside and playing Dominoes. They were supporting the playing surface with their legs, and so every time one shifted, the board moved a bit. We asked if we could watch. After one game, they invited us to play. My friend won the first, until they explained that we were supposed to play in pairs. Then I realized the I too, won the first. They challenged us to a rematch to regain their honor. We lost the second round. We thanked our new friends, excited to have learned the Cuban national pastime from Cubans and to have had a chance to play. We went to the casa to get ourselves a bit organized. Tomorrow, we leave and we want everything to be in order. Both the classic car driver and another source recommended this Fabrica place for dancing, but they were a bit far. We walked to 23rd st in Vedado instead. The line at Zorro y Cuervo was long, and they didn't even open for 20 more minutes. Some guy on the street recommended a place a block up, but their signage indicated that they had wheels and it wasn't clear what exactly they were. We hopped a classic cab to La Fabrica in a last-ditch effort to go out. La Fabrica is far away from everything else and is on the far part of town in a residential neighborhood. The dancing part was closed, but people were going in, so we tried. To get a table without a reservation would have been impossible. A seat at the bar was at least a 20 minute wait. With that abandoned, we got an 80s car cab back to the casa. It was unfortunate that we didn't negotiate the price more, but we were in the middle of nowhere without many options. In a place where you can't just check the internet to see when something is open, I don't recommend going to La Fabrica.

Floridita

Floridita


Ceremony at Museum

Ceremony at Museum


Mural

Mural


Kitchen in Coche Mambi

Kitchen in Coche Mambi


Street barbers

Street barbers


Fruit vendor

Fruit vendor


Chinatown

Chinatown

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Three Valleys

This morning, we awoke and got ready for the day. We saw some standard Caribbean "indoor wildlife" in the room, but I'm not sure you can help that. Breakfast here is also way too huge. The highlight for me was the guava paste and the mango cream. Both are traditional in the Caribbean and rare where I live. Candita was very kind and friendly. She took great care of us, but if we didn't speak Spanish, we might have had some issues. She held on to our bags for the day, as today's tour was a purely walking tour. Our guide, Alejandro arrived to collect us, and the tour started right from the casa. Walking with him through town was sort of like walking with our friend Lisa- he knew everybody. Every few steps, he was giving somebody else a handshake. Once we got out of town, he started explaining things to us. He got us oriented to the 3 valleys that we were scheduled to see today (this tour is called the 3 valleys tour for a reason). He explained about some of the plants that we were passing on our way. And he told us a bit about Cuban life in the country. Mostly we enjoyed the views. The one thing that was a bit annoying was that he kept smoking. We're out in nature, trying to enjoy the sounds and smells of nature, exercising, and he's smoking. Otherwise, he was an ok, if a bit quiet, guide. He took us over the plantations, through the woods, and past lakes. Lots of people do this on horse, so the "parking lots" at a lot of the stops look like the outside of an old west saloon. Most of the land is required by law to be used for tobacco during the 3 months of the year that is tobacco growing season. The government pays crazy-low prices for the 90% that they take, and the farmers can sell the rest to whoever. The rest of the year, they can grow what they want, and the government pays under-market prices for a much smaller percentage of the crop- maybe 25%, Alejandro said. But, for farmers, that "government discount" is all they pay in taxes related to the land, so they really get to keep their other income. Of course they can't go to town to sell without permits, but there are merchants with permits who come out to the farms to buy products for resale in town. Our first major break was at a coffee farm. Here, Joeandre showed us how they make coffee. His enthusiasm for the process is definitely contagious. I'm not a drinker, but it was cool to see the car parts repurposed to press the beans. Because they are in Vinales park, legally, their process can involve no chemicals (including pesticides) and no machinery that isn't hand-operated. We did drink non-coffe drinks though. We sampled a great guava alcohol that is local. I got a coconut again, but this time, after I had emptied the juice, he cut me a chunk to use as a scraper so I could get all of the jelly flesh. It's funny- I adore fresh coconut and the jelly inside, but the hard shredded stuff that they put on cookies and candies is abhorrent to me. We continued hiking through a landscape that pictures can't do justice to, and words are even worse. We passed a lot of cows. Alejandro explained that it was quite the crime to kill one. You can own a cow for milk, but the cow meat belongs to the government. Prepare for jail if you take the cow meat away from the state. We passed a special tree related to the baobob. Santeria practicioners place broken saint statues here as part of their religion. Our final stop was lunch at the same place as yesterday. I'm guessing the company has a contract with them. The food was just as plentiful and tasty as yesterday. I think we ended up taking more time to complete the hike than expected, because our guide left us there with directions to just follow the road a few minutes back into town. It wasn't very professional, but we felt less rushed and were able to take our time at lunch. We had taken lots of standing water breaks during the hike, as well as several breaks sitting in some of the many mini-cafes posted at the good viewpoints along the trail, but we were still hot and tired. We were plenty happy to chill longer at the restaurant. My conclusion for the tour- it was a nice hike. We wouldn't have known the spots to go without a guide as nothing is marked. He added some additional value to a self-guided hike that was interesting. It was worth doing the activity with a guide, but the price we paid was a bit much for what we got. We left the restaurant for our casa, and heard thunder. The wind picked up. The clouds darkened. We walked a bit faster. The thunder got closer and more frequent. We raced the storm, and arrived back to the casa about 1 minute before a drenching storm poured down. Our original schedule had the taxi pickup at 7pm, but since our tour ended much earlier, we had asked Alejandro to see if the pickup could be earlier. The company had not only arranged an earlier driver, but he had left his card at the casa so that we could call whenever we were ready, and didn't have to wait. That's pretty good service! (Company is Taxivinales) Exhausted as we were, naptime on the ride back sounded fabulous. The car was air conditioned perfectly. The seats were soft and comfy. It didn't seem to really have a full set of seatbelts, but we didn't have a ton of choice. Also, I feel like drivers in Cuba are much better than elsewhere. In the cities, the drive slow and cautiously. On the highway, they leave lots of open space between cars. I've never seen anybody cut anybody else off here. I've never seen anybody texting or otherwise distracted while driving. Perhaps when the consequences of an accident aren't just that you could die, but that your most valuable possession and source of livelihood would be gone and not replaceable, you drive more carefully. I bet that if the rules became that you can't get a replacement if your car is in an accident, more people in other countries would magically become better drivers as well. Fortunately, we made it back without incident. Nancy greeted us with excitement and got us set up again in our room. After refreshing and getting settled, we went out for peso pizza. I headed towards the popular place I had been to before, and started asking for directions when I got close. Today, the Cubans out on the street directed me elsewhere. This place also had a bit of a crowd, although not as much as the other. The pizza here had less sauce, the cheese wasn't fully melted, and it didn't come out as hot as at the last place. But it did have oregano on it, which it appropriate for pizza. Mine was also coated in a thick layer of chives. It was flavorful, although I think I prefer the other place. We took our pizza to the Malecon to watch the sun set as we ate. We were a little early, so we actually just saw the sun hide behind the tall buildings and clouds, but it was still gorgeous. We strolled through Maceo Park, watching the people as we went. Just like anywhere else,kids skateboarded, rode bikes, and played while their parents sat on benches and watched. The park was actually quite lively, unlike many of the other parks, which are mostly used for wifi.

Farm

Farm


Holy tree

Holy tree


Goat

Goat


Coconut tree

Coconut tree


Coffee beans

Coffee beans


Nice view

Nice view


Soccer in the park

Soccer in the park


Cattle

Cattle

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

VInales and San Tomas Caves

Our driver and guide weren't just on time, they even arrived a few minutes early. We got into an 80s looking Peugot and took off for Pinar del Rio. The weather was great for a drive through the countryside. With the windows a bit open, we were very comfortable. Once we exited the city, the view turned to farming areas with the occasional mountains off in the distance. Cattle and horses roamed. We passed fields with nice crop rows as well as areas that appeared to be jungle brush. It was all a bit more brown and yellow than I expected, but occasionally we passed an especially verdant patch. We also periodically passed hitchhikers or folks waiting for the bus on the side of the highway. Other people used machetes to cut the grass on the side of the road. We also saw several people driving horse-drawn carts. As we traveled, our guide, JuanCarlos, told us all about life in Cuba. He helped us understand what the government does and doesn't provide for all citizens. Apparently, housing is passed from generation to generation, with new families typically having to decide which set of parents to live with until a grandparent leaves an inheritance. The exception is university students. If you attend university away from home, room and board are included. But most majors are available at your local university, the food provided needs to be supplemented by your family, and transport can be expensive, so many people don't go away to university. The other problem is that a profession (teacher, doctor, engineering) doesn't pay as well as tourism. Government salaries can be 20 CUC per month, maybe 60 for a doctor. Tips from tourists can quickly top that. Tourism is actually encouraging a lot of people out of careers necessary for the country.The USA loosening the tourism restrictions does actually seem to be undermining the government in a way, although it may be hurting the people as well in the process. It will be interesting to see how this saga plays out. Eventually, the fields turned into mountains covered in scrubby plants and the wide highway turned into country roads. The car in front of us got pulled over by the police for a random check. Apparently, they set up checkpoints to pull over whoever they feel like whenever they want. These aren't at a border, they're just wherever. They do a "paperwork and taxes" check. Does the driver have the right licenses to drive, to drive a taxi, for car registration, for permission to use intercity roads, and are all the fees for these paid and up to date? If so, good. If not, the driver encounters problems. We stopped at a hotel that has a great view of the valley, but just for the viewpoint. The guide showed us the mogotes, or karst. The area was limestone created by sea life. But, much has been eroded away, and so these beautiful mountainous formations are left. We continued on our way and passed through a few villages, one of which had beautiful tiled houses. They were built after the revolution. We arrived at San Tomas Cave. The cave is the largest in the area, but the tour only covers a fraction. As we waited, JuanCarlos pointed out the various birds and birdsongs that surrounded us. Birding seems to be one of his passions. I don't know much about birds, but if you are a birder, I think you'd be in great hands with JuanCarlos. He also knew a lot about the flora. He pointed out a tree to us that is called the "Tourist Tree." It's called that because it's red and peels, like tourists with sunburn.

The visitors center handed out helmets and dollar store handheld flashlights to the group. We waited for everybody to be outfitted, and then our park guide unceremoniously took off-no intro or anything. We climbed a huge steep hill just to get to the mouth of the cave. There were a few loose handrails, but mostly it was just climbing up rocks. By the time we got to the cave entrance, I was sweaty and disgusting. The guide allowed us a break and explained that the cave has 7 levels, but we will only see the 6th and 7th. The others are wet or inaccessible due to cave-ins. We walked through the caves slowly. We never had to crawl, but there were plenty of places that required turning sideways or ducking low in order to pass. Some areas required climbing a ladder or using a rope as a handhold for a steep section. The floor was never really flat. Because there were kids and some elderly in our group, the pace was slow. But, everybody made it to the end. Some areas of the cave were very dark, and the handheld flashlights didn't help much. Others were well-lit by the natural light. It was actually pretty different to be in the lit areas, looking up at the vegetation from "underground." The other uniue feature was that this cave not only had stalagmites and stalactites, but some sort of rock feature that grows sideways. It required a lot of effort and caused me to be stinky the rest of the day, but it was worth it. We hopped back into the car for a quick stop at a huge mural. The mural was planned by Diego Rivera and Leovigildo Gonzales, then painted for 5 years by locals. For perspective this mural is a painting the way Mt. Rushmore is a statue. The climb to/through the cave had exhausted us and we had worked up a huge appetite, so we delighted in hearing that lunch was the next stop. They took us to this organic farm run by the locals. The food that we ate was all grown on the farm. The servers brought it out family style, and we got to try lots of vegetable dishes, as well as some meat and rice dishes. The best part though, was the view. The restaurant is at the top of a mountain overlooking the whole valley, and the view is stunning. Next up, we visited a tobacco farm. I was excited to see the cigar process, but I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. The tobacco guide made a lot of sex jokes, but didn't explain a lot other than the different leaves receive different amounts of light, which changes the cigar. He pulled out some dried leaves, stripped the middle vein, and rolled a cigar. There wasn't a lot to it. Everybody else smoked one, but I wasn't interested in dying of a self-imposed asthma attack. They briefly showed us a plant and a drying house, but didn't go into a lot of technical detail, other than how long the process takes. It felt more like a sales pitch (this is why our cigars are the best and why you should buy here) than an informational tour. Unless you're a hardcore cigar enthusiast, it's probably worth skipping. Our last stop for the day had about an hour line, but that was not worth skipping. It reminded me a bit of a Disney ride- the wait is longer than the ride, but it's still magical. The pathway through the caves to the start of the ride was paved and flat, with generally enough room vertically to stand and horizontally even for a wheelchair. They were much more developed than the last caves. As we waited, we had an in-depth conversation with JuanCarlos about how relationships in Cuba function. He was pretty amazed that my boyfriend "let" me travel abroad without him. He admitted that Cubans can be very sexist, but then seemed to wish the women behaved as if they weren't in a sexist society. His opinions were quite interesting, and definitely gave me some perspective about life in Cuba. The boat ride through Indio Caves was fun, again like a Disney ride. The guide drove us around, using a laser to point out various formations. (That one looks like an elephant. That is the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. There's one that looks like a skull.) The caves were beautiful though, and there are reasons the tourists all come to ride the river through the cave. Based on today, I highly recommend TaxiVinales as a tour company, JuanCarlos as a guide, and this specific tour (Vinales Day Trip). We had a great time. Our tour ended just as rain was beginning to fall. We waited out a pretty loud thunderstorm at our Casa in Vinales- Candita y Jose. Fortunately, it was over pretty quickly. The casa is simple, but clean and fresh. As much as Havana could use some paint, Vinales is covered in it. Walking down the main street in Vinales is definitely not authentic Cuba. It's like Aguas Calientes in Peru- there's only one main street and everything of it is for tourists. Every building on the middle part of main street is a restaurant or souvenir store, with exception of the money changer and the 2 banks with ATMs. I hadn't seen 2 ATMs in all of Havana, and Vinales is sooo much smaller. At the edges of main street and on all of the side streets, the rest of the buildings are casas particulares. They all have signs declaring their amenities via symbols- 24 hr hot and cold water, AC, food, etc. If you are backpacking and end up in Vinales, don't worry, there is no lack of lodging options. When the rain let up, we headed out to check out the food choices. Many restaurants were advertised as "Italian," meaning pizza and spaghetti. Cuban was also a choice. Many had 3.50 deals, but some were rather pricey. We randomly settled for one- Pomodoro. Of course, they didn't have the menu item that pulled us in, but the food was still good. What surprised me was they put mayo, mustard, and 2 other sauces on the table, like you'd get at a regular burger joint elsewhere. Also, my lasagna had mint on it. I'm still not sure if there were any actual spices in the lasagna, but the pasta wasn't spaghetti. The other surprise is that they added a 10% charge to the bill automatically. Do people not think they have to tip in Cuba? Everybody in Vinales is a tourist, so you'd think they were already tipping at least that much. Or maybe they thought it was a way to make people tip on the tip if they weren't paying attention. In any case, we finished walking the main street end to end after dinner, and then rested a few minutes at the casa. We had been told that there is a great party with salsa music in the town square at 9, and we wanted to go. They did have recorded music. But I now understand how guys feel about sausagefest frat parties. The square was filled with tourists like us, and almost no Cubans. Eventually,we danced a bit on our own, and a guy did dance with my friend while I played bag check. But the party was short lived. The music ended after only a few songs. I'm guessing the locals spread the word about the party to get the tourists out. One guy had a room in the main building on the square, and he was offering salsa lessons (paid, of course). Two bars flanked the right and left of the square. It's a good idea to draw everybody out and then give them someplace to go when the music stops. We just weren't up for anything but dancing, so we headed to the casa for the night.

The road to Vinales

The road to Vinales


View from lookout point

View from lookout point


Tobacco drying house

Tobacco drying house


Mogote

Mogote


Tourist Tree

Tourist Tree


San Tomas Cave

San Tomas Cave


Prehistoric Mural

Prehistoric Mural


Vinales

Vinales


Rolling Tobacco

Rolling Tobacco


Indian Cave

Indian Cave


Vinales

Vinales


Cattle

Cattle

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Classic Havana

Breakfast was again huge, but I made it worse by adding birthday cake. After stuffing ourselves silly, we headed out towards downtown, passing everyday Cuban life on the way. At the Prado parks, artists were just setting up for the day. A tout approached us offering a classic car tour. The sign he carried said 50 CUC for an hour, but he immediately lowered the price to 35, without us even asking. Perhaps we could have negotiated him down a bit more, but we're here to support the Cuban people, the car was a gas guzzler, the tour was longer than the airport ride, and we were paying for both a driver and guide. Surely he needed the few dollars we could have saved more than we did. The tour was more of a drive, since our guide, Jorge, didn't say too much and wasn't able to answer a lot of our questions, but he did periodically interject place names or point out sights. The driver didn't speak at all. Our first stop was the revolutionary square where big speeches are made. Then, we traveled through a forested area with narrow roads, and saw some of the newer (1970s) neighborhoods. We passed the famous cemetery, but didn't stop to see the famous graves. We did stop in John Lennon park. He wasn't wearing glasses when we arrived, but some lady apologized to us and put them back. We molested him, took a few pictures with him, and continued on our way. We drove around Vedado and saw a bunch of what I saw yesterday, before taking the Malecon back to Havana Vieja. The drive was quite pleasant, and I enjoyed being in an open car. It would have been better if Jorge had been more talkative and informative, but it was still enjoyable. We returned to our original plans and viewed the capitol. It's supposed to look like the capitol building in DC, and it does. We stumbled upon a flea market. There were the usual shoes and clothing. I also saw a plumbing stand, an electrical stand, and other stands that sold Home Depot-type items more than clothes or decorations. Seriously- one guy had a display of shiny new pipe fittings. I wonder if this is how most Cubans get items to fix up their homes. We continued to Plaza Vieja through neighborhoods that looked somewhat similar to where we were staying. Suddenly, we hit a huge crowd of tourists. The shift was startling and stark. We spent the next few hours surrounded by tourists, tourist attractions, touts, and everything that goes with tourism. Much of the areas had a Disneyesque-inauthenticicity to them. I frequently felt like we were at the "Havana Resort Disneyland." Most of the plazas felt more or less the same. The uniqueness came from what we did by each. At Plaza Vieja, we took the elevator to the top of a tower to see the camera obscura. This uses an old-fashioned camera technique to provide a live image of the city on a viewing disk. The operator zoomed in and out to focus on various parts of the city. It was awesome! Plus, there's a great view from the rooftop. Next, we were pulled in by a guy with a guitar that wanted to sing to us and take pictures with us. We are aware they want tips for such things, and walked away. But he followed us and gave us a story that said the government paid him to do this. This was his job. So we politely listened for a few moments, took pictures, and tried to be on our way. Of course, at the end, he wanted money. Not just money, but $5 for about a minute of singing and pictures. Absolutely not! We did tip him, but certainly not $5. We got int the out-the-door-long line at the Chocolate Museum. Really, it's a shop/cafe with a poster about the history of chocolate on the wall (Spanish only). The prices for chocolate are the same as the states or anywhere else, don't think you're getting it cheap. But it is tasty, and they had a few flavors that are less-common to find (Guava, certain rums). Next up, we visited San Francisco Plaza. Here, a large church dominates. Out front of the church, people tug the beard or finger of a statue for good luck. (We did too, of course.) We visited the fountain that I think is supposed to be famous for something, but you can't tell from looking at it. We also visited the post office for some stamps and the cadeca to change some money. One of the buildings we passed had guards that encouraged us to step inside (free). It was pretty empty of people, so we were cautious, but it was shady and cool. I think it's some sort of tourist mall, but it has nice statues inside, and is really fancy. Also, everything was closed and there were no people. So, I still can't be exactly sure what it was.

After that break, our attention again got pulled outside to the street. Several dancers on stilts paraded by. Music accompanied them, and they put on quite a show. I was happy to put a few coins in the collection bag for them. We stopped to check out a book fair that seemed less aimed at tourists and more aimed at Cubans. We saw Plaza de Armas, which wasn't so different. I got myself a fresh coconut to drink the juice from. Unfortunately, I took it to go, so when I was done with the juice, I didn't have anybody around to break it open so that I could scrape out the flesh. I got a bit with the straw, but not enough.

Finally, we made it up to El Castillo de Real Fuerza. Inside the typical Caribbean fort, we visited a Cuban history museum that showed us a lot about the naval history of Cuba. Some displays were English, but some were Spanish-only. It is an interesting diversion, and only really worth it because it's not too expensive.

By this time, we were hungry. While we would have been happiest sitting at a restaurant that was not a tourist trap, that didn't seem to exist in this part of town. We chose a restaurant with outdoor seating, and made sure to sit the area closest to the band. The band was actually quite good- I bought a CD from them at the end. But the dancers were the most entertaining part. Some Cubans would just be passing by, and start dancing to the music. It's as if the music were part of a street party. These are not professional dancers, although I'm sure they would have happily taken tips. They were just people looking to have a good time and salsa with random people off the street. The food itself was nothing special. I specifically asked if they had plantains when we ordered, and was assured yes. They never came out and I didn't get an explanation, so I asked. The waitress said somebody else got the last portion I was saddened by this, but also a bit annoyed that she didn't bother to tell me, she just didn't bring them. I know running out of ingredients is typical Caribbean, but usually they at least tell you when they're out elsewhere. I hope this isn't regular Cuban service.

Our last plaza was Plaza de Catedral. Of course, this one featured a Cathedral. It also featured a restaurant where they were filming something. I couldn't really get close enough to tell whether it was for Cuban tv or something foreign, because the film crews were set up and blocking the area off. Nearby, we saw one of the 2 famous Hemingway bars- La Bodeguita del Medio. It's really not much to see in the middle of the day. While I read some Hemingway in preparation for this trip, I'm not his biggest fan, so it didn't really get me excited the way some people got excited. We were surprised at how quickly we saw the things on our list for today. So, we decided to start in on the list for Wednesday. With the help of the Cuban people, we figured out how to take a guagua bus (public transport) across the tunnel to the other side. From the bus stop, it's still a nice walk up to the castle. We took the tour with the guide, and it was worth it. The castle isn't really marked for a self-guided visit. The guide shared stories with us that made the castle come to life a bit more. She also directed us to the return ferry. We walked past some sort of military equipment on display in an outdoor museum-like setting. We walked to the huge statue of Jesus next to Che's house. Then, we walked down the hill, with a stop at a peso churros stand on the way. The ferry is the public transportation that the locals use to cross. Its 20 moneda nacional, or 1 CUC, if that's all you have. The boat arrives to the dock, people load on, dropping their coin into the hands of the conductor, and the boat leaves when it's fully packed. It's only a few minutes to cross the river, and then it unloads a bit south of the cruise ship terminal- very efficient. As we had done quite a bit of walking, we decided to take a bicitaxi to the central area. As of now, I have used modern-vehicle taxi (from the airport yesterday), classic car taxi (tour this morning), guagua bus, ferry, and bicitaxi. The only thing I've seen and not used are tuktuks and horse rides, but those are much harder to find. For dinner, we stopped at Ana's buffet on the Malecon. The choices were extensive, and I felt that we were able to do it justice, what with all the walking we did today. I enjoyed the fried plantains immensely. If you're looking to try a little bit of each of the traditional Cuban foods, this would be a good place.

Regular Havana

Regular Havana


Artists on Prado

Artists on Prado


Classic Car

Classic Car


Revolution Square

Revolution Square


View from top of Camera Oscura

View from top of Camera Oscura


Chocolate Museum

Chocolate Museum


Coconut Seller

Coconut Seller


Castillo de Real Fuerza

Castillo de Real Fuerza


Cuban kids

Cuban kids


Fort

Fort


Big Jesus

Big Jesus


Ferry

Ferry

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 7) Page [1] 2 » Next