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.