a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘calle obispo’

participating in the local economy…

It is always my goal to try and help the local economy in all countries that I visit.  The easier it is to navigate, the easier it is to acquire information and meet locals so that you can get a better sense whether you are impacting the lives of individual citizens or governments or giant corporations.  Communism is in theory about the people so should make it easier to boost the bank accounts of ordinary people through tourism but it is generally the opposite.

It’s hard to know what is controlled by the government, advertising is suppressed and not everyone is comfortable expressing an honest opinion.  That doesn’t mean you give up though, just that you have to try harder.  As I earlier expressed, I really wished I had done more homework before I arrived in Havana and highly encourage bringing a guidebook!

Of course the other thing that works in every place is to chat with locals.  You might meet some on the Malecon.  It’s a seafront promenade that stretches for seven kilometres.  Personally I found it a little underwhelming and having to navigate several lanes of crazy Latin drivers without traffic lights just made me feel as though I was back in Pompeii risking my life on the roadway so I could catch the bus back to Rome.  There is a lot I like about Latin people but their driving habits are not in that category.  Nevertheless, as long as no one plows you down getting there, it offers a great view of Havana.

great atmosphere

great atmosphere

I preferred to meet my locals in Old Havana where the traffic is mostly on foot.  The most fascinating conversation I had was when I was buying souvenirs on Calle Obispo and met an American who was relocating to Cuba.  He was a big fan and an entertaining guy.  A liberal Republican!  He had lots of interesting views involving a few conspiracy theories.  Much to like.  Much to question 🙂  I had been lured in by a young Cuban entrepreneur promoting his wares on the street so felt I was supporting the local economy.

Also spent some time at Sloppy Joe’s, a restoration project of a Havana institution.  It is definitely new Cuba and an interesting

hipster cuba :)

hipster cuba 🙂

counterpoint to all the crumbling buildings.

The other thing I would recommend is taking a shared taxi.  I didn’t do it on purpose.  The taxi to Plaza de Revolution was so expensive I thought I would walk back but instead just managed to get lost in Nuevo Vedado.  It was illuminating though.  I found a hotel where Cubans would stay rather than foreigners.  Of course, that also meant the guy at the front desk couldn’t call me a taxi.  It was Mother’s Day so taxis were at a premium.

I discovered that it appears the street names in Vedado are marked on stones at ground level rather than signs above eye level… why it is easy to get lost.  Since I had to find my own taxi, I attempted to figure out how to get to a main street and managed to get back to Avenida de los Presidentes, a place I knew well from my earlier experience lost in Havana.  It wasn’t easy to find a taxi that wasn’t filled with passengers but finally a car stopped.  I had read about the shared taxis so figured it was better than being lost.

It was a great insight into the real Cuba.  There are two currencies – local pesos and tourist pesos (which are equivalent to a US dollar).  I had been living in the tourist peso economy and the taxi driver was quoting the fare in local pesos.  The other passengers were lovely and helped me to figure it all out and I think we both won.  It cost me almost nothing and the driver got a crazy tip.

I would definitely encourage you to seek out the real Cuba and support the new entrepreneurs.  One of the easiest ways is dining at paladares.  You will need to seek them out as they are typically on the second floor and advertising is very minimal.  I used my guidebook and discovered a great one and a classic one.

classic cuban cuisine

classic cuban cuisine

The classic one was El Gijones at Prado #309.  You can look out on the Prado and eat a very reasonably priced meal of pork, rice and beans.  Classic Cuban fare.

Even better is to seek out Paladar Los Mercaderes (Mercaderes #207).  It’s a charming, romantic space complete with

capitalist cuba ;)

capitalist cuba 😉

fresh rose petals on a marble staircase.  Some equally charming young men were at street level trying to lure me in but I told them I had already selected it as my dinner location.  I was really early so got incredible service and took my server’s suggestion to splurge on the lobster in coffee sauce.  It’s a Cuban splurge so not too bad on the budget and it was delicious!

It also allowed me to have some intriguing conversations with young Cubans.  Coming of age in Cuba in the 21st century is definitely an interesting experience.  They have grown up with a rich culture and a history longer than almost any in the New World but capitalism is seductive and they sense the need for change.  You can’t begin to debate the merits of capitalism or socialism in under a half hour but I told them Cuba was trending and their lives would be memorable… most memorable for me… they didn’t know what trending meant… why you need to see it now 😉

 

back in the day…

I went to Cuba because I wanted to see it before it turned into Miami 2.0.  It was a bit of an impulsive decision and I didn’t do any research so I was learning on the fly.  These days Havana has a romantic image of faded glory.  What I hadn’t appreciated was its critical role many centuries ago when ships and horses were the principal modes of transportation.  The city was founded in 1515 as San Cristóbal de la Habana.  The original site proved to be a disaster so the city was moved to the more geographically strategic location you will visit.

Its sheltered harbour was the perfect location for ships laden with the spoils of the Spanish conquistadores to take a break and group together before setting off for Spain in an armed convoy.  Trade has always been linked with wealth and prosperity.  Havana’s role in Spain’s exploitation allowed it to become the third largest city in the New World by the turn of the 18th century.  The two bigger cities were Mexico City and Lima.

Havana is a useful reminder in how the world order is in constant flux and how power has shifted geographically over the course of history.  Whether you care about the history or not, Habana Vieja is a delightful place to play tourist.  Since it’s really old and the main transportation mode back then was by foot, you can easily walk the entire area.  It’s a great way to get in touch with Cuba, observing both the architecture and the people.

living in the past present

living in the past present

There is a LOT of history in Havana.  If you stay at the Hotel Parque Central, you will walk onto the Paseo de Marti as you start your day.  It’s known locally as the Prado and is a tree-lined boulevard that slopes from the harbour to Parque Central.  It was completed in 1852 and the paseo refers to the daily carriage rides made by the aristocratic families who built mansions along it.  Look for the bronze lions, marble benches and brass gas lamps.  At night you will feel as if you have been transported to 19th century Paris or Madrid.

Another place to check out is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, both for the art and the glamorous building within which it resides.

In Old Havana, the best street to head for is Calle Obispo.  I found it by instinct but confirmed in my guidebook that it is a tourist mecca 🙂  Parts of Havana are being restored and this street is one of the recipients.  Advertising and souvenirs are tough to find in communist Cuba but this street has some fledgling capitalists.  I even found an open air market and bought some wooden jewelry from an enterprising young woman.  Most intriguing are the old pharmacies that allow you to step into another century without a time machine.

Naturally there is a church 😉  The Catedral de San Cristobal is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the Americas.  Of course there is also a Plaza de Armas.  There seems to be one in EVERY Latin city.  It’s a gorgeous viewpoint from which to experience Baroque colonial Havana.

There are a couple of worthwhile tourist destinations near the Plaza.  Be prepared to be a

a view on history

a view on history

little fleeced as a tourist with impromptu tour guides expecting tips.  Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a 16th century castle, complete with moat, and the oldest military construction in Havana.  The Palacio de los Capitanes

the perks of imperialism

the perks of imperialism

Generales is a baroque palace built for Cuba’s old colonial rulers.

The final destination really worth checking out is the Plaza Vieja.  I found it by walking down Calle Mercaderes keeping my distance from a guy with a snake wrapped around his neck who appeared to be charging tourists for photos with the snake.  Capitalism takes many forms 😉  Apparently the original wealthy colonialists lived on the square partly to watch executions and bullfights from their windows but in the 21st century it is beautifully restored and much less threatening.  During my visit, there were all sorts of colourful artistic dogs scattered around the plaza.

I had seen posters advertising the dogs but it was all in Spanish so I never really understood

super cute dogs of mystery :)

super cute dogs of mystery 🙂

the purpose.  I could have asked someone but I liked the sense of mystery – the juxtaposition of something that looked very 21st century modern developed world city sitting in the middle of a colonial square reminiscent of a time when the conquistadores didn’t see anything wrong with their actions.  A physical symbol of the complexity and fluidity of history, something you feel more acutely in Havana – just one of the many reasons you should visit 😉

 

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