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Havana: Cuba’s a beauty beyond the beach

Havana: Cuba’s a beauty beyond the beach

Posted by PanamericanWorld on September 15, 2015

News that the United States recently reopened its embassy in Havana brought back memories of a visit my wife and I made to Cuba a few years ago. Like many visitors to this island nation, we spent the first week of our trip at Varadero. While I have no complaints about sitting next to the warm and inviting Atlantic, Varadero isn’t a true reflection of Cuba. It’s a nice beach that happens to be in Cuba, where dozens of all-inclusive resorts, catering mostly to Canadians, Europeans and the odd embargodefying American, stretch along a sand-fringed peninsula.

Cuba has always been a source of idle curiosity for me, in part because of the visits my grandparents made more than 30 years ago, long before it became a tourist mecca. Apparently, a great-uncle of mine had a farm in Cuba. I’m not sure how my relative, a Canadian of Irish ancestry, ended up in Cuba, but it’s a country that has long been an intoxicating draw. Ernest Hemingway, for one, had a home there, inspiring some of his work.

Since there is much more to Cuba than beautiful beaches, we found ourselves on a bus to Havana, racing along the country’s north coast. As happens in the tropics, the late afternoon sun didn’t linger and the dark of evening quickly settled in. In the distance, the lighthouse at Castillo del Morro signalled the way to Cuba’s capital and largest city. Light poured into our bus, as we entered a tunnel and slipped beneath the Bay of Havana. Less than a minute later, we were in Havana. It was like stepping back in time, where the date was stuck on 1958, the year that Fidel Castro came to power. Old American cars from the 1940s and ’50s ambled along dimly lit roads. Old, stately buildings stood over narrow streets. The dark of evening added to the city’s mystery, and hid the scars from decades of neglect. It is a place that has probably changed little since my grandparents visited more than three decades ago.

               Havana is probably home to the largest collection of vintage American cars. Photo: Carrie Donohue

Wanting to experience as much Cuban culture as we could, we chose to stay in a casa particular, or private home. The small third-floor apartment was home to a friendly family of three generations. The language barrier was no obstacle in our ability to communicate.

After dropping our bags and getting instructions on how to operate the door lock, we went out and explored the neighbourhood. We stumbled upon an El Rapido, a local fast food restaurant, and joined the long queue of families and young couples waiting to order. Nicely dressed children clamoured about, laughing and playing. One young person danced to the music that mixed with the warm air in the restaurant, while another tapped his foot to the beat.

We woke the next morning eager to explore Havana Vieja, the old part of the city. Havana doesn’t have the most developed transit system, unless one counts the camel buses, which are crammed full of people and pulled by a large truck. We were approached by a man asking if we needed a taxi. It turned out that he wasn’t a taxi driver, just a guy with a dilapidated Russian Lada that made extra money driving tourists.

We drove along Havana’s famed Malecon, a wide boulevard stretching along the coast. Waves crashed over the seawall, reminiscent of a postcard, and as the car laboured on, we stole glimpses down narrow streets. Blocks of crumbling colonial buildings looked as if they were set in a Hollywood movie about a city torn apart by war. Yet, there were signs of rejuvenation. Thanks to funding from the Spanish government, parts of the city were being restored to past grandeur.

Near Plaza de la Catedral, a small alleyway led to a charming square, which was dominated by the church of San Cristobal de la Habana, completed in 1787.

                The National Capitol Building was the seat of government until the Cuban Revolution in 1959. After falling into disrepair, the building has been restored and is home once again to the National Assembly. Photo: Carrie Donohue

My wife noticed a small group of musicians sitting in one corner of the square, waiting for an audience. She put some money in a basket and they began playing.

Havana, especially the old part, is best seen on foot, so after filling our stomachs at a small eatery, we wandered the streets, immersing ourselves in the heart of Havana. We passed by La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita, the former drinking haunts of Hemingway, which unfortunately have become overpriced tourist traps. Zigzagging through a maze of streets, we stopped and watched a group of young boys playing dominoes. They motioned for me to sit down and play. I could hardly keep up with the pace of the game, as dominoes were quickly thrown down on the table. Within minutes, the game was over. I shook their hands, smiled and carried on down the street. I later learned that dominoes is a Cuban passion, and ranks up with baseball as a national pastime.

And since a visit to Cuba wouldn’t be complete without seeing a baseball game, that evening we jumped in a taxi and went to Estadio Latinoamericano, one of Havana’s large sports stadiums. The Cuban national team was playing a team from Japan. We stood in line at the ticket window, only to be told we had to go to another area of the stadium where foreigners had to buy tickets. We handed over two dollars for the two tickets. I was later told that Cubans would have paid the equivalent of four cents to watch the game. Still, two dollars to see a baseball game with some of the best players in the world was a bargain. Vendors, selling unwrapped, cold hamburgers from a box strung around their neck, walked through the stands doing a brisk business. Cuba handily won the game.

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