What an incredible place. Old Havana, or La Habana Vieja, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is studded with beautiful, colonial era buildings, pulsing with music, filled with people and continually traversed by classic American cars. The following are some of our most vivid impressions of Havana and what we expect to be, some of our most enduring memories of the trip.
Although UNESCO has designated the entire Old Town area as a World Heritage Site, only a small percentage of the buildings have been renovated. Many of those that have been renovated are amazing. An incredible collection of Spanish Colonial, with a smattering of Art Deco architecture–each building more beautiful than the last.
But the buildings in this area do not have to be renovated to be beautiful. In some cases we were even more enthralled by many of the buildings that have not yet been renovated, and by their incredible architectural detail. True, we do feel somewhat sorry for the residents. Those living in non-renovated buildings are sometimes packed into buildings designed to handle a quarter of the number of the people that now live in them. Some live in structures that appear, to an outside eye, to be uninhabitable. We also feel sorry for some of those who used to live in buildings that have since been renovated. Most of these renovated buildings accommodate far fewer people that lived there before. The remainder are cast off to live in totally different neighborhoods.
But, renovated of not, the neighborhoods, especially those around commercial avenues, such as touristy Obispo Street, the more locally-oriented San Rafael Street, and along the Malecon (sea wall and boulevard) are pulsing with activity and fun. This is especially true on weekends and evenings, when the streets are pulsing with activity, the bars and restaurants are filled and the music clubs are hopping. (See our blog on Havana restaurants and music clubs.)
Add in the lovely squares, the smattering of the amazingly restored, museum-quality restorations of historic sites (including hotels, the ballet theater, and two fully restored, 100-year old pharmacies), and the area comes alive.
And this does not even begin to account for the cars. There are three eras of cars found in Havana: 1940-1950’s-era vintage American cars, 1960-1980’s Russian cars and newer imports from Japan, Korea and now China. The classic American cars, are, of course, the stars. Since cars, until very recently, were unable to be bought and sold among people, they were passed down from fathers to sons to grandsons. Many still look like 60-year old cars, faded, rusted, and barely running. Even many of the renovated cars still suffer from the ravages of time and a lack of parts.
An amazingly large number of cars, however, have been totally and lovingly restored, using scavenged and improvised parts, engines and transmissions from newer cars, pristine paint jobs and loads of loads TLC. Many of these cars, which are often used as taxis, continually troll the streets around Parque Central and Luis Marti Blvd, looking for, among others, American Baby Boomers (including us) searching to relive parts of their distant pasts.
But even so, the continual parade of cars is more than enough to reignite the spirit of youth in even the most non-nostalgic baby boomers. This is especially true when riding in these lovingly restored beauties. (Nostalgia far outweighs the guilt inherent in riding in cars that lack seat belts, airbags, padded dashes and other now-standard safety features.) Some of our most memorable rides were in a cherry red ’53 Chevy, a bright orange ’37 Dodge and a lime green ’54 Jeep Willy.
Old Havana Museums, Sights and Sounds
Old town, of course, is about more than buildings, cars, hotels, restaurants and music clubs. It is also the site of many of the city’s museums and parks.
Although a lack of time prevented us from visiting a number of museums (we had to skip the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the City Museum) we did get to a few.
Museo de la Revolucion is particularly interesting. Through pictures and newspaper articles, it traces the history of the revolution, from its beginnings in 1955 (with particular emphasis on national heroes Fidel Castro and Che Guevera), through the January 1, 1955 departure of Batista, through the country’s alignment with the U.S.S.R., the nationalization of industries, the economic, CIA and military (especially the Bay of Pigs invasion) retaliation by the U.S. and the actions of the new government, including agrarian and social reforms and the adoption of a new Constitution. Interestingly, the museum also commemorated a few U.S. presidents. Lincoln (who freed the slaves) is commemorated by a bust in the museum, and his own park. Meanwhile, Reagan and both Bushes, along with deposed “puppet” Cuban president Batista, were portrayed in large, biting caricatures. Interestingly though, there were none of Kennedy, who launched the Bay of Pigs invasion and many CIA activities against the regime.
This, however, is certainly not to suggest that you had to go to a museum to see symbols of Cuba, Castro, Che and other symbols—and the after-affects of the revolution. They were everywhere, including in a sign that indicates a location of one of the neighborhood associations for monitoring suspicious activities.
Granma Park, which is next to the Museo de la Revolucion, is named after and features the yacht on which Fidel, Che and others arrived in Cuba from Mexico in 1955. It also shows a number of other military and related artifacts the rebels used in gaining control of the country, plus some memorabilia of “Yankee Imperialism.”
Havana Club Rum Museum portrays the history of sugar cane, and the life of the slaves who planted and harvested it. It has an impressive scale model of a rum refinery, beginning with the railroad that carried the cane from the field, through the crushing, the boiling (to convert the sugar into molasses), the triple distillation (to convert the molasses into 5%, then 26% and finally into 96% alcohol), filtering, mixing (with water) and finally the barreling and aging processes (in used and re-toasted American bourbon barrels–bought from Canada) to infuse flavor.
Camera Obscura is a mechanism, mounted atop a tall building in Old Havana’s Plaza Vieja, projects real-time images onto a roughly one-meter diameter disk. When the lens is rotated, the views change, creating a 360-degree view of the neighborhood. The images portray objects and movements (people walking, dogs running, laundry flapping in the breeze) and the narrator/guide tells viewers what they are seeing.
As for Old Havana’s Parks, we particularly liked Parque Central, not least due to the classic cars that circle it. On a Saturday on which we were in the city, the mall in the center of the Prado was also the site of an outdoor art sale, which represented a number of very different, very interesting styles.
The next block of the mall provided an even more interesting sight–a view of one of the country’s new economic reforms in action. The Cuban government recently approved the purchase and sale of real estate. The problem is that Cuba has no real estate brokerage industry and no Internet to allow a public listing of properties. So, for now, connections between sellers and buyers are handled via something of a swap mart, where sellers post and walk around displaying pictures and descriptions of properties they hope to sell. Presumably, this process will be replaced by more formal institutions and mechanisms. But for now, the will to buy and sell, created a way to do so.
And then there is the music. If you are in Cuba, you will experience music. Although the highlight of our Old Havana musical experience was our evening at the Buena Vista Social Club, music clubs were everywhere and street performers plentiful. Our biggest musical surprise was an outdoor concert by a roughly 40-person brass band playing Big Band-era tunes.
Our only real disappointment in Old Havana was that the Partagas cigar factory is temporarily closed for tours. But, as discussed in our introductory Cuba post, we did at least partially compensate for this disappointment with a tour of a Vinales Valley tobacco farm and drying house where the farmer rolled cigars “on demand.” I also exceeded my own annual cigar quota in one week by smoking a selection of some of my favorite Cubans–a Cohiba, a Montecristo, a Partagas and a Romeo y Julieta, in addition to the excellent homegrown/homemade unbranded cigar, which was only one CUC, compared with 6-10 CUCs for the more famous branded cigars. (CUC is the official currency, used primarily by tourists, which worth roughly $1.10 American. This compares with the CUP, typically used by locals, which has a value of less than 5 U.S. cents and is not accepted by many tourist establishments.)