“I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below”
It was all our Son-in-law’s fault! No, really.
Andre got invited to a conference in Havana and decided to take Geraldine and the girls along and make a full-blown holiday of it, prompted I think by the fact that they had been to Granada in the West Indies before and Cuba was a Virgin Atlantic package and a 9 hour flight away from their then home in the UK. When Gerda and I heard about it and were invited to join them for the trip, it was quite an exciting thought but at the same time a cause for some apprehension – people from South Africa (ordinary ones outside the government, that is) just didn’t go to Cuba. But we are always up for some mild adventure and so the last week of March 2011 saw us flying to the UK for a short stay with Andre and Geraldine in Stafford in the English Midlands before heading to Gatwick for our flight to Havana.
I have been particularly eager to write about this trip, which was full of surprises and memories and very different from what we had in our minds – that’s the beauty of travel, opening up your mind to what’s out there and getting rid of all the preconceptions that tend to muddle your thoughts.
Apologies for a long post but there’s plenty to tell and show about this interesting city….
Our itinerary included 3 days in Havana, followed by 11 days at a beach resort in Varadero, located on a narrow finger-like peninsula which juts out of the north-western extremity of the island of Cuba. It would have been foolish to go to Cuba and not include some birding, and had found a local bird guide to set up a day trip from the beach resort to some reachable birding areas, but I had no real idea what he would cover and where we would go, knowing that Cuba is a large island – some 1000 kms long – and we would not be able to travel very far in one day. All our flights, accommodation and transfers were part of the Virgin Holidays package from the UK, which was very affordable – in fact we could not have beaten it travelling from SA to any other island resort such as Mauritius, even taking into account the additional cost of flying to the UK first.
This first post in this series covers just the Havana part of the trip, later posts will cover the rest of the trip.
First Impressions of Havana
The flight on Virgin Atlantic was OK as these long-haul flights go – being a daytime flight helped as we didn’t have to face trying to sleep in those hellish seats. Arriving in Havana, there were no hassles getting through passport control etc and finding our bus to take us to our hotel – all part of the Virgin Holidays package, which made our lives easier.
First impression on the way into Havana was that the roads were not very busy and the buildings were either plain and utilitarian or old, ornate and crumbling. The cars on the road included a sprinkling of the American classics from the 1950’s that Cuba is famed for along with other more modern cars.
Our hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, in the older part of the city, looked quite modern and attractive but the surrounding buildings were less so.
Once we got to our upper floor room I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below, with colourful ‘classics’ passing by, interesting looking people hanging about in doorways and the crumbling roofscape turning deep orange as the sun set.
The Classic Cars
It’s proof of human ingenuity that so many of the 1950’s American cars have survived for so long – when you look closely you notice that most have had major transplant surgery with new chassis’, wheels and engines, while the owners have managed to retain the old bodies and chrome trims. Even the hooters have been modified to make a pleasant squeak rather than loud honking. Car ownership is complex in Cuba but the bottom line is ordinary Cubans are not allowed to buy new cars so these old classics are handed down in the family and most if not all serve as taxis for the people. Some are battered, others are well-kept – all are colourful reminders of a simpler era and I could not stop taking photos of these beauties. Here’s a selection of those wonderful Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and others –
Then there are the interesting number plates….. colours denote ownership status with yellow being ‘private’ (but licensed by the all-pervasive ‘Government’), blue is Government owned, orange, brown and black denote levels of government ownership.
With so few cars on the road, traffic is not an issue and only the centre city is relatively busy, but nothing like other major cities. It makes for a relaxed atmosphere in the city which, along with the complete lack of commercialism, creates a feeling of being transported back to the 1950’s or 60’s.
The hard years that Cuba has endured are evident in the state of the buildings in Havana, where the contrast is most stark between those that have been restored or maintained and those left to slowly deteriorate for 60 years or so. Many that we saw have fallen into such ruin that only the skeleton of the façade remains, the roof and inner structures having succumbed to total neglect.
On our walking tour of the city it was clear that restoration has been limited to the main squares, which have been beautifully restored, but walk a block away and the buildings are in a sorry state.
Despite this, the original Spanish-influenced architecture is still very evident – many buildings have internal courtyards to help cool the interiors. Look through once splendid front doors and you see grand staircases leading to the upper floors with elaborate wrought iron balustrades, some almost corroded to nothing.
Ornately carved stone cladding is common but unchecked weathering has worn away the beauty that it once projected.
We found Cubans generally friendly, apart from some waiters who were a bit surly, but then that’s the case wherever you go. Out on the streets it was obvious the people of Havana like to see what’s happening and sitting or standing in doorways seems to be a national sport – many will greet you as you walk past. Wherever we went the locals would ask where we came from and were amazed to hear that we were from South Africa, some even pointing to our skin and querying “but you are white?”
The overall impression is of not much activity amongst the general population and those that had something to do were fairly relaxed about doing it – this may just be the way things are done in this laid-back part of the world.
The Sights of Havana
On our first day in Havana we went for a walk down the main boulevard to the seafront and the promenade which overlooks the bay stretching into the distance one way and the Old Fort in the other direction.
Along the way we admired the classic cars and old buildings and just enjoyed being in such an exotic place. The longish walk and the warm conditions soon had us looking for a place to have lunch and we came across a pleasant restaurant which did the trick with beers and cold drinks to go with a plain but tasty pasta meal.
Later we ventured out again, this time taking some of the ‘back streets’ which took us to a square where we had coffee and viewed the restored church
Next morning it was time for our tour of Havana, which we had arranged just for the six of us. Our personal tour guide for the morning was one friendly and informative Cuban by name of Mora (who happened to be of African origin), previously a professor in English, who chose to become a tour guide because it was more financially rewarding with the tips she earned. She turned out to be an excellent guide taking us variously by kombi taxi, horse-drawn carriage and walking through the streets and squares of Havana – in 30 years of guiding we were the first South Africans she had taken and at the end of the tour she insisted on giving us a hug.
Our tour started with a trip by kombi to the old fort with stunning views across the bay to the city.
Then on to older style transport – horse and carriage for a clip-clop journey to the square called Plaza de San Fransisco.
From there we continued on foot along the streets to some of the other restored squares, stopping at a few interesting spots and for lunch at the restaurant that Hemingway favoured in his Cuban days.
The last part of the tour took in the upmarket area where most of the embassies are located, including the SA embassy, and the Revolutionary square where we could imagine Castro addressing the crowds.
That brought our tour to an end – all that was left to do was to visit the cigar factory where Andre was hoping to strike a bargain on some Cuban cigars – that’s a story on its own that I’ll fit in somewhere along the way…
The Birds of Havana
I really can’t say that I did Havana any justice from a birding point of view – it was just a case of a few incidental sightings as we toured the city. For the record I noted the following birds during our short stay in Havana – the underlined ones were ‘lifers’ for me. I had no telephoto lenses with me so decent photos were not possible.
- Cattle Egret (just like the ones back home) – on the way from the airport
- Rock Dove – in the city squares
- House Sparrow – in the city
- Magnificent Frigate bird – my first ‘lifer’ of the trip, seen flying over the city (a real surprise as I thought they were deep ocean birds)
- Turkey Vulture – second ‘lifer’ and one of the birds we saw most frequently on our trip
- Mourning Dove – perched on city roofs and in the parks
- Eastern Meadowlark – in grassy fields near the Old Fort
- Cuban Blackbird – ditto
- Cuban Martin – nesting in a hole in a building façade
Those who have seen and read enough can stop here…
More Classics and old buildings
For those, like me, who can’t get enough of the American ‘classics’ and the beautiful old buildings, here are more photos of what we found in Havana – the cars :
– the buildings :
Unique Havana Moments
The Train Museum
Havana’s Train Museum, which is akin to a scrapyard, won’t be competing anytime soon with others I’ve seen (the National Train Museum in York, UK has to be the best) but certainly earns points for being unusual, and they don’t charge an entrance fee :
Oh, I might as well add the story of our trip to the Cigar Factory :
Andre was determined to take some real quality Cuban cigars back to the UK, but wasn’t keen (to say the least) to pay the very high prices charged in the more formal shops. And so he and I set off on a mission to find a bargain, starting with the Cigar factory not too far from the hotel – we ventured inside but could see straight away this wasn’t going to be the place for a bargain, as all the goods were priced with Euro and Dollar bearing tourists from Europe and Canada in mind.
Leaving the museum, we were approached by a local guy, harmless-looking, who sidled up and said ‘psst, wanna buy cheap cigar’ or something to that effect. Andre engaged him briefly and when he suggested we follow him to ‘his place’ Andre, to my slight horror, agreed to do so.
Well, he took us down the road, around a corner, down another road into a gritty part of town and then up a staircase to his small apartment where we were told to wait in a rather dingy sitting room. Minutes later our new-found friend brought in his ‘brother’ who looked more the part of a gangster, muscled, gold chains and all, and carrying a large bag which he proceeded to unpack, pulling out various boxes and types of cigars.
Not to be outdone, Andre brought all his negotiating skills to bear and I sat fascinated but very apprehensive as the scene unfolded in front of me, with the dealer getting more and more agitated as he saw his expected ‘killing’ fading away, while Andre calmly opened each box and inspected every cigar individually to make sure they were genuine. Eventually we walked out with the very best cigars for about a tenth of the price he started with and the dealer close to tears.
I must admit I descended the stairs from the apartment expecting a dagger in the back at any moment, but didn’t turn around and just walked away as fast as possible. Definitely one of the more memorable moments of my travels!