After a really nice lunch at La Bodeguita del Medio, we continued on a walking tour of Old Havana. There was some repetition of our tour from yesterday, but it was mostly things we didn’t mind seeing again anyway. Also this tour took a different route and we saw lots of different things along the way, as well as getting a different perspective. For instance, we got off of the bus near Plaza de Armas and walked through Plaza de la Catedral on the way to and from the Bodeguita.
One of the things we saw along the way was La Bodega de Barrio, a local ration store. Basic staples like rice, sugar, salt, soap and many other necessities have been rationed in Cuba since the 1960s. In order to understand rationing you need to know a little about Cuban currency. There are two types of currency in Cuba. The Cuban convertible peso or CUC and the Cuban peso or CUP. Cuban state workers are paid mostly in Cuban pesos or CUPs, they also receive a few Cuban convertible pesos or CUCs. At the risk of oversimplifying, if Cubans are paid by the government or spend money at a government business, Cubans use CUPs. If Cubans are paid or spend money at a non government business, Cubans use CUCs. You can probably guess which one is worth more. When people from other countries visit Cuba, they exchange their currency for CUCs. Visitors are only allowed to use CUCs. When you exchange U.S. dollars for CUCs there is an added surcharge of 10%, lucky us. Some people like to get Euros and exchange the Euro for CUCs without the surcharge. Getting Euros before your trip also has a cost, I figured it was close to a wash and we didn’t need that much anyway, so we just exchanged U.S. for CUCs and paid the extra 10%.
Getting back to Cuban rationing and the Bodega. The Cuban government gives each family a ration coupon book called a Libreta de Abastecimiento. The amount of rations each family is allowed depends on the size, age, and gender of each family. There is a Bodega for each neighborhood, they must use that Bodega. Cubans take the coupons to the Bodega, the coupon determines how much of each commodity they can buy with CUPs. There are stores where Cubans may buy things over and above the rations. Unfortunately, they need to pay for those items with CUCs and CUCs are hard to get for a lot of Cubans.
When we arrived at the Bodega our guide was telling us about the Bodega and rationing. After that we entered the Bodega. I could tell buy the size of the group and the size of the Bodega that we were not all going to fit. As the group was inside the Bodega, I hung around outside taking some photos of the area. My wife Robbie took these photos of the inside of the Bodega. Also for some reason I felt a little strange photographing the Bodega. As the crowd thinned, I did go inside and took a look around.
You maybe wondering about the La Bodeguita the restaurant and the Bodega the store. The Bodeguita started out as a store many years ago, long before rationing. They started making a few dishes to sell in the store. Eventually it evolved from a store, into a restaurant. Hence La Bodeguita or the little store.
Update on Cuba: Due to the recent ban on travel to Cuba, along with tightening of the U.S. embargo, as of May 2019, rationing in Cuba has been increased. Cubans now need to make due with even less than before! Also the situation in Venezuela is having an effect. Venezuela has stopped sending aid to Cuba. The relationship between Cuba and Venezuela is said to be the reason for the U.S. travel ban. Although even before things in Venezuela became an issue, the U.S. started restricting travel to Cuba.
On our second day in Havana, Robbie and I chose to do the Art and Culture tour. This was sort of a hybrid tour that involved a bus ride, as well as a walking tour. We woke up early and ate a good breakfast. There is no shortage of food on a cruise. This tour included lunch, but we were not sure when that would be. Once again we met our group in the big showroom to wait our turn to exit the ship. Once we were off the ship we needed go through customs. They had several customs people, so the process went fairly quickly and smoothly. They just check your passport, visa, and make sure you don’t have any weapons, fruits, etc., the typical things you can’t take into another country. There is airport type scanning and off you go. We met up with our group at the designated area and boarded our bus.
The first stop on the tour was Plaza de la Revolucion, we call it Revolution Square. The square is outside of Old Havana, too far to walk. To see this on our own we would have needed a taxi or maybe one of those cool little yellow Cocotaxies. A Cocotaxi is a small, round, motorized rickshaw thing that looks like a coconut. They are rather cute, but being a three wheel vehicle they are prone to tipping over (I don’t think that happens too often). The bus ride from the port took us down Paseo de Pardo, this is a large tree lined boulevard with a promenade through the middle. If you have the time, a stroll down the promenade is recommended. We road past the Memorial Granma. The memorial houses the yacht Granma that Fidel Castro used to transport revolutionary fighters from Mexico to Cuba. The glass building that houses the Granma is surrounded by old military vehicles, the Granma is not visible from the road. We then passed by El Capitolio, the old capitol building. It was modeled after our own capitol building in Washington DC. Just past El Capitolio is Chinatown.
Revolution Square is a huge plaza where political rallies are held. Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders address the people of Cuba from this plaza. A prominent feature of the plaza is the Jose Marti monument. It’s a tall star shaped tower along one side of the plaza. Jose was a Cuban hero from the late 1800s. There is a museum in the base of the tower, we didn’t have time to visit. Behind the monument is a large government building and the home of the Cuban Communist Party. On the other side of the plaza are two other government buildings. One has a large drawing in steel of Camilo Cienfuegos, who sort of looks like Fidel. We thought it was Fidel at first. The other building has a matching drawing of Che Guevara. They were both heroes of the Cuban Revolution and friends of Fidel Castro. As you can see in the parking lot one of the best ways to get to the plaza is in an old classic car. Due to not being able to buy parts from the US, most of these old cars have a Russian engine under the hood. All aboard for the bus ride back to Old Havana.
Old Havana is a very beautiful and colorful city. Robbie and I had an awesome day touring it. Although most of the old town was beautiful, I only have shown the beauty of the city. There are parts of Old Havana that were in near ruin. As we were walking through the streets we also saw buildings being repaired or restored. So I would say that Old Havana is a work in progress. The walking tour was great but we were exhausted. We had a relaxing meal and had a bit of a rest. I wanted to take a look at the city at night, so we went up to the upper deck. Old Havana was just as beautiful at night. I’m pretty sure that if we had wanted to, we could have taken a short walk through town. But as I said we were exhausted. I took some photos from the deck of the ship and we called it a day.
The fourth and final plaza on our walking tour was Plaza de Armas. The plaza is the oldest plaza in Havana. It was used for a military parade grounds for the near by Castillo de La Real Fuerza. There is a large beautiful park with lots of trees. Besides the castle, there is El Templete, a roman style temple commemorating the establishment of Havana. On certain days there is a used book market that is quite popular. The plaza is very close to the famous Malecon of Havana and the cruise terminal. A short walk from the plaza and we are back at our ship. We had a really nice day exploring Old Havana. The tour guide was really good, he had lots of info about Old Havana. He took time to answer everyone’s questions. We really enjoyed our walking tour of Old Havana.
Our walking tour of Old Havana included a stop at Palacio de La Artesania Casa de Don Mateo Pedroso. It was the mansion of Don Mateo Pedroso who was an influential man in colonial Havana. Inside of yet another beautiful interior courtyard there are shops selling arts and crafts. From time to time they have live music. There is also a rum and cigar bar. Here is where we learned about Cuban rum, coffee, and cigars. Cubans like to have rum and coffee with their cigars. We learned the proper way to light a cigar. There is a lit candle on the table along with some thin strips of wood. You light the wooden stick with the candle, then you light the cigar with the wooden stick. The chemicals in a match would ruin the flavor of a fine Cuban cigar. You then smoke the cigar and sip the rum and coffee. You do not inhale the cigar smoke. You drawl it into your mouth and enjoy the flavor and then blow it out. As I mentioned before, we normally like to do some exploring on our own. This rum and cigar experience is something that we probably would not have done on our own. We may have had rum and cigars but probably would not have learned about the Cuban tradition. We really enjoyed the rum and cigar experience. So taking a tour does have its advantages.
The stone castle in the photos is the police headquarters for old town.
The beautiful Catedral de San Cristobal is the centerpiece of the Plaza de La Catedral. The other buildings in the plaza were mansions of the 18th century rich and famous. They are now museums of art and history. El Patio, one of Havana’s more famous restaurants is also in one of the old mansions. The buildings are a rustic stone with blue wood trim, very rustic chic.
On the way to the plaza, we passed the Mural Historico Cultural del Liceo Artistico y Literario de la Habana, phew that’s a mouthful. It’s a large mural that depicts the history of Havana in the 1800s. It’s interesting to note, the mural is not painted. The artist used different shades of sand and stone instead of paint. The scene takes place at the Palacio del Marques de Arcos, just across the street. The large wooden door in the mural is the same door that we are looking through in the photo. We passed through the palace and it’s interior courtyard on our way to the plaza.
Our next stop was Plaza Vieja. At one time this plaza was the main square of the city. It’s surrounded by beautiful buildings centuries old. In the past they were mostly residences or apartments. Today most of them are museums, restaurants, or hotels. In the past decade or so, many of the buildings have been restored after falling into a state of disrepair. They have been painted in bright colors. Their colorful stained glass windows have been restored to their original glory. Plaza Vieja was really beautiful.
On our way there we passed through a building with a beautiful open courtyard in the center. There are a lot of these open courtyards in old town. They all have lots of plants and trees, giving you the feeling of being inside and outside. I really liked these courtyards.
Plaza Vieja also has a unique statue that seems to get a lot of attention. It’s a bronze statue of a naked woman, riding a huge rooster, holding a huge fork. The artist apparently gave no explanation of his artwork; he left it up for interpretation. There have been many interpretations. The most probable one says that the woman is a prostitute, the rooster represents the men who pay her and the fork represents the food that she puts on the table for her family with the money. It’s a most interesting statue for sure.
On our way to the next plaza we passed one of many little parks. They provide a nice green space that locals seem to enjoy. We also passed an interesting fountain. The water for the fountain ran through a trough down the middle of the street.