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.
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.
Due to the regulations for visiting Cuba, Robbie and I needed to do a shore excursion for each day in Havana. We chose to do a walking tour of Old Havana. I really like walking tours. I think they are the best way to see a city. You can get up close and personal; it gives you more of a feel for what the city is actually like. It’s also the best way to photograph a city. Another plus to doing a walking tour is that we got to walk off a lot of the wonderful food we had been eating on the cruise. There are four main plazas in the old part of Havana, Plaza de San Fransisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza Catedral and Plaza de Armas. During our walking tour we visited each of these plazas. We got to see most of Old Havana along the way.
We started with Plaza de San Fransisco. Walking out of the cruise terminal, we crossed the street and we were in the plaza. The plaza is named for the Basilica Menor de San Fransisco de Asisi, that is the most prominent building in the plaza. Being near the port, this plaza was a center for commerce. Another prominent building is the old customs and stock exchange building. There is also a nice fountain, the Fuente de Los Leones. There were lots of locals enjoying the fountain and the plaza. There were also school children playing. Our guide, who was great by the way, was telling us that the color of the bandana the children were wearing indicated what grade they were in.
El Caballero de Paris
(The Gentleman from Paris)
One of the most prominent features of the Plaza de San Fransisco is the bronze statue of El Caballero de Paris. El Caballero de Paris was a well known street person who lived in Havana in the 1950s. He walked the streets of the city making friends with everyone. Most people were a bit leery of him at first, but they grew to really like him. When people would give him some money, he was known to give them back some change. He would also draw pictures on postcards to give out in exchange for money. He was born in Spain and moved to Cuba when he was 12 years old. So where did the Paris part come from? Nobody really seems to know. Some say it was from a french novel. He was also known to hang out at a place called the sidewalk of the Louvre. He also may have worked for a while at the Paris restaurant. He is also dressed like a Frenchman. What ever the reason, the people of Havana saw fit to honor him with a statue.
Our guide was telling everyone about the tradition of touching the statue. If you put your hand on his beard, grab his finger with your other hand and put your foot on his foot. Then you must look across the plaza, at the statue of the God Mercury on the dome of the old stock exchange building. This is said to bring you wealth and a return trip to Havana. I’m still waiting on both! I think there is a fair chance I may return to Havana. I’m not sure about the wealth.
Robbie and I had a great day in Key West seeing the sights. Departing before sunset we had some time to enjoy the ship. We had a nice dinner and took in the evening show. When you are cruising there is no shortage of food or entertainment options. We were scheduled to arrive in Havana early the next morning.
After breakfast, we were up on deck early, along with most of the other passengers, to get a first glimpse of Havana as we approached the port. Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro is a beautiful stone Spanish fort that has guarded the port for many centuries. Castillo Del Morro is an impressive sight as you enter the harbor. The massive statue of Jesus, El Cristo de La Habanna, overlooks the the port keeping watch over everyone coming and going. From the other side of the ship we get a good view of Old Havana. The dome of the old capital is visible in the distance. Sailing into Havana is quite an experience.
We like to explore a port on our own as much as possible. Sometimes though the places you want to see are too far from the port. Maybe a guided tour is a better option. There may be some other reasons why purchasing a shore excursion may be the better option. Havana is a great port to explore on your own. The port of Havana is right in old town Havana. All of old town is within walking distance. Unfortunately, due to US/Cuba relations, there are regulations about visiting Cuba. When we first started to plan our trip to Cuba you needed to do what was called a person to person tour. Meaning you needed to do a guided tour that had some sort of cultural exchange. After that you were able to do some exploring on your own. As our cruise approached, we elected a new president that changed the rules. The new rules went into effect just before our cruise. Now we were required to be part of a tour the whole time. We were no longer able to do any exploring on our own. I wanted to do a tour of Havana in one of the old classic cars. The old classic car tour from the cruise line was rather expensive. We could have hired an old classic car tour on our own for half the price. The regulations being shiny and new; the cruise line was unsure about how to handle them. I wasn’t sure if we would be allowed off of the ship unless we were part of a shore excursion. So we booked shore excursions for both days.
Update on Cuba. This is a multiple part post that I have been working on for a few weeks. As I finished writing about our first day in Havana, we learned of a US ban on travel to Cuba. This is very sad, we really enjoyed our trip to Havana. We were looking forward to going back and seeing more of Cuba. I not only wanted to share our experiences, I also wanted to inspire readers to visit Cuba. Sadly, posts like these may be the only way that any of us will be able to visit Cuba in the future.
No matter the port, the shore excursion procedure is about the same. We all gather in the big show room at a scheduled time in groups according to your particular excursion. Each group is dismissed in turn, so everyone is not trying to exit the ship at the same time. There is usually still quite the queue, since excursions were required, this was a longer one. Cuba being a mystery, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we went through customs. As it turned out it was no different than any other country. The cruise terminal is on the dock and is pretty big and long. After going through customs there are some shops selling cigars, rum, and all sorts of things. You can’t get Cuban currency in the states, and that’s something we needed. At the end of the building there is a money exchange. Its just like going to a bank, you go to the next available teller, give the teller US and they give you Cuban, easy! The whole process is rather easy and stress free. Cuban money in hand we went down to the ground level to rejoin our excursion group.
Walking out of the cruise terminal into the street, seeing Havana for the first time, is hard to describe. The buildings are old, the cars are old, it’s like no other place I have been before. Havana has a pulse or a vibe that you feel right away. We were looking forward to seeing the rest of the city.