Havana, Cuba April 2017

After a two and half hour flight from Panama City, we arrived in Havana, Cuba.  Cuba has forever been on my travel list and since it remained relatively closed off and preserved in a time warp, I always imagined it to be the ultimate looking glass into the the colonial past.  We were told that immigration can take hours so we booked the VIP arrival services where they meet you before you go thru immigration, take you to the head of the queue for security and immigration.  Then escort you to a lounge where you have a drink while they pick up your bags and clear customs and bring you outside to the office in the arrivals area to meet your guide or driver.  Easy and painless for about US$25.  Although truth be told, it didn’t seem that busy when we arrived.  For our few days in Havana, we stayed at Hotel Saratoga in the central part of town.  It is supposedly the best you can find in Cuba right now, but really nothing to write home about.  We did see a new hotel down the road that was scheduled to open in March but nobody seemed to know when the actual opening date would be.

DSCF2914El Capitolio on the left, just down the block from Hotel Saratoga


DSCF2920Great Theatre of Havana

Here’s a bit of historical background.  Havana, Cuba’s capital, was founded in the 16th century by the Spaniards.  Rebellion against Spain began in 1868 when a landowner named Carlos Manuel de Cespedes freed his slaves, however the people were unsuccessful in gaining independence.  The Second War of Independence began in 1895 and was helped by the fact that the US went to war with Spain in 1898.  The peace treaty of the Spanish American War made Spain relinquish all claims to Cuba.  Cuba finally gained independence when the US forces left in 1902.  A representative democracy ruled until 1952 when Fulgencio Batista staged a coup and became Cuba’s dictator.  Then in 1959, Fidel Castro and his supporters wanted to bring about political change and ousted the existing president Batista.  Castro introduced a Communist regime and Cuba became a satellite of the Soviet Union which caused relations with the US to deteriorate until 1962 when the US imposed a blockade on Cuba.  Economic conditions went from bad to worse with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Even though Cuba is still a dictatorship today, it is slowly opening up especially with the resignation and now death of Fidel Castro and recently normalised relations with the US with the reopening of their Cuban Embassy.
We have constantly been told “It’s now or never” with travelling to Havana.  The city is going through an interesting time where private businesses are popping up but the large international chains have not yet arrived.  New life is being breathed into this city that has been stuck in a time warp and neglected for over 50 years.  The worry is that the charming dilapidation, the colors, the melancholy, and the salsa energy that make Havana what it is will disappear with this renewal.  Change has already begun but we are fortunate to come and visit before it is too late.  The days where Havana served as a museum where time stood still seem to be drawing to an end.

DSCF2940Museum of the Revolution in the background


DSCF2942Graffitis of Che Guevara can be seen everywhere in town.


Upon arrival in Havana, our guide picked us up for a walking tour of Old Havana.   Walking the atmospheric streets of Old Havana, you will feel a connection to its past.  You can feel the strength of a city and its people that went through two independence wars, revolutions, the US trade embargo, and being isolated from the rest of the world under a socialist regime, and yet still vibrant and upbeat.  Old Havana is the city center of Havana and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Many of the baroque and neo-classical buildings here have unfortunately fallen in ruin but some are now being restored.

DSCF2960Buzon means mailbox in Spanish so I think you can deposit letters addressed here into the open mouth on the right :)



DSCF2992The 16th century Plaza Vieja was where Havana’s wealthiest citizens lived and from their balconies witnessed festivals, processions, and even executions.

DSCF2994One of the many cafes at Plaza Vieja

DSCF2997Plaza Vieja


As you can see in my photos, American vintage cars from the 1950s and 1960s can be seen everywhere in Havana.  Many of these cars serve as taxis and offer tours of the city.  We did a tour in one of these vintage cars and sitting in the back with the top down, passing a mix of Spanish colonial, Art Deco, Soviet era blocks, and modern buildings, with the warm breeze on your face is a truly wonderful experience.  Another option to see the city is in one of these tut tuts or auto-rickshaws called Coco Taxis.  They have 2 passenger seats in a egg shaped fibreglass frame.  They can zip thru the narrow cobblestone streets and you can hop in and out for photos.  Although a bit noisy and dusty, I thought it was more fun than the vintage car ride.

DSCF2928Yellow Coco Taxis

DSCF3049View of El Capitolio or National Capitol Building from my Coco Taxi.  This was the seat of the government after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and very much resembles the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.


DSCF3081Driving along the Malecon


DSCF3368Ride in a vintage Ford convertible.  The green building ahead is the Hotel Saratoga where we stayed.

IMG_20170419_181639_636Posing in a vintage convertible in front of the Jose Marti Memorial at Plaza de la Revolucion where Fidel Castro delivered speeches to his people on many important occasions.

DSCF3327Ministry of Interior with a steel memorial of Che Guevara on its facade at Plaza de la Revolucion.

DSCF3343Heading towards the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba

DSCF3353Doesn’t this look like a scene out of an old movie?

DSCF3321Enjoying my vintage convertible ride thru town.

DSCF3096Catedral San Cristobal de la Habana at Plaza de la Catedral.  Notice how the cathedral is framed by two unequal towers where the right bell tower is wider than the left and the baroque facade is contrasted with the neoclassical interior.  Legend has it that the cathedral once housed the remains of Christopher Columbus before being moved back to Spain.

DSCF3114Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asis dominating the south side of Plaza San Francisco de Asis known for its uneven cobblestones.

DSCF3132Customs House for the port of Havana

DSCF3140Catedral de Santa Clara de Asis

DSCF3152Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral

DSCF3176Palacio de los Capitanes Generales at Plaza de Armas


DSCF3184Palacio de los Capitanes Generales which was previously the official residence of the Spanish governors, now it is home to Museo de la Ciudad with exhibits of Havana’s history.


DSCF3193La Bodeguita del Medio, Heminway’s favorite bar for mojitos.

DSCF3196Waiting for our mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio

DSCF3038Entrance to La Guarida, one of the many paladars in town.  A paladar is a private kitchen opened in someone’s home and has a limited number of seats.


DSCF3042La Guarida is located on the 3rd floor of a crumbling old building in central Havana.

DSCF3046La Guarida – nice ambience but food and drinks were really very average.

IMG_20170419_204412_731San Cristobal paladar, one of the restaurants Obama ate at during his visit.

DSCF3294El Morro Fortress guards the entrance to Havana bay.  It was built between 1590-1630 with a chain linking it with La Punta Castle, so that in the event of an attack, the chain can be tightened to prevent enemy ships from entering the bay.

DSCF3253Havana is the birthplace of premium cigars and there are many cigar factories of all sizes in the city.  We learned that, unlike in other cigar making countries, the cigar makers here in Havana make the entire cigar themselves.  Most cigar factories in Nicaragua or Dominican Republic split the cigar making process between roller and buncher.

DSCF3254La Corona cigar factory

DSCF3281La Terraza is one of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes in Cojimar.  Cojimar was the background of one of Hemingway’s most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea.  The “old man” in the title is reputedly his guide Gregorio Fuentes, a Cojimar local, pictured above.

DSCF3287Cojimar where Hemingway frequently brought his boat to sail.

In terms of entertainment, we were brought to the Tropicana Cabaret which opened in 1939 in the gardens of the former residence of the U.S. ambassador.  There are daily evening shows here under the stars of Havana’s night sky.  Some people love and some people hate this Vegas style performance of showgirls, dancers, singers, acrobats, and contortionists etc.  For me the 2-hour show was a bit long.  Things seem to become repetitive after about 30 minutes and the dancers started to slowly become out of sync.  This is definitely a tourist joint and I doubt anyone will come more than once.  Having said that, the venue is impressive and one can only imagine what it was like back in the day when Nat King Cole and Benny More came to perform.






This wraps up our short few days in Havana.  We continue to Trinidad de Cuba and Cienfuegos.  Stay tuned!

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