Before we left Kansas City to move to Playa del Carmen we sold or donated almost everything we owned. Furniture, clothes, books – oh how I miss you books – etc. And now that we’ve become accustomed to living with a lot less we don’t want to reverse that trend. So we decided when things like birthdays or anniversaries come up instead of exchanging gifts we instead would have new experiences together. Last week was our five year wedding anniversary and after a long discussion about what to do and what we could afford we decided on a short trip. And so we spent a few days in Havana. The one in Cuba. Isn’t the traditional fifth anniversary gift a visit to a socialist state with no diplomatic relations to your home country? So romantic.
Before we left we talked a lot about the legalities and issues of traveling there as Americans, what to expect and why we were going. A couple days after our return and I think we’re both still processing our experience. It was fascinating and weird and frustrating and beautiful and depressing and surprising. I think I actually came home with more questions and feeling like I know less about the city and country than before we visited. We have a lot to share with you so we’ll be a bit Cuba heavy over the next few posts. Today, I’m focusing on the one industry that seems to be growing in Cuba – tourism. We ran into people from around the world – Canada, Amsterdam, the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, Germany and even a couple other Americans. While we crammed as much into our time in Cuba as we possibly could we still only scratched the surface of things to do in Havana.
Our first day we hired a local guide, Mario, to give us a walking tour of Havana and help get us oriented. The second day we paid $5 Cuban pesos apiece for a ticket to a hop on-hop off all day double decker bus that took us from one end of Havana to the other and exposed us to a completely different side of the city. I’d highly recommend a mixture of both, we were able to experience the city in different ways. Here are our suggestions for ways to spend your time in this special city.
Walk the Streets of Old Havana
Between the architecture and old cars that were everywhere it truly felt like we had stepped back in time. The best way to fully appreciate it is to roam the streets, even with no destination in mind.
This daily flea market in the Plaza de Armas is just outside Christopher Columbus’ house. His house was so big that we couldn’t even get a picture of it, accidentally landing in the New World must pay pretty well.
Mario’s parents live just outside of Old Havana so we stopped by to meet the family and have some Cuban coffee. They couldn’t have been more gracious or more welcoming, as were most Cubans as soon as they found out we were from America. Plus, their coffee was pretty awesome.
Stop at Some of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Haunts
Hemingway fell in love with Cuba and spent a lot of time there fishing and drinking at places like El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. It seems the Cuban people loved him right back. His visage is seen all over and the places he frequented pay him a great deal of homage.
Hemingway won a Nobel Prize. I once won a spelling bee. And now that we’ve both drank mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio we have even more in common. My own “A Farewell to Arms” should be coming soon.
Visit the Museo de la Revolution (Museum of the Revolution)
We paid $8 Cuban pesos apiece to tour this museum which served as the Presidential Palace before the Cuban Revolution. The exhibits cover topics like the conflict with the United States and Cuba’s complicated relationship with Russia. The boat that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara took from Mexico to Cuba, a crucial moment in the Cuban Revolution, lies behind the museum in a climate-controlled building.
The museum is a great experience and a must see if you’d like to see things from a different perspective than you’re used to. It was quite surreal to be in a place like this museum where the United States was considered the enemy and pieces of downed American aircraft were displayed as trophies.
Stop For a Drink at the National Hotel
First opened in 1930, this hotel served as a destination for many Americans prior to the embargo, especially during the years of prohibition. From what I can tell, these days this is by far the nicest hotel in all of Havana – definitely an improvement from where we stayed.
It was easy to look back through the decades and imagine Gary Cooper strolling the grounds enjoying a cigarette or Errol Flynn sipping a daiquiri in the shade of the Galleria Bar. Especially since that’s what everyone still does.
Visit Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square)
This historical spot, one of the largest city squares in the world, is where many political rallies take place and Fidel Castro has given addresses to what has been estimated as more than a million people at a time. It’s still used for rallies on days like May 1 (Worker’s Day) and July 26 (the date celebrated as the day Castro and company overthrew the Batista regime). If you’ve ever seen footage of Castro speaking along with parades of troops, tanks and missiles – this is where it happened.
Stroll along the Malecon
The Malecon is a broad promenade which runs alongside the ocean in downtown Havana for about eight kilometers. In addition to being a beautiful place to stroll during the day it is a popular hangout late into the night with people hanging out drinking, dancing and playing music. We were lucky enough to have a view of the Malecon from our hotel, not so lucky to also be able to hear the sounds of the Malecon late at night.
Take a Ride In a 1950s Classic Car
Okay, we didn’t do this one, mainly because of the cost (we were quoted $50 for a 30 minute ride). But these cars are everywhere and run from the pristine and well-maintained to the barely held together. Some are people’s personal cars, some are taxis and some can be hired for drives around the city. Whether you take a ride or not, it’s hard not to be in awe of cars that are still running 50+ years later.
This is just a short list of the many things to do in Havana. If we had more time we would have headed outside of Havana and explored some of the beautiful beaches and countryside. As I said, we’re still processing our thoughts on the cultural climate, how the U.S. embargo and the current regime have impacted the Cuban people and so much more. We plan to share many more pictures and thoughts with you soon. But based on what we’ve shared I’m curious, would you consider going to Cuba?