This is the day we went to Habana! I will have to break up this day in a few parts simply because of all of my blabbing and all the pictures. Part 1 is based on our departure from our hotel and includes our walking tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana).
We booked a tour through our rep at Sunwing and opted for the day tour (we left around 7:30 am and got back around 5 or 6 pm). If I recall, the cost was about $90 for a guided tour, transportation and lunch. There were 2 other options for the Habana tour but paying considerably more to go to the Tropicana show didn’t interest us at all. Thankfully, we were able to grab a few things at the buffet before we left (our buddy Yadrian helped us out).
Unfortunately though, I was still very sick – actually, I think this may have been the worst day of my cold. But I took more pain killers, some Gravol and had a whole roll of toilet paper for my mucus-y self. It was bad! I’ve never felt car sick in my life but I was eye-ing the toilet at the back of the bus. Thankfully, I held on and used the washroom at a hotel along the way because, it turns out, the toilet at the back of the bus was locked (I guess no one had the keys?). Thankfully, I started to feel better a little more than halfway to Habana.
I must say that the scenery on the way is actually quite nice – Cuba is very green and has amazing coastal views. They have hills and valleys and it just makes the time pass by quickly while stuck in a vehicle for 2-3 hours. A note to travelers thinking of taking the public bus to Habana: From what we could see of buses we encountered along the way, it’s very crowded in there – sometimes standing-room only, and the trek is longer (I’ve heard closer to 3-3.5 hours). We also went through the town own Matanzas on the way to our final destination. There was a stop but for alcoholic drinks of some kind (Pina coladas? Mojitos?) and a bit of a washroom break – Salem and I simply stretched our legs there.
A few facts about Habana
- You can pronounce it Havana, or do as the locals do and say Habana
- Habana the capital of Cuba
- It has a population of about 2.1 million, making it the most populous city in the Caribbean
- Habana was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century (settling in the area around 1514-1519) and declared a city in 1592
- Originally a trading port, attacks by pirates and other entities active in the region called for the building of fortresses in order to defend the territory and exert more control over trade in the area
- The city attracts over a million tourists each year
- Habana Vieja was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982
Our tour of Habana Vieja started in the Plaza de San Francisco. It’s the second-oldest plaza in the city. Main points of interest here are the basilica/convent/monastery/church built in the late 16th century and remodeled around 1730. Also of interest are the old stock exchange building and a few cafés in the area. Buy a cone of peanuts from one of the peanut ladies for 1-2 pesos to enjoy during your walk. Also enjoying the Plaza with you: the local pigeons.
We walked down a few streets to take in the colourful buildings and mixed architectural styles of Habana. Please note that some streets are paved with asphalt or cement while others are made of cobblestones so make sure to wear some comfortable walking shoes – this is, after all, a walking tour!
Our second stop was at the Plaza Vieja which was first emerged in the mid-16th century. Its purpose changed many times from residential to public entertainment to market – it has been the place to go to partake in many things from executions to bullfights to shopping to fiestas. It still contains colonial houses and lots of restorations have taken place here. Honestly, this is one of my favorite plazas which we had the chance to visit during our tour. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to see it at night as it would seem that’s when it comes to life. Maybe next time!
We proceeded down a few more streets and took in even more of the mixed flavours of Habana. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
While walking along Calle Mercaderes, the group stopped off at the Armeria 9 de Abril which contains arms donated by Fidel Castro relating to the revolutionary struggle (one of which belonged to Che Guevara). We then continued down the street to reach Obispo and our next destination.
Hotel Ambos Mundos is a coral-pink and white building, it’s hard to miss and it’s very nice to look at. So, what’s so special about this building? Well, Ernest Hemingway stayed there for part of his writing career. They even transformed his former room into a mini museum of sorts (which we didn’t get to see). I must admit, the lobby on the ground floor looked amazing! It also contains (from what we were told) the oldest elevator in Habana – there’s even detailing on the iron! The real treat for this place – the rooftop terrace which offers you refreshing beverages and a view of different sectors of the city (some good, some not so good).
A few blocks away is Plaza de Armas – no multi-coloured glass building, no China-town, or BMO here! (Sorry, I just had to throw in a bit of a Montréal joke) It’s actually my other favorite Plaza in Habana and one of the oldest. Near the El Templete building is a tree and it’s said this is where the first square of the city was built in the late 16th century – unfortunately, the original tree is no logner there, but another has taken its place. Another important landmark is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, constructed in the second-half of the 1700s. It has had many incarnations but is now a museum. Fun little factoid: the generals staying in this building complained of the noise created by the hooves (and carriages) going over the cobblestone. The solution – replace the stones with wood! Unfortunately, we did not get to go into this museum.
Of note to fellow bookworms (and I was not aware of this prior to coming back from our trip): it seems this square has an amazing second-hand book market.
If you have the time, do see if you can take a bit of time to relax in this plaza. There’s a green space in the middle, where locals tend to gather to play cards or dominoes. The tour guide did bring us to Casa del Cafe – a cigar store with good prices but the employees are not the nicest (I got mocked by one woman working there for asking a cigar-storage question – sorry for not being an aficionado). Still, we made some good purchases – now put those in your backpack, you’ll soon find out why (check the pictures)! Oh, and don’t buy the contraband cigars sold by the guys just outside of the store – it would seem the quality isn’t all that great.
Our last stop on our walking tour had us going to the Plaza de la Catedral. Prepare for a bit of a tourist trap! The square was completed in the late 18th century and contains cafés, terraces and lots of people. While there, a group of locals dressed in colourful clothes, making noise and banging drums came around. If they catch you taking a picture, one of the girls will come and shake a collection plate at you until you give them some money. What are the funds for? Restorations from what I understand. Thankfully, I know the art of taking pictures without looking as though I am taking pictures. One of our fellow tour-mates was not so lucky.
And here I have a little story to share. As previously mentioned, when visiting Cuba, you will often be approached by locals, big smile, eager to start up a conversation, and often offering you some kind of service (check out my artwork, crafts, a special restaurant deal, etc). And that’s all fine and dandy, we all have to make a living. Salem got tired of always being asked this question. He joked a few times about giving them some BS answer. Well, the time finally came where Salem had had enough. Here we are in the plaza, we had wandered maybe 10 feet away from our tour guide (quite a few of us dispersed for a few minutes) when a local comes around and starts trying to chat up Salem. I immediately turn around and start taking pictures of the cathedral, hoping not to have to deal with answering the question. “Where you from, frien’?” Salem replies, in a broken English, “no english”. So the guy asks the same question again, maybe with more gestures, possibly slower. So, Salem turns to him and says “Afghanistan”. At this point, I’m trying not to turn around and look at them and laugh. The guy’s response “Ahhhh! Comrade!” and shakes Salem’s hand! He then went on his merry way. We still laugh about it months later.
This last stop concluded our tour of the old city.
A few notes to tourists:
- Bring a backpack, water and some snacks. You can put your purchases in your backpack, avoiding harassment from locals – see picture. And you can have a drink when you feel the need for it.
- Locals survive on tourism (yes, I am repeating myself) – be careful who or what you take pictures of – they may seem very friendly but may very well ask for monetary compensation.
- Watch out for sketch artists – one they start sketching you, they will ask you for money to get the sketch. Better to stop them in their tracks or turn away if you’re not interested.
- There are a lot of stray animals – you’ve been warned.
- Be nice, be courteous, smile and enjoy your time in Habana.
- If possible, make it a daylong trip. Guided tours are great for first-timers. If you’re a bit more adventurous but still want a guide, there are a few taxi drivers mentioned on the Trip Advisor site that give custom tours in blocks of 3 hours. I think we might opt for something like this on our next visit – Yes, I would LOVE to do a return visit.