February 25, 2017
People had been telling us we should go to Cuba “before it gets changed too much”. So here we were on our way to Cuba. We had taken the red-eye flight to Toronto, so naturally we didn’t sleep too well. But while sitting in the Toronto airport, waiting for our Havana flight, we snoozed a bit. The flight was late in leaving, which worked to our advantage. Not only did it leave late, but our pilot appeared to get lost in the taxiways and was then sent to the back of the takeoff queue.
Arriving in Havana we went through immigration quickly and because we had taken only carry-on baggage, we didn’t have to wait for checked baggage to arrive. Outside the weather was very different from Toronto’s—hot and sunny instead of cold and rainy. We weren’t travelling independently this time; we were taking the Explore “Cuba Libre” tour so our Explore greeter was there to meet us. We were soon sorted out with a taxi ride to the Hotel Sevilla, but before leaving the airport we each hastily exchanged $600 into CUC’s, the Cuban currency for foreigners.
The ride into Havana took about 30 minutes; the traffic was busy in some spots so our driver was continually changing lanes. He actually signalled each time!
The Hotel Sevilla, where we would spend the next two nights, was a lovely old building with Moorish tiles in the décor. Historically Ernest Hemingway stayed here, as well as Al Capone. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we sat in the lobby on lumpy couches which had been reupholstered but still retained the old springs. At 3 pm we got the key and went up to room 421. It was definitely old style, but it did have air conditioning and a firm mattress, so that was the important part.
Our hotel was quite close to the ocean, so we headed in that direction. Watching the old cars drive by was interesting; for the most part they were brightly coloured and in good shape. They mostly dated from the 1950’s but we did see a lot of new cars as well. When we got to the point, across from the old fortifications, we were disappointed because there were no pelicans there, not even any gulls! But along the Malecón were several brides and their grooms, cruising along in some of the old cars with their tops down. And farther down the coastline there was a cruise ship docked. Not one of the giant floating city kind, but we were still surprised to see it.
From there we wandered around the Old Town, looking at the various Art Deco buildings, plazas, and churches, checking out some restaurants as possible dinner places for tonight. There was quite a mix of old historical buildings, people’s houses, and bars and restaurants. We spent quite a while with a man who was selling colourful paintings of a street featuring the sign of El Bodeguita Del Medio, one of the famous bars in the area. He really wanted to sell us one of the paintings, of course, but we really didn’t want to buy anything on the first day of the tour.
Back at the hotel we waited for the rest of the tour group to arrive from their British flights. Finally just before 7 pm we decided to give up and go out on our own, but just as we were leaving, a bus pulled up and there they were. Paul’s aunt Ruth was there (we had told her we were going on this tour and suggested she might like to come along, and surprisingly she did). She decided to go out with us and brought along Fiona, one of the other group members.
We set off back to the Old Town to a restaurant which we had seen earlier, but by the time we got there it was full. Eventually we all decided to just go back to the hotel for dinner. We didn’t want to go to the hotel’s fancy rooftop restaurant but the bar had a food menu so we ordered from that. Unfortunately it took about 45 minutes for the food to arrive, and it wasn’t all that warm. And Paul’s meal didn’t resemble the menu’s description at all, except for the presence of chicken in both! The menu’s French fries were missing, but the plantain chips which actually arrived were better anyway.
Tomorrow morning at breakfast the tour finally starts. It will be good to get going.
February 26, 2017
We slept really well last night, but fortunately we had set the alarm to beep at 6:45 am or we would not have woken up early enough. Downstairs in the breakfast room we were both surprised at the variety of food we had to choose from—sliced meats, lots of fresh fruits, hot items like eggs and sausages, as well as cereals and yogurt. Definitely something for everybody!
We were finished breakfast by 8 am, so we had plenty of time before the tour’s initial meeting. So we went for a walk around the block to check out the area. Then at 8:30 am the whole group met by the pool and our leader José told us all about the tour, where we would be going and what we would be doing. No surprises here, it was we’d already seen in our tour summary. He also told us how the money works in Cuba (which is kind of complicated) and other useful things like that.
At 9:30 am we all set off in the bus, on a short tour around Havana. Eighty percent of Cuba’s tour buses come from the national tourist company, Havanatur, so they all look the same. And there are hundreds, thousands, of them. So we had to take care to remember the bus number (3532). We drove past Parque Central, where there is a statue of José Martí—the first of many we would see in Cuba because he is their number one hero. Also here was the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana’s oldest hotel. We continued on to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro famously gave a speech over four hours long! José told us the history of the plaza and described the various buildings surrounding it. At the highest point was a very large monument to José Martí. José also told us that three popes have visited Cuba and they all spoke here at the plaza.
Moving on, we drove through the Vedado district, which was built up in the 1950’s and settled by well-off people so it had buildings on large lots. We carried on along the Malecón, seeing our first pelicans, and then through the tunnel under the bay to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. We had a few minutes to walk through the fortress before we had to carry on.
From here we started on a walking tour, with the Plaza de Armas as our first stop. We were somewhat familiar with the area because we had explored it yesterday afternoon, but the others had arrived in the evening and so they hadn’t seen it yet. However José gave us a brief history lesson before we headed off along Calle de los Oficios to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. This square was first created in the 16th century, when Spanish galleons stopped at the adjacent quayside. It is here where they filled up fresh water from local springs. Continuing along, we headed to the Plaza Vieja, which was laid out in 1559. It is surrounded by beautiful buildings as well as Gaudi-inspired art nouveau.
Just at the corner of this square was the Café Taberna, where we had a cocktail-making lesson. We all lined up at the bar and learned how to make a mojito (sugar, lemon juice, crushed mint leaves, sparkling water, Angostura bitters, and of course rum) and a Cuba Libre (rum and coke with ice). They weren’t difficult at all, especially the Cuba Libre!
Now we had no more tour activities for the rest of the day. We went off with Ruth to look for a restaurant for lunch; José had recommended the Café Paris but it was extremely full. So the three of us decided to go back to find La Dominica, which we had been full last night. It was full again now, but after a while some groups left and we were able to get a table. Ruth and Rosemary shared a Parma ham pizza while Paul had spaghetti carbonara. The meal was really good; the pizza shell was excellent and very crispy.
After lunch we headed back to our hotel and went up to our room to have a rest, which actually turned into a siesta. About 6 pm we decided it was time to get going, so we went down to meet up with Ruth. First we walked down to the point, where we had walked yesterday, enjoying the evening breeze. From there we headed over to the Plaza de Armas and actually found the restaurant which we had noticed yesterday, La Mina. The food was good and inexpensive, and the mojito that Paul had was just as good as the ones we had made ourselves earlier today.