This is Part 4 of a multi-part series on Cuba. Havana... I don't even know where to begin--the sights, the sounds, the people, the food... It is a daunting task just to organize all of my thoughts. So, I'm simply going to go in chronological order through our time in this enigmatic city. You can Click Here To Read Part 1 or Click Here To Read Part 2 or Click Here To Read Part 3.
After an eventful morning exploring some of Havana’s famous sites in the districts outside of the historic core, we are definitely ready for a hearty meal before we tackle Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Today, our guide has picked La Piña de Plata for lunch. (All of our lunches are included in the fee with our tour company, Wijincuba.) We’ve worked up quite a thirst, so we order 2 Cristal’s (a local beer resembling Rolling Rock) and some much needed bottled water.
Today’s lunch includes: warm rolls with butter; soup; an entree–grilled pork or chicken cooked in brown sauce (resembling marsala); side dishes–cabbage salad, rice, and plantain chips; coffee; and chocolate ice cream. The soup is a light chicken noodle, perfect for a hot climate. For entrees, we choose one pork and one chicken to share so that we can try both. The chicken is particularly tasty. The ice cream portion is much smaller than we are used to, but dairy in Cuba is at a premium, so I am not really surprised. By the time dessert comes, we are so full anyway that it doesn’t really matter
After lunch, with the thought of food shortages on our minds, Tony offers to take us to see where local Cubans typically obtain their food (we never encounter them eating in any of the restaurants we frequent). The local bodega we visit has peeling counters and walls and rusty shelves holding a sparse number of items. There is also a small wooden counter on the other side of the bodega that functions at a “restaurant.” A few people are seated at stools at the scarred wooden counter eating a simple meal or snack. It is a far cry from the lunch we just enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort. Most Cubans cannot afford to eat out. Instead, they may buy a small meal at a place like this or purchase a snack from a street vendor. (For more on the Cuban food ration system and other insights into Cuban daily life, check out my First Impressions article.)
Cubans don’t typically get meat at their local bodega, though. For that, they head directly to a butcher. For some reason, my husband has a fascination with the butcher shops we encounter all over Cuba. Maybe it’s because his grandfather was a butcher, or maybe it’s just because they are so unlike the refrigerated, white-countered, immaculate glass cases we are used to a at home. However, since there is often a shortage of meat, it tends not to hang in the butcher’s shop for long–which is good given the lack of refrigeration in combination with the climate’s brutal heat. In the early mornings, we encounter locals already lining up at the city’s shop counters to make their purchases.
Our next stop is the Johnson & Johnson Pharmacy Museum. The Farmacia Droguería Johnson–as it is known in Spanish–is located on Calle Obispo, a popular shopping street. The original pharmacy, Gran Farmacia Johnson, was founded in a different location in 1886. The current location was established in 1914. Until a tragic fire in 2006, the pharmacy served the Cuban people–first privately and then through the state. After the fire, the location underwent a massive restoration and reopened as the current-day museum in 2012.
The meticulously lined jars and polished wood counter of the Pharmacy Museum, though, give you an unrealistic feel for what a true Cuban pharmacy is like. Similar to the tourist vs. local restaurant comparison, the Pharmacy Museum is a far cry from an actual local pharmacist. So, Tony takes us to see one of those next. The local pharmacy is in a tiny, nondescript corner shop. It has a beat up storefront and only a few shelves with medications stacked behind the person dispensing them at the counter. It looks nothing like our local CVS, stocked with an endless array of supplies. In Cuban pharmacies, medications are often out of stock and difficult to obtain.
As we continue down Calle Obispo, Tony points out that none of the local shops advertise prices in the window. He says they make it so that you have to go in and get in line to ask. There’s also no competing prices or sales since it’s all owned by the state. He jokes with us that if we go in and get the price of an item now, and then come back in ten years to check it again, it will still be the same. The Cuban people do not often see a drop in prices for technological advances like we typically do back at home.
Our next stop along Calle Obispo is the Hotel Florida. A beautiful nineteenth century colonial style building and an attraction in its own right, this is where Tony says we can pick up Tropicana tickets for tomorrow evening. We choose mid-tier tickets–Tony’s recommendation (he says he thinks the highest priced tickets are too close to really get a full view of the stage and the lowest too far away). At $85 CUC a ticket it’s not cheap–especially by Cuban standards–but for me, it’s a must-do while in Havana.
Our receipt (proof we will need tomorrow to show we have purchased tickets) safely tucked into my husband’s inside pocket, we next travel to a location I have promised not to disclose. We are going to buy black market cigars. Pointed here by a trusty source, I wish I could relay the crazy story that ensues (my husband literally thinks the entire experience is the highlight of his trip), but I don’t want to get anyone into trouble. Needless to say, we procure a beautiful box of Cohibas for a steal, and as far as we can tell, they are real–or really phenomenal knock-offs. We later carefully examine real ones in a state-run store and find them to appear identical).
Our cigars carefully stowed, we are off to explore the famous Hotel Ambos Mundos. Located on the corner of Calle Obispo and Mercaderes, the peach-colored hotel stands out. Built in 1924, it is mainly frequented by tourists for two reasons: Hemingway and its rooftop terrace. Hemingway lived and wrote in the hotel in the 1930s, and visitors can still see the room in which he resided, set up as he may have left it on a typical day. The rooftop terrace boasts sweeping views over the city, as well as a cocktail bar–the perfect combination. (For a break from the Havana heat, there is also an airy piano bar in the lobby.)
As we continue to walk through the city, we pass a run-down bar with people spilling out onto the street outside. I wonder why somewhere so nondescript draws such a heavy crowd, so I ask Tony. He tells me it is La Bodeguita del Medio, an old Hemingway haunt. It is a bit of an overpriced tourist trap (give me the Floradita over this place any day), but for those on the Hemingway trail, it’s a must for a mojito. Next to La Bodeguita, Tony points out a blind singer with his guitar playing for tips. As I watch him deftly strum his guitar, I am reminded of something Tony told me on our first day in Havana: “Everyone in Cuba finds a way to survive; one way or another, you have to do it.”
Next on our list is the Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square). This is another special spot for my husband. His great-great grandfather’s office was in the building to the left of the Cathedral where he worked as a bonded trading agent and custom house broker. His great-aunt still has a piece of his business letterhead with the address of the office on it. Another little piece of family history come to life. For my husband, who doesn’t have a huge family like I do, it’s nice for him to be able to trace back some of his roots and walk in his ancestors’ shoes.
The baroque cathedral for which the square is named was completed in 1777. The interior is fairly sparse, but the exterior is actually quite interesting. Constructed mainly out of blocks of coral, the cathedral features two asymmetrical bell towers and various ornamental embellishments. In the evening, the facade is lit up, bathing the whole square in an ethereal yellow glow.
While here, Tony runs into the nearby Doña Eutima restaurant, located just off the square, to make a reservation for us for tomorrow night before the Tropicana. It will be a busy day–with a full-day trip to the Viñales Valley, dinner Doña Eutima, and a late night at the Tropicana–but we are never ones to pass up an opportunity to see and do as much as possible!
Next, we’re off to the Plaza de Armas (“Parade Grounds”). Plaza de Armas is the oldest square in the city, planned out in the 1520s. Its initial name was Plaza de Iglesias (Church Square) for a church that adjoined the square. That name wasn’t changed until over a hundred years later when the adjacent Castillo de la Real Fuerza (a star-shaped fort constructed in the sixteenth century) used the space for military drills.
Today, the square is lined with palm trees and features a statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (another popular symbol of Cuban independence). The plaza also features the Hotel Santa Isabel. A nineteenth century mansion and former home of the Counts of Santovenia. In addition, the square is home to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, a former residence of the Spanish colonial governor and now home to the City History Museum (Museo de la Ciudad). An interesting feature Tony points out is the parquet wooden road in front of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. This was supposedly done to muffle the sound of passing carriages, inhibiting them from disturbing the governor while he slept.
After Plaza de Armas is Plaza de San Francisco de Asís (Assisi Square for short). Asisi square hosts a number of interesting buildings. The square’s name comes from the church that dominates the southern portion of the square, the Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís. The Basilica was built during the end of the sixteenth century and remodeled in the 1730s. Today, the church and convent nextdoor serve as a museum and concert hall. On the square’s western side (directly across the street) is the Terminal Sierra Maestra, which serves as the terminal for visiting cruise ships. And on the square’s northern side is arguably its most striking building, the imposing Lonja del Comercio (Commerce Market), which was erected in 1909. The Lonja served as a commodities market until the 1959 revolution. Today, foreign companies with Cuban interests utilize the building for office space.
The square is also home to several unique sculptures. At the doorway to the church stands a bronze statue of El Caballero de París, a “philosopher” who roamed the streets of Havana in the 1950s and is actually buried inside of the Basilica. El Caballero, also known as José María López Lledín, was a well-known city street person who would stop those he encountered to discuss his views on life, religion, and politics. According to our guide, you are supposed to grab his beard with your right hand, his left hand with your left, and step on his left foot with your right all at the same time for good luck. On the side of the Basilica stands a statue of Friar Junípero Serra with Juaneño (an Indian boy), and to its left a Carrara marble statue carved in 1836, Fuente de los Leones (Lion Fountain).
La Conversación is the square’s most recent addition. Added in 2012 after it was gifted to Cuba by the French ambassador, it is an abstract bronze sculpture of two people seated, engaging in conversation, located in front of the old Commerce Market. A statue of composer Frederic Chopin seated on a bench is also located in the square. The statue may seem like an odd addition, the composer never even visited Cuba. However, the statue was commissioned as a joint collaboration between the Cuban and Polish governments to celebrate Polish culture and the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth in 2010. A composer does seem fitting here; after all, the city of Havana has music engrained in its soul.
Next, Tony has arranged for us to tour Havana for an hour in one of the city’s iconic classic cars. Our driver is running just a couple of minutes late, and Tony jokes that he must be operating on Cuban time. Soon, though, a shiny Buick convertible pulls up to pick us up. We hop into the back, and Tony bids us farewell until tomorrow morning (the driver will drop us back near our AirBNB at the end of the tour).
We start off with a drive along the Malecon, Havana’s famous seaside promenade. We couldn’t have a more gorgeous day for a ride in a convertible; the sun is out, and the sky is clear blue. As we continue down the waterfront, we pass the famous Hotel Nacional–a landmark in its own right (more on that to come in Part 5)–followed by the U.S. Embassy, the Russian Embassy, and many of the others we saw earlier along Embassy Row (more on those in Part 3).
Soon, we begin to travel outside of the urban areas of the city we are familiar with and find ourselves driving through forests and over streams. We see several impressive ficus trees, with roots spread out over large areas. Our driver stops off in a shaded spot to take in the views, and we get to hop into the front seat for a few fun photos.
Back in the car, we explore more of Havana, passing many of the sites we saw earlier, including Plaza de la Revolución and the Cementerio de Cristobal Colón. My husband proudly shows our driver a picture of his great-great grandparents’ grave in that Cemetery when we are stopped at a traffic light there. Next, the driver shows us some of Vedado and stops at John Lennon Park. The square features a statue of its namesake, inaugurated there on the 20th anniversary of his death. Under Lennon’s foot is a marble tile with a quite (in Spanish) from his song “Imagine.” We also pass through “Chinatown” on our journey. Chinatown does not resemble the places that usually bear that name in other large cities; there aren’t actually many Chinese in Chinatown (most left after the Revolution), and other than the Chinese-style gate we pass through, it is barely discernable.
We pass through the district of Centro (Central) on our way back to Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Centro is a highly populated district. Taking in the crumbling facades of the residential buildings that appear to defy gravity here is an otherworldly experience. But looking past that, it’s easy to see that they must once have been gorgeous. The architecture, delicate detail work, and fine moldings resurrected to their former beauty in my mind paint a picture of what Havana pre-1959 must have looked like. I wish I could go back in time just to see it all!
Our ride comes to an end all too quickly in Old Havana. The drive drops us off near our AirBNB, and with a friendly wave, he’s off to find his next fare. We are exhausted from a long day, but we still have so much planned for this evening! We walk the short distance back to our apartment to regroup before we head back out for more.
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins