June 13, 2016: Havana, Cuba
It was at this point of the Day 1 Havana Walking tour that we let our guide know that we were going to head out on our own to explore Old Havana. She offered her thanks for our sharing the day with her and we asked her one question as we said our goodbyes… “What’s a good direction to get lost in?” She pointed down one nearby alleyway and we were off.
Stuck in a Time Warp
As we walked the streets of Old Havana, it was amazing to see two different Cubas. First is the Cuba that remains tied to the old, with its amazing collection of classic cars, manual balances weighing fruits and vegetables from pushcarts roaming the neighborhoods, and rope pulleys bringing supplies from ground level to upper floor homes and apartments:
As we passed the nearby university, the new Cuba is ever so slowly beginning to make tiny changes to the landscape. We passed through huge throngs of children, college students, and adults all smashed up against the outer walls of the building and blocking the sidewalks — they were all taking small sips of incredibly limited wireless internet access on their small screen smart phones and tablets while hundreds of competing skype and facetime video calls simultaneously shared images of people and family members from outside of Cuba, places most Cubans do not have the financial means (average salary is $28USD per month) or the permission from the government to visit (for independent travel purposes).
As we wandered, without an agenda or any requirements, the amazing streets and people of Havana shared themselves with us:
As we slowly began to make our way back to the ship, a man approached us and said hello, and in our limited spanish, his limited english, we struck up a conversation. He asked about our visit, what we were looking forward to seeing and we asked him about the music of Havana. He let us know that just down the street, there was a founding member of the Buena Vista Social Club playing in a nearby restaurant and invited us to come listen. The next couple of minutes we talked about his work, family, and just as quickly as the conversation started, we arrived at the restaurant. The trumpets, piano, and singing blared through the open air walls of the place and we knew that our experience was only going to get better:
From here, we made our way back to the ship for a short break to take a much needed shower from the hot and humid day, grab a quick dinner onboard, and before we knew it, we were back through the terminal and onto the Malecon to kick off our evening in Havana!
One of the coolest adventures in Havana is to rent a classic car for a trip around the city. We got a recommendation from two travelers at dinner to head out of the terminal, make a right, wrap around the corner at the start of the Malecon, and there is a parking lot full of classics and their drivers. We found this pristine green beauty and its owner and we set a sunset drive price of 25 CUC for an hour of sightseeing and drop off at the Hotel Nacional, where we were taking in the Cabaret show at 9pm. Although our driver knew just a word or two of English (and we got to do a lot of practicing of our Spanish), we learned he had inherited the car from his father and had a 5 year old son who is his world (once he found out we had a 2 year old and showed him pictures, we found a bond that made the trip even more memorable) and had a wonderful drive and saw some amazing sights from the hillside opposite the malecon:
A few minutes before 9pm, we were dropped off at the Hotel Nacional, entered the Cabaret Parisien, and were dazzled by a nearly 2 hour performance of colorful costumes, dancing, dancing, and more dancing, amazing Cuban music, history, culture, and even acrobatics as dozens of performers brought us just a sample of the energy that we would experience this week in Cuba:
At 11:30pm, we grabbed a taxi and headed back to the ship (but all are welcome to stay for free dance lessons until 1am!)… We knew that our time in Cuba would be a marathon of experiences and knew that if we were going to make a 7am start the next morning for another full day of touring, we would need to pace ourselves!
Next Up: Day 2 of our Havana visit brings us a look into Cuba’s history, politics, and art! More amazing food, classic cars, and a sunset sailaway…