The morning was full of birdsong when we awoke. Matt went to go see the sunrise while I got ready for the day. We had a big day ahead of us. Today we were going to Havana!
Drive to Havana
Our driver met us at the hotel lobby. There we found out that our original driver, Domingo with the classic 1950’s car hadn’t work out. So we had been assigned Gilbert instead, who had a 1998 Peugeot car from France. We were disappointed that we wouldn’t get to ride in a classic car, but saw some benefits in it: AC and a more comfortable ride! (No seat belts though)
Gilbert walked us outside of the resort to where he was parked. We confirmed the price of 120 CUC for the day and he said to pay at the end, joking if we don’t like the tour we don’t have to pay him anything! He wore a Blue Jays baseball cap. We wondered to ourselves if he wore that because he knew we were Canadian.
We drove down the ‘White Road” built before the revolution by the mafia. Behind the trees that lined the road where oil rigs for local electricity. There were large patches of charred land too – apparently brush fires have been a real problem this year do to the drought.
There were lots of hitchhikers. Everywhere there were people trying to hitch rides into town – women, children, and men. Horses and cattle grazing along the roadside and turkey vultures flying overhead. There were banana sellers beside banana fields and oxen pulling wooden carts with tired old men.
Gilbert pointed out the different license plates along the way. A green stripe meant it was a government car, a P was a private car like his, and a T was a tourist rental car. The streets were a lot less busy on the weekends as most cars in Cuba were government cars and had to be parked after the work day was over. To buy a car in Cuba was very expensive, more than a house, but the public transit was so bad that it was worth at.
As we drove into Matanzas, I asked Gilbert when most of the houses were built. He said it was 1950’s Miami style, built by rich people when Cuba was the Las Vegas of America. The city of Matanzas was known as the Athens of Cuba as so many famous writers and artists had come from there. It was also known as the City of Bridges due to all the bridges. These nicknames were far more appealing than the English translation of Matanzas – Masacre – as this was were the Spanish killed many natives a long time ago.
I enjoyed driving through the town. It was very busy with locals going about their daily business, kids running around with sticks, and of course, hitchhiking. There indeed lots of bridges – one of which we saw boys jumping off from, very high up on the top of the iron suspension into the water. That took guts!
We made a stop half way to Havana at a place called Bancuyagoa, a lookout over a big valley. It was the highest bridge in all of Cuba – I think Gilbert said it was 112m high. The land was lush with green palm trees and brush with flat topped mountains in the distance.
Gilbert said they made the best piña colada here. You’d get a hollowed out pineapple with 7 year old rum. Even at 10am it looked very tempting, but we wanted to save our money for Havana. We were running low on funds.
Back in the car, I asked Gilbert how to spell where we just were. As it’s a bit of a difficult one even in Spanish, he got out his phone and started typing away while driving. Apparently Cubans aren’t as strict as Canadians of phone use while driving! I decided not to ask him how to spell things while he was driving again… this was in addition to phone calls he took too!
Outskirts of Havana
Our first stop in Havana was a giant statue of Christ overlooking the city. It sat next to some old fortifications and a museum of Che. Gilbert said not to bother with that music – it wasn’t very good. We took some pictures then headed to our next destination: the exhibition of the missile crisis!
Matt was very intrigued by all the nuclear warheads (replicas) on display. They even had parts of the US spy plane that was shot down on display, with the part of the wing with USA written on it turned up for all to see. In the bushes was an army personnel sitting in the shade, watching us look around. I wandered over to the fortifications and took some pictures, trying to catch a bird perched on the top of a missile.
The tunnel into Havana was closed, so we had to take an alternative route into the city. We passed run down buildings, an oil refinery and banana trees almost side by side! I began to see Art Deco buildings, some run down and in ruins, others painted in baby blue, burnt orange, soft turquoise, and yellow.
We stopped in Revolution Square which Matt was eager to see. There was a large steel mural of Che and a monument of a philosopher with government communication buildings behind. Apparently up to a million people would gather in this square to hear speeches.
The place was an absolute zoo with tour buses and colourful 1950’s cars. Tourists were snapping pictures and cars were honking at one another. Popular place.
Gilbert took us to the Romeo and Juliet Cigar Factory. As it was Sunday, the factory was closed, but the factory store was open. Here you could buy cigars in bulk, but I didn’t have enough money for that. They had run though. Gilbert pointed out his favourites that we couldn’t get in Canada. We bought a bottle each to take home.
Parking in Cuba
Outside he paid an old man sitting on the curb. Car theft is a problem in Cuba, so you need to pay people to watch your car – even for a small period of time! This included parking lots too. Everywhere we went he was paying people and chatting with friends.
El Tablao de Pancho
Gilbert dropped us off at El Tablao de Pancho for lunch. He described it as very clean with real Cuban food made with spices. There was live music too! It didn’t look like anything from the outside, but once inside we found ourselves in a tiki bar atmosphere with red curtains and high ceilings where wagon wheel lights hung. The waitresses were white mini dresses and mini straw cowboy hats. As far as I could tell, everyone eating there were tourists.
Matt had a guajiro cocktail while I had a mojito – it was much better than on the resort! We ordered black bean soup, black beans and rice, Tamil with short ribs and plantains, and two mystery deep fried dishes we ordered off the menu just because they sounded interesting. The food all came at once with a little side salad.
Although most entrees were 16-18 CUC, our self made tapa style meal came to 25.85 CUC with tip. We were in and out in under a hour and got to enjoy a live concert of energetic Cuban music – far better than we had at the resort! It was an experience!
Gilbert dropped us off in Old Havana to wander around for two hours. I had imagined Havana to be very colourful, but the colourful paint was so grimy that everything looked drab. It smelt like a sewer and was very dirty. We could see why people of our hometown Toronto call our home so clean!
We went to the bar where Ernest Hemingway used to frequent most in Havana. There was a life size bronze statue of him sitting at the bar. The place was jam packed of people – definitely not a place you’d want to stop and have a relaxing drink nowadays. Matt took a couple pics before we elbowed our way out. I didn’t even bother to get my camera out. It was far too crowded and dim.
We went to the hotel where Ernest Hemingway spent much of his time in Cuba. Unfortunately the museum, his rooms, were closed as it was Sunday, but we got to walk around and admire this beautiful old hotel. It was gorgeous with cream and green tile floors and walls, black ironwork, and a vintage elevator. Each floor was lit by a large skylight at the hotel’s centre where green vines hung down fed by the light. It was like going back in time!
Visiting the Plaza
We went to various Plaza in Old Havana: Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja, and Plaza Cathedral and probably some others too. There were lots of squares with waiters trying relentlessly to get you into their patio restaurants.
The Modern City of Havana
We drove down 23rd Street which was lined with old grand mansions, now apartments, then up Avenida de Los Predidentes. Our guide took us to Capitoli, a replica of DC’s Capitol building. From there we walked through Parque Central and down streets with run down buildings next to beautifully restored hotels. There are lots of stark contrasts in Cuba.
The Dogs of Cuba
We saw lots of happy dogs. They were all quite small, like mini labs or wiener dogs. Apparently the dogs we saw out and about belong to people – they just walk themselves! The dogs have no collars and wonder the streets freely, returning to their homes whenever they fancy. It was amazing! And to think these free roaming dogs are better behaved than many at home. All they want is too sleep in the sun, eat, and get belly rubs. I enjoyed seeing their wagging tails and how they’d just flop down in the middle of the street to rest wherever they fancied.
We ended our visit to Havana was a walk down the Malecon, a seafront boulevard. There was an old stone lighthouse, a little park with a statue, fishing boats moored for the day, and families out fishing. It was lovely to hear the lap of the water on the wall beneath us – sound of tranquility after the noise of the city.
The Drive Home
We sat in silence for much of the drive back to the resort. Matt nodded off in the seat next to me as I flipped through my guidebook making notes of the names of the places we’d seen.
Mirador de Bacunauagnua
We stopped at the lookout over Vancuyagoa again on our way home for pina coladas where there was a cafe, bar, and gift shop under a big red sign that read Mirador de Bacunauagnua in white script writing. We were happy to stretch our legs – but most importantly, try the impressive looking pineapple drinks!
The bar tender used a milkshake maker to mix up real coconut milk, pineapple juice, 7 year Havana rum, and ice then poured it into a carved out pineapple topped finished with a colourful straw he handled with silver tongs. There was coconut to snack on and bottle of rum to top up your drink with. Each elaborate drink cost 5 CUC and were the best pina coladas we’d ever had – just like Gilbert said they would be!
We sat and enjoyed our pine apples on the patio. It was much less crowded at this time of day, but very windy! We watched the palm trees blow in the breeze as vultures drifted overhead just as they had in the morning, only the sun was different at this time of day making everything look extra green. It was a beautiful end to an epic day!
Back at the resort
We paid our driver 120 CUC for the day and thanked him. He didn’t check the money, just took it and wished us well. After we dropped our bags in our room, we headed out to the bar to sample the different rums available to take home to Canada.
We did a tasting of different Cuban rums: Havana Reserva, Havana Selection Special, Havana 7 year rum, and Legendare Elixir de Rum with our new favourite creme de rum to finish! We walked down to the beach to watch one more sunset before dinner, then headed off to the restaurant.
For our last night in Cuba, we had dinner at El Romantico. There were no serenading minstrels like on other evenings we’d walked by (which was a mixed blessing), but the waiter was excellent! I had shrimp cocktail to begin, followed by lobster bisque, then lobster flambé with roasted eggplant and tomato with ginger, with pear in a ‘wine’ sauce for dessert. Matt had the tuna with mushroom crepes and the pear for dessert. We left stuffed!
Preparing for the end
We had an evening drink at the bar before heading back to the room to pack. It’s never as fun packing up from a trip than packing for one!
We checked out at 7:00. The bus was scheduled for 7:30 but didn’t arrive until closer to 8 so we got to leisurely enjoy two cups of coffee.
Matt tried to check us into our Sunwing flight online in the morning, but sadly you cannot pre-check in on the flight home! Once we got the airport, we waited 40 hours in a relatively short line to do so. Matt was not impressed. Fortunately getting through Cuban immigration and security was much faster – ten minutes!
Shopping at the Duty Free
The Varadero airport had lots of shops selling alcohol, tobacco products, and souvenirs. The rum was about the same price as at the resort. At the duty free, we found the 15 year old rum that Matt had been searching for the whole trip – turned out it was 140 CUC! There was also a 1700 CUC bottle of rum for purchase – wowee! Needless to say, we didn’t buy any. Despite the vast selection of alcohol, we didn’t see the yellow creme de rum (Aeldao?) we’d come to love at the resort.
I bought a little pack of cigarillos that came in a nice tin. It would be my souvenir from the trip. I bought it for the tin primarily – ever since I was a child, I have a soft spot for little boxes. The tobacconist couldn’t take my VISA, but took Canadian cash, giving us CUC coins in change. We had 0.60 CUC left to spend, so walked around trying to find a postcard or something to buy with it. Matt found a man selling cookies and chocolate for 0.25 CUC, so we got some random Cuban sweets for the plane!
The flight home
The flight left a few minutes early. We were given a Sunwing customer survey card and our Canadian customs card to fill out. Near the end of the flight we got complimentary tea and coffee which we ate with our airport sweets. There was no complimentary snacks on board, so I had a granola bar from my purse for brunch. Matt settled into an episode of Black Mirror while I edited down my iPhone vacation pics and wrote postcards.
We arrived home to Toronto to sunshine, blue skies, and balmy springtime weather. Green shoots of flowers were poking up from the garden and buds were showing on some of the trees! Matt and I were very happy to be home – counting our blessings for the City of Toronto’s clean tap water! It’s such a joy to drink water from the tap once again!
Goodbye Cuba! Hello home. We’re happy to be back and look forward to getting back to work tomorrow.