Friday, 16 August 2013

Havana - Cuba

Day 1 of our Cuba adventure also marked out 7th anniversary! We unfortunately did not get a chance to do much celebrating due to most of the day spent traveling from Playa del Carmen nursing a slight hungover from our night before activities. After touching down in havana we got taken for a literal and figurative ride by a friendly but obviously scheming cab driver to our stunning hotel the Nacional. Built in the 1920's the hotel has had it's share of interesting guests, including the us mafia in the 50's. While the hotel was stunning the staff were less so, with our dinner waitress treating us with what can only be described as contempt. A bit Basil Fawlty. After we had finished our pretty average dinner and got up to return to our room, the tone of her voice sounded more like she was to say 'fuck you very much' instead of 'thank you very much'. Perhaps it was because we paid on our room, which the staff seem pissed at, perhaps because they can't accidentally forget to bring your change - which we saw happen. Alas that is what you get when you stay in hotels that are state run (pretty much all are). Public service hospitality, not a good mix.

Palacio Nacional courtyard

Day 2, happy to check out of our hotel we went in search for some more appropriate accommodation (we only intended on staying at the Nacional one night so we had a confirmed destination on arrival) and checked out a few of the 'Casa Particulars' close by and checked into one hosted by the very friendly Eddie. Casa Particulars are essentially private accommodation, like bed and breakfasts where you stay in people's homes who have spare rooms and most include a private bathroom. After 'check-in' we tucked into a bit of lunch at waoo snack bar - a bar/restaurant we had read about in an age/smh article about the cuban food revolution. We were not disappointed, especially compared to the night before's mediocre offering. We then decided to try out luck with another hop on hop off bus, however this time it was a lonely planet mention so we felt reasonably confident it would make up for our poor experience in Mexico! The bus turned out to be a good decision and we got a good view of the areas of Havana whilst sharing the roads with the many 50s model American cars (imported before the trade embargo) as well as a lot of ladas, dating back to when there was Soviet support. An interesting mix, and a lot of smokey exhausts. The smog is so strong that you wake up open the window in the morning and immediately smell exhaust fumes, similar to the smell if you opened the door to a garage with a car running and we are staying a fair way from a main road.

After the bus we had a bit of a rest and clothes wash at our casa (for the studious ones you may notice we each only packed 5 shirts in the photos) we headed out for some dinner. After the success of Waoo we tried but failed to find another of the restaurants featured in the age/smh article. Undeterred we instead happened across a rooftop bar 'CJ encuentro', well the name wass something like that. Anyway we enjoyed some great tapas, cervezas, mojitos and daiquiris and ordered with the help of a very friendly waitress who surprisingly spoke English. After it started raining (remember rooftop) we made a hasty exit. The waitress apologizing 'for my weather' fantastic and a stark contrast to the 'fuck you very much' from the night before. How quickly things can change! Note, we made a hasty exit when it started to rain. It continued for the entire walk home and more, but what it a bit of rain in the Caribbean heat, ignoring all of the Cubans looking at us like we were idiots.

Drag race 50's style
Around Havana

Centro Historico cathedral courtyard

Che, he is everywhere, but this is probably the biggest

Day 3 in Havana called for a visit to the Museo de la Revelocion to read about how Fidel, Che and Camilo delivered Cuba to freedom from the tyrant Bastila. The Museo is housed in the previous presidential palace where many generations ruled, up to Bastila and then Fidel! Even with the expected anti imperialism and viva la revelocion slant it was still interesting. However being government run, we were met yet again with the public sector customer service, which is in such stark contrast to how people treat us generally on the street and in privately run business. At trip to Cuba really is not an accurate reflection of the purple if you do not go to private accommodation and restaurants ( which sounds easier than it is, all hotels and most restaurants are state owned)

After the museo we wandered around looking at some of the eclectic and magnificent architecture of downtown Havana. Typically the highlights were the people more than the architecture. One guy from a hole in the wall eatery which sold sandwiches (battered fish or hamburger) for 50c, he was friendly and had great English. We have been surprised how many people speak English, after reports that it was a hard country to travel in! 

During our wandering we also happened across a work yard where they were restoring stream engines (looks like a bit of money is going into them), we wondered in and took a few photos for some particular family members. Satisfied with our wandering for the day we walk back to our casa via the rather long 'Malecon' to look at all the colonial magnificent buildings in various states of decay and restoration. The government, with help from UNESCO is spending a lot to restore these old buildings which would make the promenade quite a feature... well if they also did something about the exhaust fumes! Just as we were near the casa we stumbled across a band playing live music with quite a lot of people gathered around. From what a few very friendly locals have told us, today is some kind of special salsa day.

That night we again went in search and the (privately run) restaurant La Chansonnier mentioned in the age/smh article. We found it well hidden on the second floor of an amazing colonial building/house nestled in a residential area. A lot of restaurants/bars and shops in Vedado are located in colonial residential buildings. At first it seems like a quiet area with houses until you start to realise there are places dotted around everywhere. We only found the place because we knew the number and when we were out the front a guy asked if we were looking for a restaurant! he then led us in, and it felt like we were in on some kind of secret getaway. Inside it was fantastically restored with unattainably high ceilings and fantastic marble sills. The food was absolutely fantastic, Joss had prawns and an amazing $15 lobster tail, grilled and served with butter. Paul had Spicy Crab and Rabbit with fine herbs as a main, and afterwards we shared a special Cuban dessert called Flan, kind of like a pancotta, but made as large as a cake and served in slices. Delicious! Over the course of the evening we got chatting to our friendly waiter Humberto and to the only other 2 people eating; Richard (A cuban living in Florida who was part of the Peter Pan exit) and his partner Antonio (from Venice). Once we had finished Humberto offered us some complimentary aged 'Santiago de Cuba' rum served in a brandy balloon from his home town. After dinner the restaurant transformed into a bar, and Thursday nights was gay night, Humberto encouraged us to stay as his 'international friends', so we hung out and had some more drinks before heading back to the casa satisfied after a great night out.

A 'hyper realistic' wax sculpture of Che and ... in guerrilla gear

The steam train yard
A car broken down on the Malecon

Le Chansonnier
Final day of Havana part one was a bit unsuccessful, after planning to go to the Jazz Cafe for some live music we ended up spending a lot of time stuck in a spiral of yet again poor public customer service trying to; book bus tickets to our next destination, get money out, and change some flights - more on the details later but the head sales office closed at 2pm because the air con wasn't working... c'mon people it's the fucking Caribbean, surely your used to working hot weather! Certainly the rest of the country is!

Anyway after abandoning the Jazz Cafe due to time constraints we looked for places closer to our Casa, which was also unsuccessful as when we arrived to what was described as a great live music venue, it was shut (perhaps the aircon was broken)!  A little disappointed we decided to have a bit of dinner accompanied with mojitos and daquiries at Gringo Viejo ( or old gringo, after a movie with Gregory Peck, whom the owner had an uncanny resemblance) and hit the hay ready for our early morning trip to Santa Clara. It is worth noting that our host Eddie has ended up hooking us up with accommodation for the rest of our stay with his friends who have casa particulars in the various cities we wanted to visit in Cuba, very useful!


  1. Glad you got off the gringo trail..the reak facinating Cuba for me was in the private homestays and reastaurants.

  2. Agreed! The private homes and private restaurants were completely different and made the Cuba experience! We met people who were travelling 2 weeks only in hotels and complained about the food, but we didn't have that problem.

  3. I love the 1950's cars and colourful buildings, looks beautiful.
    Flan sounds like some sort of condensed milk based dessert, yum!