Old Havana (Havana Vieja) is at once decrepit, crumbling, charming and endlessly diverting. This centuries-old section of Cuba’s capital is a place for strolling through, for allowing yourself to be distracted by whatever presents itself.
That, at least, is how I explained to myself why I came to be ushered by a man, of middle age and minimal English, into El Angel de Tejadillo, a corner bar in one of the city’s oldest districts, its shutters drawn back for early trade. In a city with countless bars and an impoverished population, it pays to have a gimmick. For the Angel its drawcard is in its darkest recess at the far end of the bar.
An altar to Che
There stood a kind of altar to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the country’s revolutionary hero who was assassinated in 1967. Along with pictures of Che was a small table with an ancient portable typewriter, its keys jammed together.
My new friend indicated the machine with the single word ‘Che’. So this, evidently, was Che’s typewriter. It struck me as a curious lapse by the curators of the Museum of the Revolution, barely two blocks away, to have neglected to include such an item in their collection, but to say so was more than my Spanish, or my friend’s English, would allow.
He suggested a drink, possibly to contemplate Che’s machine. I politely extricated myself, pointing out a mid-morning mojito was not part of my program. Of course, I might return later. Maybe.
There was so much else to do. For example, to stroll the Paseo del Prado, the tree-lined promenade that borders Old Havana with its 18th century plazas and cathedrals, and central Havana.
Traffic, largely comprising vintage Chevrolets, Dodges, Oldsmobiles and Buicks, runs either side of the Prado, which is a relative oasis of calm. At weekends it transforms into a gallery for painters, jewellers and needleworkers; at night it is an open-air playground. It is surrounded by buildings of faded colonial splendour. There are crumbling ruins and hollow husks standing incongruously beside newly restored buildings painted in pastel shades.
The Prado leads to the city’s formal Parque Central and the impressive Capitolio (the National Capitol Building). It’s also the starting point for a city tour in one of the many 1950s convertibles that congregate near Parque Central. An essential part of any tour is a drive along the Malecon, a seven-kilometre waterfront promenade that unites the old city with modern Havana. At night the Malecon, like the Prado, is a meeting place for locals to sit and take in the sunset.
Or one could seek out Havana’s most famous bar, one that doesn’t need props since it’s famous as the watering hole of Ernest Hemingway. The Bodeguita del Medio is recognisable not so much by its name as by the crowd of tourists outside taking photographs, and within the crowded space inside when ordering a drink.
Travellers are routinely advised when visiting Cuba to stay in ‘casa particulars’, Cuba’s take on bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Usually located within restored colonial buildings, it’s the chance to meet ordinary Cubans, to eat as they do – most will supply dinner as well as breakfast – and to see something of ordinary life. The accommodations are economical and clean, if a little spartan. It might be worthwhile, budget permitting, to have at least a two-night stay in one of the charming old-world hotels, say, the Inglaterra or the Sevilla along the Prado, or the Ambos Mundos in the old town, for a different Havana experience.
Numerous restaurants in Havana have live music at night, the sound spilling outside to enable anyone to listen and dance in the cobblestone streets. The Hotel Florida stages nightly dances for those serious about their salsa.
While time has not been kind to Havana – it is a medley of widespread neglect and frantic, belated attempts to save itself – in Trinidad, Cuba’s second city four hours’ drive to the south-east, time has stood still. There and in the coastal town of Cienfuegos, much of the traffic comprises horse-drawn taxis. Trinidad is a beautifully preserved colonial city with a rich music culture. Any time of the day or night a street band is playing somewhere, while more formal performances are staged daily at the Casa de la Musica.
Cuba’s second city – Trinidad
Trinidad hosts arguably the best coffee house in the country, the Cafe Don Pepe, with 40 coffee options, only 32 of them containing rum or alcoholic liqueurs.
From Trinidad a day trip takes you into the unspoiled rainforests and waterfalls of the Topes de Collantes, while a day trip from Havana takes in the delightfully rich tobacco-growing country of the Valle de Vinales.
Trinidad has a fine museum (Museo Historico Municipal) set in a 19th Century mansion with a central garden courtyard. The museum traces Cuba’s history from its colonial origins to independence and revolution. And it has a typewriter used by the revered Che Guevara. Somehow a return to old Havana’s El Angel de Tejadillo became superfluous.
Cuba has two currencies, one for residents and one for tourists, the CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). The local currency is one tourists will likely never see. The CUC is tied to the US dollar for exchange purposes, but American currency is not accepted; Australians need to carry either Canadian dollars or Euros to exchange.
The one exception to the rule that tourists will not see the local currency is the note featuring Che Guevara. Many Cubans will offer to sell the ‘Che note’ for one CUC, a windfall for them.
Credit cards are not widely accepted in bars or restaurants, but ATMs are available.
Although America’s economic embargo against Cuba is likely to ease, most Australians enter via Canada or Mexico. Airlines will not allow travellers to board flights to Cuba without a tourist card. The Cuban embassy in Canberra can provide tourist visas, but these are also easily obtained over the counter for 25 CUC alongside the check-in desk at airports in Mexico.
Beat American tourists
Currently popular with European tourists, Cuba is becoming a popular destination for Australians anxious to experience the country before the effect of its emerging ties to the US take effect. Cubans too, are concerned that while US tourism could improve their standard of living, the character of the country may change in fundamental ways.
At the least, US tourism is likely to make Cuba a more expensive destination and already there is anecdotal evidence of this: airport taxi transfers have risen 20% in the past year and the cost of fishing charters is said to be up significantly.
Cuba is moving into its hurricane season right now. Once that passes, in November, more Australians
Many cruise lines include Cuba on their Caribbean itineraries. For details of your options, contact RACV Cruises & Tours, where RACV members save 5% on booked tours. Go to racv.com.au/cruisesandtours or call 1300 850 884. Conditions apply.
Visit racv.com.au/travel, any RACV shop or call 13 13 29 for other RACV travel deals.