Trip Report - Long - Havana

Apr 18th, 2018, 07:59 AM
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Trip Report - Long - Havana

We had already been away for 3 weeks in February (Merida, Mexico), but given this never ending winter, I really wanted to escape again. I saw a good airfare and decided to jump on it. Two weeks later, we were on a plane to Havana.

We’re an older couple (66 and 70), speak some Spanish, and we’ve travelled a fair amount in Latin America. I had been to Cuba once before – 37 years ago! I had gone with a boyfriend who had connections with people in Havana. We divided our time between Veradero and Havana. At that time, tourism was relatively new to Cuba. I was expecting to see some changes, but I wasn’t sure what they would be.

Overall, we had a wonderful trip, and I would definitely recommend it as a destination. I’m sure it’ll change over the upcoming years, but it’s a fascinating city right now. I’ve divided this report into general notes, accommodation, activities, and finally food (for me, that's always important!).

General Notes – Getting into Cuba was easy. We didn’t have to buy a tourist visa as it was provided by the airline with our fare, but I believe that people in the US do have to pay separately. There are at least 2 terminals at the Havana airport. We arrived at terminal 2, which is pretty dismal in terms of its amenities. Not a problem when you arrive, but annoying when you’re leaving and your flight is delayed. Our flight was delayed 2 hours because of an ice storm in Toronto, but at least there were lots of seats at the terminal. I'd recommend having a nice meal before going out to the airport.

Havana is famous for its old cars – probably the same ones I saw 37 years ago, but they’re still maintaining them. We even saw one where the guy had added headrests to the front seats, with small screens so that the passengers in the back could watch music videos. Lots of people like to hire a convertible for an hour or 2 of touring – often they seem to be pink or lilac coloured. (We talked to a couple of women who did that – they got badly sunburned!)

WIFI is pretty bad. People buy cards to access it but we were able to access our AirBnB WIFI and the manager would add a CUC to the account for us, which would give us an hour of time. Even when I tried to use data through roaming (I could get it for $10 CAD a day through Bell Canada), I couldn’t get good service. That makes it difficult to look up information so I’m glad I did some research before the trip. I had also installed maps.me and bookmarked the places I knew I was going to visit. It works when you’re offline and it’s invaluable.

People are poor – no one makes a lot of money, however a lot of women are dressed stylishly (fishnet stockings seem to be popular!) and we saw manicure salons, etc. We honestly didn’t see many people begging – I get more people asking for cash when I’m in downtown Toronto than I did in Havana.

No one takes credit cards, so we converted our CAD when we arrived. We needed more money while we were there, so went to an ATM (it worked!) and also to a cambio once. It makes it difficult because you don’t want to have a lot of CUC left when the trip is over – we weren’t able to convert the CUC back into CAD when we were leaving. Luckily we didn’t have a lot left over, and I bought a bottle of very good rum and some honey when we left at the duty free.

There are a lot of stray cats in Havana. I’m a cat lover so I was happy to see a man in a park in Havana Vieja feeding a colony there. The cats that hang around the restaurants don’t seem to be particularly pushy, so I assume they get regularly fed by customers.

So many people take taxis! Individual taxis or collectivos – they are busy! The buses are busy too. We would usually tell the driver our destination and then offer a price. Prices are higher at night.

People still have ration cards in Cuba. The number of items has been reduced over the years, but 2 adults still get 6 pounds of sugar every month (along with the other items). The amount of sugar is crazy high. Cubans love their sugar. They also smoke a lot, even in restaurants.

Accommodation - I had booked a room in an AirBnB and the manager had arranged for a taxi to pick us up. We exchanged some Canadian dollars at the airport, and headed into the city. Our guesthouse (Hostal Zaza) was in Vedado and it is clean and modern on the third (or fourth) floor of a building. There are 4 rooms, all with private bathrooms (good showers and toilets). Genry, the manager, runs it with his wife for his brother who lives in Switzerland. We ate breakfast there several mornings - big plates of pineapple, papaya and guayaba, fresh juice, cheese and meat, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. All good, although I’m less fond of guayaba – something about the texture, I think. Vedado is filled with guesthouses and a lot of people rent rooms. Usually we would get an separate apartment for ourselves, but it made sense in Havana to go to a guesthouse.

Activities – On our first full day, we took a taxi to Museo de Bella Artes to meet up with our free walking tour. The tour was excellent. We divided into 2 groups (by language) and had an informative 3 hours. Bellas Artes is across the street from Revolutionary Square and we found out (through experience) that we were not allowed to sit on the fence while we were waiting for the tour to start. Not even pigeons sit on that fence! The tour covered a lot of Havana Vieja, including the 4 major plazas. We saw a lot of areas that we wanted to check out again. One of the other tourists was from China, and she and our guide were comparing notes about their 2 countries. I had confirmed previously that there would be a tour that day, but I think they generally have them twice a day. We gave the guide 20 CUC for the 2 of us.

My favourite activity was an AirBnB experience. We had arranged a cooking demo with a Cuban chef. (https://www.airbnb.ca/experiences/98154 ).There were only the 2 of us (he never takes more than 4) and it was held in the home of his friend who runs a bed & breakfast. The kitchen was lovely and we ate extremely well that day. Pascual is an excellent chef who is passionate about his country’s cuisine. I’m always amazed at people who can cook, clean up as they go, and chat / instruct at the same time! We had a delicious soup, 2 different kinds of fritters, tostones with tuna and mayonnaise, and fried plantain – all of that before the main course! Pascual had checked earlier whether we wanted pork, chicken or lamb, and we had opted for pork. We moved out to the patio, where Pascual served the rest of the meal. The pork was so good and so tender – it almost seemed like it had been confit’d although we saw him prepare it. He served it with rice, beans, and a tomato and cucumber salad. For dessert, we had guava ice cream and those little red skinned peanuts. The meal was wonderful, and I’d highly recommend the experience. We learned so much and really enjoyed our time with him. I now have some recipes that I want to try at home.

One day, we took a cab to visit an artist’s studio (Estudio Taller Santacana). Beatriz Santacana is a wonderful ceramicist (as well as painter) and her space is gorgeous. I had contacted the studio before we went and I knew that they didn’t take credit cards (I pretty well knew I’d buy something!). Her work is stunning. It’s a fair distance by taxi to visit, but definitely worthwhile if you appreciate art. I bought a plate, which they wrapped up very well so I could easily bring it home. Her bigger pieces can be shipped. She had a reception later that day for a book that she had coming out, but we were able to meet her and had a good opportunity to look at her art and the studio.

It’s not far from Fusterlandica, so after the studio, we grabbed another cab and went out there. What a place! It’s hard to believe that it’s the vision of 1 man (Jose Fuster). He has transformed not only his own home, but so many other houses in the neighbourhood. It’s almost “Gaudiesque” – such fun to see. It is a long way from Havana Vieja but definitely worth a visit.

Music is everywhere in Havana. So many bars and restaurants have musicians playing, and everyone is selling CDs that they’ve made. One evening, we went to La Zorra y El Cuervo to listen to jazz. It was an easy walk from our AirBnB, it had been raining (but it had stopped) and we weren’t feeling too motivated. So glad we forced ourselves up and out the door! The club opens at 10 PM, and the music started about 10:45. The entrance costs 10 CUC, so it’s expensive by Cuban standards, but that includes 2 drinks. The performer was Oscar Valdez. We saw this somewhat frail looking older man making his way down the stairs, but once he’s on stage, he’s amazing! There were 10 other performers on the stage and it was a fabulous show. As I said, I was so glad we went out. Some people say that La Zorra is not as good as it used to be, but without anything to compare it to, we enjoyed it a lot.

Another really cool experience was going to FAC (Fabrica del Arte Cubano). It’s an old cooking oil factory that now has multiple galleries, event centres, bars, a restaurant, theatre space – the list goes on – spread over 3 floors. It’s really amazing. I bought a giant mojito when I arrived, but I quickly realized that the disadvantage was that it was hard to take photos and carry that giant drink. I’d really recommend this place – the art is edgy, there’s lots of music (Cuban rap!) and film. When you arrive, you get a ticket which they mark up as you buy drinks, etc. and you pay when you leave. We got there shortly after it opened at 8 PM and by 10:30, there was a lineup of people waiting to get in. To be honest, a Cuban had pointed out that we were going there very early. (What can I say, we’re not likely to go out for 11 PM these days!)

We also spent a few hours in the Museo de Bellas Artes. There are 2 buildings and one is devoted to Cuban art. It’s 8 CUC to visit both, but we really only had time to see the Cuban building. It’s 5 CUC to see the 1 building. It’s very impressive. The collection is extensive, and covers all of the ‘eras’ of the art, right up until modern day.

Much of the time, we tended to wander around the old part of the city or through Vedado. The architecture, the art, the people watching – it was all good. We met a Toronto friend a couple of times at Bar La Dichosa on Obispo. He has come to Cuba a few times, and knows the musicians there. There was an international dance festival on while we were in Havana, and we were fortunate enough to catch some of the performances. We really appreciated being able to see such talented dancers (especially the contemporary dancers), plus there were a lot of fun street performers.

We did get to Callejon de Hamel on the Sunday afternoon but didn’t stay long. It’s very busy, very crowded. The atmosphere was fun and the music was great but I think the heat and crowds got to me. I actually got sick on the street, but it was still fun seeing my husband dancing on the street (and he never dances!).

We thought that we might get out to a beach one day to visit our friend where he was staying. That didn’t work out, but honestly we had so much to do in Havana, we didn’t miss it. We thought about doing the HOHO bus, but it seemed crowded and we figured that we could miss it.

Food – There are lots of restaurants in Havana, and that’s one of the biggest changes in the last 37 years. It seems common for restaurants not to have all of the items on the menu, but food was actually very good overall. We were only there for a week, and eating cheaply was not a priority, although I know we could have done so if we had wanted to save some money.

I had made advance reservations at 2 restaurants – Atelier and La Gaurida. Those were our high end evenings, and definitely worth it.

I had made a 9 PM dinner reservation at Atelier, and we walked over that evening. It was a longer walk than I had expected (down the Avenida de Los Presidentes) and I was a bit of a mess when I arrived. We opted to eat inside and take advantage of the A/C. The restaurant is really lovely. We started with a tuna and eggplant roll, and I had a caipiroska. For my main, I ordered the confit duck and my husband ordered the ropa vieja. Both were delicious and well prepared, with very good side dishes. My husband had cheesecake for dessert, while I ordered a pina colada. (Their drinks really are very good.) The restaurant wasn’t full when we were there, but it was fairly busy, so I’d recommend reservations. I think we paid about 68 CUC for that meal. Service was very good.

We ate dinner at La Guarida our final night. The restaurant itself is in a very interesting building (it was used in a movie called Fresa y Chocolate in the 90’s) and you don’t expect to have a fine dining experience in that area! You climb a couple of flights of stairs, and then you arrive in a beautifully decorated space. It’s quite a contrast! We had a 9:15 reservation there, and the restaurant was definitely busy. We started with complementary croquettas, and then we shared the smoked duck salad, which was deliciously dressed. I had the lobster (something I rarely order) and John had the lechon. (The skin was wonderfully crisp.) My dish came with some rice, but we also ordered the Moors and Christians (black beans and rice). We shared a dessert of coconut “soup” with a caramelized bread pudding. I had a mojito and we ordered a big bottle of sparkling water, as well as coffee after. The dinner came to 80 CUC (which included a 10% tip that they added to the bill) although we left a bit more than that. This was our most expensive dinner, but would have been considerably more in Toronto. Service was again very good.

We had another nice dinner at Opera, an Italian restaurant in Vedado. We had a funny experience there. We ordered beef carpaccio as a starter. My husband also asked for “pan” (bread), so I wondered why the waitress asked if we wanted bread. We ended up with 2 starters - beef carpaccio and Serrano ham! Not bread! The ham was delicious. The restaurant is known for their ravioli, so I had the pumpkin ravioli, while John had 2 types of ravioli (fish and ham) because they didn’t have enough fish to make a full serving of fish ravioli. All the raviolis were delicious, with tender pasta. We shared a dessert. While we were there, a fairly large American group came into the restaurant to look at the art before eating dinner – they were on a “cultural exchange”. I think our bill there was about 45 CUC.

One place that we really liked is El Café on Amargura. Their iced latte is excellent. It’s a very popular place and we went there a few times. They have an incredibly relaxed ginger tabby cat who likes to lie just inside the doorway. Great breakfasts as well (they make their own sourdough bread). The BLT is really good but I also think their vegan sandwich would be delicious. The building is old and picturesque – it’s just a charming place all around. We met a young ballet student (and her mother) from Buenos Aires who is studying in Havana, and they gave us some information about the dance festival. We also met an older Swedish couple whose daughter and son-in-law live in Havana (attached to the embassy). I am sure that most of the people are tourists, but I’d definitely recommend it.

We had a light lunch one day at Esto no Es Un Café, where I had a ham and cheese crepe and John had a really giant salad. They also have a really good “green juice” with honey, basil and so on. (Also giant frozen mojitos that can give you brain freeze!) The washrooms are good there just in case you need to use the facilities It’s close to the famous Dona Eutimia paladar.

Another nice place for lunch is the California Café, which is just down the hill from the Hotel Nacional. I had a very good Cuban sandwich with great fries, and John had fish. (He tried to order their fish tacos, but they were out that day – common experience in Cuban restaurants.) They also have an excellent frozen lemonade (with or without rum). The owner is American and she’s married to a Cuban.

We had an early dinner at Restaurant Vanvan on San Juan de Dios in old Havana one evening. It’s an interesting space – people have signed the walls, there’s a small band that plays, and the food was really good. I had fish, John had a really tasty lamb dish. Prices were very reasonable. While we were having our drinks, they have us those little sleeves of peanuts to eat.

We also stopped at Café Brown which is near the Callejon de Hamel. We just had a snack and a drink there, but I was impressed. The space is small, but nicely decorated.

We had breakfast one morning at Mamaine. It’s an interesting artsy space in Vedado – cool décor and pleasant café, with nice space outside.

Overall, it was a wonderful trip, and definitely met my need to escape from winter. So glad we chose Havana and I hope that it won't be another 37 years before I go back!

If you have any questions, let me know.
Susan

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Susan
SusanInToronto is offline  
Apr 18th, 2018, 11:47 AM
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Nice report! Glad you had a good trip.
tom42 is online now  
Apr 19th, 2018, 04:32 AM
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Wow! What a great report. Thanks for taking the time to post this.
schmerl is offline  
Oct 18th, 2018, 04:13 PM
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Thank you for this amazing report. I still haven't visited Havana yet, but I'm hoping next year. Do you think it would be easy to rent an apartment and do self-catering there? did you see a lot of grocery stores around that have enough products to make self-catering easy enough? or should I expect to mostly eat in restaurants?

Also how would you compare Havana to Merida in terms of beauty, atmosphere, sights, are they in the same category in terms of being impressive colonial cities? And is Merida overall an "easier" trip? Thanks
whfan_whfan is offline  
Oct 19th, 2018, 06:44 AM
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Whfan_whfan, I think you could rent an apartment easily enough, but I'm not sure about buying groceries. It's very different from Merida where you see little tiendas everywhere. Havana didn't seem to have that, at least that we could see, so I don't know how easy it would be to self-cater. Although the locals must be able to buy their own food! They do have ration cards, but only a very limited number of food items are rationed, so I know they must be able to buy non-rationed goods elsewhere.

Merida and Havana are different. Merida has so many wonderful restaurants and we are spoiled for choice down there. In Havana, we found some great restaurants, but it's not like there are loads of them. Havana is a cash culture - you can't use credit cards there, and getting cash is more problematic. We really appreciated the music scene and the wonderful art in Havana. Merida has that as well. I do find the people more openly friendly in Merida than in Havana. It's really common for people to say buenos dias as they pass by you on the street in Merida. That didn't happen in Havana. I don't know if it's a byproduct of being in a Communist environment or if it's just a regional difference. We certainly found the people friendly once we got talking.

Overall, I think that Merida is 'easier', but that may be partly because we're so familiar with Mexico.
SusanInToronto is offline  
Oct 19th, 2018, 04:48 PM
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Thank you very much Susan! And what about which city you thought that was more beautiful? are they comparable or is one more impressive than the other in terms of their colonial architecture, things to visit, beauty, etc. Thanks
whfan_whfan is offline  
Oct 21st, 2018, 06:34 PM
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Whfan_whfan, it's like comparing apples and oranges. Plus, keep in mind that I've been to Merida several times for 2 or 3 weeks at a time. I spent 1 week in Havana. Old Havana is unique - there really isn't anything comparable. Cuba has done a huge amount of restoration in Old Havana, so there are some lovely buildings. I spent my time in Old Havana and Vedado. In Merida, I've stayed in a number of neighbourhoods, and I'm really comfortable there.

Like I said, it's apples and oranges.
SusanInToronto is offline  
Oct 22nd, 2018, 03:00 AM
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Thanks again! I guess I’ll have to visit both
whfan_whfan is offline  

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