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Monday 7 Apr 2008
Habana, Cuba

Great Cuban food (!) and Exploring downtown Habana

Fortunately the rain stopped in the middle of the night and cleared for a bright sunny (albeit hot) first day exploring Habana.

My host, Mayi, provided me with a most excellent start to the day with a full jug of guava juice (guava incidentally is eaten everywhere in Cuba.. yummy), bowl full of fruit, plus a spanish omelette, toast, butter, honey, and some damn strong Cuban coffee (I was beginng to get shakes after drinking a few cups of it!)

Additionally I learned my first new Spanish word for rain (which would prove to be useful for many days coming): "llubiya" (yu-be-ya)

CUBAN FOOD

The plentiful breakfast provided me with my first wake up call. Countless websites, friends, even the Lonely Planet book itself all warn of Cuba's terrible food.. yet my breakfast (and practically every meal I had on this trip) was actually delicious and healthy with huge portions you could barely stomach (as hard as I tried to look I couldn't find anything unpalatable in Cuba).

Sure if you're looking for Parisian-quality in your food then don't expect that to happen, but the food in Cuba isn't quite the vomit-inducing bland-fest that's described in the Lonely Planet, or on many websites.

You won't get sick from the food, or go hungry. In fact I thought the food in Cuba was of far greater quality and presentation than anything I had in Central America or Vietnam (for example).

Albeit, the vegetarians I met didn't seem to be so lucky though

One thing I WOULD mention though is that the menus in all casa particulars (for example) seems to be the same. I leads me to assume that casas are issued government-approved menus listing the 'typical' breakfast/dinners that a tourist would be accustomed to, e.g. every casa seemed to have the following for breakfast: an egg-dish of some sort (omelette, scrambled, etc), large jug of fruit juice, bread, guava jam (delicious!), fruit bowl, strong coffee. The dinners similarly have a main course of fish, lobster (illegal for casas to server normally), chicken and desert of fruit plate.

Doesn't mean the menu is bad though, just the variety isn't great.

EXPLORING HAVANA

The best place to stay in Habana is Habana Vieja since everything is within walking distance.

I first wandered along the Malecon, pausing to head inward around Centro Habana to experience the non-touristy parts of Habana, and get a real feeling for the city (I always prefer to see the real "raw" sights of a new place before I go to the tourist-prepped sights).

To be honest it was actually ok, not as dirty as many have made it out to be. Sure there were a few uncovered manholes, and the buildings may not have been as pretty as Habana Vieja, but many cities in South East Asia were far worse (Phnom Pehn in Cambodia comes to mind). In Centro Habana, it is the people that make the visit worthwhile and I got my first glimpse of people queueing outside a shop to get the few meagre supplies that were available on the nearly-empty shelves.

I managed to purchase a huge icecream using the "nacional" money instead of the tourist CUC (spent about 5 eurocents for a huge thing in a cone).
That was the last time I got to use the local currency though. Every other shop flat-out refused to accept nacional pesos from me.. in the end I spent the rest on handing out tips to bands playing in cantinas.

I wandered back east toward Habana Vieja, passing through the absolutely tiny Chinatown. Basically one tiny side-street full of chinese restaurants and bird-sellers, but landmarked with the universal "Golden Gateway" over the roadway entering the area.

Arriving back into Habana Vieja I wandered the streets for hours taking photos of the grandiose architecture. Despite many buildings being left neglected or vacant (obviously due to lack of money in the country to maintain them), the historical wealth of Cuba is evident. The city is a snapshot of a bygone era of greatness that has since collected dust and been relegated to the back-page of someone's photo-album.

Habana's colonial history is prevalent in stunning courtyards, magnificent old cathedrals and embassies, not to mention the prevalence of many 1920s era hotels replete with authentic furniture, Moroccan-tiles and hanging fans to give that real "Casablanca" feeling to the place. One of my favourite hotels was Hotel Sevilla where the famous gangster "Lucky" Luciano used to hang out with his cronies. It was like reliving history.

Each tiny side street seems to have more hidden gems. The doorways to people's houses are sometimes decorated with intricate carvings, the ceiling relief's likewise. ALL THE ORIGINAL MATERIALS FROM 80 YEARS AGO. Truly you could spend a full week in Habana alone just exploring all there is to see. It's a great place to wander and get lost in, and all the people are happy to help you out if you get lost (as long as you ask them in Spanish that is!!... they either don't speak English.. or don't like to speak English.. a bit like the Parisians in that respect)

CIGAR FACTORY

I eventually decided to go into a museum, and picked the cigar manufacturing building behind the Capitol building. The tour went through all the various stages of cigar manufacturing (which is all done by hand and the expertise involved was quite amazing) and you got to walk on the floor where the cigars are actually rolled. Despite not being allowed to bring your camera in, it's not quite the sweat shop that I had read about and the people are treated relatively well (work 9-5, given an hour or so for lunch, are entertained by a guy reading a book). Even so, there is a strict quota of cigars that need to be produced by each person each day - around 150 - so the workload isn't easy.

After the tour I checked out the museum shop, assuming that the cigars would be cheap in Cuba. How wrong I was. Basic Romeo y Julietta cigars were going for around 8 CUC each (about 6 euro each!). I decided to think about it .. and who knows later in the trip I might get them cheaper elsewhere.

I was aware of the scam going on where people sell you cheap cigars on the street, which later turn out to be full of sand in the middle, so I always turned away the touts on the street (of which there were many).

I met a German bloke called Markus on the tour who, it turned out, had arrived on the same AF flight, but was going back one day later. It transpired that he was going to be travelling on much the same itinerary I had planned, so we decided to meet up later in the week to share the cost of accommodation.

FIRST NIGHT OUT IN HABANA

I met up with George (from yesterdays AF flight) at the classy Hotel Inglaterra listening to some Beuna Vista classics being jammed out while sipping on yummy mojitos. Cuba is one of those places where tourists can get away with wearing flip flops and shorts in the classiest sort of bars that you would need a suit for in Ireland!

Later we met up with Markus at the Edificio Bacardi for an all-inclusive meal for 10 CUC (or "kook" as Markus says). Delicious shrimps, more mojitos, soup, salad, great bar... and to round it off we went on the rooftop to get a great view of the Habana skyline at night. There was lightening in the distance, of which I even managed to get a photo... but it was a precursor to the heavy rain that would lash Cuba the following day.

Later that night we wandered around more bars, enjoying the salsa music and even somehow ended up on the stage of the huge (empty) casa de la musica (which was unfortunately not showing anything that night).... great night!

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Perdido en Cuba de Fidel

Travel blog by peterforan

Swish antique

Swish antique


2 weeks in which I crap-dance salsa-stylee in my own inimitable way; terrorise the Cuban people after one-too-many mojitos and visit bars where they actually ENCOURAGE people to smoke cigars as big as your leg. If I get time I'll take in some culture..

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    Habana at night
  • San Ignacio...

    Habana

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    San Ignacio plaza
  • Trumpet...

    Habana

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    Trumpet player on Malecon
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    Habana

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    Malecon