I was only traveling with hand baggage and proceeded out beyond baggage claim to a very balmy haze outside – it was over 90ºF and it felt even warmer. We walked past the terminal to a small parking lot, where Marco’s wife Calisto sat waiting in a white Toyota Corolla – as it turns out, not all cars on the island are pre-1959 American autos. The American auto industry may still be shut out of Cuba, but I noticed a fair number of Mercedes and Toyotas (and Ladas of course) during my visit.
We took off for central Havana, driving through green fields and poorly maintained houses on the way. Hitchhikers abounded, with long lines at every bus station we passed (usually just a covered bench on the side of the road).
Reaching the outskirts of town, Marco first took me to his boss, who has an office inside the Hotel Comodoro. Formalities over, we sat down over a glass of refreshingly cool water and discussed how we could be mutually beneficial. I promised to put him in touch with clients who were looking for aide in visiting Cuba.
We took off and began a city tour, hitting a small park first in an upscale area of town. A man puffed away on his cigar on park bench, engaging in spirited conversation with his friend.
Marco remarked that the large mansions that surrounded the park were no longer owned by single families, but by the state and were partitioned off into several apartments, with the best being saved for loyal party officials.
Our next point of interest was the Hotel Nacionales, Havana’s classic luxury hotel. The charm about Cuba really is that being there is like going back in time (which is not necessarily exclusive to Cuba, but relatively unique in North America). The hotel is virtually unchanged, with an ornate lobby and outdoor restaurant teaming with men in tuxedos serving mojitos to tourists. Room prices are posted on a tack board and are obscenely high considering the wage of the average worker in Cuba remains just $20/month…
Proceeding across town, we came to a towering monument to communism and a large square – perhaps modeled after Red Square in Moscow – in which two national heroes (or villains, depending upon your perspective) appear on the side of government ministries. The national library was also part of this square.
A few miles away was the capital building, modeled after the United States Capitol. Beautiful architecture and bountiful classic cars filled in the surrounding area and horse drawn carriages and rickshaws were also available. Each street was undeniably beautiful, yet the decay was inescapable – even the capital building looked as if had been abandoned for decades.
Our last stop was in the Old Havana neighborhood, certainly geared for tourists even as local children played and a group of men pushed a broken car down the street (a common sight).
Yeah, about this one…
When you visit Havana, you may want to check out this area before booking Hotel Nationcinales or other hotels across town. Near an old Roman Catholic Church sits a hotel called Hostal los Frailes adjacent to Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. Inside is a tranquil inner courtyard with hanging vines and a water fountain with guest rooms surrounding it.
That style of hotel is failry common in this neighborhood. Right down the street is La Bodeguita Del Medio, which claims to have been Earnest Hemingway’s favorite bar. It was so crowded I did not stop for a drink. Revolutionary banners and monuments were ever-present.
Could a trip to Havana be complete without old women smoking cigars? Of course not — all over the city you will find women like this who make a handsome living posing for tourist pictures. I gave them each a dollar for letting me take their picture and three of the four were happy but the angel with the white shirt in the center smiled with a big toothless grin and said, “Cinco Dollero Por Favor” and held her hand for more.
Marco and his wife took me back to my guest house, which turned out to be on the 9th floor of a high rise building. A group of men huddled around building entrance and a man motioned for me to step into an elevator that had no doors and a handcrank to go upstairs. We found my room and the owner, who spoke no English, welcomed me, introduced me to his wife and children, and showed me to my room.
The room featured a large bed and a bathroom with no door. There was no hot water. A small balcony provided a great look at the Havana skyline. With only an hour left of sunlight, I wanted to get out again.
Let me note here the total information blackout in Cuba. Internet is available in some of the upscale hotels, but I had my phone and laptop and never had a phone signal nor found a wifi connection (locked or unlocked) during my visit. Internet, where available, is expensive and censored.
Tomorrow: my evening in Havana
Read more of my Cuba trip report:
Planning a Trip to Cuba
Los Angeles to Havana in TACA Economy Class
Visa Requirements for Visiting Cuba
Day One in Cuba: A Tour of Havana
Day One in Cuba: An Evening Surprise
Day Two in Cuba: Accused of Being An American Spy!
Day Two in Cuba: Escorted Flying
Day Two in Cuba: The Juxtaposition of Two Cubans
Havana to Los Angeles in TACA Economy Class
10 Tips for Visiting Cuba
Why You Should Visit Cuba Now