We were in Cuba for 18 days, so will split the blog…
I had been to Cuba in 2009, but for Sandra, it was her first visit. I was keen to return to several cities/towns I had already seen, plus visit others in more depth. Strangely, Havana was one city that I needed to explore more. When here previously, I had arrived late in the evening and then flew directly to Baracoa. When, as part of a 2009 tour group, we returned to Havana, I was struck down with food poisoning and had the privilege of staying in a Havana hospital for foreigners. This time, I had allowed 3 nights in the beginning and two nights, in the end, to ensure we saw as much of Havana as we could.
On the first night of our arrival, we dined at La Bodeguita del Medio – the historic restaurant where Ernest Hemingway, amongst others, dined. The CUC4 Mojitos were nice, but expensive compared to those we had outside of Havana – and we had a few! Like the Sydney counterpart, famous, infamous and us mere mortals had signed their autographs on the walls. The food was good and the small band was excellent (I was happy to buy a CD of their music for CUC10) – but this was our first night and there were many more bands to compare.
Based on my previous Cuban experience, we stayed in Casas Particulares – licensed private homes with rented rooms (similar to home stays). For Havana, we stayed at Casa Evora – an apartment on Prado (one of the main streets of Old Havana) near the Malecon. The location was perfect for walking to the museums, nightlife and various sightseeing activities. At CUC35 a night, this was a great value.
The view from our ninth floor room faced the west with panoramic views of the Carribean Sea and the setting sun.
The next day we visited Museo De La Ciudad De La Habana – where we were hounded by well-meaning old ladies trying to explain each room – in return, they were touting for our CUCs. The room displaying the Maine sinking artefacts and the 1902 Constitutional articles that gave so much power to the US – especially given that the articles were signed by the US and Spain – was one of the most interesting ones.
Cuba has a dual currency system – one for Foreigners and one for Cubans. At the time of writing, the CUC (that foreigners use) was pegged directly against the US dollars – one for one. One local peso was worth approx CUC0.05. Apparently, the average monthly wage was equivalent to CUC40.
Because of the balmy nights, we had decided to stroll along the Malecon to the famous Hotel Nacional (and sip yet another Mojito on the manicured lawn). After that, we walked three blocks to the equally famous (because Fidel and his revolutionaries used it as their Headquarters for a few months after the Revolution in 1959) Hotel Habana Libre. We had dinner in the Polynesian-themed restaurant attached to the Hotel and then spent the rest of the evening entertained by an all-female trio band. When the genre changed to bachata and cha cha cha, Sandra and I got up and danced in the hotel atrium while others watched on.
The next day, we got up early, ready to visit the Parque Historico Militar Morro-Cabana – two forts on the opposite side of the harbour to Havana. The hop-on-hop-off bus (route 3, CUC3 each) was running late so decided not to stop at our stop (and instead head straight to the Playas del Este), so it took more than an hour to cross the bay. Once there, the 15th century Castillo de Los Tres Santos Reyes del Morro (with the lighthouse) proved far more interesting than the 18th century Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, or maybe it was the hot lunchtime sun that was wearing us down. We knew we had to save some energy for the evening entertainment so decided to return back to Havana Vieja.
Grand Theatre Experience
Having been to the Gran Teatro De La Havana before, I was keen to go to another performance there – given Cuba’s affinity for the arts and culture. The Gran Teatro is the home theatre for the acclaimed Nacional Ballet de Cuba and the Cuban National Opera Society. The performance while we were in town was called El Fantasma – a ballet/flamenco style interpretation of Phantom of the Opera. Paying the standard tourist price of CUC25 per seat (locals pay only CUP5), we were rewarded with a first-class exhilarating show. The theatre itself is an architectural showpiece. Combine that with a live mini-orchestra, a cast of approximately 15 and a nearly full theatre, and we had a great evening of entertainment.
Casa de la Musica
After the show, we headed to the nearby Casa de la Musica. Given there are three named the same in Havana alone, we had obviously wanted to go to the most famous (and as we were to find out), the best for people watching. We arrived 45minutes before opening time, so had a Mojito in the small, but very smoky bar next to the Salsa Club. Given that (the most expensive) cigarettes cost only CUC3, it is not surprising that the majority of locals smoke and there are no laws banning smoking in restaurants or bars. By the time the club opened at 2300hours, our clothes and hair stunk.
The club itself is quite large, but the dance floor is not. Once we were seated halfway between the bar and the dance floor, the sea of humans took their places around the room. Young Cuban women stood in twos and threes eyeing up the single foreign males. As soon as the foreigners took their seats, one or two girls would saunter over and strike up a conversation usually with the classic opening line of where are you from? and the intent for money to be exchanged. At the table next to ours, three older (>55+) guys already had their Cuban girls (<25) with them so they were left alone. At one point, Sandra went to the bathroom, threatening to leave me out to the vultures for 20minutes. A salsa performance of a couple of songs occurred at midnight and after several speeches, the band started at 0100hours – and we still hadn’t had a dance.
Once it did start, the small dance floor was immediately packed with tourists and the locals alike. The watching of human trafficking was quickly put aside while we decided to join the throngs for several dances. If you are happy to pay for your dances (on a dance/girl by girl basis), watching a decent large band playing (through the haze of cigarette smoke) and are into people watching, then this should definitely be on your to-do list in Havana – otherwise, I’d stick to some of the smaller restaurants/outdoor bars that have live music to attract their patronage. We stayed two more nights in Havana and then took a Viazul bus to Santa Clara.