“Havana, for all its smells, sweat, crumbling walls, isolation, and difficult history, is the most romantic city in the world.”Mark Kurlansky
A week has flown by already and we finally arrived to Havana for longer than an evening! We arrived in the late afternoon and had a full evening of free time before the next morning and the celebration of the 1st May at Plaza de la Revolución. Even the travelling and most of the morning spent at the police station in Cienfuegos could not make us stay indoors that evening. This was our Caribbean adventure and we were sure to use every last second of it!
When we arrived to Havana, we realised we ran out of money and had to find a cash point. We were lucky and our casa was in the Habana Vieja part (Old Havana), close to the Prado and El Capitolio. Habana Vieja is basically the city centre and the main tourist area so the cash point was quite easily accessible. More on areas in Havana here. The cash point worked after a couple of tries as it did not have enough money in it and we had to try different amounts. Don’t panic if it doesn’t spit out your money on the first go.
Once we got the cash, we realised we were in Obispo street, one of the main streets going from La Floridita, where Hemingway enjoyed the best daiquiri in the world (his words apparently, but I do not agree with that statement), all the way to the bay. It being more or less a tourist trap, it was filled with souvenir shops, bars, restaurants and people, loads and loads of people, both tourists and locals.
The Old Havana is the part of the city that is currently being invested into the most so you will see big discrepancies from street to street; one street will look nice and neat with new facades while the next street over will have dilapidated buildings with peeling paint and small trees growing from some cracks. Some of the buildings will also be missing quite large chunks and have gaping holes. As horrible and not at all pleasing as this description sounds, some of these building have so much character that you cannot avert your eyes. You will see the beauty in crumbling walls and old, almost rusted through, iron stair railings visible from the buildings entrances.
Moving out of the centre towards other parts, the derelict landscape will more or less dominate but not overtake the view. There are some parts of Havana that look like time has passed them by leaving them in their original splendour (like Miramar and Vedado).
We spent the first night aimlessly wandering around soaking in the Sunday evening in the streets of Havana. We ended up stumbling upon a street procession. To this day I do not know if it was a start to Primero de Mayo celebration or a disguised gay pride but it was absolutely beautiful to be a part of people dancing in the streets with their friends/significant others like they do not have a care in the world, people playing all sorts of instruments, even ones made out of pots and pans. This was going to be one hell of a week!!
Primero de Mayo
1st of May came. We got up for our breakfast and got quite an unpleasant surprise; the parade started before 8 in the morning. It was 08:30 and we were just having breakfast. We got to Plaza de la Revolución after 10 and everything was over. I have to say I was disappointed and a bit angry as we did not know it started that early.
So take note, if you want to see the Primero de Mayo parade, get there really, really early! Later on (completely randomly) we ran into the two guys we met on the bus from Varadero to Trinidad, and also randomly ran into both in Trinidad and Cienfuegos who got up to see the parade and were quite underwhelmed. They said it was packed with people and not much else. Raul Castro had a speech, everyone cheered and raised the flags and it was done. I have to say, I felt a bit better after they told us this.
As the Plaza was almost empty when we got there, we had a good photo chance of the Jose Marti memorial and the big outlined portraits of Che Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos that adorned the buildings surrounding the plaza. From the plaza we took the big avenues all the way to Coppelia, opened by Fidel Castro in the 60s, (¡Helado por el pueblo!) where we had a break and some ice cream. As we walked there, we saw parts of Havana usually skipped by tourists.
The main street we took was one of those that time just passed by. I had a feeling we were walking through history. We even saw a statue of Don Quixote (you can find Sancho Panza in Obispo street in Habana Vieja). Following the street we ended up on Malecón where most of the sunset/sunrise photos of Havana are taken (see featured photo).
It is hard to describe Malecón and the feeling of awe and magnitude you get when you stand there. It can give you the perfect contrast of mother nature and civilisation coexisting in one shot – on one side you have the unruly sea, smashing against the concrete promenade and, on the other, you have Havana, this big city itself riddled with contrasts on every step. While the wind is tangling your hair and you feel the salty air in your face, you can gaze at the statues that sporadically pop up along the way, the cars in all stages of their life buzzing past you and the view that just goes on and on and on.
Here is where we ran into “my people”, two couples from Serbia who were with us when we got utterly soaked and tried to shelter ourselves (unsuccessfully) by the utility shed. The shower lasted 5 – 10 mins tops but managed to soak us through and through. Luckily, we were in the Caribbean and its warmth and sun dried us up in no time.
I always find it fascinating how, wherever you go on this planet, you stumble upon people from your part of the world and it is never weird or awkward. Or maybe it’s just me, I have a tendency to talk about anything and everything so I get along with most people, at least for a while 😀
Another shower caught us in Cuba the day before we left while we were at the beach (second Havana beach day). It came out of nowhere, the clear skies all of a sudden went dark and the downpour came. We managed to shelter our things at the nearby small beach bar that had tables with a parasol (in this case served as an umbrella). We had the two people we met on the way to the beach (shared a cab) keep an eye out on them while we jumped right back in the sea. The rain was hitting our heads and the splash back of the rain drops hitting the water was stinging our faces but the sea gave us a warm comforting embrace. This was probably the best swim of my life.
During the rest of our stay we tried to see as much of Havana as possible. One late afternoon we took the ferry over the bay to get to the other side called Casablanca. Here you will find “big Jesus”, Cristo de la Habana; like the one in Rio de Janeiro. There’s a beautiful view of Havana Vieja from there so bring your camera. I was destined to use my phone as the camera decided to stop working half way through our trip.
On this side you can visit the fortress Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro and see a small arsenal of fighter planes and other artillery, a reminder of the Cuban missile crisis. It is also a really nice place to watch the sunset while sipping on rum from a coconut. If you’re lucky, you might meet a small canine friend here like we did ^^
Lastly I would like to mention the people we ran into in the streets of Havana. I am talking about the locals we met, like the lady who chased the husband all over Plaza de Armas to braid his beard. He succumbed and then did not take the plaits off until the ties broke and the beard untangled itself. She absolutely refused to take any money for it and said she just saw his beard and had to braid it. The best thing is she was quite shorter than him so the whole scene of her chasing him was priceless. I tried finding her later on to do one long braid in my hair, but did not see her anymore.
Another person we met was an old man who sat next to us one night in front of La Floridita, He spoke no English whatsoever and I could not understand his Spanish but he was still talking to us, with a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye. No, he did not want any money, he just wanted to sit down and talk to us. We offered him a cigar, he said no and just smiled. I wish we understood him. I wish I found that lady again to braid my hair.