So here is part 2, no worries, it’s a lot shorter than part 1!
After our tour of Habana Vieja, our tour took us to a restaurant near the El Morro fortress. The lunch was actually quite good and included in the price of the tour. Thankfully, it was fish with a shrimp-based sauce so we were good. Woohoo! Please remember to tip the nice waitresses!
We then got back on the bus and were whisked away passing by the monument dedicated to Máximo Gómez y Báez (a military commander in the Cuban war of Independence in the late 1800s), along the Ave Malecón (which had been closed earlier in the day due to violent tides flooding the avenue), around the monument dedicated to Antonio Maceo (the second in-command in the Cuban Army of Independence) and then down to Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square and monument to José Marti).
Revolution Square was used as a meeting place for many political rallies and and where political figures addressed Cubans on special occasions. It has a memorial dedicated to José Martí (a Cuban intellectual referred to as the “Apostle of Cuban Independence”) and a 100m tall tower behind the statue. The Plaza has many government ministries around it and this is where you can see 2 buildings with the images and quotes of Che Guevara and Camilio Cienfuegos – 2 major figures in the revolution and very close allies to Fidel Castro.
Back on the bus, we got to drive by what I call the non-touristy (or off-the-beaten-path) part of Habana. It’s quite eye opening to see the major tourist hubs and then the regular, every-day reality of the Cubans living in this city, even if just for a few moments, as we a zooming by. I actually wish we could see more of this kind of thing. Travel isn’t just for fun, or to experience the nice things destinations have to offer – I think it should also include a good dose of reality, to open our minds to the lives and experiences of others, make us more aware of what is going on in the world and get out of our bubble. Perhaps next time?
El Capitolio is, as you may have guessed it, was the seat of the Cuban government until after the 1959 revolution. It’s no the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Looks familiar? It was actually built by a U.S. firm in the 1920s, and made to resemble the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. We didn’t get to go inside, but we did get to walk around the block for a few minutes.
A note to tourists: Yes, the classic cards are nice and shiny. I must warn you though (as our guide warned us) that there is a picture scam going on. The guys will agree to let you take a picture of their car for 4-5 pesos. Once the picture has been taken, they will often double that amount. When you refuse to pay extra, they call in a “witness” who vouches for the 10 peso price tag – these people are often the actual owners of the cars. You’ve been warned!
Afterwards, we went off to the craft market – be ready for sensory overload! It’s in a warehouse-type setting crammed with narrow rows of small booths to both sides of you. Vendors make noise, try to talk to you, invite you into their small booth to look at what they are selling. Artwork (get a certificate for paintings – you need this to take the artwork out of the country), crafts, jewelry, food, clothing, etc – it’s a freaking zoo I tell you! After 20 minutes, I started feeling a bit aggressive after 10 minutes. I think the best thing to do: do a first sweep to get an idea of what there is. Then dive in and bargain. Vendors are really nice, eager to get you to try things on, make a sale. To my surprise, some even spoke French!
What did we get? Jewelry, of course! And things in which to put the jewelry! I think we were there for 45 minutes. We were on sensory overload and pooped by the time we got out. This marked the end of our Habana tour.
Tips for the market:
- Get certificates for paintings in order to take them back home with you – they could be ceased if you don’t have this!
- Be polite.
- Bargain but don’t be too stingy either. You’ll get a feeling as to when you’re low-balling it too much
- Canadians: do not buy black coral – it’s illegal to import into Canada
- Put your purchases away in your backpack before leaving!
The ride back to the hotel started off well but it got pretty bad a little less than halfway there. Why? Well, while it was beautiful in Habana, this just happened to be the very same day the Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern half of Cuba. Thankfully, we missed the Hurricane but we got a taste of our very first tropical storm. All of a sudden, the skies darkened and it started getting windy and the rain started to fall.
When we got to the town of Matanzas, it had started flooding (some places had over a foot of water in the streets). I’ve never seen anything like this before. Once back in the hotel section of Varadero, it was dark as night, the rain pelting the tour bus as well as the wind (the road is on the coast) and I was getting really worried at times. Thankfully, the driver was amazing and got us back to our hotel. It was pouring and so windy! We made it to the buffet, somewhat wet and had dinner (we were hungry). The power went out for a few moments twice but, as they say, third time’s the charm! It went out for good. Here we were, sitting at our table, hearing the wind blow, watching the protective blinds of the buffet get batted around like no tomorrow (the buffet is open at the entrance and for a few feel on 2 other sides). We could see the palm trees swaying violently, the rain beating down outside. Once in a while, a water-drenched couple would come in to seek refuge from the conditions. It was quite a sight to see. After a few minutes, we decided to go to the hotel lobby and ask them if this was normal and how long these types of conditions usually last. Their answer – this is normal, things should get better in the morning. The fact that the staff was not panicking was nice, it seemed as though it was business as usual.
After an hour of waiting it out, we figured the rain and wind wouldn’t let up so we might as well make a run for it to our rooms. The walk from our building to the buffet usually takes about 3 minutes. We ran it in about 60. We were completely soaked by the time we made it about 40% of the way. The storm was angry! Salem held onto my hand, we tried to run and stay low all at once. I remember being stopped in my tracks by a huge gust of wind when we got to the basketball court. Its one of those times when you consider throwing yourself to the ground for fear of getting blown away. “Hold onto my hand!” I heard Salem scream at me, and off we were, running again and that’s when I lost it – I started laughing! As crazy as it sounds, running in this crazy wind and rain it made me feel so alive. I was actually enjoying it! Salem, on the other hand did not!
Once in our room, Salem was shouting to take our clothes off or we’ll get sick. Still giddy from the adrenaline, I remarked “I’m already sick!”. He was getting mad at me as I was trying to snap pictures of us, soaked to the bone in our powerless hotel room. This gave me one of my favorite pictures of our trip!
We cleaned up and went to bed around midnight to the sound of the wind blowing through the vents. I was fine until the power went back on and our phone emitted this horrible alarm sound. In my half-asleep mind, I thought it was an alarm and that they were evacuating the hotel. Needless to say, my heart was racing and it took me a good 45 minutes to calm down enough to finally drift back off to sleep.