Havana (October 5-8)

Cuba - finally - after talking about going for a very long time. We didn't think we were going to make it, even at this late stage, because Hurricane Matthew was threatening Cuba AND Florida and somehow we thought either our flight would be cancelled or the island would be too badly damaged and we wouldn't be able to go. In the end, Hurricane Matthew only hit the eastern end of Cuba and we had good weather all week.

Day 1

We met our tour director and the other 21 members of our group in Miami and flew on an American Airlines charter which was surprisingly good.  We had expected delays due to the hurricane but that did not happen and we arrived in Havana early in the morning.

The first  four nights in Cuba were spent at the Nacional Hotel, built in the 1930's and even now, perhaps Cuba's best known hotel. There may be more modern hotels on the coast, but this one has the most history.

The Nacional Hotel overlooking the Malecon

The Nacional Hotel

The Hotel Lobby

Because we arrived early in the morning, we took a tour of Havana before checking in. Our first stop was the Plaza de la Revolucion, where all the big rallies and speeches take place.

The Jose Marti Memorial.

Jose Marti was an intellectual writer and philosopher who championed Cuban freedom. He was killed in 1895 during the first revolution when the Spanish were kicked out. The tower is 358 ft high and made from Cuban marble.  The elevator to the top is being replaced so we didn't have chance to climb to the top.

There were many false starts before this memorial was started in 1953 and finished in 1958, just before Batista was removed from office.

The Plaza is surrounded by ugly official buildings from the Russian era, but some of them do have large murals on the side, like this one, showing Karl Marx.

Karl Marx on the side of a government building 

This was also our first chance to observe the many old american cars around the city which are used as taxis, mostly for tourists

Our next stop was the Colon Cemetery (more officially Cementerio de Cristobal Colon) where many of  Havana's great and good are buried.

The entrance to the Cementerio  de Cristobal Colon. (Christopher Columbus definitely visited Cuba but he didn't die here and he isn't buried here ). 

It is regarded as one the greatest cemeteries in the world. It was established in 1876.

The main street of the cemetery, lined with many, many mausoleums, chapels and family tombs. The largest and best known is the tomb of the firefighters, who lost their lives in the great fire of 1890.

The monument, dedicated to the firefighters who were killed when a building exploded in 1890

Finally, it's time for a break and lunch at one of the many private restaurants known as Paladares, which have recently opened in Cuba.

Also a chance for our driver Ray (left), Tour Director, Sergio  (center) and  local tour guide  Guillermo (right) to grab a cigarette and catch up on their messages.

After lunch, we crossed under the harbor entrance to visit the Fortaleza de San Carlos, known as La Cabana. Built by the Spanish between 1763 and 1774, it was intended to provide protection from the British, pirates and anyone else who might attack the port. At the time, it was the second largest fortress in the New World.

La Cabana. Modern Havana can be seen on the left.

The port entrance is very narrow, so with guns on either side, very easy to defend. The channel is too narrow for today's largest cruise ships.

La Cabana also affords a nice view of downtown Havana and the Malecon which runs for five miles along the edge of the city.

The Malecon from La Cabana

Day 2

Next day, the morning started with a lecture at the hotel about the architecture of Havana and the problems  associated with saving the many crumbling buildings. We then headed out for a walking tour of Old Havana. Like many Spanish cities, the important ones are built around squares, like this one.  This particular square could use some additional greenery and seating. Even the waterfall was fenced off and it wasn't even working.

However, the restored buildings are very fine, with all sorts of interesting details, such as the fan lights above the windows, which are made with wood, not lead.

"Eyebrow" windows made with wood, not lead.

The balconies (all at different heights)  

Some of the old houses have been converted into shops, restaurants, art galleries and  like this one, small hotels

But many fine old buildings, like this one, still wait for restoration. Many won't be restored in time to save them.

Everywhere we walked, there were people making music, whether on the street, or in the restaurants. 

Sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but always interesting !

We finished our walking tour of Havana with a stop in a small bar, where we met and and talked to a group of young professionals, who are doing their best to make a career in modern Cuba.

Day 3

Today started with our second lecture on the subject of US-Cuban relations, a subject which could probably occupy an entire semester. 

We then were taken to an old school, which is used for rehearsals by a dance group known as "The Havana Queens".  The lighting was terrible, so the pictures didn't turn out very well!

What they lacked in facilities, they made up with enthusiasm. They mixed ballet with modern dance, break dancing and just about every other kind of dancing you can think of.

After the performance, which lasted about twenty minutes, the founder and chief choreographer, Rosario Garcia answered questions from the group.

Rosario Garcia, founder of "Havana Queens"

The afternoon was unplanned and we took the chance to take a break.

In the evening, we were taken out for dinner in a fleet of old american cars. The revolution was in 1959 so they are all at least fifty seven years old.

As were stopped taking these pictures and admiring the cars, it started to rain. We jumped in the cars and headed to the restaurant but before we could go more than a short distance, it POURED down. Our driver had to stop and put up the canvas cover, but it was really more for show than as serious protection, so we arrived at the restaurant (La Fontana) a little damp and bedraggled. Fortunately,  by the time we arrived, the rain had stopped!

Before dinner, we were entertained by a local, all-female, capella group.  They were every good, although as they sang in spanish (as you would expect) we didn't always understand what they were singing about !

Day 4

Our last day in Havana started with a lecture on religion in Cuba. Rather an esoteric lecture, I thought, but the conclusion was the cubans are not terribly religious and will adapt to whatever religion suits them best at the time. Hence, although Cuba is nominally Catholic, very few cubans are active in the church and many if not most, subscribe or participate in one of the many other religious variations which abound in Cuba.

In the afternoon, we headed out to Hemingway's home (Finca Vigia), which is about fifteen miles  outside Havana. Hemingway lived here from 1939 to 1960. first renting it and then buying it in 1940. The house sits on a hill and has great views of Havana.  The house is exactly the way Hemingway left it when he died. You can't walk through the house but you can walk around it and look in through the doors and windows, which are left open when the weather is nice.

The Hemingway House from the front

The view of Havana from the back of the house

Hemingway's desk, although apparently he did most of his writing standing up.

The dining room. He obviously didn't have large dinner parties.

The living room. 

The water buffalo looks very "Hemingway". 

Hemingway's beloved boat "Pilar" - now restored and ready to go fishing, although it's a long way from the sea.

On the way back from "Pilar" to the main house, an avenue of Cypress Trees

Finally, in Havana, off to visit what seemed to be an artist colony.  It was an unplanned stop as the Art Museum we were supposed to visit was closed, so this was a last minute addition. To this day, I'm not exactly sure where we went. It may have have been a community art project known as Muraleando, but I'm not sure.

After touring a couple of galleries, we were invited to an impromptu dance performance. Apparently, the dance, or dances, derive from the Santeria religion and each dancer represents a different figure from the religion.  The dancers are accompanied by intense drumming. The performance (if you could call it that) was held in a very small space and the dancing was very intense. No doubt, under different circumstances, the dancers would enter a trance, but on this day, it was strictly a performance for the the tourists. It was still very intense !

Drummers and dancers

The dancers line up before the dance begins

On our last night in Havana, we went to the Cabaret Parisien which was actually in our hotel. Photographs weren't allowed, so this is a photograph from the internet, but you get the idea. It was actually rather good.

Cabaret Parisien at the Nacional Hotel (not my photograph)

Quite a finish to our  four days in Havana.  Next day - on to Cienfuegos.

Click on "Cienfuegos" on the left to continue.