Josh’s Birthday Getaway (part 2) – Havana, Cuba

Havana.  It’s a trip.

If you have even the slightest streak of rebelliousness, I urge you to get to Cuba as soon as possible.  There’s just something in the air (2nd term Obama?  Fidel’s impending passing?) that makes it feel like this once-forbidden country will soon be freely accessible to Americans.  And, as everyone knows, American tourists ruin everything.  So go now.

We went to Cuba totally on a whim.  Josh had been once before and my dad went in the early 90′s (he even brought back a Cohiba which I promptly tried at age 11, never to smoke a cigar again).  When I told Josh about the Mexico trip, he mentioned how close we’d be to Cuba and the rest… as they say… was history.

Getting there was surprisingly easy.  And that’s all I can say about that.

Suddenly you’re cruising down the street in a 1950′s Buick taxi, passing giant billboards proclaiming “Socialismo o Muerte” (socialism or death), admiring a hot pink Neoclassical apartment building, and having to stop suddenly so a horse-drawn carriage or a bike taxi can safely cross your path.  It feels a little bit like going back in time.

Havana architecture is gorgeous.  Everywhere you turn, the streets expand into a sea of candy-colored pastels… it’s the Louis Vuitton Spring 2012 ad campaign in full architectural detail and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Josh had to learn to walk at 1/8 speed as I shuttered away for 10 straight hours a day.

Where to stay?  Well, first you should know that Cuban hotels are not like Western ones.  Sure, there are a couple modern hotels that have emerged recently (Parque Central and Melia, for example), but a big part of the charm is the feeling you get from staying in an old-world dilapidated Cuban hotel. Expect somewhere around the U.S. equivalent of 2 stars and you’ll be just fine.

We stayed in the Hotel Ambos Mundos – right smack in the middle of Old Havana – where Hemingway lived for seven years in the early 30′s.  You can still visit his room, which is presented as if the author were still living there (maybe he is?).  I’m not quite sure why our room had 3 twin beds, but just in case we were a traveling set of triplets, it was a nice touch.

Old Havana springs to life around 9am and it’s absolutely intoxicating (not just because we started each day with a sugar cane rum cocktail).  Every morning, we awoke with no agenda, just a long meandering day of exploring, trying new things, meeting interesting people and soaking up as much of the city as we could.  We had a few surprises along the way…

You’ve heard about the cars in Cuba, yes? Nothing can prepare you for the delight of seeing so many of them – literally thousands of mint-condition and charmingly non-mint-condition 1940′s and 1950′s cars – speeding all around the city.  It’s like being in the movie Dick Tracy… I was completely smitten.

We stumbled upon this gorgeous candy-apple-red Buick (see below).  When the owner saw me kneeling in the street to get the perfect shot of his car, he offered to give us a ride anywhere we wanted in the city for 10 pesos.  No, that’s not a bargain, it’s like $12, but seriously, who cares?  How could you miss the chance to cruise the Havana coast in this?  I popped on my cat-eye Miu Miu sunglasses, tied a scarf around my neck and slid into the backseat.

The people of Havana are incredibly warm and friendly.  They’re seemingly fascinated with Americans and eager to invite you into their home for a coffee and a chat about U.S.-Cuba relations.  There’s also quite a few people working for tips.  Many conversations we had would lead to an offer to take us somewhere, show us something, or a plea to buy milk for their newborn baby (a rather effective and heart-tugging tactic).

It’s easy to ignore the people offering discount cigars and the like… it’s much harder to ignore the school professor who wants to take you around Old Havana or the museum security guard who wants to give you a private tour of the museum right now.

My advice?  Let it roll for a few times, you might find something really interesting.  We took a private tour of the Palacio de los Matrimonios and saw an official Cuban wedding (only civil marriages are recognized in Cuba), a cellist conducting a private rehearsal in the empty grand ballroom (formerly a casino), and the opportunity to climb a rickety ladder to the roof for a panoramic view of the whole city.  It was a totally unexpected experience and one I’ll never forget.

And… if you’ve had enough of the Cuban “entrepreneurial” hospitality, you can just put on your sunglasses and pretend to speak German.

At some point during the afternoon, we stumbled upon this peacock.  He offered to spread his wings for a tip.  I gave him 5 pesos but apparently it wasn’t enough, he just walked away.

Then, school let out!  Kids in any country are adorable, but the rainbow of Cuban students is pure joy.  They were all smiles and super excited to have their picture taken, jumping up and waving at us as we walked along with them.

Mr. Havana (man smoking in the photo above) was my favorite.  I swear I’ve seen him in every travel guidebook, he’s just too perfect.  And the bottom photos were from one of my favorite moments of the journey… stumbling upon a Cuban retirement home, where several residents were outside playing cards and having their hair cut.

There’s not a ton of great shopping to be done in Havana, but if you’re into vintage books, posters, currency or pins, you’ll be in heaven.  Josh picked up a couple more revolutionary propaganda posters to add to his collection, as well as a whole book full of historical Cuban coins and bills.

One of the most interesting things about Cuba is the blatant anti-American propaganda in the state-run media and national landmarks.  Reading the Cuban newspaper is kind of like watching Fox News while hanging upside down… all slant and highly entertaining (the “official” position is, of course, not to be confused with the Cuban people, who are very friendly and welcoming to Americans)

The Museo de la Revolucion is one of the best places to experience the full spirit of Cuban  revolutionary pride.  Once the palatial home of Cuban presidents from Menocal to Batista, Castro – in a snub to the ideology of the previous regime – decided to live elsewhere and converted the palace into a library of revolutionary paraphernalia.  The exhibit is, on the surface, rather dull.  You’ll find things like Fidel’s pants and water canteen on display.  But the way in which the information is presented and the total anti-Western bias makes it a must-see.   Check out the “wall of tyrants,” a tribute to Cuba’s favorite American presidents.

If you feel compelled to do one touristy thing in Havana, get your photo taken, vintage photo-box style, in front El Capitolio.  It’s only a few pesos and the whole experience is kind of amusing and bizarre – the camera is a true 19th century relic being held together by plastic garbage bags & duct tape.  I briefly thought about showing them Instragram, but didn’t want their whole world to come crashing down.

There was so much great stuff on this trip I have to split it into two posts.  The second half, covering all our food, drink & nightlife adventures, is coming next.

Oh, and just to state the obvious, you won’t have cell phone service in Cuba.  It’s a great place to go if you’re trying to avoid work, the L.A. nightly news, calls from your stalker, or just reality in general.

Part 3 – Havana Eats & Drinks… coming soon

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