Since the United States lifted the embargo, a whole new world has opened for Cuba. Or is it the other way around? In any event, it is likely that the country in the coming years will undergo a rapid change/development. So that’s why I wanted to visit Cuba now, while it is still authentic.
At first I had a real tour in mind. I wanted to stay two days in Havana, two nights in Vinales and three nights near Trinidad. That way we could discover western and central Cuba, because the country is too big to travel all the way around in one week.
When I started searching hotels, however, I came to the conclusion that, except in Havana and Varadero no (or very little) 'posh' hotels are to be found. There are lots of Casas Particulares (rooms in people's homes). I am sure there are very nice ones and living with the locals is a great way to get to know a country, but it is not my way of traveling. I love to relax in a nice hotel after a busy day, go for a swim, hang out at the bar or stroll along the beach. Time for Plan B.
After studying the map thoroughly, we decided to book four nights in Havana and four nights in Varadero. Varadero is a place you shouldn’t visit in Cuba (full of all in hotels for tourists that don't want to see the country) but as it had many hotels and it was closer to Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara, we still decided to stay there during our week in Cuba.
Hotels in Havana
IIn Havana there are many hotels in all categories. Hotels here also receive 1 to 5 stars according to the international system, but the quality is usually much lower than in other countries.
The most famous hotels in Havana are Hotel Nacional, Hotel Plaza, Hotel Inglaterra and Parque Central. The first is generally regarded as the best, but was unfortunately fully booked. It lies along the Malecon and therefore has a sea view. The three other hotels are located at Parque Central. Inglaterra is a beautiful building, but there were no more rooms available. Finally we booked a room at Parque Central. It has 5 stars and is a very nice hotel. The hotel consists of an old and new part. If you want to stay here, book a room in the old colonial section. The rooms are bigger, have colonial furnishing and the lobby is beautiful. The new part has smaller rooms with less character. If you book half board, you are allowed in the restaurants of the old and new part. According to one of our drivers, Hotel Saratoga would be very good. Even Beyonce was here.
Havana is a beautiful city with majestic buildings, large squares, cozy narrow streets and lots of pastel-colored houses. Unfortunately, large parts are in terrible condition. People die regularly by collapsing houses. If you try to imagine what it looks like when everything is restored, you know that Havana can compete with cities such as Paris, London or Rome. The city breathes history. For now almost all is owned by the state, but things will change now that the embargo is lifted. Hopefully (foreign) investors will see the potential of this fantastic city, and it will be restored to all its former glory. If they still can keep its authenticity, it would be totally awesome. There are so many things to do in Havana, so here we go.
Havana is divided into a number of districts:
Vedado en Plaza
This is the most Western and most modern part of the city. It is a vast area, and there are only a few really interesting things to see. If you don’t mind a long walk, you may want to explore the area by foot, but we hired a vintage car with driver.
Hotel Nacional is located in this neighborhood, along the Malecon. The Malecon is the promenade along the sea. During the day it's quiet here, and we thought it was rather boring, but Cubans love to gather here in the evening and on the walls you regularly see anglers standing.
However, the main attraction in this neighborhood is Plaza de la Revolucion. The square and most of the surrounding buildings were built in 1952. Initially it was called Plaza Civica, but after the victory of Fidel Castro it got its present name. Since that time, it is also the political and cultural heart of the country. The square is quite bare and boring, but it really has a symbolic value and is still worth a visit. Previously here more than a million people gathered to listen to the speeches of Fidel or to watch the military parades.
In the middle of the square is a 109-meter high monument in the form of a star in honor of Jose Marti. Below the monument is a statue of him. Inside the monument there is a room that is used for concerts and lectures. With a lift you can go to the top.
Scattered across the city are many statues of Marti. He is also a national hero. He was a gifted writer, activist and politician. Thanks to his ideas Cuba organized free studies for everyone. According to him, intelligence is the only way to freedom.
Around Plaza de la Revolucion are some high-rise buildings, including the Ministerio del Interior. A picture of Che Guevara covers most of the building’s front and is accompanied with the words "Hasta la Victoria Siempre," which translates to "the eternal victory." On the next building you see an image of Camilo Cienfuegos and the words "Vas bien, Fidel" or "You're doing well, Fidel".
A few blocks further you find Necropolis Colon. This giant cemetery of Havana covers 55 hectares and has nearly 2 million graves. It is one of the largest cemeteries in the world and was designed in the 19th century by a Spanish architect. Because of the many sculptures and monuments it is declared a national monument. The giant gateway is very impressive. The image on top of the gate stands for Faith, Hope and Love.
The tomb of La Milagrosa, the wonder woman, is a popular site. A mother and child who both died during childbirth are buried here. They were buried side by side, but when the coffin was opened, the baby was in the arms of the mother.
In this neighborhood, at the Malecon, is the US Embassy. Due to the difficult relationship between Cuba and the United States, this is a loaded place.
You can also make a brief stop at the John Lennon Park. In this lovely park is a bench with a statue of John Lennon. Next to the bench is a tile with the inscription "Dirás que soy un sonador pero no soy el unico”. This is the Spanish translation of the words "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one”, from his famous song Imagine. The glasses of the statue are stolen so many times that there is a guard now. On request, he puts Lennon's glasses on for the photo.
Centro Habana and Prado
This area is just outside the old city walls and was created to provide additional houses and greenery for the residents of Havana. When the walls were demolished in 1863, the area expanded even more.
Our hotel was situated in Parque Central, just on the border between Centro Habana and the old town. All hotels around this square are, therefore, excellent bases from which to explore the city.
The park was created in 1877. At first, there was a statue of Isabella II in the middle of the square but later had to make place for a statue of Jose Marti. Around the park are beautiful buildings like the Hotel Inglaterra, the Gran Teatro de La Habana (according to me the most beautiful building in the city) and the Palacio del Centro Asturiano. From the roof terrace of our hotel, you have a wonderful view over the square. In contrast to most of the city, the buildings have been restored here.
The picture above was taken from the roof of Hotel Parque Central. On the left you see the Palacio del Centro Asturiano, straight ahead Cinema Payret. At the end you see the Capitolio and Gran Teatro de la Habana and on the right front Hotel Inglaterra.
Behind the park, the imposing Capitolio is situated. The builders used the Capitol building in Washington for inspiration. The building was opened in 1929. At the time there was also a botanical garden and a railway station. From 1959, the government was located here. In 1933, police opened fire here at the crowd demonstrating against dictator Machado. Nowadays, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment is established here. A number of rooms in the building can be visited, including the beautiful library. The dome, at 92 meters the highest point of Havana at that time, has been under reconstruction for ages now.
If you want to buy cigars in Havana, head to Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas, Cuba's largest cigar factory. The owner keeps the origins of its leaf tobacco hidden. We do know that his tobacco leaves are being fermented in wooden casks in order to enhance the flavor. The shop is located behind the Capitolio, so it’s easy to find.
Hemingway fans should definitely pop in at Sloppy Joe, the favorite bar of Hemingway. You can find it in the street besides Hotel Parque Central.
Outside the city
If you want to escape the city's bustle, you can visit Parque Almendares. Through this little piece of forest in Havana, the Almendares River flows.
A legend says that a sick Spanish bishop came here in the 17th century and cured miraculously.
It's a beautiful forest with tropical plants.
If you would like to enjoy a day on the beach, then head to Playas del Este. Twenty minutes outside of town lies a 50 km long beach. Watch out for the so-called "Jineterismo”. Some Cubans like to coarse money from the tourists. They befriend to be invited in the hope of going abroad or they try to sell counterfeit products (cigars). Authorities are strict, but it’s best to be cautious. Since we only had three days to discover Havana, we had to skip the beach.
Since Hemingway spent a long time in Cuba, we wanted to visit his house and museum in Cojimar. However, it was temporarily closed due to 'work'. The gatekeeper could not tell us for how long.
The historic city center is a UNESCO world heritage site since 1982. The city was neglected for centuries, but the restoration works are ongoing.
• Plaza de la Catedral: One of the main attractions of Cuba. Highlight is the Catedral de San Cristobal, according to many it’s the most beautiful cathedral in Latin America. The plaza is surrounded by palaces from the 18th century. Look for the video that I made on the spot and it looks like you're standing on the square with me.
- Bodeguita del Medio: One of the side streets of the Plaza de la Catedral (Calle Empedrado) leads you to Bodeguita del Medio. Halfway (del medio) up this street a grocery store opened its doors in 1942. Later the store expanded with a bar where the local politicians, intellectuals and artists came to drink their rum or cocktail. Obviously, Hemingway was a regular customer here.
- Convento de Santa Clara: This gigantic monastery was founded in 1664 to accommodate the city's poor girls. The austere exterior would stand in contrast to the beautiful interior. Again, however, we faced a closed door because of restorations.
- Convento de Belen: Restoration works are ongoing. The workmen allowed us to take a peek and it already looks beautiful. According to their information, works should be finished next month (April 2017). If you're in Havana, please take a look and let me know if a Cuban month lasts as long as ours.
- Calle Obispo: This is one of the most lively and characteristic streets of Havana, between the Plaza de Armas and Avenida de Belgica. Most buildings in this street have been restored. Especially the old pharmacy is worth visiting.
Plaza de Armas: Here you find yourself several centuries back in time. The buildings have been restored and on the square are many artists selling their paintings and books about Havana. The wonderful Palacio de los Capitanes Generales was built at the end of the 18th century for the Governor. It served as a chapter house and later as a prison. Today it is a museum.
Transport in Havana
If you have a lot of time (and like a brisk walk), you can easily explore Havana by foot. But if you have less time (and are a bit lazy like me), there are a lot of alternatives.
As mentioned earlier, central Havana and the region just outside Havana can best be explored by taxi. And then, of course, there is nothing better than the classic cars that still color the streets. They give Havana just that little bit extra. By the way, we were surprised to see so many vintage cars driving around. I estimate that at least one third of the cars are more than 50 years old. Here are a few nice pictures.
To explore the old town you can rent a riskja. In case you feel a bit sorry for those poor cyclists, take a cocotaxi. These funny yellow scooters are everywhere in the city.
We visited all these places in three days time. Havana is a beautiful city and we will definitively return in about 10 years to see how the city (and the country) has changed.
From Havana we made a day trip to Vinales, the tobacco region. You can read more about that trip in the next blogpost.