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 Vedado. Vedado (`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.
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.
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.
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…