A side trip to Cuba – first impressions of Havana

So, after my stint in the States, I’m now back in Guatemala and heading south once more. Finally!

Except that I’ve returned to Central America by way of a short visit to the Caribbean island of Cuba. It’s a country I’d long wanted to experience on two wheels, having first visited as a youngster with my family in 1986, the second year its communist doors were opened to tourism.

Cuba also seemed the perfect place for a Gilbert Brothers Cycling Adventure. Although I doubt Nick would label himself a ‘cyclist’ as such, over the last decade we’ve clocked up tours in several exotic destinations – Syria, Tunisia, India and Kyrgyzstan. The difference here is that Nick’s now married, and the proud father of a seventeen month old baby, over whom he dotes ceaselessly. This is the first time here’s been away from his son, so Cuba’s safe, easy going and relatively flat credentials fit the bill perfectly. And its promise of winter sun makes the ideal escape from a British November…

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Although this post may be filled with images of cars, there are actually relatively few in La Habana, given the size of the city. The majority of those that are here are relics of the past. As someone who yeans for traffic-free cities yet is gripped by a strange fascination for the gasguzzlers of yesteryear, this was already two big ticks for me. Curvy Buicks, Chevrolets and Chryslers, painted as brightly as the buildings, lent the place a timewarped charm which seduced me immediately.

Anyway, I didn’t get a chance to use the net much while we were in Cuba, hence the recent comms silence. Wifi options were few and fare between, and the state sanctioned internet cafes charged a hefty $7 an hour. What follows below are some first impressions I jotted down after a couple of days. A report of our fantastic two week journey will follow shortly.

November 18th

I have yet to even take to the Cuban roads on two wheels, as Havana is the perfect size for walking. But I’m already taken by this city’s take on life: it’s fusion of Latin and Carribean charisma, and the faded beauty of its buildings. From the moment our taxi turned into Centro Habana and began to wend its way to our casa, I could almost feel a tangible energy on its streets.

There’s a sense of community I’ve never seen in a city this size. Politics aside, a part of the reason would seem to underline my theory on car-centric cultures. Predominantly vehicle-free, Havana’s broad streets are free of both background danger and physical clutter. With all this space, there’s room for people to stroll, for kids to play heated games of football, and parents to push their prams without fear of cars razoring by at any second. I’m sure this lends itself to a more relaxed state of being, even if it is a subconscious one.

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Kids playing football outside our 'casa particular'. Barely a car on the street.

Why are the roads so quiet? Very few cars have been imported since the US trade sanctions that followed the Revolution, effectively freezing the country and embalming the cars that were here from the heady days of the Bastista regime. These days, those old bohemoths have been transformed from relics of the past to everyday transport providers.

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The owner of this '59 Buick (the year of the Revolution) proudly popped its hood to show us the original engine. However, as various other oily parts languished forlornly on the back seat, it didn't look like it would be going anywhere soon. He still needed another 100 dollars to get it up and running, a small fortune to Cubans, who typically earn between 15 and 25 dollars a month. Our first clue as to how tight money is in socialist Cuba.

A rare few are in immaculate condition though. I stopped to take a photo of this one in Havana Vieja. '1949' said an elderly Cuban with white hair, pausing as he ambled by. We both look upon it, admiring its curviness. 'Beautiful. But expensive to run. And the parts are hard to find these days.'

Pristine interior. Only the airfreshener (and perhaps the dangling monkey) point to the passing of half a century.

Quiet roads = a more relaxed living space. The domino brigade take their seats on the Malecon...

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... Havana's famous sea wall where musicians gather, and lovers canoodle...

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... and kids time their scampering with the swell of the Atlantic's crashing waves.

Doubtless, the warm and balmy climate lends itself to a loitering culture. To whistling and cat calls. People watching. Which we indulge in too (well, the people watching, rather than the cat calls), from the terrace of our casa particular in Centro Habana, our officially sanctioned accommodation.

It’s a Friday night, and we watch the scene unravel below. Under the yellowy glow of a street lamp, a man in a vest, somewhat surreally holding back a dalmatian tugging at its leash, is in animated conversation with a few friends. A gang of skinny kids run by, shaven headed and barechested, pausing to do press ups in the middle of the street. Then a couple lurch past, a half empty bottle of rum in one hand. Again, I’m taken by all this room to roam. Our street, which leads directly to the sea front, is almost car free. Along its entire length – at least a dozen blocks – I count less than twenty. The sense of space that’s created is refreshing. And with it comes a different urban soundtrack. The incessant city sound of passing cars is replaced by chatter and music, emitting from tall, open wooden doors and shutters.

Havana is a city of people watchers, and like us, locals observe the world going by from the vantage points of their wrought iron balconies. Doorways open right out into the street. Each offers its own slice of life: a family huddled round an old TV watching a telenovela, or settling down for dinner, the smell of fish wafting enticingly from the kitchen. Although parts of Havana Vieja have been spruced up with tourist money, for the most part buildings seem timeworn; faded, crumbling, and decorated with clothesline strung this way and that like a game of cat’s craddle. Small groups gather on corners; men with their vests rolled high up above their belly buttons, or girls in leggings that defy the sweltering heat (to Cubans, this is the middle of winter…).

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Havana: a city of hanging laundry and people watchers...

And what we do see out on the road is different from anything I have seen before: crazy, homemade recumbent bicycle taxis weaving between classic goliath Chevrolets, replete with bright, peeling paintwork and windows wound right down.

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Splashes of colour amongst dilapidated buildings, some of which are merely shells propped up by wooden scaffolding.

However, beneath the romance of it all and the glossy influx of much needed tourist dollars, there’s few opportunities to forget that this is still a staunchly socialist country, ruled for half a century with the heavy hand of Fidel Castro. Although the message seems quieter in city centre, a visit to the Plaza de la Revolution or a ride along the roads leading out of the capital reveals massive placards and billboards standing loud and proud.

Just as noticeable though is the complete lack of product-driven advertising, which lends itself to a consumer-free livestyle amongst Cubans that would now be impossible back home – though here it is as much as anything by necessity rather than personal choice.

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You're never far from the party message. Reading matter in an outdoor market bookstore.

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And more Fidel themed images In a hotel lobby. These photos depict Castro with various diginitaries, including one with Robert Redford from 1988.

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It's not all crumbling colonial housing. This is the modernist Hotel Habana Libre. Preciously owned by the Hyatt, it was commandeered just nine months after its completion in the uprising of 1959.

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Up on the first floor of the Habana Libre, we saw this mural, made in 1973.

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Mural detail.

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Amongst its incredibly varied architecture, Havana is home to an art deco quarter too.

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And everpresent throughout the city, the face that adorns so many T shirts and posters all around the world. The people's revolutionary, Ernesto 'Che' Guevera, tacked up on a wall in a market.

 



7 thoughts on “A side trip to Cuba – first impressions of Havana

  1. Simon

    Hey Cass glad to hear you are back on the road…I was starting to get Central American withdrawl. Looking forward to more missives from Honduras. Take care…S

    Reply
  2. Nick

    Hey bro, great post and great pictures. They really do Havana justice – as I can personally testify to by looking out the window. Believe it or not I’m still here two nights after you left thanks to a Spanish air traffic control strike that grounded all flights through Spain! It’s costing me a fortune what with a fruitless taxi ride to the airport (and back), another return ride to the Iberia office in Miramir (an amazing district it’s a shame we didn’t see) to join a 2-hour queue of irate Spaniards and two more solo nights in Yola’s casa. Luckily, Shirley managed to change my booking to tonight (Monday) but a lot of people are stuck here until Saturday without a refund. It is a pain but I can think of worse places to be stuck! Talk soon xNick

    Reply

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