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Cuba: Hasta siempre, Comandante!

21 September 2012 Cuba, travel stories 2 comments

Things to do in Havana: drive a vintage American car

When I left for Cuba, I left with certain clichés in mind, many originating from my past – queues, empty stores, a gloomy and a sinister atmosphere that used to dominate the 1980s’ Romania. I was expecting empty stalls and darkness, but at least, in a tropical context. And what have I found when I arrived there, partially infirmed my clichés….but not all of them.

Landing at night time in Havana brought me back to the Romania of the 1980s. A pretty large airport, but illuminated with those sad and dim neon lights of the “Golden Communist Age”. The border crossing was like a citadel from which one could not have a glimpse “beyond”. However, we had some really nice border guards, which did not speak any English, but smiling and friendly. Furthermore we did not get any stamp in our passport. The US citizens are forbidden to visit Cuba and the foreign citizens that return to the United States after visiting Cuba are welcomed back in a Soviet manner, because they must not have with them any product of a Cuban origin. This is why the Cubans do not apply visas or stamps in the passport but on paper sheets so that their guests would not have any problems. But, anyhow, Big Brother guards at the Northern American frontiers, so it is preferable to avoid the United States when you return from Cuba.

And here I am on the other side… hmmm… a big hall, also badly illuminated, but in which the market economy flickers… A few taxi drivers storm towards me in order to take me into town. Finally, we arrive in an old Lada. We want in the Vedado neighborhood, on street 24 cornered with 23. Although communist, Cuba has a lot of American customs. For example, the streets in the Vedado neighborhood have no names, but only numbers. It is true, Vedado is a splendid colonial style neighborhood with incredible villas, built for the Americans that colonized the country until 1959. Vedado was built as a luxury residence for the wealthy Americans, among which in the top positions were the classic mobsters of the in period between the two World Wars years like Lucky Luciano or Al Capone, owners of villas in Vedado. In that time the area was invaded by Americans in pursuit of cheap sex, good rum and the possibility of gambling in the casinos, sins condemned by the puritan America. The cancer from Vedado was eradicated in January 1959 when Fidel and his barbudos troops defeated the pro -American dictator Batista and docked in the citadel of pleasures, establishing their headquarters on the 22nd floor of the Hilton Havana Hotel, today the Habana Libre Hotel.

We proceed on the road. Night, every once in a while a dim bulb, closed department stores around which the people stay at a cigarette and a home-made rum glass. The stores have a dim bulb inside, there are no flashy light commercials, and not too many cars are present either. Familiar images before the 1989’s, which reappear in my mind.

But our driver does not seem a person that knows Havana too well. Although 23 is the main boulevard in Vedado, he gets lost on some twisty and tangled streets. He reaches for a mobile phone and calls the guy where we need to arrive to. Oops… an image that really does not fit too well… in the period of Ceauşescu there were no mobile phones. What if, speaking absurdly, Ceauşescu had still been in power, we would have had mobile phones? Probably not… Or only very few of the chosen ones. Finally we arrive in front of the house, a superb villa, from another era… la belle epoque… Many tourists visit Cuba in organized groups (so-called “packaged tourists”) and stay in the tourist enclaves, true golden cages in which the regular Cuban is not allowed to enter – Varadero, Coco Santa Maria or Holguin. They stay on the beach, they have a swimming pool, they drink mojitos, they enjoy the green waters of the Caribbean. Just the same like in Jamaica. Or in Cancun. Because they do not practically see Cuba, the real Cuba. If you want to see, feel or live Cuba, the best experience is to live in a “particular house” with a Cuban family. It is much cheaper, about 20-25 US Dollars for a room and you are in Cuba. The visa is not a problem at all, the Cuban embassies will issue it in about 15 minutes.

Our host is an English speaking person, one of the few on the island, the villa is magnificent, a lot of antiques and our room did have a Panasonic air conditioner. A very modern and efficient one. And because it is late, it is time to go to sleep… Tomorrow Havana expects us ! Next day, gorgeous morning, blue sky, incredible! We have breakfast and we stroll towards the town. We stand on the side of the road and we wave to the cars that reach out for city center… no matter if they are taxis or not. At peak hours, the Cuban public transport can hardly deal with the affluence. I did not see trolleybuses, the main public transportation means are the “accordion” and the “camel”. Just like in our old times, the Cubans make fun of sorrow. The “accordions” are the Ikarus buses with bellows, while the “camels” are some gigantic containers pulled by a truck in which hundreds of persons can crowd. The “camels” are also known as the “Saturday night movie” when the Cuban television may stream a more daring movie and warns that the show will contain sex, violence and licentious language. Although the stops are packed with passengers and the potential travelers look to stay in block starts ready to assault the camels or the accordions, oh well, everybody climbs in the bus in the order of arrival, there is a virtual line, so it is good to know who is l’ultimo. I rode the camel, true, not at peak hours and it is super – OK. Furthermore, it is very cheap, only 20 centavos.

I have written “centavos”, oh well, it would not be bad to quickly accommodate with the monetary system from Cuba, a dual system… Yes, yes, there are two types of currency in circulation. One is the Cuban peso or the “moneda nacional” with an exchange rate of about 26 pesos to one US Dollar. With Cuban pesos, one can buy his oil ratio, ride the accordion, eat and drink in the cheap pubs. Otherwise, you will be the uncrowned king on the street where you live, if you have convertible pesos (or CUC), the banknote that is theoretically convertible in strong currency. One convertible peso (or CUC) is equal to one US dollar and is pretty free in circulation – in fact the big majority of the “normal” shops have prices that are expressed in CUC, but sometimes accept also MN (“moneda nacional”). To exchange dollars or euros in CUC, you have to find an exchange house also named CADECA. Do not expect to find CADECA at every corner, there are only a few in a city, even in a city like Havana and even if you are a foreigner, you will behave yourself and you will enjoy the delights of a stuffed queue full of Cubans that exchange convertible pesos to regular ones. And as a bonus, every time I have exchanged money at CADECA, I never received the correct amount… the maximum being 10 CUC that the cashier “forgot” to give to me.

What’s to visit? Well, you’ll need days…Habana Vieja, the old Havana is full of colonial monuments – either the Cathedral or the former palace of the dictator Batista, the current Museo de la Revolucion or Museo de la Ciudad, former palace of the Spanish governors or the imposing Capitolio Nacional, the former Cuban Parliament, a copy of the Washington Capitol that houses the third largest statue in the world as height (the statue of the Republic, 17 meters), or the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, the famous cigars production, or the Lennon park where the statue of the most well known of the Beatles stays on a bench. Obviously there’s a Lenin Park, but it is in the suburbs, Lennon is downtown…you can get lost and be charmed through the Vedado villas or you can play with the warm Caribbean waters, taking a walk on the Malecon, the boulevard that defies the ocean, guarded by superb buildings, unfortunately many of them left in decay…it is a place of meeting for the lovers in the city, but also of the girls in love with the convertible pesos of the foreigners…

You can head down to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where the head quarter of the Central Comity and Internal Affairs Minister lies , on which there rests one of the towns symbols – the mural of Che Guevara with his famous quote “Hasta la Victoria Siempre”. In this square where thousands of Cubans celebrate the Revolution (on the 1st of January) and the day of the 1st of May (unfortunately I arrived in Cuba on the second of May and I missed seeing Fidel, the Venezuelan president Chavez and the leader of the Nicaraguan revolution Daniel Ortega Saavedra defying again and again the “Empire of Evil” – the United States), there is also the tallest building in Cuba, the monument of the national hero Jose Marti, who died in battle with the Spanish, a 142 meters high tower on the top of which you can climb with an elevator and you’ll be able to enjoy the panorama of Havana…

And I cannot visit Havana and yet not taste a mojito or a daiquiri in the famous La Bodeguita del Medio, the famous bar under the patronage of Hemingway, on which’s walls there are the autographs of Fidel, Salvador Allende, Harry Belafonte or Nat King Cole, but it’s better to avoid it around lunch time when the bar is taken by assault by the hordes of tourists that came by buses from Varadero. And a mojito in the morning is exactly what you need for an excellent day. And one other thing not to be missed is the ice cream from Coppelia, an ice cream parlor in which tens of Cubans and foreigners queue almost an hour. I didn’t wait, but the ones that were patient enough, say it was worth it …

Even if you’ve traveled by the “Accordion”, you ate ice cream at the Coppelia, danced salsa on the Malecon at evening time, listened to the forever young music hits “Guantanamera” and “Comandante Che Guevara” over a glass of mojito or took pictures of the famous cars from the fifties that are still widely used in Havana, you cannot miss an outing from Havana. And the best way is to rent a car, ask your host to call the houses particolares that are known to him in other cities and hit the road from Havana on the trans-Cuban highway towards the colonial thesaurus’ in Cuba’s provinces – Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Santiago de Cuba or Camaguey. What we actually did with a brand new Peugeot 206…I would have preferred a 1955 Chevrolet, but it was probably too slow, consumed too much gas and who knows when it would have crashed in the middle of the road…But about the trans-Cuban escapade in the next episode…

How to get to Cuba

There aren’t extremely many direct flights on a regular basis to Cuba. Air France may be an option, but generally speaking it’s expensive, sometimes Iberia has good prices. Follow though the offers of the Cuban company Cubana de Aviacion that flies Madrid and Paris. Some time ago I even saw offers of 200 euros! Furthermore, look on the sites of the European companies, like Condor, Thomas Cook, Neos or Panorama Blue that may have tempting offers. For US citizens, the two major gates are Toronto (Canada) and Cancun (Mexico)

Cuban Visa

You need a Visa, which is released on the spot at any Cuban Embassy. You won’t get a stamp or a sticker in your passport, but a separate paper that will be stamped at your entry in Cuba this happens so the Americans won’t find out that you’ve been in Cuba or not.

When to go

The ideal time is in November – till May when there’s the dry season. Other times you can even wake up with a hurricane and you probably may not like it.

Where to stay in Cuba

Casa particular, casa particular, casa particular. Besides the fact that it is cheaper than a hotel the conditions can be absolutely fantastic and the interaction with the locals it the thing that makes all the money pay off. I stayed in Casa Antigua in a colonial décor with a very interesting English speaking host.

Pictures of Havana, Cuba:

 Where to sleep in Havana: Casa Antigua

Casa Antigua

Sights of Cuba: Havana Capitolio

The Capitol

Things to do in Havana, Cuba: visit Partagas cigars factory

The Cigar Factory

Public transportation in Cuba

The Camel

Cuba hotels: Hotel Inghiltera

Inghiltera Hotel

Hitch hiking is a national sport in Cuba


Posters of the Cuba Revolution

Things to do in Havana: visit the Revolution Museum

The museum of Revolution

Things to do in Havana, Cuba: ride a vintage car or a caleche

CADECA - the exchange office of Cuba in Havana

At the queue at Cadeca

Things to do in Havana, Cuba: visit the cathedral


Two sexy Cuban women

Two generations of Cuban women

Young Cuban teens

Young students in uniforms

Sexy army of Cuba

In Cuba, even the Popular Army is sexy

Clasical hotel of Cuba: Hotel Inghiltera Havana

Inghiltera Hotel

Things to do in Havana: drink a mojito in Hemingway's bar - bar Floridita

In Hemingway’s favorite bar

Old Lenin's master pieces in Cuba

Street antique store

Picture of Dalai Lama in a bar in Havana, Cuba

Surprisingly enough… Dalai Lama inCuba!

Thinks to do in Havana: see the Che Guevara mural

Hasta siempre, Comandante!

Picture of young Fidel Castro without beard

Fidel- when young

Che Guevara, the hero of Cuba


Things to do in Havana: see vintage cars still used in Cuba

Classical American cars in Cuba

Vintage US cars in Cuba

Vintage american cars in Havana

Historical American cars still used in Cuba

Coco taxi - for tourists in Cuba

Coco Taxi

Things to do in Havana: climb the Jose Marti monument

The Jose Marti Monument

Girls on the Malecon, the main road of Havana

On the Malecon

Famous roads of Cuba: Malecon, Havana


Things to do in Havana: see Tropicana show


Things to do in Havana: see Tropicana



Până acum există "2 comentarii" la acest articol:

  1. dave says:

    Viva La Revolucion !!
    Long Live the Cuban Revolution !!
    Screw Capitalism !!
    -From Los Angeles, California.

  2. Cuba is so beautiful without capitalism, without globalization, without modern cars, without restored buildings.
    It has that unmistakable Cuban vintage look and feel.

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