Before going to Cuba, we were nervously excited about so many uncertainties:
- No hablo español! :(
- Bizarre currency system (1 CUC charged to foreigners = 24 CUP charged to domestics = ~1 USD).
- Sketchy online B&B booking. You can’t see the room availability online but have to email the owner and wait a day for him/her to get back to you. The popular ones require at least one month advance booking.
- No internet, completely for a week. That explains a lot of anxiety.
Booking our stay in Havana was such a headache. Government-run hotels were unreasonably expensive and needed a lot of refurbishment. (Their 5-stars was not comparable to western world standard.) Hence, we chose “casa”, the Cuban home-stay, which usually cost only 20-25 CUC. In fact, in the very touristic zones, as many as 95% families converted their home into casa to earn money. 25 CUC, although not much to us, could be a small fortune for people there.
On our way from Havana airport to downtown, we started to observe the country from a vintage VW while listening to the old swingy Spanish songs from the radio. Everything looked so ancient: communist wall paintings scattered here and there; buildings seemed to have been there for ages without any renewal; tropical crops extended to the length and breadth of land. The view in the sunset reminded me of the movie “Motorcycle Dairy”, a hint of revolutionary nostalgia.
We chose to live in Central Habana the first few days. Located between Vedado (the modern part) and Habana Vieja (old Havana, the tourism zone), it’s actually an awkward neighborhood. Left behind with the ramshackle Spanish architecture from colonial age, Central Habana seemed to be left behind by the governors of the city. There was no sign of preservation or renovation; everything was naturally demolished since the 60s.
Since it was a less toured section, we were able to sneak a peek of the local lives: the busy atmospheric streets, people living out in the open, and the unmistakable aromas: tropical humidity mixed with tobacco leaf, petrol and musty carpets.
Havana is well known for its great number of vintage cars still running on the streets. Due to the trade embargo and unaffordable price, Cuban people kept replacing parts of old cars for half a century. We were shocked the moment we sat in a 50s Chevy and could barely hear each other in the noise of engine. We felt that the car could break apart any moment at such high speeds.
Things got better and better as we headed to the touristic Habana Vieja -- streets wider and cleaner, buildings obviously preserved and repainted. Standing at the border of Habana Vieja and Central Habana, Capitolio Nacional is the most ambitious and grandiose building in Havana and even in Cuba. Similar to the Washington, DC Capitol Building, but marginally taller and much richer in detail (that's what we heard), the work was initiated by Cuba's US-backed dictator Gerardo Machado in 1926 and took 5000 workers more than 3 years to build at a cost of US$17 million. Unfortunately, it has been undergoing lengthy renovations for 5 years, so we were not able to see its interior.
There used to be a China Town around, but the Chinese immigrants had long gone by the 60s revolution. With business acumen, they sensed that the war would destroy their business and took everything away, so they fled away to North or South Americas. Same decision was made by the legendary Bacardi at that time.
To the north of Capitolio Nacional are the best government-run hotels of Havana. Hotel Inglaterra is the oldest hotel in Cuba, founded on December 23, 1875. It's in typical neoclassic style -- balanced, disciplined, elegant. Hotel Telegrafo is another excellent neoclassic piece painted in vivid blue, probably one of Cubans' favorite colors.
Near the hotels, many eye-catching retro American cars were waiting for business. For 30-50 CUC/hr, the driver would take you for a breezy ride and hit some popular places of interest. It would be quite an unique experience. What are other chances that you could get a vintage card ride like these, besides being an actors or in a wedding photoshoot?