A Couple of Canucks Loose in Havana by Meera Kamra-Kelsey

Cuba's Capital BuildingCanadians regularly travel to & work in Cuba, not being subjected to an embargo.  Our two countries have co-operated on many construction & mining projects. Most Canadian tourists travel directly to the beaches, just passing through Havana’s Jose Marti airport or taking a single-day bus trip into the city.

My husband & I wanted to see only Havana before American travel restrictions are either further loosened or lifted.  Wanted to see the old city architecture, old American cars, feel the music!  The urgent drumbeat of demand to open up borders between America & Cuba is getting louder, adding to our urgency.

Though arrangements are simpler for us, we still used a Cuba-specialist travel agency to book accommodation, advisable during the November high season. Canadians & Europeans flood in now as the weather is perfect – high 20s Celsius & the traditional hurricane season has passed.  Airfare & airport transfers were booked, together with a fantastic junior suite at the NH Hotel Parque Central in the very heart of historic, old Havana & we were set…

After a comfy 3.5 hour trip direct from Toronto, we found our taxi van with minor glitches & we soon had our first Havana ‘experiences’.  The van failed to start but a group of willing young fellows provided a push & we were off.  Had a minor flutter when this group of fellows descended upon the van, but they were just curious.

Classic Cars in Cuba

Pedestrians lined the highway seeking rides from strangers in & out of Havana.  Old American cars were everywhere, mostly from the 50s.  Most common were ’57 or ’58 Chevys, specifically Belairs, as I was expertly informed.  Husband spied a way older unit he said was from the 30s!  Also plenty of Ladas, a few VWs, Fiats, fewer Toyotas. The oldest cars are all pre-revolution (January 1959); there are zero late model American autos.

Luckily we made it into Old Havana without stalling.  The view from our arched windows was perfect – the verdant central park, the Capitol building, the national theatre, gorgeous building facades, many streets radiating away.  The hotel’s rooftop pool & bar area would provide a welcome refreshing break from the city heat & a nice place for an intimate al fresco supper.  As we had just 3 nights in Havana, Saturday through Monday inclusive, we focused on the heart of the old city.

We were armed with plenty of on-line research & good advice from pals, one of whom is a young ex-pat Cuban.  We got our heads around the Convertible Cuban Peso & that we had little hope of obtaining a fair exchange rate.  We knew the food was to be so-so & the city safe.  Following a very courteous check-in at the hotel, we quickly booked the best tickets for the Tropicana floor show extravaganza for Sunday night, as Monday nights are dark.  We easily located a nearby ‘tienda’ for bottled water & the local light beer, Cristal.  Water in the better hotels is purified, so mojito ice is OK in those.

Cuba's Waterfront

One can walk to many places of interest form The Hotel Parque Central.  The Ramblas-like majestic Prado ambles towards the bay & famed 7-kilometre seaside promenade, the Malecon.  This sure must have been really something in its heyday.  Bronze lion statues, majestic urban facades, now rubbly & crumbly, gorgeous street lamps, some missing glass panes, most missing bulbs.  The waterfront is beautiful with the old castle, lighthouse & fort as a backdrop.  The Havana marathon was in process on Sunday – sadly appeared to be a paltry few participants for whom a large span of the Avenida Malecon was closed off.

Heading west along the Malecon, we again saw amazing architecture, some under reno.  This was & again will be, a glorious seaside neighborhood.  At this point, it is just extra-interesting to see two & multi-story edifices, many built a century ago, some mimicking European styles, others art-deco – Paris, Madrid, Miami?  Sad to see long term neglect evidenced by scaffolding grown over with weedy vines & boarded windows, squatters here & there.  A long walk took us to the imposing art deco Hotel Nacional de Cuba, built in 1930, where innumerable famous people hung out.  The murals & artifacts in the Bar Vista al Golfo, a.k.a the Bar de Fama indicated this included Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Sir Alexander Fleming among many others.

Floridita, the 'cradle of the daiquiri'

Twin pedestrian streets Obispo & O’Reilly (you betcha, that’s the name!) provide plenty of stimulating sights, sounds, music, mojitos & surprises.  Even if one wishes to shun the tourist traps, Papa Hemingway’s haunts & other spots are de rigueur, if only for a sip.  Notably the Floridita, the ‘cradle of the daiquiri’ & the Bodeguita de Medio, for a mojito & its signature-covered walls.

The Plaza de Cathedral & Plaza de Armas were full of gorgeous surprises dripping ambiance as we discovered old Havana on foot. Hemingway stayed & played at the Hotel Ambos Mundos & the Hotel Florida; both have great bars & make a decent mojito.  Found Edificio Bacardi by accident when a security guard offered a view from the top for a peso apiece.  This must have been a grand building before the revolution, now a bit shabby, but under reno.  Short elevator ride, followed by long stair climb, perfect 360 degree views of the city & seaside – priceless.

In the Plaza de Armas, we found a winding lineup consisting of thousands, mainly women, waiting patiently to say prayers as they repeatedly circled an ancient palm tree. We later learned this was an annual celebration on November 16 at the site (El Templete) of the first mass & town council of San Cristobal de Habana, first held in 1599 – wow, 410 years ago!  Take a second look at those vehicle barriers in O’Reilly – they are old cannon barrels stuck in the ancient cobble stones!

Steam engine

The Partagas cigar factory sits right behind the capitol building & is an eye-opening must-see.  Halls full of highly skilled rollers & support workers occupy this (also crumbling) building, makes all the serious brands in one location – Cohiba, Monte Cristo, Romeo y Julieta, Bolivar – you name it.  As we were informed, this is easy as the state owns it all & differences are a just matter of tobacco leaf quality & roller skill.  Workers are paid little, but take home 3 top quality cigars per day, explaining the multitude of cheap-cigar vendors outside the factory.  Interestingly, no authorities were about to shoo them away. Also interesting:  there is a bit of Canada in each Cuban cigar – rolled leaves are moistened & held together with maple syrup!  ALSO interesting, a couple of totally rusted old steam engines sit right next door to the Partagas factory (yup, behind the Capitolo!)  defying any stretch of the imagination.  We purchased some fresh-from-factory stogies on site for husband’s personal pleasure & gifting at what we think were pretty good prices.

Tropicana Show

The Tropicana show is located in a compound far from old Havana, requiring a long taxi ride to who-knows-where.  The show is worth every peso & the distance.  Its quality exceeds any costumed, musical extravaganza we have seen anywhere, including Las Vegas & Paris.  The ticket price includes a quarter bottle of Havana Club rum & a cola per person, which was very good too.  Our table mates were a crazy bunch.  A young Japanese couple on their 60-day Latin honeymoon.  Both spoke impeccable Spanish.  He already an author of 2 books on the plight of Hispanic immigrant workers in Japan & New York. She a teacher of flamenco dance back home in Osaka (!!).  We also met a fun trio of guys from Mexico, in Havana to research time shares, their metier in life.

The centre of old Havana is literally never quiet.  One gets accustomed to the cacophony, even missing it after the trip is over. Luckily, we were spared too many offers of cheap cigars & usually ubiquitous t-shirt shops.  There are plenty of reminders of the Castro brothers & socialism – Plaza de Revolucion & slightly ominous message billboards. People were mostly nice; very few accosted us or appeared surly, as we were forewarned.

Music was everywhere

Travelling to Cuba from the U.S. is a bit of challenge as one must hop over from Mexico or Canada. For Americans, currency & spending restrictions are a nightmare & the whole effort may raise eyebrows.  However, we did meet the rare fearless American traveller.  Glad we have seen Havana now. We have pleasant memories & snapshots of an old city which is morphing by the minute.  When American restrictions ease, it will never be the same – the old amazing architecture, loads of old American cars, small bands playing live music in every bar or restaurant, Diet TuKola mixed with Havana Club, the rum of Cuba.

The socialismo-weary locals will want ‘new’ stuff!