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Visiting Cuba: Havana ooh na-na!

As you may remember, this trip didn’t come out of nowhere. You could say that we’ve been on our way for well over a decade now. While Eric did much of the initial planning and calculating, I got us mentally ready with some pre-tour research before visiting Cuba. I took notes along the journey in Cuba to not forget what we did and the places and people we encountered. My notes turned into a volume that I need to divide into three parts so you don’t get too bored reading my words. I previously shared my first impressions with you in my last post but I thought I’d go a little more into detail to help anyone even considering going to Cuba to learn a bit more about what we did and saw. There was a lot to unpack and even if this may take you a while to read, believe me, it isn’t everything. I broke this next bit into two parts Havana and then the rest of Cuba that we saw. Stick with me as I take you along with me on my adventures in Cuba. 

Visiting Havana – by foot and classic car

I highly recommend whenever you can to throw in a few guided tours here and there when visiting a new place. As part of our Cuba package, we had the opportunity to take a tour on foot through the historic center with a local guide.

The day of our walking tour with Felix happened to also be Eric’s birthday. At one point during our walking tour, we started being followed by a guy with a backpack and a notepad. Eric didn’t notice him but as I was always looking around my surroundings observant, I picked up on the guy who was frantically scribbling. I slowed down enough to be behind him and saw that he was doing a fast sketch of our birthday boy. “Perfect,” I thought! This would be a great birthday gift so I told the guy that it was Eric’s birthday and to include a birthday message and his name on his sketch for which I happily paid him. I have much respect for anyone trying to make their way in this world using their acquired talents. 

What do you think of the sketch? Not too shabby, right?

I told Felix that Remi and Eric both needed haircuts so he took us to Ensueño – Salon de Beleza. I felt kind of bad because I think that the barber took us before another guy who was waiting. The guy eventually got tired of waiting and left with his girlfriend. But my boys got nice fresh cuts and Eric even got himself a facial massage. Happy birthday!

Fearing that on this voyage you may not see so much of me in the video, occasionally, I call Remi over and have him be my cameraman. 

Our birthday boy got treated to lunch at a restaurant selected by Felix, Esquina de Cuba. I’m going to have to say that I am still not super impressed with the food, but I was told to expect as much. It’s mainly that there is not much seasoning being used in the food. One thing I can say though is that it was well-balanced. I really shouldn’t complain. 

One of the things you will note (and that our guide tells us) is that they, the guides, get to eat for free. A bit of a commission for bringing in business to the establishment and an opportunity for them to get a decent meal. Many times, in order not to create confusion, they eat separately from you because if they do (as was the case once with Aramis), you end up paying and the day that happened to us, Aramis was extremely uncomfortable because it is not really how things work. We learned not to make the same mistake twice. Not because we didn’t want to dine with him but that for him it was not the way of the land. 

At the end of the day, we said goodbye to Felix, and only minutes after he left us at the B&B, the electricity which had been out since the night before came back on. He was poised and ready to move us to another accommodation if this would continue longer. Thankfully, it did not.

In the evening we went to a restaurant with a rooftop bar where we swayed to the music from DJ Yasel Berroa’s set at Sibarita. The cocktails were lovely and the food was good. Remi was content to have a giant burger. 

Touring Havana in a 1953 Chevy

You can’t come to Havana and not do the most classic, most photographed, and recorded activity there is, touring around in a classic American car. While our ride was not a convertible, it was no less impressive. 

Before we left Havana for our road trip, we spent several hours touring the city with Aramis, and here are some of the highlights:

A bit of Afro-Cuba with Santería which is an Afro-Cuban religion with Yoruba roots. We drove to Callejón de Hamel to check out an art collective of Afro-Cuban origin. This is the unofficial headquarters of the Afro-Cuban community in Havana.

Callejon Hamel – Havana, Cuba

It was fascinating to see these beliefs which were brought by enslaved West Africans mainly of Yoruba origin meshed with Catholic saints and still practiced far from the motherland where much of it has been replaced entirely.

Speaking of Santería, I saw my first sacrifice. Yup, you read that correctly. We headed to Isla Josefina which is a picturesque reprieve from bustling Havana with greenery and a babbling river. Ideal for getting overpriced virgin mojitos and having your picture taken next to more classic cars. We were not alone on this path and our presence certainly did not disturb the chicken being beheaded by the water. All part of the authentic experience. 

To complete our eclectic tour, we headed to the fantastic works of José Rodriguez Fuster who transformed his community into a work of art. You can see the Gaudí influence. More on José here.

We headed to the Castillo de Morro to visit one of the fortresses of Havana and climb up the lighthouse with a guide. The view was lovely, the cooler breeze was even lovelier! 

Panoramic view from the top of the lighthouse of Castillo de Morro

Onwards to see the large Jesus statue and enjoy another view of the city. Aramis tells us that we can also visit Ché Guevara’s house which is across from it but A) we are hot, B) we are tired, and C) we are not that interested. 

It was all a bit too much. We had to tell Aramis that we were through for the day. While it hadn’t been an unpleasant day by any means, the suggested itinerary was not really what we were interested in. We didn’t want to head to areas to buy souvenirs we didn’t need or follow the same paths as countless other tourists, though obviously that was going to happen anyway. We were really looking forward to our road trip which would commence the next day and we were tired.

Where we ate & drank in Havana:

La Vitrola  – this was probably the best meal we had in Havana. So much so that we ate there twice. The only other place we ate that I feel worth noting would be the Sibarita that I mentioned earlier.

La Vitrola in Havana, Cuba

On our return to Havana, we finally made it to the iconic Hotel Nacional, and while we wanted to try a Cuban sandwich while there we were only met with disappointment because they didn’t have any. Of the only 2 items on the food list, the Cuban or a cheese sandwich, they only had the cheese sandwich. I ordered a mojito and it too left me not feeling the magic. But the setting was beautiful. 

Hotel Nacional – Google Maps shows two. No clue what the other one is

Much of Havana was like this, beautiful buildings only steps away from faded or absolutely rundown facades beginning for some assistance. Government buildings loomed high, shiny, and, renovated while the rest were dilapidated and sad. There is something striking about it. You want to cry almost seeing something that could be so glorious be so abandoned but even in those quasi-abandoned habitats, there is life. There is music and there are the Cuban people, hustling to make the most of today with the little they may have. It gives you pause … much pause. You look at the city and you can just picture just how vibrant it must have been. The people still keep it alive but the makeup is cracking and the deep wrinkles and blemishes are showing.

Fuera de Havana 

On the way to Viñales, located in the Pinar del Rio province, we stopped to visit the museum/cabin of an internationally famous Cuban musician I had never heard of, Polo Montañez – Casa de Polo in Las Terrazas. This is a destination loved by locals for some rest and relaxation. It reminded me of some of the vacation communities we’ve stayed at in the Cevennes mountains in France. Travel is like that, you often find yourself trying to connect the dots to similar places, events, & people.

Pinar del Rio province is tobacco & coffee-rich land. We stopped to visit a former coffee plantation turned into a restaurant. Aramis showed us some of the remains of the housing where slaves lived in large numbers in tiny quarters under deplorable conditions. Now overgrown by vegetation, you can barely make out what was once a place of no return. I’m not too clear on what the idea of the visit was but Aramis gives us some insight into the workings of the plantation in its heyday.

It’s nearly lunchtime, and we’re getting hungry. Along the autopista, you don’t have many places to stop. But our driver knows the spots where we can get something to eat. Sadly not as many spots to use the restroom. While we were armed with snacks, we were grateful when he stopped at a stand selling sodas and sandwiches. We were invited by Aramis to this roadside eatery making pulled pork sandwiches. Oh my, was it delicious! Sometimes the simplest cheapest meals are the most gratifying. 

Riding in a ’53 Chevy with no AC on an endless highway in July is not the most refreshing experience. While we have the windows wide open, that breeze is by no means cooling. Seeing how hot we were Aramis suggested a local watering hole with a cascading waterfall in Sorao. Locals are free to enter but foreigners pay a small entrance fee. Very rustic and not another tourist in sight but we didn’t stay long since in the end, Remi didn’t want to swim. 

Next stops: Viñales, Playa Larga, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Remedios, & back to Havana …

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