A Travellerspoint blog

HAVANA

Miami to Nassau to Havana

sunny 28 °C

Wednesday December 4
One bonus for staying at the St Michel Hotel is that it is only 4 miles from the airport. You drop the car off at a dedicated rental-car terminal and then catch the 3-minute mono-rail to the actual airport terminal. The Bahamasair check-in took ages as everybody was going to Havana (via Nassau) with 50-100 kgs of excess baggage for their families back in Cuba – mainly Cubans with non-USA passports as US citizens are still not allowed to travel to Cuba (unless you’re a missionary or some such nonsense). We were told that we didn’t have to get off the plane in Nassau; we could just wait the 50 minutes or so on-board. And so it was; our passports and visa money were collected and we spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Pedro, a Cuban with a Spanish passport who lives in Cuba but spends time with his son and daughter in Miami and Los Angeles

We were quickly through passport-control in Havana but then waited ages (in a very short queue) for Immigration to scan our bags. We were not asked for proof of medical insurance or for proof of an onward flight. Where we exited the terminal there were no signs for currency exchange – I had to fight my way back into another entrance in order to find it. And unfortunately we were delayed another hour because our pre-booked taxi driver had an “emergency”. However, he had left his wife Lauda at the airport to look after us and we had a very interesting conversation with her (a micro-biologist) before her husband Juan (an engineer) arrived and whisked us (if you can whisk in a Lada) into Havana

The “Casa Particular” we had booked ($70/night for 2 bedrooms) was 3 floors up in Cuba Street, only a minute’s walk to the where the ocean-side Malecon meets the bayside Avenida del Puerto. The view from the balcony is not quite on par with the Nice apartment but is tremendous. The apartment manager, Daniel (a sound-engineer), was waiting for us and we all spent an amusing hour or conversing in broken-English, broken-Spanish and sign-language until we had a rough idea of how everything worked. There was no information at the airport and none in the apartment and we were lucky that there was the Hostal San Miguel just 3 doors down who kindly gave us a map (Havana does not do tourism very well despite the large numbers of tourists that have been coming here for years – there are almost no brochures or decent maps, and the supposedly weekly tourist magazine/newspaper is nowhere to be found). Anyway, the apartment is in Habana Vieja and in the evening we had short stroll into the centre of the Old Town and ate (or tried to eat) a disgusting meal at the Europa Gastronomic restaurant. Also tried the local Bucanero beer - terrible

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Thursday December 5
There is apparently only 1 real supermarket in Havana Vieja and a long way from the apartment. And as the small local shops only sell 1 or 2 items each, we decided the best bet was to have breakfast each morning at the hotel next door ($7 for a substantial feed) and to eat at small restaurants in the evening (except the Europa)

After breakfast, we strolled down pedestrian-only Obispo Street to the tourist office. The staff were very friendly but they had virtually no information. So we headed across the nearby square to the Gran Teatro de La Habana, the home of the Cuban Ballet and somewhere that Jeni has wanted to see all of her life – it was closed for renovation (which means years) and they have not allocated another venue for the ballet. We then walked through horrendous traffic to get to the Hotel Saratoga which is one of only two (so far) hotels/businesses that have the internet ($10/hour and pretty slow)

It was now time for some culture, so we paid $8 to enter the Museo de la Revolucion – how they manage to make a revolution boring is beyond me but seriously don’t waste your money

We then paid $5 to enter the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (just the Cuban building) and it is a truly world-class gallery, both the building itself and the works of art. I was particularly taken by the work of Thomas Sanchez

Our evening meal was at La Barca – lots of excellent small dishes; olives, asparagus, Caprese salad with Gouda (they’d run out of mozzarella), spaghetti aioli and a pizza. I tried the local Cristal beer and this was as bad as Buccaneer. Afterwards, we went for drinks at the penthouse terrace of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, an old hang-out of Ernest Hemingway – drinks were surprisingly reasonable at $3 for a Mojito or a glass of red wine

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Friday December 6
We walked about 5km to the Hotel Nacional, the 1924 gem of Havana hotels. We took the Malecon as many guide books say it is a marvellous walk. Complete rubbish. The Malecon is between 4 and 6 lanes all the way along and it is extremely dangerous trying to cross it. The pavement on the seaward side has views of the sea but there is no access to the shore and no beaches. On the other side of the Malecon, there is the very occasional partially-restored building with unfortunate people trying to run restaurants and hotels but mostly it is pretty much derelict colonial houses and a dangerous, pot-holed pavement. Don’t waste your time, take a taxi or bicitaxi. The Hotel Nacional is a very luxurious old building set on a low mound just back from the seawall but apart lounging around the pool (again no beach access) and drinking coffee or Mojitos in the pleasant gardens, there’s really nothing to do and it’s miles from the Old Town. We took a taxi back, expensive at $7 but worth avoiding those pavements

After a very long siesta, we walked across to the bay-side promenade and took up residence in a small “locals” café right next to the seawall and had Beck’s beer, Mojitos and a very strange sautéed salad. It was a very good way to spend a few hours, watching the Habaneros have their Friday night fun on the prom

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Saturday December 7
We went back to the tourist office to book the “handy bus” to Varadero, a so-called “spectacular” beach area 3 hours east of Havana. The “handy bus” has only recently started operation – instead of having to slog over to the ViaAzul bus station, this bus picks you at your hotel (in our case, our adopted breakfast hotel) and for the same price ($11 for 2 ½ hours) drops you at a hotel in Varadero. The tourist office does not take credit cards

We had been told that the Hotel Parque Central also has internet, and so it does. We paid $8 for 1-hour of wi-fi and the speed was OK, however it has trouble sending and receiving email via Outlook or similar programs. Apparently this is quite common in Cuba, so if you are going there, get yourself a GMail account and get all your mail forwarded to it from your usual ISP before you arrive – then you won’t have this problem

We then walked through the southern part of Habana Vieja to the Plaza Vieja (where we were originally going to stay). It is a well-restored area with footpaths you can walk on and much less frenetic traffic and tourism. In the Plaza is the Factoria Plaza Vieja that brews its own beer, and very good beer too for only $2/pint

From there, we headed into the Plaza de Armas and paid $3 to visit the Museo de la Cuidad. It is a beautiful building but the first two floors are not that interesting. But don’t leave, as the 3rd floor has a spectacular collection of Majolica, Sevre, Baccarat crystal and Venetian mrrors as well as fascinating personal belongings of most of the Cuban freedom-fighters over the last two hundred years or so

In the evening we were back at La Barca restaurant and once again the food was excellent, and they had football on the TV! This really is a good place for vegetarians – they have some good options on their menu and are prepared to put together other suggestions you might have (about $30 for 2 with 2 drinks each). We tried to pay with my Virgin Visa card and the transaction was declined but as the manager said this often happens, we don’t know whether my card was really declined or whether their phone link wasn’t working properly

Our evening entertainment was provided by an ATM. Banks and ATMs are mobbed during the day so we thought we’d try using one at about 8pm in the main street called Obispo. There is a lot of conflicting information on the web about which cards you can or cannot use in Cuba, so for what its worth, here is my contribution. ANZ in Australia told me that my ANZ Visa Debit card that I normally use for ATM withdrawals around the word, would not work in Cuba, so issued me with an additional standard Access ATM card. This additional card did not work but my usual one did! The CUC100 (Cuban Convertible Currency) appeared on the receipt as CUC100 and as USD100 with a commission fee of $3.00 or 3%. Quite what I will eventually see on my bank statement is another matter

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Sunday December 8
We walked a couple of kilometres along the bay-side to the small ferry pier just past the Russian Orthodox Church. The ferry is not really used by tourists and in theory costs 5 local pesos each way (about ½ a cent). However it seems that tourists get charged $1 – fair enough. The ride is only 15 minutes and is not particularly interesting but we hoped to grab a taxi or something on the other side to take us into the Gran Parque Morro-Cabana where there are old forts and castles. However, there was no transport available and probably never is, as Casa Blanca around the ferry area is an extremely deprived neighbourhood. And, unfortunately, the walk up the hill to the park is very long and steep and in 30C we just didn’t fancy it. There is a nice little café on the seawall next to the pier and we spent an enjoyable ½ hour there and then another ½ hour watching the 1916 “Hershey” 2-carriage, decrepit electric train (he of chocolate fame) get ready to depart for Versalles near Matanzas, 3 hours and only 135 km away – the passengers were mainly locals but there were also a few hardy tourists on-board who had paid around $3 for the trip

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Posted by kforge 03:06 Archived in Cuba

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