We say Havana…they say Habana.
With wide brimmed hat in hand, and a bag containing water and sunscreen we climbed into the air conditioned cab with Misael for our day trip to Havana. With temperatures already in the 30ies and rising at 8:30 am, we knew we were in for a hot day. It would be a two hour (mostly coastal) ride from Varadero, but that was okay because Misael regaled us with history lessons about Cuba and its people. The time flew even with one stop to stretch our legs in Matanzas and to view the bridge with a 100 metre drop (*gasp*) .
Before we knew it we were at the Castillo Des Los Tres Reyes Del Morro overlooking Havana and Havana harbor. It is in ‘ruins’ now but it was Cuba’s way to protect their harbor in the 1600’s. In 2012 they celebrated this site’s 250th Anniversary .
Our Cab driver/cum photographer managed to snap a quick photo…as you can tell it is already hot, humid and windy!
Our driver parked his cab in a public lot in Havana and announced our tour would be ‘on foot’. In a string of Spanish he spoke to a driver nearby and money exchanged hands. Ever curious about this custom of locals exchanging money, Misael explained his colleague would ‘look after’ his cab. On route to the ‘historical’ part of Havana, Misael counseled us when to tip and when not; who to ignore; what to expect from locals hustling us; and best of all- his intent to be our bodyguard for the day. And he was indeed. Anyone who got too close would be greeted with a loud Spanish rebuke from Misael and they respectfully backed off. Impressive! The first to approach were two brightly clad ‘ladies of the street’ who claimed that for a peso we could have our picture taken with them. Priceless! Misael nodded and said it would be prudent to do this as for the rest of the day they would leave us alone. So a photo op was hastily arranged and my better half was the benefactor of a red-lipped smooch (which stayed on his face for the rest of the day)! This encounter occurred in the “Plaza de la Catedral” directly in front of a beautiful old church; the Havana Cathedral.
Renowned for its beauty, the 18th-century Havana Cathedral (Catedral de la Habana) has been called “music cast into stone.” Construction on the church was started by the Jesuits in 1748, who weren’t around to see it finished in 1777 — King Carlos III of Spain expelled them from Cuba in 1767.*
As with many churches in the city, the building material of Havana Cathedral includes coral, cut and hauled from the edge of the sea by slaves. Look carefully and you’ll see fossils of marine flora and fauna in the stone of the cathedral. * (*Wikipedia)
We did a lot of walking…and did I mention sweating? It was almost too hot to stand in one spot for photo ops, but at one point we did just that to mark the occasion. There was SO much to see and very little time to see it all so the walking was brisk and my neck muscles ached from all the swiveling. In many places the walking was treacherous as a lot of the streets were being dug up to remove the ancient water/sewer systems that are no longer functional. Misael commented that Havana is in a perpetual state of construction of one sort or another. I found it annoying that I had to watch my footsteps carefully as I wanted to gander at all the amazing architecture that surrounded us. The huge structures (with clotheslines strung across their enclosed balconies) were so close together I almost lost my balance trying to look up.
I did manage to capture some of the buildings which were in various states of repair.
My favorite stop was at Ernest Hemingway’s bar! It was lively and noisy inside with a small Cuban band playing just inside the door. We managed to find two seats at the bar and immediately claimed them. In one corner was a bronze statue of ‘him’ leaning on the edge of the bar. Okay, now this is a picture I will want. Unfortunately the lighting wasn’t great, but a picture was captured of Ernest and I having a chat. Perfect! Willing his ‘muse’ to enter my head and lend me some ‘authorly’ material I just sat and grinned like a kid.
A bar tender was hastily mixing Mojitos and in seconds flat we were drinking the best Mojitos I have ever consumed. I am officially ruined for life because every Mojito from this point on will be compared to those. Notice I said those (plural)! Misael patiently waited until we had our ‘fill’ and off we went to lunch at a ‘private family restaurant’ mainly because Misael bluntly stated that the food at the ‘tourist places’ had no flavor.
A Private Family Restaurant
The restaurant didn’t disappoint and with Misael joining us for lunch, we dined on scallops, lobster and shrimp. Waiters dressed in black carried platters of food and carafes of wine to and fro and the entire restaurant crowd gave the impression they had all been there before. The aroma was divine! The restaurant looked like a house from the exterior and the backside overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. It was packed and with Misael’s coaching, we ordered what he recommended. Thankfully we listened to him as there was way too much food delivered to the table! So we were ruined again. The food back at the resort did/will never taste like this.
We toured Havana on foot, but to see ‘old Havana’, Misael took his car. There was a marked difference between the two areas of the city. Old Havana resembled ‘ghetto’ type living with the inhabitants lounging on their doorsteps (which were just inches from the street). No time was wasted here with Misael weaving in and out of traffic that seemed to be going faster than they should in these narrow rough streets. No matter, we caught a glimpse and nearing the end of the day I had no energy left to take in more than that. Old cars (50’s and 60’s) sped past us honking their horns at pedestrians who were brave enough to cross in front of them. Gas fumes and black smoke filled the air. The owners were clearly unaware that in other parts of the world, cars are outfitted with emission controls. I felt like I had been transported back in a time machine!
The city of Havana is too large to see in one day. But in the short time we had, Misael covered all the high spots. Tired, hot and sweaty, I sank into the cab’s back seat, content to just view the sights from there. The last stop was the graveyard (Necropolis Cristobal Colon – Havana’s Cemetery) with over eight hundred thousand graves and over a million interments, it was massive! I passed on the walking tour – it was just too hot. So I missed out on the visit to the Bacardi monument (the Rum people)…oh well!
Our cab driver/tour guide/bodyguard for the day gave us his business card as we departed company, hoping for future assignments. I would certainly hire him again. Not once did I feel unsafe in his company especially when shortly after our departure a song came on his radio from a taped mix. Bette Midler quietly sang “God is Watching Us…From a Distance.” I knew we were in good hands.
With so much walking and hastily grabbed photos, it is only right that I post some of them here. Out of hundreds of pictures, here is a small sampling. Enjoy!
A Photo Tour
A lot of old Monasteries have been converted into tourist attractions and/or museums. This
newly fashioned bar had a bronze nun greeting you at the door!
In the heart of Havana, we came across an open air book fair. All the titles were in Spanish. Wonder what they would do if it rained?
Hundreds of beautiful old buildings with architecture like none other!
An old Pharmacy is now a museum. The apothecary jars are from floor to ceiling. One poor fellow apparently didn’t make it.
Old cars, horse drawn carriages, and bicycle taxis are but a few modes of transportation available, not to forget the foot traffic!
Coming Soon: Time to Go: For the Grace of God Go I