If you have never been whisked around old Havana in a turquoise, 1957 Chevy, you have not experienced Cuba’s capital city. To visit Havana is to travel back in time to the 1950’s.
The city itself looks a little worn, but underneath you will find a friendly, safe and interesting metropolis, which offers everything for the transient traveller. The city is divided into old and new and although the new has some interesting sights the old is the place to go. Buildings, dating back to the 17th century are nestled between newer ones. Laundry hangs from balconies, and shops and cafés are everywhere.
At the centre of it all is the Capitolio (the former Capital building) with its imposing dome, the largest of any Latin American country. If you walk up the many steps and turn to look back you will see a spectacular view of Paseo de Marti, a street lined with apartments, people and old cars.
To describe Havana and not talk about the automobiles would be a great omission. Present day Cubans are not allowed to own cars (Castro states that Cubans cannot afford them and therefore will not own any). For that reason thousands of North American cars, all dating pre-revolution (1959), are still in operation today. Most are painted in bright colours and many serve as taxis, but they all have one thing in common: their owners keep then running perfectly, although in some cases they appear to be held together with chewing gum.
Along the water’s edge stands the Castillo, a fort constructed in the 1500’s to protect Havana from pirate attacks. It is worth the visit if for no other reason than to see the spectacular views of the city. In the distance you can see the bright red logo of Havana Rum, the nation’s rum manufacturer. This company took over from Bacardi, when they fled prior to the revolution.
The largest factor in the economy of Cuba is tourism and being true communism, everyone is treated equal… almost. A physician will earn about 25 CUC (Converted Pesos) or 600 pesos per month. This is equivalent to $30 CDN. They do, however, receive many gifts from patients. Another interesting fact is that each family lives in its ancestral home. In other words, if you are an engineer earning more than a taxi driver, but your family occupies a mud brick hut, that is where you live.
Cuban communism is much simpler than Chinese or former Soviet Union, as the country Is a good deal smaller. There is grave concern about the future, as most Cubans do not want to associate with the U.S. There is a law on American books, which states that Americans who had property in Cuba prior to 1959 will have it returned if Cuba opens its doors to the U.S. People are also concerned that America will assassinate government officials should ties between the two countries develop.
Unfortunately most of the Cuban history talked about, deals with the past 51 years (since the revolution of 1959). Prior to that Batista ran a tyrannical dictatorship under which many Cubans perished or lived in poverty. Foreigners were the only ones to do well and it is easy to see why the revolution had such incredible support.
Cubans, no matter what their status in society, all receive food coupons monthly. These are negotiable at local supermarkets and can be traded with others. Most of the stores: clothing, hardware and furniture included, have goods stored on shelves or in boxes behind counters. The only way to view items is to ask the shopkeepers. There is no capitalism and all revenue is turned over to the government. Salaries are paid out based on predetermined amounts.
The only exception to equal pay seems to be in the tourism industry. No one pays taxes in Cuba so no one claims any excess cash. Tips are gladly accepted by anyone and appreciated by all.
I was fortunate to spend an evening at Havana’s (if not Latin America’s) most famous night club, The Tropicana. Opened in 1930 a visit transports one back in time to the golden era of Robert Redford in the movie ‘Havana’. I gazed on a stage where Desi Arnez sang ‘babaloo’ and Carmen Miranda carried a bowl of fruit on her head. Hundreds of dancers entertained the massive crowds in the open air theatre. Cigars were passed around and rum flowed freely. The visit is a must for anyone visiting Havana.
There are two hotels, which I would recommend: the Nacional and the Cohiba. Both are five star and have excellent facilities. The Nacional, built in 1930 is beginning to look worn, but it has a charm unequalled by the Cohiba, which was built in 1995 in a more ‘communist block’ style.
One thing to remember is that there is no affiliation with the U.S. This means that any credit cards on US banks are not accepted. Debit cards do not seem to work either and American Express travellers’ cheques are good only if you are playing Monopoly. I could not find any Coca Cola products in Havana and McDonalds did not exist. Tourists spoke German, French and ‘Canadian’ and Aussie accents could be heard everywhere.
Cuba is only 3 hours from Toronto and most tourists fly to Veradaro (Canada’s Caribbean playground). My travels took me from Central America directly into Havana and I was subjected to dictatorship rule first hand. My passport was taken from me at the baggage claim and I was escorted to an area where I was ‘interviewed’ by one of the guards.
When you land your carry-on luggage is X-rayed and I was asked about my camera. They said it looked professional and mistakenly I told them that’s what I did for a living. Immediately the interrogation began: ‘What was I going to photograph?’, ‘What magazines do I write for?’ (They were unfamiliar with Focus on Scugog), and ‘where was I travelling to and coming from?’. The cross-examination lasted about an hour and everything I said was recorded. Finally, satisfied that I was not a threat to national security, I was released, but not until they searched every corner of my suitcase.
All, in all I would recommend a visit to Cuba’s capital city. Three days is enough, unless you want to spend endless hours in café’s dreaming of Ernest Hemmingway and enjoying hand-rolled cigars. The people are extremely friendly and the environment is very safe. Police presence is visible, but I saw no crime. Driving is slow and rules are obeyed. The cuisine is excellent and the atmosphere charming. A visit to Havana is like a journey back in time.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com