By the time we arrived in Havana we’d been in Cuba for 6 days, visiting Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara. Yet my first time wandering around the streets of Havana still came as a culture shock, the bustling city made me feel a little uneasy in comparison to the relative calm of Cienfuegos. Having spoken with other tourists, who were travelling the opposite route, I had been prepared for the fact that much of the centre of Havana is very run down. Though there are many developments happening now in Havana, including an increasing number of overseas investors restoring the old building as hotels and shops, there are many parts of the terraces where whole houses have crumbled to the ground and many more where the balconies are clinging on for dear life. Sadly, if you peer into the many of the derelict looking buildings you realise that many families still call them home.
We were staying on Neptuno, one of the main streets leading West away from Habana Vieja (old town) at Casa Colonial Angela y Leonardo. It’s a bustling street and has the benefit of having “collectivo” taxis that run from the Central Park up the length of the one-way street collecting a wonderful mix of people on the way. For us it cost only 1 CUC for the two of us to get to our Casa at the intersection of Escobar – a great way to get back at the end of the day.
Best Spots for Sunset
For the first two evenings we headed to the Malecon for sunset. It’s like a magnet for tourists and locals alike at dusk, most perched along the sea wall but with local children diving into the water. It’s great to see the people come together to enjoy this daily event. On the third evening we took a taxi across to El Morro where you can watch the Pelicans flying over the cityscape before diving for their dinner. Take care not to stay up there right until dark because you’ll find the taxis disappear and there’s no other way to get across the water from there (I’ve also heard it can be unsafe up there at night).
Old American Car Tour
For our first morning in Havana we had splashed out on a 2-hour car tour in a very nice red and white Cadillac Eldorado (80 CUC, booked via www.oldcartours.com). Our guide was fantastic, a really interesting guy with great English and whose main occupation is photography so on finding out we were interested in photography too he was then sure to show us where to get the best shots. It was also beneficial when we were given the chance to pose in the drivers seat that we had a professional photographer to hand!
We stopped first of all at the Plaza de la Revolution, the unfathomably large concreted area overlooked by the faces of Che and his right-hand revolutionary, Camillo Cienfuegos. We then headed 4-miles West of the centre of town to the mythical looking Parque Almendares that feels completely out of place so close to the city. Our guide explained to us that many of Cuba’s African descendants come here to worship their gods (Orishas)… and also to practice voodoo – the voodoo dolls were mostly male, representing unfaithful husbands.
As our tour brought us back into town along the Malecon, our guide recommended that we head to number 304 O’Reilly, a nice little lunch spot. We’d never have thought it was anything special from the outside, but both the food and service were great. Their cocktails, and even their iced teas, were a work of art and we were fortunate to be sat at the bar to watch the action. We’d arrived shortly after 12 and soon realised we were lucky to get a seat at all as most of the rest were reserved and the small space soon filled with a lunchtime crowd. An American photographer joined us at the bar, it was his 6th trip to Cuba in the space of two months as he was working on a book.
After lunch we returned to the Casa to get our taxi to Viñales, to then return two days later to the same Casa to continue our time in Havana…
Finding the Correct Cigar Factory to Take a Tour!
Returning to Havana felt much more comfortable. Though that afternoon we started our long struggle to get a tour of one of the cigar factories…
That afternoon we headed to the H Upmann/Romeo y Julieta factory on Padre Varela, e/ Desagüe y Peñal Verno. The doorman was pointing around the corner from the main door so we walked around assuming there must be another entrance but all we could think he was pointing us to was the shop next door. On returning to him looking lost we were able to establish that the factory had just closed for the day! The following morning we walked there again only to this time receive information that there are no tours of that factory, only the Partagas factory offers tours (not sure if that’s always true, or just on that day). Having visited El Capitolio the previous day, we’d caught sight of the Partagas factory behind it, so we went there only to then be told that, firstly, that factory has now relocated and, secondly, that you must buy your ticket in one of the hotels around Central Park.
Having wasted most of he morning, when we then went to Hotel Inglaterra to buy our ticket (10 CUC per person) they then told us we must rush and get a taxi because the factory was only half an hour from closing (being Friday this was our last chance to see it as its not open at the weekend). Turns out that the relocated factory is just around the corner from the old H Upmann/Romeo y Julieta building, hence why the man was pointing around the corner when we were first there.
All types of cigars are now made in the factory we went to (Cohiba, H Upmann, Romeo y Juilietta, Partagas, Monte Cristo, etc.). We went to the top floor of the factory to see the cigars being rolled and we were pleasantly to see what a nice working environment it seems to be – there was daylight streaming in through the big open windows, fans across the ceiling keeping the room cool, and the workers were chatting and singing along to music on the radio. We were also encouraged to hear that there are opportunities for career progression in the factory, so there’s motivation to do well in your job, which is something that lacked from most Government employment. Unfortunately the middle floor was closed when we were there, it’s where they carry out quality control and colour matching – finding cigars of the same tone so that all cigars in a box would match one another – something I’d never even considered would be a factor.
We’d had to leave our bags in a room near the entrance of the factory (no lockers or attendants but we experienced no issues). At the end of the tour we were told we’d have the opportunity to buy cigars cheaply… What I hadn’t expected was that when we returned to the room to collect our bags the guide would then shut the door behind us and produce her bag which was full of Cohiba cigars. These cigars are worth around £50 each in the UK and are about 20 CUC in the official Cuban government shops but she was selling them for 10 CUC (equivalent to £6). We know it’s true that workers at the factory get 5 cigars free each day as a staff perk, but I’m not convinced that they would receive these expensive ones as their allowance, I’m certainly sure that the few presentation boxes she also had available (worth up to 240 CUC) were nothing to do with anyone’s allowance! One of the many times in Cuba that I feel people are turning a blind eye.
During our final evening in Havana, we enjoyed sitting on the balcony of our Casa with our hosts, Angela and Leonardo, along with Leonardo’s cousin and a couple of Italian guests. As Leonardo’s cousin spoke good English we were able to discuss with them their feelings of the revolution and the future. The most interesting part of that was hearing that their family once owned both floors of the house, but had split it into two and rented the top floor out to tenants. When the revolution took hold, it was then considered as two properties and as the revolution determined that each family should own a property, but only one, ownership of the upstairs property was therefore given to the tenant as they were residing their at the time. This was quite common, and makes sense of why some Cubans loved the revolution and why others were not such fans.
The following day we headed out to the airport for our journey East to Santiago de Cuba…