The portrait above is without doubt one of my favourites from the Cuba albums, the unforced and charming smile, the shadows, the colours, the hat – and capturing something so old and foreign to us, yet so common on the island – payphones. In some places people were even standing in line to make a call from one of these.
With only one day left to explore La Habana, we went for yet another full-day walk. I always think that we meet the most interesting people and see the most interesting things when strolling around without a goal, so to compromise, we usually do the “must-see’s” with my mom, and then make sure we have some time left to “just walk, talk and look” so I can take my photos and feel like I get into the vibe of the place. It’s a good deal and one of the reasons travelling with my mom is so comfortable – we get to do both because of our different priorities. So we walked and explored 14km of the city by foot, and among some interesting characters, we met Ivan with the cool hair-do and then found our way to Plaza Vieja again where we sat for a while and had mojitos and delicious Cuban croquetas. We also stumbled upon the chocolate museum where we sat down and had a couple of pralines, and we basically walked all day until it got dark and we had to make our way to the San Cristobal Paladar on the other side of town where we had booked a table for dinner. A nice walk in less touristy parts of the city.
San Cristobal was a nice restaurant with a quite unpredictable decor, and the food was fantastic. We ordered black bean soup with sweet potato chips, fried yuca, and the lamb, which was delicious and a perfect choice for what has become my once-monthly ration of red meat. We had some mojitos in the mezzanine of the hotel on the way back, and then a nice long lazy sleep – our last night on the comfy Saratoga mattresses.
Next morning we packed, had breakfast at the nearby Hotel Inglaterra which serves a nice and very priceworthy buffet for 6USD per person, and went straight to the pool to get some last moments of fun in the sun before flying out. The Saratoga staff agreed to give us a late checkout and I think by that point we decided that it actually had been a good choice despite the cost. Cuba had overall been quite an expensive trip, but all had worked out really well – from the convenience of the car rental, to what we felt was an appropriate amount of nights in every place, to the people we had met and the things we had seen. Cuba treated us really really well.
We escaped Saratoga in the morning to eat a less overpriced breakfast, but I was still in the mood for something a bit more exclusive than rice and beans or tacos that I can get in Belize. My wishes were granted in Hotel Parque Central, where they gave me delicious smoked salmon! Anybody who’s had breakfast with me knows that I absolutely adore smoked salmon (and avocado, and sunny-side-up eggs), and that it’s impossible to get many things in Belize, and that I miss them. Needless to say, I was very happy. Mami had beer – for breakfast! We giggled like kids.
After breakfast, we had to rush to the cigar factory to make it for the tour. You’re not allowed to take photos in the factory, protecting the secret of the hand made Cuban cigars, and the integrity of the people who work there I guess – it was an interesting tour and it was nice that we were alone so we could ask all the questions we wanted.
We made our way back to where all the vintage cabriolets are, and found a yellow 1957 Pontiac Super Chief that we wanted to take a ride in. A one hour city tour in a vintage car is usually 35USD, but we had another place in mind that we wanted to visit – Fusterlandia. Located in the small fishing village Jaimanitas, 30 minutes outside of La Habana, Fusterlandia is the home of the quirky, “Gaudí-esque”, surrealist Cuban artist José Fuster. We paid 40usd for the Pontiac driver to take us all the way to Fuster’s home and let us stroll around the neighbourhood, it took us 1.5 in total so it was a nice deal.
Fuster has not only decorated his own home with his art, but has over the past 10 years transformed the entire village into a dreamy land of surreal shapes, details and partiotic images, and covered more than 80 neighbours’ houses and fences in his characteristically styled randomness. A visit is warmly recommended if you’re looking for something different yet very Cuban. Taking the Pontiac to go to Fusterlandia was a great way to combine the two experiences – especially as the ride along the Malecon and the big 5th Avenue was a very nice experience in itself – windy, fresh, fun! Much better than driving around the congested streets in the downtown area if you ask me.
We came back to La Habana where we had booked a room at the supposedly luxurious Hotel Saratoga already before landing on the island. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard to arrange and book things online for Cuba, and for some reason most hotels were sold out already a week before we were scheduled to travel, so we picked the Saratoga (which also only had three rooms left). We weren’t sure what the situation would be with Internet, and since I knew that I would want to check in on work emails after almost a week off the grid, and my mother would want to upload photos to her Facebook, we chose to stay at the one hotel where we surely would have Internet.
Hotel Saratoga also happens to be the most expensive hotel in La Habana, and at 250USD a night it was indeed ridiculously expensive but we figured we could allow ourselves to splurge a little considering how we always choose the cheaper option when travelling – we wanted to experience both sides of La Habana and this was going to be an interesting alternative. The hotel had functioning internet indeed, was conveniently located, and had a beautiful rooftop pool and bar with a great view, the perfect place to have a rest and some “vacation” after our hopping around. Other than that, it really wasn’t that extraordinary – the rooms were not particularly astonishing, the rooftop bar didn’t accept putting cocktails on the room tab which I found annoying, breakfast wasn’t included and was 25USD per person (no, we didn’t!), and it was just really not good value for the money. But, roomservice did bring a cup of honey, hot water and lemon juice to the room when I complained of a sore throat, for free. (haha, wow!) And Usher and Ludacris were staying at the hotel at the same time as we were so we were greeted by screaming fans when getting out of the hotel which made us feel awkwardly and involuntarily famous, which was a funny experience. (The kids were screaming “Uche, uche!” so we didn’t understand who it was about until the concierge explained that it was all about Usher, haha)
And that rooftop bar was pretty special and we spent a good amount of time there catching up on the news, responding to emails and enjoying piña coladas in the evening, especially since I wasn’t feeling well the last days and had a really sore throat.. so I guess it was worth it as a place to wrap up the trip after all. :)
On our way back to La Habana, we also stopped by Ernest Hemingway’s home in Cuba, today a museum. The house where Hemingway wrote most of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (Hi, J!) and that never ending “The Old Man and the Sea” has been kept the way it supposedly was left by the writer before his suicide in 1961. It was a bit strange to look into somebody’s living room, although not much unlike the Bob Marley museum or Frida Kahlo’s house, and it was definitely an interesting stop, worth the little detour.
In July 2015, two months before we arrived to Cuba, the country decided to open 35 access points in public parks and spaces all over the island. This was obviously a huge deal in a place where internet restrictions have been among the harshest in the world and where access only had been available in state owned parlors and for a selected group of elites.
One of the things that impressed me the most about Cuba was exactly this, something that we consider a basic right and take for granted – access to information – was now suddenly available to anybody. I was amazed by how evident the hunger for knowledge and contact was. At night, the parks and squares were packed with young people with smartphones and computers, their faces lit up in blue from the screens, entire families standing around one smartphone showing off their kids to relatives abroad over Viber. The energy was very high and it was obvious that this was something that the people had been longing for for a long time.
While being “easily accessible” the internet hotspots are by no means cheap to access. For 2USD you can surf the internet for one hour – very expensive considering that people still earn on average 30USD per month. But anyway – Facebook, Wikipedia, Viber. Open. Suddenly it’s not impossible to communicate and it was clear that the people, and especially the young people, had been craving it.
We drove to Cienfuegos from Trinidad, and took a small detour to Palmira on the way where we had some cashewnut icecream and checked out the only local museum, we then continued to Cienfuegos where we walked around in the evening mostly doing people-watching. It was a quick tour on the way back to La Habana, but it was worth spending one night in Cienfuegos, a pretty place and different from both Trinidad and La Habana. The best thing about having a rental car is exactly this – being able to stop on the way and check other places out.
Trinidad was probably our favourite place on Cuba. The colourful colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, horses with carriages and an overall feeling that time has completely stopped in this town, makes it wonderfully authentic. The amount of private homestays in beautiful homes with high ceilings and living rooms that look like museums make even room-hunting an interesting experience. Forget about booking Cuba lodging online, the nicest spots are found walking around and knocking on doors.
We slept two nights in Trinidad, spent an afternoon at Playa Ancon beach, and took a number of nice strolls around town – including at night. Trinidad felt even safer than La Habana. Actually, all of Cuba felt very safe.
We had rented a car in La Habana already before we landed, as there apparently are very few rental cars on the island and it isn’t easy to get one. This was confirmed by the online agencies since only one managed to get us a car. It wasn’t too bad but it certainly wasn’t cheap, we paid about 350usd for the car including gas, insurance and free miles for the three days that we would have it. It would have been cheaper to get it on site, but it would also have been risking not getting a car at all, an option we couldn’t go for with our tight schedule.
Online and in guidebooks, people warned about how difficult it would be to drive in Cuba, no road signs, bad roads, bad drivers, they complained – but we saw none of that. While getting out of La Habana was a bit tricky, getting to Trinidad was a piece of cake once we had gotten out on the road. The road sides were full of colourful political propaganda with shout-outs to Chavez, Mandela, and of course Fidel, animals and fruit sellers made driving through villages interesting, and the empty landscapes were vast and beautiful. Driving felt great, and we could stop whenever we wanted, take photos and just be free – considering the fact that the 4 hour drive we did to Trinidad would take at least 6 hours (and 50usd pp) by bus to go, and 11 hours to come back, we definitely saved time, so the price for renting the car was well worth the extra 200usd.
Before taking off, we took a last little stroll around La Habana and found the Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana just by Plaza Catedral, “Founded in 1962 by mural artist Orlando Suarez with the support of Che Guevara, who was the minister of industry at the time, this studio/workshop is still thriving today.” (source) A nice injection of modern Cuban graphic art, different from the things we saw for sale on the street. This was the real deal.