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.