I found the lack of food and the decay of the former grandeur in old Havana a bit too much for my emotions. I decided it was better if my husband and co-traveller, Rhodri Jones, presented his experience. Here is his article. It makes a nice change.
The Dream Team
Like all travel, it depends who you're with. Here's my dream team. Daniela: Che Guevara groupie and native Spanish speaker. My son Rhodri: photographer, visualiser, designer. Speaks Spanish like my sailor father did: totally ungrammatical but charming, and it gets him what he needs. Lydia, my wife. Lived through Communism in Eastern Europe, knows exactly what questions to ask, and has the balls to ask them, in no-nonsense Spanish. And me. Enough Spanish to crack the occasional joke to show I'm awake, but really not enough to understand the responses. So I chuckle and silently observe.
The trip was like laying carpet on an awkward staircase. You know, you nail the first step down and then the angle to the next step kind of works itself out. The cab from the airport dropped us off outside our accommodation in the Old Town and it did not look promising. At ground level, it appeared to be a building site. But a few flights of steps later, we were in airbnb heaven. The apartment was great, full of odd angles, intelligently dealt with, but above all, a balcony that looked out over the ancient church of San Francisco de Paula (Cuban Baroque – now there's a concept!), the colourful time warp of Havana traffic on the Malecón, and beyond that, Havana Bay. Guarded by the endless forbidding walls of the fortress on the opposite shore.
Sir Francis Drake
What's more, just around a dark corner was Draquecitos, a good restaurant run by Alexis and his partner; they made us feel very much at home. The name comes from their signature cocktail, forerunner of the mojito. The story is that my very own Francis Drake, known locally as El Draque, with advice from the local Indians, cobbled together a concoction of lime and mint to cure his crew of scurvy, with white rum and sugar to make the medicine go down for the average pirate, and thus created the world's first cocktail. Drake: circumnavigator, privateer, slave trader, defeater of the Armada – and bartender. I didn't know that.
Turned out Alexis ran a walking tour of the Old Town – another step of carpet nailed onto the twisting staircase. We followed him from site to site. In my role as silently chuckling observer, I mainly looked upwards. Funny, that, how tourists peer at everything the locals take for granted, in the hope of experience and insight. If you look up at the buildings of Old Havana, you see skeletal apartments in once-grand buildings, with weeds threatening the masonry. You wonder how a city whose magician mechanics manage to keep whole fleets of 1950 Chevrolets on the road (admittedly with implanted Korean engines, but just look at the bodywork!) can't do the same for its crumbling buildings. The answer of course is capital. It's expensive enough to pay magicians, and taxes, to keep an old beauty humming along, but buildings? That's about serious money.
Where did Alexis take us? Up San Ignacio from the restaurant and across narrow streets with lovely names like Jesus María and Luz and Sol to, you know, the sights.
We were probably following in Hemingway's footsteps. If I was a marketing man, I'd start a chain of bars and call them 'Hemingway's Footsteps'. Has there ever been anyone else who could make a place famous by just drinking there? We tried El Floridita; too crowded. We tried La Bodeguita; too crowded. Hemingway said, 'mi daiquiri en la Floridita; mi mojito en la Bodeguita', which coincides almost exactly with my level of Spanish: no verbs, and made up of vocabulary which I knew long before I ever visited a Spanish-speaking country. We were beginning to think that the 'Hemingway's Footsteps' brand was already choking on its own success.
But then we went to Hotel Ambos Mundos ('Both Worlds'), where he started writing 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' between daiquiris and mojitos. (He had the good sense to finish it in Idaho, where I imagine the distractions are fewer.) We sat at the bar and sipped double daiquiris without sugar (in other words, just rum and lime as Papa Hemingway liked) while the barmen created a seemingly endless line of mojitos with careless precision and a very, very old man straight out of Buena Vista Social Club tinkled the ivories. And we probably had a little argument about whether Havana was a socialist paradise or a dangerously run-down slum, but I wasn't listening. Bliss. I can hear the ice in the glass now, and the piano.
The fortress across Havana Bay is called La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, and because that's a bit of a mouthful, the locals just call it La Cabaña – The Cabin. What a great name for the second-largest citadel in the Americas! It cost Spain 14 million pesos to defend the harbour against the British. When Charles III was told this, he is reputed to have asked for a telescope, saying 'Such an expensive construction should be visible from Madrid.'
We took the little ferry across the water to the village of Casablanca to witness the firing of the ceremonial cannon at 9pm, which informed citizens that the city gates were closed and the harbour blocked by a chain. Oh, and also because Daniela wanted to see the Che Museum. We walked up the hill. There are regular buses, but we didn't know that. When they passed us, we straightened our backs and tried to look like people who walk up hills for fun. The fortress walls beetled threateningly over us, lightened only by those curious pepper-pot towers the Spanish built on the corners of their defences. What kept me climbing that hill was the thought of an English frigate captain carefully training his long nines on this pepper-pot and the poor solitary Spanish soldier quaking in his britches within.
The other side of Havana Harbour is a different world: villages and countryside, parks and lovers, on top of the glowering fortress walls. It's a place to walk your dog, murmur secrets in your sweetheart's ear, and take in the view of the Old City across the water. Of course we didn't have the patience to witness the 9 o'clock gun. Daniela managed a lightning tour of the Che museum just before it closed and we trundled down a little hill in tricycles, to a good restaurant with a view of the sunset.
The New Town also has its charm, without the feeling that very old neglected buildings might topple into the street in front of you. There are some vibrant little markets, and for me, the traffic is like something out of a safari park. The elephants are the immaculate American classic cars: could so many of them have been pink originally? The lesser beasts scale down to the totally hilarious cocotaxi (basically an Italian scooter with a very Cuban coconut-shaped shell and seats welded onto it). They all drift along in colourful and relatively peaceful coexistence.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
If you want the classic shot of 50s cars in all the colours of the rainbow (plus pink) try the street parking outside the Nacional. For me, the hotel itself is one of those outrageously ugly Stalinist monstrosities (built in 1930, so in Stalin's time although long before the Cuban Revolution) that is only rivalled by the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw (Stalin's Gift). The rows of blank windows say 'I'm huge' and the funny little pepper-pots on the roof still say to the frigate captain in me, 'but I'm vulnerable'. The ornate entrance hall is a cross between a railway station and a morgue. The stones whisper in your ear, 'If you don't like it, you're probably too poor to be in here'. But there is escape. Beyond all this decor is the bright light of the sea.
Santa Clara Battery
The hotel is built on the site of the Santa Clara battery, which seems to have gone down in history for firing its very large guns at American warships (the Vicksburg and Montgomery in 1898), missing them both completely, but starting the Spanish-American War anyway. What's left of the battery, on the clifftop at the end of the hotel garden, is the network of defences called Taganana Cave. This is where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up shop to protect Havana during the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962. Now it's a museum, and if you want to hear the Cuban side of that incident, where the world faced nuclear war (a story narrated by a rather strident young woman who brooks no interruption), here's your chance.
My own preference is for the Mob. Back in the day when the US funded and controlled Cuba (part of the long tale of rape and pillage by the Spanish and almost everybody else), the Mob held a summit here. You've seen it; in The Godfather Part II. Everyone was involved; Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Vito Genovese. And the story is (and I may be getting a bit close to The Sopranos here) that the most secure place for the capi di tutti capi to do their deals was in Tagana Cave. So I leave you with the garden of the Nacional. You’ll have to imagine it at sunset, with large dangerous men in bulky suits silhouetted among the palms.
How to get there:
To get downtown from the airport, you can take an official yellow taxi (price negotiable, we paid 40 CUC/USD for four people) and the drive will take about 40 minutes. You will need a visa (we got ours at Cancún airport, before departure, for about MXN 200 pesos). There is an exchange office at the airport (the rates are not bad, to get CUC currency) and you can also use ATM machines there, although the amount of withdrawal may be limited.
If you want to take a local bus, you will need to walk a bit to the bus stop. When you exit the airport, turn right and keep walking straight along the main road for approximately 1.5kms.
Mix & Match:
If you want to combine Havana with other places in Cuba, my recommended classic itinerary for three days would be: beach Varadero, hacienda Manaca Iznaga, the colonial town of Trinidad, beach Ancón and the colonial town of Cienfuegos.