Rum and Revolutions

11th January 2019

Located 90 miles off the coast of Florida lies Cuba – the largest Caribbean island nation, and a vibrant melting pot of cultures and politics. Chris Ambrose explores…

Arriving at Havana airport, you’re struck at once by some unusual scenes. Waiting at baggage claim, besides the usual throng of passengers lining up to collect suitcases, is an even larger gathering around the oversized luggage desk. Before long, a steady flow of very large cardboard boxes begins emerging from behind a grey shutter. As these are chaotically passed overhead to relatives with waiting trolleys – bubble wrap and torn bits of cardboard scattering around the floor in the mêlée – it becomes apparent that these are mainly televisions or other sizeable electrical goods: evidently items that are still not as readily available here as elsewhere.

Outside the terminal building is the next intriguing sight. One of the definitive images of Cuba is of 1950s American cars cruising the streets of Havana, and stepping out into the mid-morning sunshine reveals that this isn’t just a nostalgic view confined to the front covers of guidebooks, but that it remains a pleasant reality. Rows of taxis are lined up, and while many look like they have seen better days, a good number of them are sporting distinctive, oversized tailfins and large swathes of (often heavily rusted) chrome. Sadly our transfer to our accommodation isn’t quite as retro chic. A beaten-up hatchback with an odd strip of dirty carpet draped across the dashboard is waiting, with a rather disgruntled man behind the wheel.

After a thirty minute ride into the city, we are dropped off in the characterful surroundings of Havana Old Town, where along one of the many narrow, cobbled streets we find our apartment building; after scaling the many concrete steps to the fourth floor we find a very friendly lady there to greet us.

There are a number of very smart, high-end hotels in the centre of Havana, but there has also been a huge development in ‘casa particulares’ – privately rented rooms or homes. These offer great value accommodation alternatives, but more than that, they can provide a far more rewarding experience away from the bustling tourist centre.

Maria – who turns out to be the housekeeper – doesn’t speak English, but we have been working on our Spanish, and through a combination of a few words and phrases, and some hands-on demonstrations, we quickly get the measure of our delightful traditional apartment, and establish that she will return in the morning to make us breakfast.

The apartment is basic but comfortable, and has everything we need, including bedding, towels, cooking utensils and air conditioning (a very welcome addition in the intense heat of the city). Hungry after our journey, we set off into the early afternoon warmth in search of something to eat. As we make our way back down the endless flights of stairs through the apartment block’s central atrium, we are greeted by many local people – mainly families and couples – sitting outside on wooden chairs, with their doors and windows open, the static-infused crackle of ancient televisions emanating from the tiled corridors. There is a real sense of community here, and a friendly, atmospheric buzz that cheers us on during our descent (and perhaps more significantly, the return ascents).

These days, the usual default setting when looking for dining options in a new destination is to turn to a guidebook, or an internet review site. We are on a long trip through many different countries, though, so guidebooks have proved impractical to carry around, and in Cuba, internet connections are scarce. As a result, we do it the old fashioned way: wandering about, hoping that we’ll stumble across something. The streets are a hive of activity, with groups of people gathered on the well-worn paving, chatting, listening to music through the open windows of their houses or just watching the world go by. The tall Spanish colonial buildings and narrow roadways leave this area largely sheltered from the intense sun, making them the best place to while away the afternoons.

One of the novel aspects of Cuba’s socialist roots is the lack of advertising, and the result of this comparatively minimal availability of private enterprise is that you won’t find streets cluttered with shop signs. Although this enhances the already picturesque surrounds, it means it’s tricky to establish somewhere we can eat. Eventually we tentatively step through an open door, identifying a scrappy piece of paper stuck on it as food options. We still aren’t entirely sure if it’s a restaurant or someone’s front room, but we are politely ushered to a small wooden table in one corner. We scrape together some more basic Spanish, and are soon handed a plate of meat and rice.

Then we head for Parque Central, next to the imposing former government ‘El Capitolio’ building (now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences). Lined up along either side of the park are rows of immaculately restored 1950s cars. Unlike the rust-buckets motoring around the streets in various states of disrepair, these postcard-worthy examples all have striking paint jobs – bright pinks, blues and greens – and each have a smartly attired driver bidding for passing tourist trade. With little else planned, we enter negotiations, and after a bit of good-natured haggling, are soon being ushered into a yellow coupé.

A tricky element of Havana from a visitor perspective is that some of the key sights are quite spread out. Local buses are packed and difficult to work out, and with walking (especially in the heat) not viable, these car tours provide an appealing way to take in the city in a novel manner.

Our driver, José, whisks us out of the tourist epicentre, and to our first stop, Plaza de la Revolución. This massive square has hosted gatherings and addresses from significant figures, including of course, Fidel Castro, but also Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. The square also features the 109-metre José Martí Memorial tower, built in tribute to the Cuban writer and philosopher, a key figure and symbol in Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain. Bordering the square are buildings for the Ministries of the Interior and Communications, which prominently feature steel memorials of two important heroes of the Cuban Revolution: Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

After a brief stroll in this vast space, we move on to our next stop: John Lennon Park. Here we pause next to a pleasant leafy area where we find a bench with a sculpture of John Lennon sat on it. We pause and take a couple of photos (as José seems to expect by the way he’s watching us from the pavement) before heading out past the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba and on to the Malecón – a wide esplanade and road that runs along the coastline towards the harbour. The sea breeze gusting around the open top car as we zipped along the wide expanse of tarmac is very welcome, but soon we are back in the centre of the Old Town to conclude our thoroughly enjoyable, whistle-stop tour.

With the sun still blazing down, we seek refuge in a café and drink a cheeky mojito, before stopping in at the impressively-housed Museo de la Revolución. The former Presidential Palace is dominated by the portrayal of the revolutionary war of the 1950s, featuring a number of rooms with glass cabinets showcasing various artefacts from the period, alongside the occasional description. Through one of the many, large open windows we look down upon a small array of military hardware.

As evening draws in, a little drained from the heat and the day’s exploits we retreat to our apartment block to join the locals in the popular pastime of sitting back with a refreshing glass of rum… soaking up the sounds of the city’s streets below.

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