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Trip Report Havana, the Lost City

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Frankly, it broke my heart to see Havana's beauty dressed in a frock made of destruction designed by a political regime. Being a product of communism and its ideals myself, I was still in shock. It's either I did not remember how bad it was behind the Iron Curtain or it was never that bad.

On the other hand, Havana is the only place where I could re-live my history again. Once I got into a side car of an old motorcycle-taxi, I drowned in the sentiments of the old times.

Cuba is definitely worth visiting if you are into exploration. Not luxury. Not convenience (forget about your iPhone and iPad). Not afraid of difficulties that might happen, like Cubana airlines selling your ticket to another traveler because you did not show up at the airport exactly 2 hours before your flight. Refunds? That's a foreign word. No such a thing. No exchanges either.

On that note, a bit of practicality:

If you are an American citizen, remember that you are prohibited from traveling to Cuba due to an active embargo, unless you have a special permit. Many travel via Mexico where Cubana Airlines is the only convenient transportation method to the island. Yes, it's scary because their planes are old (probably Soviet left-overs) and landing in a complete darkness is not the best feeling.

Cuban immigration service does not stamp your passport. They stamp a visa card that you buy from either an airline itself or a travel agency prior to your departure. The visa card is collected upon your exit of Cuba and it is important not to lose it. American credit cards are not accepted anywhere in Cuba, so bring cash. Dollars are actually penalized and the exchange rate is not attractive at all. The exchange offices are only at the specific locations in the city and their services are available only during specific times.

If you get to Havana in the evening, beware the city will be hiding in darkness. No lights on the streets, with an exception of maybe one avenue in the Old Town. Even the Capitol building is not lit. Taxis are safe and some hotels offer their own transportation.

In Havana you can either stay at a hotel or casa particular, a private room/s offered by Cuban families. Living with a Cuban family exposes you to the realities of a daily routine such as lack of hot water or a shortage of produce in a grocery store. Hotels provide more convenience; however, are not for those who are on a strict budget (given the exchange rate). Saratoga is probably the closest to the western standards hotel. Situated in a perfect location, it offers nice views, a rooftop pool, service and drinks that can't beat the price of $4-5 for a delicious mojito.

Since private ownership has been a taboo in Havana (except in the Vedado cemetery and China town), dining and wining is not an exception. Government controls pricing and hence, quality of food and service. After two days full of half-cold, half-old sandwiches and pizza sold from behind the crates, a plate of french fries at "La Bodeuita" seemed like a bite of heaven. China town has a better food and so do the restaurants in the old town that are usually full of hungry tourists and an amazing music.

Cubans are talented musicians. It seems that the music is inherited at birth. I could sit for hours at the "Golden Rain" and listen to jazz. It's different from everything I've heard before and if you like Buena Vista Social Club, you will love music in Havana so much more.

Don’t be afraid to explore the city and wander its streets or hire a coco-taxi and have your driver take you around. They usually speak English and are willing to share stories about their city. At the Vedado cemetery, get a guide (they are typically at the entrance; working on tips). I was pleasantly surprised with my guide’s knowledge of English and history. That’s how I learned about the significance of Santeria religion, a blend of African Voodoo with some aspects of Christianity. Or rather all Santeria’s saints were masked under Christian names in order to avoid persecution.

Stroll along Malecon during the day (no lights at night) and enjoy the endless see (no signs of ships). If you are interested in the educational infrastructure, University of Havana will show it all with its outdated programs based on Marx & Lenin theories.

Make your way to the market where everything is hand-made and buy a few Cuban paintings. To avoid scams, purchase cigars at the cigar factory (behind the Capitol) and not from random, for the lack of a better word, street vendors. Find a bar in the Old Town that Hemingway used to visit and enjoy a drink there (don’t eat – food is terrible). Inhale a bittersweet aroma of Cuba, strip it off the regime and imagine its magnificence.

Pictures:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/74182423@N02/sets/72157631053321674/

P.S. don’t get super excited if a local Cuban hits on you – such an attention could be for a different reason as there are a lot of “independent escort services” in the city (female and male).

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    really enjoyed reading your frankly written report. your photos are fantastic! so much beauty hidden under the disrepair & lack of paint.
    did you stay just in havana? my mother went a few times preCastro. she loved the city & spoke of a vibrant nightlife, so i have always wanted to go even knowing it will not be as she described.

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    A couple of points. Cubana flights aren't "scary" and if you don't wish to fly Cubana, other options are Mexicana from Mexico City, TACA from either San Jose or Panama City, Aero Caribbean, Air Canada or even Cubana from Canada where they use Airbus A320's.

    The US dollar is the ONLY currency that has a special tax on it. Pretty darn easy to bring Euro, Pounds, Canadian Dollars, etc if you don't want to use US dollars. You'll end up with a much better exchange rate and frankly, the US dollar is the WORST cash currency to take to Cuba. You'll do at least 10% better with any other currency.
    Yes, exchange offices are at specific locations and times. They're called BANKS who have business hours. Also there are CADECAs where you can exchange funds. It's never a problem.

    While Havana doesn't have the mass of neon lights on their streets that 1st world countries have, you cannot say they have no lights. Every street has street lights that are quite satisfactory for getting around. What you don't see is glaring neon billboards selling the latest in consumer crap. Oh, and the Capitolio is indeed lit at night, but not the whole night. Most of the monuments and stuff is only floodlight until 10 pm then the lights go off. Cuba is a country that is very conscious of not wasting electricity and using their resources to keep stuff lit all night. You'll also find El Morro (the old fortress) wonderfully lit until 10 pm.

    Oh, and the Saratoga is the absolute top 5* hotel in Havana, but there are other 5* properties including the Parque Central, Santa Isabel, Hotel Nacional, plus many good 3* and 4* hotels. I especially like the hotels in the Habaguanex Hotel chain. Some very nice botique hotels.
    www.habaguanexhotels.com/
    Oh, and if you're paying hotel prices of $4 - $5 for a mojito, you're paying twice what a good mojito is elsewhere.

    ".....After two days full of half-cold, half-old sandwiches and pizza sold from behind the crates, a plate of french fries at "La Bodeuita" seemed like a bite of heaven."
    GOOD GRIEF, did you get out at all? Did you try the wonderful lasagna or pasta at Trattoria Marakas? The all-you-can-eat roast chicken that El Aljibe is famous for? Or the wonderful steaks at La Restaurant Emperador? Or how about the Cerdo Asado (Roast Pork) fresh from the huge BBQ at El Palenque?
    By the way, when you were at La Lluvia de Oro (what you called Golden Rain), did you try their traditional Ropa Vieja and Yuca con Mojo while you listened to their jazz? Sorry to disagree with you, but there is lots of good food in Havana if you know where to look or ask your casa owner for a suggestion.

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    Is it true you can't take iphone or ipad to Cuba? We took our smartphones. I also disagree about food & luxury, we stayed at NH Parque Central (now Iberotel and with a new tower which is 5 star) and the breakfast buffet was amazing. We also ate in a paladar in Miramar (which was a fascinating area of Havana with huge villas) and the food was pretty good, the view out to the sea was wonderful. I don't recall Havana being in darkness at night - in fact I know it isn't because we saw lots of sights on the way back from Miramar in the taxi and we were out every evening, we would have noticed a city in darkness.
    We exchanged money in the hotel (EURO) as everyone knows that bringing in anything American into Cuba is not a smart idea, inc US issued credit cards.
    And we got stamps in our passports but that is because we asked for them.

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    Virginia - thanks! I only stayed in Havana. Even though some restoration is taking place, old Havana is very neglected - almost made me cry. The city has so much potential and, given an opportunity, could even exceed its "preCastro" levels of prosperity. But the current regime continues its path of destruction and Cuba that once was the largest sugarcane exporter now actually has to import it!

    I would recommend visiting it if you get a chance, but it's not an easy travel for Americans at this point due to an active embargo...

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    Canuck_at_Canada_eh - appreciate your comments.

    Traveling to Cuba for Americans is not as simple as it is for Canadians or other nationalities. Typically, tourists from States travel via Cancun, Mexico and the most convenient flights are on Cubana airlines (Mexicana has more difficult schedule with flights getting canceled if a plane is not full). Exchanging dollars to other currency (i.e., Euros or Pounds) and then the other currency to CUCs does not make any sense because you'd lose on the exchange rates and fees. The amount becomes almost equivalent to paying 10% penalty for exchanging USD.

    There are more CADECAs than banks. However, both have interesting business hours. I visited Havana during New Years so many places were out on a 2 week vacation, including the cigar factory.

    In terms of the hotels, Saratoga actually had a better rate than Nacional and was in a better location. I stopped by Nacional - yes, it was beautiful and grand but also a bit neglected. I liked its terrace/garden with a view of Malecon.

    Perhaps, Havana was on a New Years break because its streets were not lit in the Old Town and other parts of the city (including famous Malecon). I went to the El Morro fortress to watch the Cannonade tradition - which was rather a waste. In a complete darkness, a group of dressed up soldiers fired one cannonade. The area got lit for a short bit. It was challenging to get back from the island - luckily I found a taxi.

    You have to search for the good food places - in my experience those restaurants that either have a wait line upfront are relatively good. If you walk around during the day and get hungry - forget about finding a good sandwich to eat. I was served a black long hair in my food that I ordered at the "Golden Rain".

    I grew up in the USSR so I am very familiar with a living environment controlled by a central government. Visiting Cuba has always been my dream. But it broke my heart to see the harsh consequences of communism and idealism that "kills every deal" - not to turn this into a political discussion.

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    Odin - I brought an iPad but only for reading and writing notes. Could not connect to internet/Wifi, of course. My unlocked cell-phone didn't work. Miramar is a nice area but I did not eat at a paladar there.

    The point of my report was to describe the life style/standards overall. And overall, the food is not good. I hired a coco-driver to show me around. The food we ate reminded me of dinner at an old Soviet cafeteria.

    You'd be surprised - I met a group of Americans who had a permit to visit Cuba and were trying to use their American credit cards:)

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    Canuck...you mention the Habaguanex Hotel chain...we were on our own and stayed at the Conde Valenzuela in Vieja Habana. Loved it...probably the only American's staying there at the time. I do believe they are in the abovementioned chain. El Ajibe provides an excellent garlic-sauce roast chicken dinner with all the fixings...big barn of a place in one of the nicer district (Miramar) We flew Taca non stop from LA at the time, on a private approved mission for the two of us....we lugged 40 pounds of meds for the small Jewish community which were greatly appreciated...all passengers except wife and I were Cuban returnees to visit family.

    Unlike what I read above, we found the paladares offering tasty and nicely prepared food..favorite was Huron Azul, near the Nacional. Cafe Taberna and Meson de la Flota were two other restos that we enjoyed. All near the hotel. Los Nardos across from Capitolio, also a very good upstairs resto. I personally think that the restoration of old Habana is going well, maybe slow, but very appealing. Eyes of the beholder and all...

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    From my broad experience of gov't saround the world, i imagine i would choose benevolent despotism with a despot who ruled by common sense, kindness, equal rights for all and a sense if we all live well everyone lives better.

    I am a US citizen who immigrated to Canada 7 years ago. i have been to havana, yes the deterioration is tragic, but thanks to minimally regulated banking and finance industry there are large swaths of recent deterioration in many american cities. Ethnic ghettos in many US cities have been in states of deterioration my entire life and i am 65!

    From my grandparents who vacationed in Havana pre revolution and spoke some spanish, pre castro cuba was not a paradise for most of the people. their sense and my understanding was that bautista was a dictator.

    any dictatorship is hierarchical and heavy handed. a friend in victoria is head of research for the bc cancer foundation ;he teaches sometimes at the med school in havana. he says despite the lack of a lot of high tech equipment the medical care for all is decent ( can one say that about the USA?) on my first trip i observed nurses in old fashioned white uniforms roaming in public spaces. my spanish is pretty good and upon inquiry i found out that their job was to just check on people who looked frail or vulnerable to make sure they were OK

    literacy is quite high in cuba and it is functional. people i met just walking the streets were ready to talk intelligently.

    while part of cuba's pain is due to a harsh form of communism, a fair suffering can certainly be ascribed to the 50 odd year economic embargo of the USA. and although i was travellng as a canadian permanent resident i still felt guilty about the pain my native land helped to inflict on these people.

    i'd certainly wish a kinder gentler gov't for all the generous long suffering cubans i met, but i'd wish the same for many americans(us) who suffer economic and racial discrimination, where health care and quality education exists increasingly only for the well to do and even affluent neighbourhoods are not totally safe

    while canada is not paradise or as perfect as one would wish, there is a sense that we all do better if we all live better. there is personal safety here that i don't believe most americans can imagine any longer.

    i appreciate that canada works better than the usa to some extent because we have a tenth the population. denmark w/ i believe 7 million works better than canada.

    i started traveling the world when i was 17. i went abroad to see and experience how people lived in their own countries not to just experience the life i lived at home. i learned languages so i could speak with people. the contrast of how people lived their lives compared to how i lived mine ( in the usa and now canada) was always an opportunity to learn and expand my horizons.

    i agree no one should go to cuba for a fabulous 100% culinary experience but the music is fabulous and usually free. a lot of the restoration work in habana is funded by the spanish. kudos to them. the riviera hotel where i stayed a few nights ( again restored with spanish funds) is one of the masterpieces of mid century modern architecture and furnishings.

    i would encourage anyone to visit cuba with an open mind and an open heart. the cubans are a wonderful people who have been dealt a harsh hand by gov't s of their own and other countries. i certainly wish them a better life

    AndrewDavid

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