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Posts tagged ‘havana’

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 😉


going native…

Staying at the Hotel Parque Central put me firmly in gringo tourist land, an obvious mark flush with hard currency.  Tourism has turned Cuba into a fascinating hybrid culture with lots of unexpected consequences.  There is idealistic merit in having all jobs paid a similar wage but, in 21st century capitalism, the approach is completely opposite.  Cuba’s model might work if it could exist as a self-sufficient closed society but instead it had to let in the rest of the world in limited ways to survive.

The unexpected consequence is that it might be more lucrative in 2017 to drive a taxi than to be a doctor.  How to behave as a tourist is complicated but you will definitely get constant sales pitches if you stay in the tourist ‘hood.  I always like to try and understand the places that I visit and one of the best ways to get familiar with unfamiliar surroundings is to walk.

Luckily Havana is very safe so you can wander quite freely and it’s likely you can find a taxi to get you back to the hotel if you get too ambitious.

My first big Havana adventure was supposed to result in photos of Plaza de Revolución but everything unfolded in an entirely unexpected way.  According to the map, I could just walk in a straight line along one of the main streets until I reached VedadoVedado (`forbidden`) was originally a buffer zone to protect the city from pirate attacks.  In 1859, a plan for urban expansion was created with strict building codes that established a grid with broad sidewalks, gardens and parks.  There are few tourist sites but it is a great way to experience middle class Cuba.

It is also the home of the University of Havana.  I stumbled upon the university by accident rather than design but it is one of the oldest universities in Latin America with gorgeous classical buildings and historical significance.  I stopped to take a photo of the university entrance and that was how I met Rolando.  He said that the views were better from inside.  Since he is a Spanish professor at the university, he took me on a grand tour.

Unfortunately, it`s not an official tourist activity so you will just have to get lucky.  It`s definitely good to talk to locals to get a better understanding of the complexity that is modern day Cuba.

I ended up spending a few hours with Rolando.  First, he toured me around the university, including the Museo Anthropologico Montane, the Saracen armoured car captured in 1958 by students in the fight against Batista and the balcony from which Castro delivered speeches to incite students toward revolution.  Then he showed me the room Castro rented when he was a student.  He explained the ration system for food and took me into one of the stores where Cubans can exchange coupons for food items.

creative recycling

creative recycling

Rolando then took me to a cool neighborhood filled with impromptu performers and art made from stuff that would likely go into a landfill in North America.  Our final venture was a cocktail based on an ancient recipe in a tiny, funky bar.  Latins love sugar a lot more than me so it wasn`t really my thing but the experience was memorable.

off the tourist path

off the tourist path

He had to go to work so gave me directions to the Plaza de Revolución but I never figured out Vedado as the streets are not marked in a normal way.  It`s a pleasant place to get lost so I just went with it and finally found a major street that I could locate on the map so that I could eventually make my way from la Avenida del Presidentes to Calle 23, also known as La Rampa, and one of the most famous streets in Havana.


living la dolce vida

That`s where I rewarded my hours of wandering on foot through Havana with the beautiful frozen daiquiri previously mentioned.  It also allowed me to get a good overview of Havana and figure out where the Hotel Nacional was by looking out the window!  This time I counted the streets very carefully and make it to the new destination without any extra steps.  The Hotel Nacional was built in 1930 as a refuge for wealthy Americans.  Since it has hosted a cornucopia of famous people and featured heavily in the history of the mafia.

It also features a delightful terrace where you can sip an overpriced drink and look out at the ocean and much of Havana.   By that point, I was content to head back to tourist land and pay for a taxi.  All the wandering though made me bold and encouraged me to delve further into the real Cuba…


viva la revolution!

It is strange and somewhat disconcerting to be a tourist in a Communist country.  Of course, you can just follow a tourist guide around and not think about it or stay in a posh resort that is wholly capitalist despite the national politics.  I always like to try and understand a place when I visit to the extent my few days immersed in the local culture will allow.

drifting through havana

drifting through havana

Since I only had about five full days in Cuba, I decided to just stick to Havana so that I could try and get a good sense for it and save the rest of Cuba for another visit.  There is plenty to do – and think about – in Havana so I was never bored.  I also went on these crazy walks all over Havana that lasted for hours and frequently resulted in me being lost for some portion of the walk.  The wonderful part of that was that I discovered Havana in a way I never would have just speeding by in a pretty refurbished automobile from the era of Trump’s fantasy America.

I did feel that I should do that at least once, and since I had gotten lost trying to walk to Plaza de Revolución, it seemed a

an eerie place

an eerie place

good case for a fancy ride through Havana.  I would definitely recommend at least one ride in a classic car.  Mine was very expensive compared to everything else in Cuba but, as a gringo, I just accepted I was contributing to the economy.

Plaza de Revolución is a lot different in person that it looks in photos.  There is the fancy metalwork saluting Fidel and Che, which is a compulsory tourist photo.  The square is gigantic and generally eerily empty.  The military presence is very obvious and you realize you are in a police state.  It feels like someone is watching from a hidden camera every moment.  There are lots of signs marking where you can no longer wander.

welcome to china!

welcome to china!

Communism and other forms of dictatorship make me nervous.  I was relieved to get out of the Plaza de Revolución and to another part of Cuba that felt hopeful and festive.  When I was in China, my hotel was close to Tiananmen Square and, despite being a major hosting venue for the Olympics, which had just ended, no taxi driver seemed capable of finding it so I spent a lot of time in Tiananmen Square.  It is an unnerving place to be deposited.  Mao is always looking at you and there are plenty of dudes with rifles milling about.  One of the most bizarre sights was the soldiers standing guard in front of a giant display of the silly Olympic mascots.  There should have been a sign saying “Welcome to China!  It’s complicated.”

All countries are complicated but Communist countries increase the complexity by an exponential degree.  Theoretically, all this communism is FOR the people and offers them a better life than the capitalist pigs would have allowed.  But it’s never really gone down like that.  Every supposedly Communist state is a little different.  ALL love propaganda!  All are comfortable suppressing the truth, controlling the media and rewriting history.  Visiting a Communist country really makes one appreciate the freedoms and benefits of democracy even if not all of its attributes are sublime.

When I was in China, it was entertaining to read the history of Shanghai through the Chinese government’s eyes.  In Cuba, you can get the same experience by visiting the

ya gotta love propaganda ;)

ya gotta love propaganda 😉

Museo de la Revolución.  It is located in the former Presidential Palace so worth visiting just for the architecture.  You will certainly learn about the Cuban Revolution.  You won’t learn much beyond that, though, and it’s all glory and sacrifice and the 1960s.  Just another aspect of Cuba that feels like a time capsule.

fidel is watching you...

fidel is watching you…

It’s important, though, to note that young Castro was a noble guy.  He did some good stuff.  It’s easy to go communism bad, capitalism good, but it’s not at all that simple.  Probably why the vast majority of the people who score high on happiness and quality of life on those international indices live in socialist countries. The best system includes elements of both.

And Castro and team did some remarkable things in Cuba.  They defeated the United States of America!  They got rid of the mob and the casino culture that had overtaken the economy.  They sent young disciples out to rural Cuba to teach everyone how to read so that Cuba now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  They also have free education and healthcare and some basic food is provided by the state.  It’s an idealistic concept that would have appealed to the very young men and women who masterminded the Cuban revolution.

The tough part, though, is how to sustain that kind of system and how to be able to interact with a world that doesn’t share the same system.

the iconic che

the iconic che

The original system was more crazy fever dream than well-reasoned new political and economic philosophy.  As an example, I learned that Che Guevara was appointed President of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industry in addition to being in charge of Agrarian Reform.  OK, first, TOO many major jobs.  Second, SERIOUSLY, who appoints a dude who’s a doctor and a guerilla war expert to run the money stuff???

I would encourage you to go to Cuba and check it out for yourself.  Go with an open and inquisitive mind.  There are some good ideas there.  There is a lot of idealism.  There is a lot of pride.  There is also naivety.  Cuba is an example of incredible idealistic ideas brought to fruition – but it is also a cautionary tale that it’s really important to have a plan that’s sustainable and pragmatic enough that your revolution will actually achieve the ideals you hoped it would for the long term.  The hardest part begins the day after the victory parade…



in cuba the present IS the past…

I still have a little more to say about South America but decided it was time to change locales for a few posts…

You may recall I bumped Cuba up the travel list because I was worried it would be flooded with Starbucks before I got to see it the way I had always romanticized it.  Of course, all that is in question now, which means making a visit soon is likely not as urgent but I would still encourage it.

While I love the internet, it has been responsible for the commoditization of global culture.  I first noticed this in the twilight of the twentieth century when most people still hadn’t figured out how to use the internet.  Even then there was global media, cheap travel and far easier ways to share ideas than had ever existed before in human civilization.

As someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere and dreamed of having access to what was actually going on in the rest of the world, it was exciting.  I was also able to start travelling a lot and quickly understood that it also meant that so many places looked alike that had once been unique.  The trendy bars in Sydney, Paris and San Francisco all looked shockingly similar, devoid of elements that made them reflect their unique local cultures.

What I discovered is that if you got a little more adventurous, you could still find something that surprised you in a delightful way.  It might be in Cambodia, Tanzania or Romania.  It was likely to always be in an emerging market.

In Cuba, things go a little further.  Not only is it unique but you feel like you are visiting history without a time machine.  In Cuba, Fidel, Che and Ernest are still in their prime.

It feels a bit like you are on an acid trip (or how I imagine an acid trip would unfold 😉

There are several shrines to Hemingway.  Pretty much anything associated with Hemingway has a plaque at minimum.  It’s very surreal as there is almost no advertising or promotion in Cuba – except when it comes to the big three.  Coming from a market economy it is both comforting and disconcerting.

But you can just go with the kitsch and not obsess over its moral implications 🙂

worth the price!

worth the price!

One place you really should hit is El Floridita.  It’s been around since 1817 and about 100 years later it acquired a new Catalan immigrant owner, Constantino Ribalaigua who invented the frozen daiquiri in the 1930s.  Neither he nor the daiquiri may have become so famous had it not been for one of his patrons – Ernest Hemingway.

These days there is a bust of Hemingway along with memorabilia and a lot of tourists!  It is the most expensive daiquiri in Cuba (but still cheap by first world standards) and absolutely worth it.  It’s a daiquiri factory still set in the 1950s.

If you are a Hemingway fan, you can also try a mojito at La Bodequita or just hang out at Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway was a resident from 1932 to 1939.

If following Fidel is more your thing, you should head for the Hotel Habana Libre.  It originally opened in 1958 as the

it's 1960 in havana

it’s 1960 in havana

Havana Hilton with Conrad Hilton himself in attendance.  At the time it was Latin America’s tallest and largest hotel and likely the swankiest.

On January 8, 1959 Fidel took residence in suite 2324 as his headquarters.  In October 1960 all American hotels in Cuba were nationalized and the hotel was renamed the Hotel Habana Libre.

a daiquiri worth seeking out

a daiquiri worth seeking out

It’s now owned by the Spanish Melia chain and a great place for a fantastic daiquiri – the best I

the view!

the view!

had in Cuba and about half the price of El Floridita.  There is also a nightclub on the top floor but it wasn’t open when I stumbled upon it on my walk around Havana until you figure it out unofficial excursion.  I was hoping to get a drink and take cool photos of Havana.  Luckily I shared my goals with one of the hotel employees and she took me in an old-fashioned operator controlled elevator to a high floor that felt like something out of the Jetsons.

You can live in the past – or at least visit it 😉  I highly recommend exploring the past and present intermingling in one of the only places left in the world where that experience is still possible.

our girl in havana ;)

just step out of the hotel

just step out of the hotel

I am going to try and stay home for more than a couple of weeks and see if I can’t catch up on all my travels… so we will likely be bouncing around the globe as I try to tempt you to explore the world…

Thanks to the internet, globalization and the Americans’ incredible moxie at selling a glamourized version of the American lifestyle to the rest of the world, it’s tough to find places that feel truly unique, let alone part of an entirely different era.  Cuba is one of those incredibly rare and special places.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, there is a little internet in Cuba and you will see smart phones and computers but you will also see chalkboards and people lounging on the sidewalk outside fancy hotels (was guessing they might be using the hotel wi-fi).

If you don’t want to leave your overly engaged modern lifestyle at home, you can stay at the Hotel Parque Central.  Apparently it has the best internet in Cuba and the lobby was constantly full of people on smartphones, tablets and computers and it looked very 2016 despite the colonial architecture.  It’s a great hotel in an excellent setting for being a tourist in Havana and I would highly recommend it.


I would also recommend leaving your electronic devices at the hotel, making sure your shoes are comfortable and embracing the past.  It’s not every day you get to go back to 1960 without a time machine.

I tried to explain “trending” to some young guys that I met at my favourite restaurant in Havana.  There is no question Cuba is the hottest travel ticket right now and that’s how it got bumped up the list to 2016.  You don’t need to panic quite yet though.  It will not turn into Las Vegas 2.0 by next year.

There is no question change is underfoot and that something has to give.  What will be interesting is how it all unfolds.  I knew a little about Cuban history before I arrived but learned a lot more during my week in Havana.  It is a fascinating place.  I hadn’t appreciated before I arrived how old Havana was and that it was a strategically important and impressive city during colonial times.  It’s certainly a place deeply scarred by the evils of imperialism.  It’s also marked by the promise of an incredible revolution.

What they have built in Cuba is totally unique.  Not everything works and it’s not an ideal system but there is definitely merit to some of the choices they have made, which is why change will come but I hope it will come with a Cuban flavour.

I did a lot during my six days in Havana so there is much more to tell.  The one thing I wished I had done differently was research!  There are entrepreneurial green shoots in Havana but capitalism is very much in its infancy.  It’s fascinating.  There is very little advertising or marketing.  It’s hard to tell who is running an establishment and almost all the independent restaurants are on an upper level and not very obvious to the uninitiated.

I did buy a Moon guide by Christopher P. Baker, which was very helpful.  I wish I had done more advance planning.  I was a little too arrogant.  I have travelled so much and always seem to find cool stuff to do on the fly that I have stopped being well prepared for arrival.

Moon Havana

Certainly, it’s good to be ready to be spontaneous.  Some of the best moments in Havana happened that way.  But I found the restaurant because Christopher recommended it.

I’ve read a lot of Graham Greene so I am sure I read Our Man in Havana at some point in my youth but I am going to read it again now that I have

a literary setting

a literary setting

experienced the city.  Whether you are a literary fan or not, the Hotel Sevilla is worth a visit.  It was built in 1908 and based on the Alhambra in Spain.  It was the first luxury hotel in Havana.  What makes it unique is the Moorish architecture.  There is a band playing in the lobby bar most of the time so sip a Mojito and soak in the atmosphere.


patio hotel inglaterra

patio hotel inglaterra

Another worthwhile history lesson is the Hotel Inglaterra.  It is the oldest hotel in Havana.  I tried both dinner and a drink on the outdoor patio.  I would recommend having dinner in a Paladare but drinks are cheap ($3 USD for a mojito) and the band was excellent.


Cuba isn’t going to change overnight… but it IS going to change.  The climate is great.  The people are warm and friendly.  The country is full of incredible history and architecture.  And there are gorgeous beaches if the rest is of no interest.  You don’t need to book your ticket tomorrow.  But you SHOULD go.  Don’t wait too long.  A place without a McDonalds or a Starbucks?  That is something worth seeing 😉


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