April 25

We're off! We're leaving the Dominican Republic for the short flight to Havana, Cuba.

We had a driver waiting for us at the airport and we mentioned how anxious we were to see big old American cars and he said we were going to see one .. Right Now .. because that's the car he had...

...a Big Old American Car. You will see so many, and I'll be putting a collection in a chapter all its own.

'Big Old American Car' is the exact words used by nearly every taximan in Havana. Come! Come! Come ride in my Big Old American Car!

The cars are all in varying degrees of maintenance from glowingly perfect physical condition purring like tigers to others that look like they are made of bondo and are running on a sewing machine motor.

This car is a good example of an inbetweener in that some of the metal work is good, some of the chrome is shiny, the interior is mostly wack, and he put a 4 cylinder Toyota engine under the hood.
The total lack of advertising billboards is one of my most vivid memories of this trip. I saw this type of billboard though, but not as many as I thought there would be.

This is the English language Wikipedia opening paragraph about these guys (thanks Terry):

"The Cuban Five, also known as the Miami Five[1] (Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González) are five Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities in the United States."
Businesses have small signs announcing their name, and here we have our Casa Particular in the home of Señora Angela. More on Casa Particular later.

There are a huge number of tourists in Cuba just not so many Americans. Cubans in the tourist trade can for the most part speak English fairly well, and certainly well enough to get business done because, one driver told us, the French and German and Asian and most other tourists in Cuba can usually speak some English too so it's the obvious language to learn.
Merlyn, Carol, and Alex at the home where we ate dinner.
Our first night and we decided to have dinner as offered by the woman Alex and Carol were dealing with regarding accommodation in Havana.

Her bedrooms were full already but she had plenty of friends and neighbors with rooms for rent.
And a view from our balcony looking down on the pedi-cab garage. The neighborhood might seem a little raw but actually it was perfectly safe and welcoming.

The number one most fun thing about this trip was staying in family homes using the system of Casa Particular. We had three different homes during our time in Havana, two before and one after the road trip, and we stayed in four different homes while on the road.

It was amazing to be so close to people, to live in their 'guest bedroom', to sit around the table for coffee and a chat, and it was easy and comfortable and so inexpensive. I wrote about this at great length in the chapter about our road trip to The Cuban Countryside.
We were only a few blocks off the pedestrian Paseo del Prado:

"Construction of this stately European-style boulevard (officially known as Paseo de Martí) began outside the city walls in 1770, and the work was completed in the mid-1830s during the term of Captain General Miguel Tacón. He also constructed the original Parque Central. The idea behind El Prado was to create in Habana a boulevard as splendid as any found in Paris, Florence or Madrid. The famous bronze lions that guard the central promenade at either end were added in 1928."

During the day and especially on weekends this place is hoppin'.
April 26

Walking down the Paseo this morning we came across a small class gathered here by a man who seemed to be their teacher but we moved along so I don't know what they were going to do. Whatever it was going to be they certainly would look adorable doing it.

Upon reflection, this couldn't have been about school because all the kids wear uniforms so what were they going to do? I don't know!
We joined the Hop On-Hop Off bus at the corner of the Parque Central and the Grand Theater this morning to get an overview of the layout of the city.
This intersection includes the Parque, the Grand Theater of Havana, and the National Capitol Building and it's a good spot for catching Big Old American Cars.
Flags, yes. Copied from worldflags101.com:

"In 1848, Narciso López, a Venezuelan general made the first serious attempt to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. He designed 'La Estrella Solitaria', 'The Lone Star' banner, (blue stripe=three old divisions of the island, white stripe=strength of the independent ideal, red triangle=equality, fraternity and freedom, white star=absolute freedom).

"In 1902 Cuba became an independent republic and López's flag was adopted as the official flag, even after Fidel Castro seized the country after the Communist revolution in 1959."
In the Plaza of the Revolution we find the memorial to José Martí, national hero of Cuba.

If you're interested to look up about José Martí you wouldn't be sorry. His war was for independence from Spain and like Wiki says "Martí is considered one of the great turn-of-the-century Latin American intellectuals."
What we saw 'around town' seemed about 2-1 Che vs Fidel, Che being by far the sentimental favorite.

"Plaza de la Revolución, in Havana, Cuba. Aside the Ministry of the Interior building where Guevara once worked, is a 5 story steel outline of his face. Under the image is Guevara's motto, the Spanish phrase: "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (English: Until Victory, forever.)."
A vegetable market in a residential area.
It was here that the bus broke down helpfully beside a café with coffee and a toilet, and in short order another vehicle just like it came to the rescue.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (The Colon Cemetery) founded in 1876 and now with more than one million 'residents'. It took a few blocks just to drive by.
Big Old American Cars and little Ladas, the widely available Russian import. I'm also seeing a Renault Scala and a Kia.
This is Lt. General José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales (June 14, 1845 – December 7, 1896) who was second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence (thanks Terry).
Hola! across the street from our casa.
Back in the big plaza with the park, the capitol building and...
...another view of the Grand Theater and taxi central.
Thumbs up! from one of the extremely rare panhandlers.
Monument to Sancho Panza.
I think these are women of Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumí or Lukumi, "a religion of West African and Caribbean origin influenced by Roman Catholic Christianity."

We were pretty sure we heard their drumming and chanting coming from the buildings although we never saw more than these women and a few others dressed similarly.

Interesting from Wiki (speaking of the African slaves brought to Cuba in earnest beginning in the mid 1500s)): "...in order to preserve their authentic ancestral and traditional beliefs, the Lukumi people had no choice but to disguise their orishas as Catholic saints. When the Roman Catholic slave owners observed Africans celebrating a Saint's Day, they were generally unaware that the slaves were actually worshiping one of their sacred orishas. Due to this history, in Cuba today, the terms "saint" and "orisha" are sometimes used interchangeably.

"This historical 'veil' characterization of the relationship between Catholic saints and Cuban orisha is made all the more complicated by the fact that the vast majority of santeros in Cuba today also consider themselves to be Catholics, have been baptized, and often require initiates to be baptized as well."
You'll see the torn-up streets later that are a little rough for walking but the finished paving is quite nice indeed.
¡Viva la Revolución!
It was a stone cold Riot how nearly every musical combo in the commercial areas, of which there were hundreds, music pouring from every door and window, felt the need to play Guantanamera and greatest hits from the Buena Vista Social Club. I got pretty snippy about it after a few days and Alex and Carol and Merlyn would amuse each other by humming the hook to Guantanamera just to watch me cry.
Fresh paint and lively colors.
"In the Plaza de la Catedral, The Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana (Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception), also dedicated to Saint Christopher (San Cristóbal), sometimes called Cathedral of Saint Christopher.

"The Jesuits began construction of the church in 1748 and work continued despite their expulsion in 1767. When the building was finished in 1787, the church became a cathedral – one of the oldest in the Americas. The remains of Columbus were interred here from 1795 to 1898, when they were moved to Seville. ((The cathedral in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic was finished in 1540 where they also claim to have remains of Christopher Columbus.))

"The Cathedral is said to be the only example of a Baroque facade that was designed with asymmetrical features - one of the towers is wider than the other. ((When I put this two-picture pano together I though I had made a big mistake! The story was they did it for drainage which I didn't quite understand.))

"Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier famously described the Cathedral as "music set in stone".
Check out the stockings on this woman. It seemed as though all the women wearing something of a uniform (hotel workers, public service positions, banking) choose these knock-out stockings in varying patterns.

We forgot when there were chances to ask about them. I was especially wondering if it was a recent phenomenon or a fashion of long standing.
The omnipresence of musical combos throughout Old Havana was stunning. It rivaled the French Quarter in New Orleans for quantity and (with the possible exception of their passion for Guantanamera) they were fantastic.
A different combo, another stylin' dude.
They're in front of the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana), right beside Park Central (thanks Terry).
Music music music, and tile to beat the band.
In the Plaza de la Catedral for the requisite nightcap.

It was lovely to be out at night, something I do rarely on my own. On this trip it felt to me like we were creatures of the night.
Another well designed and maintained plaza.

There are many plazas around and I didn't get pictures of them all, or use all the pictures I took, and I don't even remember so much which is which.

I thought it might have been the Plaza de Armas but (thanks Terry!) 'No, it's the northeast corner of Plaza Vieja. (The one with the huge fountain in the centre.)'
Chatting it up, about art of course.
Along the streets of Old Havana, a crowd gathers outside a sold out house...
...for MUSIC! Where the Silverlake hipsters get their hats.
We saw not one single graffiti tag and no graffiti that didn't seem purposeful like this piece. Not to say it wasn't there, just that we didn't see it.
Pedi-cabs, an easy way home when you're not in the mood to figure out the map.
April 27

The other piece of graffiti/street art that we passed many times. This piece and the stairs, that was it.
Alex getting us the car for our road trip. Thank you Alex for everything. We're all in this picture - Merlyn beside Alex and Carol and I on the couch reflected in the mirror.
At the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion), a couple of sweetie-pie staff.
I don't remember why I chose him, but I asked the guy in the pink shirt what was the meaning of the slogan on the blue shirt.

Turns out the blue shirt belonged to the pink shirt guy, he a tourist from Peru traveling with his friend from Argentina and the slogan referenced an election in Lima.

They were speaking Spanish but it was obvious they were tourists because their Spanish didn't sound local. It's pretty easy to hear Cuban/not Cuban. I did ask my question in Spanish and he understood (yay me) but immediately switched to English (okaaay)...
An interpretation of the Granma, the yacht Castro used when he first brought fighters to Cuba in 1956.
More from the museum.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Monument.
A couple of Hotel Nacional stories, and there are many many more:

"In December 1946 it hosted an infamous mob summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and attended by Santo Trafficante, Jr., Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and many others. Francis Ford Coppola memorably dramatised the conference in his film The Godfather Part II."

"There is also a small museum there featuring the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. During the crisis, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters there to prepare the defense of Havana from aerial attack."
...and the site of a pretty girl's Quinceañera photo shoot. (She's not a bride, she's 15, I talked to the photographer.)
Stopping briefly at the Malecón for some sunset pictures.
More about the Malecón later.

We were on our way to see the nightly ceremony of the changing of the guard and firing of the cannon at the Fort.
Named Fortresa de San Carlos de la Cabana, and also named Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro? so it looks like it's a fort and a castle? built in 1589 when Cuba was under the control of the Spanish.

It's a nice view from the walls of the fort .. on the promontory across the bay of Havana Port from the Malecón and Old Havana.
They conduct a rather long and costumed ceremony and at the end there's the firing of the cannon...
...BAM! a kick for all the kids.
April 28

We're packing up for our Road Trip to The Cuban Countryside including Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Playa de Guanabo, and Viñales. (Any pictures of our hosts?)
May 3

It's the afternoon now, back from our Road Trip to The Cuban Countryside. We embarked upon the rig-a-ma-roll of getting settled in our new accommodation and of returning the car (thanks Alex) .. and while Alex returned the car Merlyn and I took a we-are-old we-need-a-break break.

Then we all got back together to enjoy a late afternoon cocktail at Ernest Hemingway's favorite hotel (Hemingway lived in Cuba off and on during the 1940s and '50s), the Hotel Ambos Mundos...
...and stroll again through Old Havana now with plenty of road work happening along the pedestrian walk streets.
One of the many nicely refreshed plazas.
Café Taberna (thanks Terry), a place I thought called itself The Buena Vista Social Club but that might be because of all the BVSC around the place.

A repeat here: It was a stone cold Riot how nearly every musical combo around the tourist streets, of which like I mentioned there were hundreds, felt the need to play Guantanamera and greatest hits from the Buena Vista Social Club.
One of them is from some place in South America and one of them is from some place else .. dang, I forget the details but they were sweet and wanted to practice English.
May 4

Check out the key at the end of the blue rope.

Our casa for the last two nights was a 3rd floor walk-up. This balcony was off the landing between the two apartments on the floor and when a guest rang the bell someone would lower the key.
During another stroll down the Paseo del Prado, Merlyn wanted to take this picture for Hilda to read. Merlyn was often taking pictures with other people in mind which was charming and fun.
These lions flanked the intersections on the Paseo.

There were many vendors along the Paseo selling art, trinkets, and snacks.

Here's a rap I wrote in the road trip section too: There are two Cuban currencies, the national peso called a CUP and the convertible peso called a CUC.

Cubans are paid mostly in CUP which is worth about 6 cents (according to Alex) compared to a CUC which is tied (pretty much) to the US dollar. If you get some CUPs you are free to spend them at the local rate.

If a citizen can do something that brings tourist CUC that person can become much more affluent than those who don't, hence the great enthusiasm for Casas Particulares and other tourist services.

I had previously said don't bring USD because you can't spend it but that's not the actual story (thanks Terry). Still you'll want to bring Canadian or Euro to exchange at the bank.

Here's Terry's explanation: "If something like a snack costs 1 CUP and you pay 1 CUC you will receive your change - you don't automatically pay 1 CUC in total just because you're a tourist. And yes, US Dollars are perfectly acceptable for exchange at any Bank or Cadeca, they suffer a 10% surcharge, that's all."
Lined up to take you on a tour.
Click here if you want to see a chapter called Name That Big Old American Car.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba, the Modern and Contemporary collection. I'm not 100% sure I've got the name right but the Getty seems to be leaning in this direction.

First thing a lovely older woman confiscated my entire bag. When I told her (in Spanish which was fun) that in the bag was my entire life she promised I shouldn't worry about a thing, that she was personally in charge, and she held my hand. It was sweet.

I enjoyed the museum very much however I will note that the air conditioning wasn't working, it was h.o.t and from what people said it seemed to have not been working for a while. This could not have been good for the art.
Leaving the museum we caught sight of this building in the distance and Merlyn and I thought to check it out.

Come to find it's the Bacardi Building, an art deco landmark completed in 1930, and now a general office space where we got a 1 CUC ride up 7 floors, walked up 2 floors to the top where what we got...

Castro nationalized the whole Bacardi operation in 1960 when the last of the clan left to build their businesses elsewhere.

The Bacardis have a long, influential, and conflicted story in Cuba beginning in the 1800s. Ms Wiki knows it all so have look to get a quick overview of how it went for one business interest in Cuba.
And more.

You can get a feeling for the harbor and the fort/castle that wraps around.
Looking toward the Plaza of the Revolution far in the distance.
Merlyn, on the roof of our casa enjoying a sun-downer.

Merlyn was favoring Buccaneer beer while Alex was drinking Crystal. They both drank beer as a back to their really yummy shots of Havana Club rum. Carol was into the mojitos and I went for this-or-that as the spirit struck.
Around the corner and...
...down the street.
Heading out for a sunset stroll along the Malecón.

We had often stopped at this corner for a beverage break.

Buildings facing the Malecón. The next several slides tell more about this lively and historic part of Havana.
Lonely Planet: "Do not miss out on the Malecón sea-drive, 8km of shabby magnificence that stretches the breadth of the city from Havana Vieja to Miramar and acts as a substitute living room for tens of thousands of cavorting, canoodling, romance-seeking habaneros. Traverse it during a storm when giant waves breach the wall, or tackle it at sunset with Benny Moré on your iPod, a bottle of Havana Club in your hand and the notion that anything is possible come 10pm."
This woman wanted to talk and I heard about all her relatives in the States, all about when she was going for a visit to Florida, and all about line fishing.
Check out the kids waiting by the sea wall, waiting to be thrown across the road so they could then run back and do it again.


The wiki article on the Malecón is interesting - I can't resist copying several paragraphs here: "Construction of the Malecón began in 1901, during temporary U.S. military rule the main purpose of which was to protect Havana from the water and the so-called Nortes, but in reality, it wound up serving more for nighttime promenades by Habaneros, for lovers and most of all for individual fishermen.

"...Subsequent Cuban governments continued the extension of the first section of the Malecón. In 1923 it reached the mouth of the Almendares River between K and L streets in Vedado, where the United States Embassy was built, the José Martí Sports Park and further out, the Hotel Rosita de Hornedo, today, the Sierra Maestra.

"The Malecón continues to be popular among Cubans, especially among those of lesser means whose other means of entertainment are limited. It is a means of income for poorer families, as individual fishermen cast their lures there. In addition, it is a hotspot for prostitution.

"Although the houses lining the Malecón are mostly in ruins, the Malecón remains one of the most spectacular and popular destinations in Havana."

We had to cross the street to avoid being blow across the street with a soaking gust. I decided to get pictures off the others and keep my camera safe(ish) in my bag and anyway my companions were moving so fast I didn't have time to find a good place and settle in.

What it looked like twenty minutes later. This is a National Geographic photo, but it looked just like this!

Our evening's fond farewell as we leave very very early in the morning to return to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Wow, Cuba and, like everywhere, tomorrow it will be different so come as soon as you can and ENJOY!
HomeMexico and the Caribbean • Cuba • '13 Apr: Cuba - Havana

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