Wandering back to the hotel to collect our bags, we were approached by a middle aged guy who asked in English where we were from – we told him and he said he was on his way to give a lecture and he’d love to chat for a bit. We walked alongside, talking about the political situation in Cuba, then he suggested that we go for a coffee and we walked into a bar….alarm bells started ringing as I’d read that ‘jinteros’ (hustlers, in a word) used this method to get tourists to buy expensive drinks…..but it was mid-morning and this guy said he only had a short time with us. In the event the bar wasn’t serving coffee so we just had a brief chat and he went on his way. Cubans are so friendly and enjoy chatting – we met many people by chance and as soon as you smile at someone, you can strike up a conversation.
We fancied a cold beer so found a small open stall in an old building and ordered a beer, costing 18MN (44p)
We walked across the park opposite the hotel and were approached several times to take a tour in a classic American car- there were some beautiful specimens, some convertible in pastel colours – at a variety of prices! Top price was $50CUC for an hour’s tour and lowest $25CUC. We decided we’d check out of the hotel with our luggage then take a tour, and ask to be dropped off at our Casa Particular located down by the Malecón, in Centro Habana.
So we checked out and once again, we were again approached by a driver; we fancied the look of his car, a gorgeous baby blue Chevrolet, and agreed a price of $25CUC We asked to put our luggage (one large rucksack and a small carry-on size case) in the boot but when he opened it, it was chock a block with stuff! So we loaded it into the front bench seat and climbed in the back.
INFO: Havana (La Habana in Spanish) is divided into three neighbourhoods- Vedado to the west, considered the richest and home to embassies and government buildings as well as the university, Centro Habana, bustling, noisy, dirty and authentic where Cubans live, then La Habana Vieja, a largely pedestrianised neighbourhood under constant renovation where most tourists go to see the sanitised version of Havana. Incidentally, all neighbourhoods are incredibly safe. We were not particularly hassled either, maybe because we had no outward trappings of wealth, wearing no jewellery apart from rings and no designer/labelled clothing.
We felt like royalty as we cruised the streets of Havana. We learnt that the car used to belong to his grandfather and we asked how they managed to keep it in good repair….he said they had family in Miami and they were able to get parts to them by boat.
He pointed out key landmarks and interesting buildings:
we stopped at Plaza de la Revolución with its huge Che Guevara mural and Bill took the opportunity to look at the engine- V6 4 litre and completely renovated;
- the Korean Embassy which he happened to mention was the North Korean Embassy (naturally, he thought it strange that we were surprised);
- Chinatown, the pagoda archway entrance of which reminded us of Chinatown in London, is notable for its distinct lack of Chinese people (the first Chinese came as contract labourers in the late 1840s coinciding with the decline of the African slave trade, then growing into the largest Asian neighbourhood in Latin America until the 1960s when they left to start businesses in the USA);
John Lennon Park where we stopped for a photo opportunity with John. His music was once banned in communist Cuba, but Castro later considered him a kindred spirit as Lennon was hounded by the USA and he saw him as a fellow revolutionary dedicated to emancipating the working class. Also in the park was a sculpture of a huge white molar, on a bandstand type platform……curiouser and curiouser!;
- We then drove along the entire 8km length of the Malecón, the wide boulevard along the coast starting in Vedado and ending in the eastern corner of Old Havana. The newly opened American Embassy has a prime, prominent position overlooking the Caribbean Sea. This is the first step to the lifting of the embargo but there is still a long way to go…….
It is worth a wander on foot or by car along the Malecón – it is a great place to meet people, to watch people and to just soak up the atmosphere of Havana.
Right at the end of the Malecón where Centro Habana meets Vieja Habana, we located our accommodation for the next two nights (something I’d booked via another Casa Particular when we connected flights in Madrid). It looked interesting.