a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘hotel parque central’

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…


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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