We arrived in Varadero from Vancouver, Canada via Air Transat at 5:30pm and were ushered through security effortlessly. On the plane you are given a Tourist Visa that you must keep while you are in Cuba. This is stamped as you go through security and they take it back when you leave. Once outside, we immediately went to the currency exchange to get CUCs (convertible Cuban pesos).
After a certain amount of time they shut the office; it is unclear if the others behind us were able to get their money exchanged so get there early! We then went to the taxi line up. There was one person there organizing and we were able to secure a Taxi for $90 CUCs from Varadaro to Havana. It would be ideal if you could share, but we just wanted to get into town.
Viazul is another option being air-conditioned government operated intercity buses. We could have waited for the bus, but in hindsight, after trying to catch the Viazul bus later in the trip, you would be best to book in advance as trying to get on the bus on the day you want to travel is not always guaranteed.
Before we left we book accommodations at Casa Diana (aka Hostal Dianas) in Havana Centro via Tripadvisor. Booking a Casa is slightly complicated since not all Cuban’s have cheap easy access to the internet. Since Tripadvisor does not allow people to post email, some Casa’s will add their email in a text form, you must then email them to ask about availability, if they are not available they will recommend another Casa. This is how we found Casa Diana. The people are very honest and friendly and we didn’t have any problems with recommendations.
Once there we were greeted by Diana and given a choice of rooms. We opted for one not on the main street since it would be quieter. That evening we asked about tours, she contacted Rey of Havana Tours Solymar who came that evening and took us for a walk through Vedado and suggested we eat at the Nerei Restaurant. This was a more expensive Cuban restaurant, but with very good food and friendly service.
There are three main sections in Havana. Old Town, Centro and Vedado. Old Town – La Habana Vieja – was built by the Spanish in 1519. It is the historic center of Havana. Centro (where we stayed) was built about 450 years ago and has suffered much deterioration since the 1950′s since infrastructure was largely neglected during Castro’s time. It is only now being revitalized. Vedado was built in the early 1900′s with much American influence and is considered the central business District. The Malecon, an 8km sea wall was built in1901 to protect the area and now serves as a promenade. West of Vedado is the residential area of Havana which we did not visit.
We spent our first day on a tour with Rey walking from Centro through Vieja to the East Bay to check out the view back to Havana and some military history. On our second day we did our own walk from Centro to Vieja, and took a bike taxi back. We found this to be enough time to spend in Havana since the presence of the Diesel vehicles made the air quality quite poor.
Our budget was 30 CUCs per day for accommodations and breakfast, 10 CUCs for lunch per person, 10 CUCs for dinner per person, 10 CUCs for incidentals per person; so call it 100 CUCs per day as a couple. Some will spend more, Some will spend less. For us, this was plenty.
The second part of our trip took us to a smaller colonial town – Trinidad.
March 30 – Day 1 – Getting in and hanging out in Vedado
Diana shows off the foyer of Hostal Diana. Also shown is the view from Hostal Diana towards the corner of Belascoian y Zanja looking West towards Havana Vedado district. Hostal Diana’s stairwell to the top floor is a spiral staircases which is a common architectural feature required in Havana Centro buildings – one of the most densely populated urban areas of the Americas approx 40,000 people per square km
This shows the interior of Hostal Diana including the rather rococo lighting job she’s done inside
Exterior and interior of the Hostal Diana’s Casa and the wonderfully varied breakfast she served. Awesome coffee
Cubans are rich on culture. Their government assures dancers and musicians a guaranteed salary. A dance studio on Ave Belascoian in Havana Centro. Two girls look on
A random colonial building on Infanta – at the border of Havana Vedado and Centro
March 31 – Day 2 – Havana Centro, Havana Vieja and the East Bay with Rey, and the Malecon
Check out Rey on Instagram or via his Facebook. Our tour with him gave us a nice overview of Havana Centro; one of the most densely populated urban areas of the Americas approx 40,000 people per square km! We also got a fantastic overview of Havana Vieja via Rey’s tour as he was both informative and attuned to what we wanted to see. This taste then gave us a good idea about what to see and focus on on the following day.
Our tour was reasonably priced at 30 CUCs for both of us for that day. Unlike many tour groups where you may have 6 people or more (we saw groups of 12 people per guide!), it was just 2 of us to Rey. We never felt rushed.
We ate at Restaurant Mimosa near Hostal Diana’s. What incredible huge portions and value. Highly recommended.
Barrio Chino (Chinatown) is just 5 minutes walk east of where we were staying. There are basically no Chinese here!
But there were sure a lot of Chinese food restaurants and little touristy things on the main Chinatown drag of Dragones
Gift from the PRC to Cuba from back in the day – a little Taoist garden
We hired Rey as a guide for a day to get oriented to Havana. He was punctual, pleasant and thoroughly professional. The tour and getting to know him was a pleasure. If Rey is representative of Cuba the country has a bright future
The Plaza Capitolio is the boundary between Havana Centro and Havana Vieja (ie old town). The Capital is currently under renovation. It will be very interesting to see how this relatively quiet yet touristy area changes as it becomes overrun with tourists following relaxation of the US embargo.
At Parque Central where baseball fans congregate for some odd reason to discuss baseball (Cuban’s favourite spectator sport) and seagulls congregate to do what they do on the statue of Jose Marti (Cuba’s father or independence)
On Calle O’Reilly – the main gringo tourist street running E – W to the heart of Havana Vieja. Quite the contrast between the randomness of Havana Centro’s buildings and the better-kept buildings of this street.
One of the joys of Cuba is ice-cream. No BS about fat-free or light. Cuban Helados are full-fat and super tasty. This coconut icecream was made right in the nut!
Hotel Florida in Havana is part of the Habaguanex chain. Room rates there are 200 CUCs+/night or slightly less than 10x what we were paying for Hostal Diana’s in Centro. If you stay there you can take some/a lot of comfort that the Habaguanex Hotels direct a lot of their revenue to renovating and fixing the older buildings in Vieja. If a block of buildings or a street is fixed up it’s likely in large part due to Habaguanex.
Your Habaguanex dollars at work – some roadwork fixing up cobblestones in Havana Vieja. All work being done by hand with very little machine involvement
Some more Havana Vieja miscellany – nicely laid out signs. The first ever Johnson and Johnson pharmacy (still dispensing OTC drugs) and a statue of Carlos Manuel Cespedes at Parque Cespedes; he freed slaves during the time when Cuba was under Spain’s colonial dominon
Interesting mural close to Plaza de Armas lovingly crafted out of fine grained sand. Must be a real chore to maintain this especially during the wet season
In Cuba there are tons of stray dogs and even the dogs are chill. In the Parque de las Catederal of Havana Vieja. This is the oldest church in Havana – approx 450 years old
Cannon at the Castillo Fuerza on Havana’s west side. This was built to attempt to defend against frequent pirate incursions. It was a bit too small and a bit too inset into the harbour to prevent (mostly English) pirate ships from sailing in and having a Jolly Old Time.
More Castillo Fuerza
We then took a classic car ride over to the East Bay (cost 7 CUCs) to check out the fortifications and cool stuff over there.
This car is a 57 era Ford. the owner does a heck of a job keeping it spick and span
The East Bay has an active military base. All Cubans have to do some time in government service; either in the military or in the public service. It still is a way to get urban Cubas into the countryside to learn what farm and country life is all about and to put something back into the country. This military base has an incongruously beautiful wood carving in the compound
On the southern point of the Eastern Bay there’s a statue of Jesus and a good view of Havana’s skyline plus a view of the polluted bay waters. There’s also hordes of tourist stalls so be warned
What I found infinitely more interesting is the Cuban Missile Crisis display. Essentially it was the single closest moment in past history when the Soviets and the US came close to initiating a nuclear war. Here is a ZSU anti aircraft gun and a MIG 21 in Cuban colours on display
Remnants of a U2 spyplane shot down over Cuba by a SAM.
Closeup of the old Soviet hunk of junk – the Mig 21. Don’t get to see too many of these close up
Soviet Medium Range Ballistic Missile It’s truck-mounted and truck-launched so would have been difficult to locate.
A SAM 2
After pondering the biggest dickus of the Missile Crisis we went off to Dona Carmela’s for lunch. Expensive but good food! Is it worth it? All in all there are more choices on the west side – I’d recommend eating in Havana Vieja for a lot less and having more choices
Now off to Castle El Morro. This is the big dog of the East Bay fortifications. It was built after the peak of the pirate incursions but taken only by those sneaky British marines during the Battle of Havana that started the short-lived British colonial era. This entrance is over 30m long and narrow – its the only entry/exit to the Castle via land short of the well-defended bridges
The El Morro crapper. Waste drops directly to the ocean
Castle El Morro. More views of the old fortifications and cannon
Quite the views of Havana skylines from Castle El Morro
After getting blasted by the afternoon heat we were in need of cooling sea breeze. First up to Rey’s tower where we could look onto Havana’s skyline and the interesting street life that goes on at building top. Centro is so densely populated that a lot of people set up rooms and shelter at the top of buildings. Some live there permanently. Some just use the building top as a place to sleep at night to get away from the summer’s heat. All to building code of course!
More Centro skyline view – looking towards the casinos and the more modern buildings of Havana Vedado to the west
Taken on the Malecon in Havana in the afternoon. We returned for sunset
Took a break following the afternoon’s heat and then went for another walk to Havana Vedado to see Vedado’s signature hotel – the Hotel Nacional. Scene of many gangster movies.
Tons of people hanging out in the sunset. Capitolio building in the middle of the picture
Havana’s buildings are pink in the sunset
Malecon sunset. Wonder how much the pollution contributes to the orange glow?
April 1 – Day 3 – A walk from Centro to Vieja
On this day we took the opportunity to check out the things we had missed. In particular we wanted to get a bit more of a flavour for how Cubans lived in Havana Centro and Vieja so we mixed up the touristy bits of town with the more residential areas.
Today we ate at Restaurant Flor de Loto also near Hostal Dianas. Again, huge portions and incredible value!
After having done the one day tour with Rey we felt pretty comfortable exploring. Instead of taking the E-W touristy Calle O’Reilly from Havana Centro to Havana Vieja we took Calle San Rafael instead which was described as “authentic”
Boy Boulevard San Rafael was pretty authentic. Houses stacked on top of other houses on top of mostly empty department stores with very plain wares. While its true that Cubans get the basics from the government (food, schooling, housing etc) the little things that make for quality of life like say shoes, are in short supply. The department stores were very like the stories one hears about the old Soviet-era East Europe stores- lots of empty shelves
Blvd San Rafael intersects the Prado – a N-S tree-lined street along the Centro-Vieja border. It sure reminded me of Unter der Linden of Berlin’s Mitte district but with even less cars and of course, warmer. We walked N along the tree-lined streets and admired this mural
Along the Prado is the Museo de la Revolucion. In Castro’s delightful sense of irony he put this Museum to the revolution at the site of Batista’s old palace. Lots of cool stuff in there but mainly I wanted to see the outside exhibit
SAU100- self-propelled gun that Castro manned when the Cubans beat the CIA-funded Bay of Pigs attempted counter-revolution
Wandering through more of Havana Vieja we took in more sights that we had missed the other day – in particular the exceptionally well-restored Plaza Vieja
This view down Calle Brasil looking W from Plaza Vieja shows the compressed nature of Havana street life. So much going on in this one picture; the buildings, the architecture, the light, and the Capitolio building in the distance – so close in metres but so far in history
More cobblestone work in Plaza Vieja. It’s very hot. These guys must be used to it as they’re doing all of this by hand
The Azucar Bar and Lounge is a bit pricey just for drinks but is a good way to get above the heat of the Plaza and a way to take the view in from above
Plaza Vieja view
I love the way normal life integrates with the tourist things. There is a normal Cuban school in Plaza Vieja. Here’s the kids doing physical education in the heart of tourist central.
We had mediocre beer and pretty crappy food at the Factoria Restaurant at Plaza Vieja. Give it a miss. It’s overhyped