Our art and culture tour was great! We learned a lot about Cuban culture and life. We saw lots of neat things like Revolution Square, Hamel ally, we had a nice lunch and Mojitos at the Bodeguita. We learned more about Cuban culture at the Bodega. As we walked through Old Havana we saw an architectural school where workers were learning how to restore Havanas old buildings and statues. Our tour ended at the building with the old railroad equipment. This was a large craft market where all sorts of Cuban art and products were sold. We purchased a wooden 3D wall art of La Bodeguita del Medio. We also took home some Cuban rum and a few cigars. Havana was awesome! It really did have a pulse or a vibe that you could feel. When I was reading about Havana before our trip, I read somewhere, I’m sorry I forget where or who said this, but they said, “Havana was in a state of elegant decay.” That was pretty much how I would describe Havana. There’s lots of great architecture. Some of it is restored and some of it, although it is in a state of disrepair, has a certain elegance to it. The colors of Havana are awesome! I really like black and white photos and lots of these photos would probably look really good in B&W. It’s the color of Havana that gives it its charm. I don’t think I will be converting any of these. Robbie and I had a wonderful two days in Havana. Sadly all good things must come to an end. It was time to board our ship for the cruise back to Miami. Things came to an end more than we knew. Havana only gave us a taste for Cuba. There are many other locations in Cuba that we wanted to see. Unfortunately, before we were able to go back to Cuba, the ban on travel to Cuba was put into place. Hopefully the ban will be lifted, but it doesn’t look like that will be anytime soon. For now, photos of Cuba are all we have.
If you click on an image you will be able to see it larger. I’m sorry there are so many, I could not help myself.
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.
We had a great morning seeing Revolution square and the Callejon de Hamel. Now it was time for lunch. We boarded the bus for the ride back to Old Havana. The streets of Old Havana are fairly narrow, not suitable for large buses. So here is where the walking tour portion of our excursion started. We exited the bus near El Malecon and walked about three blocks through the Plaza de la Catedral to La Bodeguita del Medio. La Bodeguita del Medio is probably the most famous restaurant and bar in Havana, maybe even all of Cuba. They claim to be the inventor of the mojito. It was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place to have a mojito. Many other famous people made a point of stopping by when they were in Havana. There is a large painting of Ernest Hemingway and I think maybe the bartender or owner on the wall behind the bar. Back before the days of Hemingway, it became a custom to autograph the walls. Today there isn’t an inch of wall space that doesn’t have someones name on it. They reserved the whole second floor for our tour. They served lobster tail, plantains, rice and beans. Robbie and several others were vegetarians; they had a nice veggie plate. We washed it all down with a world famous Bodeguita Mojito. After lunch we were entertained by a Cuban band. The music was great, and in case we didn’t already know it, we were definitely in Havana! Our local Cuban/Mexican restaurant has artwork on the wall depicting La Bodeguita del Medio. Now every time I see it, I remember our lunch at Bodeguita. We also brought home a wooden wall art of the Bodeguita.
Our bus ride took us across town to the Callejon de Hamel, basically an ally named Hamel. The Hamel is a small two block long alleyway in the Afro-Cuban neighborhood. The ally is covered with the colorful, eclectic art of Salvador Gonzales. The buildings are covered in colorful murals. There are sculptures most people would probably call junk art. Salvador used old pipes, car parts, bike parts, bathtubs, and other assorted scraps of metal to make his sculptures. His use of bathtubs is particularly interesting. Some of them he cut in half and made benches from them. Others he put on pedestals or embedded in the walls. Salvador is self taught, he started with a few pieces in the ally near his home. He was encouraged by other residents and visitors to continue. He now has murals and art work all over the world. There is a small gallery of his art in the ally. These items are for sale, and I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures of them. You can walk up and down the small alleyway several times and see something new each time.
After learning about Salvador and seeing the artwork in the ally, we were taken to a small brightly colored room, decorated with more sculptures. There were chairs all along the walls, we all found a seat. Our resident Hamel Ally expert, who had told us all about the ally, started telling us about Cuban Rumba dancing. Rumba means party and this dance is certainly a party! It was created by freed slaves living in Cuba. It is a mixture of their African and Spanish heritages. The music, also called Rumba, is played with three different size conga drums. The beat is loud and lively. The dance is wild and exuberant. Some dances are showing off dance moves and skill. Other dances with a man and a woman, have sexual overtones. The man will make advances toward the woman and the woman will resist. This is not the Rumba that Robbie and I learned in ballroom dance class! They passed the hat at the end, a tip was well deserved. I wasn’t expecting the dance show and we didn’t have a lot of Cuban money left. I wish I would have been able to give a little more.
The Hamel was awesome! I did read about it when I was researching doing things on our own in Havana. It’s a little out of the way and I wasn’t sure if we would be able to get there or not. Even if we had been able get there, we would have missed the Rumba dancing. The dancing that we saw was done especially for our tour. The public dancing in the ally is only done on Sundays. It’s little things like this that can make doing a shore excursion worthwhile.
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.