Travels with Corie...
CUBA... Unkept Promises and Unfulfilled Dreams
Reaching Cuba directly from any US port is not possible due to the embargo. So US citizens who wish to experience it fly to other countries and then into Cuba. I had been told it was like "stepping back in time" to go there and wanted to experience that for myself. Flying on Cayman Airways through Grand Cayman took us from Miami, Florida to Havana, Cuba in about 5 hours including 1 stop.
The first thing that jumps out at you as you approach Cuba and prepare to land in Havana is the iron-rich, red earth and all the agricultural activities. The major crop in Cuba is sugar cane (a lot of which is used in their Havana Rum), tobacco is second (for their cigars, most of which are exported) and third is citrus (they are the largest producer of grapefruit in the world). After departing the terminal you can't help but be almost overwhelmed by the collection of 1950s American cars that seem to be everywhere... as promised, it really is like stepping back in time. The difference is that many of the cars are in much brighter prettier colors than I remembered as a child: bright pinks and reds, purple and intense blues. Many are used as taxis so it's a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a ride.
My friend and I had hoped to stay at the Parque Central in downtown Havana to be within walking distance of almost everything. Since we were arriving shortly after New Year's, that hotel was booked and we stayed in the National Hotel (built in 1930 and "the place" to stay in the early days of Havana). Because it was 8 Km from downtown, we had a $6 cab ride ($5 plus $1 tip) each way to get to most of the places we wanted to see.
Besides all the fun of seeing so many 1950s vehicles, the other wonderful thing about Cuba is the people... very friendly and willing to help you. Yes, we did get approached for money, but no more so than at major metropolitan areas at home in the USA. Food and beverages (Cristal beer was our favorite!) at most locations were inexpensive and the seafood was excellent. Did I mention how much I loved the "street churros"??!! We chose to stay in Havana for the 7 days we were in Cuba. Because we had 2 days of severe storms, this turned out to be a good decision as we were unable to do some of the things we wanted. However, the storms were beautiful in their intensity.
But... the reason for the title of this article and why my heart was "heavy" after 2 days in Havana is the complete failure of Fidel Castro and the Cuban government to deliver on the promises that he made to these people when he helped lead the revolution to depose Batista. There is money that comes into this country from tourism and numerous other sources, but the infrastructure to provide for the Cuban people is failing them and keeping them from fulfilling their dreams. The buildings and infrastructures in Havana (I did not get out of the City, but would think that the "Capital" of the country would most likely be the "best" representation of the country) are decrepit to say the least. Some are merely empty shells that should have been torn down decades ago, most are showing signs of no maintenance or upkeep for decades as well. My friend and I walked from the National Hotel to the Necropolis de Colon (the large cemetary in Havana) and while I prefer walking to get a sense of neighborhoods and a city, you could NOT take your eyes off the ground to enjoy the neighborhoods because you would have put yourself at risk of tripping or falling over the broken, shattered sidewalks and streets. Then, when we arrived at the cemetary, we were charged $5 CUC per person to enter... the only time I can ever remember being charged to enter a cemetary. I might have been more understanding if the cemetary was well-cared-for, but that was not the case. Once again, neglect (for decades, not just years!) was apparent. You can find the occasional small area of beauty or cleanliness that is cared for and in good condition, but this is definitely the exception and not the rule.
However, we still enjoyed the people, the food and lots of things to do and see...
Havana has a "Hop On, Hop Off" bus tour that you can pick up at the Jose Marti Plaza. While these are usually a good way to get oriented and help you decide what you want to see, the sound system on our particular bus was quite bad, so while we saw a lot and got "oriented", we did not benefit from any "local knowledge".
The San Jose Flea Market down near the port. We took a 1948 Chevrolet convertible cab to this destination. Worth the extra dollars to ride in it and enjoy it. All kinds of gift items and art work as well as humidors and cigars. I could have easily spent more time here, but I'm a girl!!
Plaza Viela (or the Old Plaza). The only "camera obscura" in the Western Hemisphere is here (Worth the tour for the rooftop view of old Havana and the port). The square has recently been remodeled and newer stores added (mixed feelings by the people that they are not local vendors, but rather larger chain stores). The only sad thing is that the beautiful fountain in the center of the plaza is completely fenced off so people can get no where near it. The outstanding Cafe Taberna is on the corner of the square and well worth the visit, two of their really good shrimp and lobster salads, 3 beers and a flan will be less than $25 CUC including tip!! And they have a wonderful band and occasionally professional dancers who entertain the tourist groups that come through. Walking Mercaderes street back towards Plaza de la Catedral is another good way to get a feel of old Havana.
- Plaza de la Catedral, has the oldest church in Cuba, but we were never able to enter any of the four cathedrals we walked up to in Havana. They were always locked with no signs to say when services might be.
- Plaza de Armas. Pretty little park with lots of street vendors (mostly books) and a great view of the Cristo de la Habana on the Fort side of the water.
- Make certain you walk Obispo street, preferably twice to see all there is to see. The Europa restaurant had the best prices on fresh Lobster cold beer.
- Have some of the fresh "churros" (the Spanish version of deep fried donuts) from a street vendor. They are SO good!!
- Have a drink at the Floridita bar (one of Hemmingway's hangouts when he was there), enjoy the music from local bands, try a Mojito or Dacquiri and definitely take your photo with the bronze statue of Hemmingway that is leaning on the bar!!
- The National Museum of Art just off the Jose Marti Plaza. It has a beautiful stained glass rotunda that is worth seeing by itself. Lots of impressionist art from various countries.
- The Museo de la Revolucion is housed in the former Presidential Palace. It is a tribute to the revolution starting from the guerrilla war to the present day. It's always interesting to see something from another country's perspective. and see how they "framed" their experience. Pieces from one of our U-2 planes that was shot down during the October Missile Crisis are there as is a missile like the one that shot it down and various other military vehicles and equipment.
- The tour of the Havana Rum Club museum and drinks at the bar afterward (or before!) is worth the stop!
- The Salon de la Fama at The National Hotel not only has great drinks, but their Cuban sandwich was one of the best we had. And the pictures of all the famous people who have visited there are fun to see… as is the statue of Nat King Cole!
- Find some time to walk the "Malecon", the expansive walkway along the ocean from near the National Hotel to almost downtown Havana. On stormy days the wind will wash the ocean against the stone walls, across the promenade and onto the streets. Quite dramatic!
- The Jose Marti Memorial area with the tall monument and large statue of him as well as the metal scuptures of Che Guevara and the Ayatolla Kohmeni on nearby buildings.
- Visit the National Hotel for their "tour" and see the underground tunnels and small museum dedicated to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Another experience in Cuba was walking down a street and feeling like you were in Spain or possibly New Orleans. The architecture will remind you at times of both those places as well. We spoke "un poquito" of Spanish and were able to get around and accomplish our plans. The people make every effort to be helpful and are the real reason to visit Cuba.