Por la revolution y sosialism! Yo soy Fidel! Siempre Fidel! This is what you see in signs at the time of revolution celebrations just a month after Fidel Castro passes away. And not just in capitol Havanna, but everywhere in the country. Cuba is not just all cigars, salsa rythms, mojitos and beautiful 50’s cars and colourful buildings. Havanna is filled with monumental buildings, statues, parks and avenidas – space is not a scarse resource apparently. Cuba is still a lot about well-regulated systems, fumes and what seems to be going back in time to us. Perfect time to visit now – before it all changes.

Caught up in the system

Visiting Cuba in January 2017 is still going back to a developing country. Cuba is still very regulated. Stores, hotels, restaurants, transportation, space eg. are mostly state-run businesses. Private citizens can provide accommodation in casa particulaires and run  restaurants  in paladars, However, business is very much regulated. Everything must be reported to the government at all times. For example, private citizens renting rooms must report all guests within 12 hours of arrival. Paladars, private restaurants, report an invent all sales daily. As we discussed with other foreign visitors, many told the same: local private casa providers would very much like to maintain and improve the outline of their houses; however, for some peculiar reason the state wants to maintain an older and a bit rustic appearence on the buildings and private business.

Images: Revolution square (where parades were held in Revolution day celebrations) and everyday traffic in Havanna.

Stores carry basic necessities for locals, but there’s really no selection nor supermarkets carriyig miscellaneous products. Bread you get from bakery, milk in a dairy shop, meat from butcher’s, veggies from veggie market etc. Snacks from occasional snack carts you may spot in some parks. Restaurants and bars are luckily plenty with wide menus. Liquour shops are everywhere.  As a tourist travelling with a child this was a bit annoying since all meals have to be eaten in restaurants or food booths (that were not all that clean and fresh…). That adds up to your expenses fast. Hotels carry some sanitary products and baby products, but with very limited offering. What struck to us as Northern Europeans was the price level – Havanna seemed to be as expensive as our capitol Helsinki, with the exeption of meals and drinks in restaurants being cheaper (eg our average 3 person meal with 2 or 3 dishes + 3 drinks was about 20-30 euros).  Prices drop when you leave Havanna to other parts of Cuba.

Pictures from left: 1) long long Malecon, the beach avenue running from the Old town to newer parts. 2) Plaza Vieja, a charming old plaza with restaurants & live music, 3) Hotel Nacional and 4) Hotel Sevilla, in which some actions of revolutions took place

To travellers euros are worth a lot more than US dollars. If you change currency,  bring euros. You get a lot more. If you exchange US dollars, you lose a lot (at least in Dec 2016). ATMs sometime work, other times they don’t. Apparently they can also eat up you card so a risk involved. If they work, you get a much better rate!  Otherwise Havanna seemed to be quite safe, even to stroll on the streets of Old town with a child at night. Althoug, we did witness a tourist getting mugged by a 10-12 year-old local boy stealing a mobile phone just outside of a big hotel entrance.

When planning a trip to Cuba, do your homework before. How annoying it is not to have a travel book with you and no access to internet? Don’t count on studying of finding things out on the internet while in the country as internet connection is only provided by the state-owned company and hourly internet-cards can be quite expensive – and sold out. We found decent priced in Hotel Sevilla in Old town (1 hr for 4,5 convertible pesos, eg the same in euros). Mostly connection was still very weak and some sites or applications restricted. For example, hotel reservations for outside Cuba could not be made at all using American online services (eg Booking.com or Hotels.com).

Piece of history alive in the city

When in Havanna, visit the Museum of Revolution and the old Presidents’ castle. It’s definitely telling the story – through Cuban revolutionary lenses. Still, it is a journey to history not too long ago. It was really an interesting trip to what made Cuba what still is today. Museum entrance fees are only 8 convertible pesos per adult and kids enter free of charge. Museum has several halls filled with photographs and articles collected during the Revolution events in 1959-1960, when Castro lead the revolution and took over former president Batista. The building has been Presidents’ palace for all Cuban presidents office, goverment meetings as well as official state visits. You can still witness several bullet holes in the walls from battles.

Images: Revolution Museum, newspapers in local library & picture of Al Pacino in Hotel Sevilla

Behind the building is a “Granma Memorial” park that is included in the entrance fee. Granma was the recreational ship that brought 82 revolutionists from Mexico and landed in the region of Grandma in South-East of Cuba. Memorial also hold several vehicles that were used by Castro and his forces during the takeover as well as some craft remains they had shot down. Eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro in 1989 is located in front of the park, which is tightly guarded 24/7. Museum is well worth a visit even with kids!
The “War museum” presented by Leevi (in Finnish):

As we were in Cuba just weeks after Fidel Castro passed away and Revolution memory day Jan 1st celebrations took place, it was really like living the history right there. A visit to Plaza de Revolution (a huge square with monuments and monumental buildings with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara portrayed on the walls) is on most tour routes, but can easily be visited on your own too. The Square is about 5 km from the Capitol National, or a 15-20 CUC taxi ride away (one way). Recently named “Eternal Commander in Chief”, Fidel Castro is very much present and idolized everywhere in the country. To what seems propaganda to us is strong, but then again, it gives hope for a better future for the people. His brother Raul still leads the country; however, it’s hard to imagine what comes after the Castro era.

Beautiful Habana Vieja
Old Havanna, or Habana Vieja in the capitol of Cuba is a beautiful, colorful and vibrant historic city center. Founded in 1511 this old center of now a metropolitan city clearly has a Spanish influence, best seen in buildings, fortresses and names. Old Town “Habana Vieja” is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which never fails you. Narrow streets and alleys, colouful shallow houses and greener plazas with statues and cannons create a historic ambiance. Old town is mostly neat, but has a little more rustic alleys where locals live their everyday lives in tiny spaces (as you can peek into some apartment homes from the street)…

Images: El Capitolio, one of main streets, Malecon at night

Plaza de Armas is a guaranteed spot for eating out, listening to authentic cuban music and purchasing local souvenirs. Blocks around provide plently for tourists, as do most streets all the way up to Prado, a big avenue dividing the Old town and newer Havanna.  The same with Plaza Viejo, the “Old square” close to harbour for big cruisers and other passenger boats. Live cuban music is everywhere. There is no bar that would not provide live Cuban music. A bar with no live music has no customers. Musicians play on tips and selling their cds so contributions are expected.

Malecon, the famous beach boulevard that runs about 12 km from the Old town all the way to Miramar, an area in the newer parts, is a an avenue where people – tourists and locals – come to stroll, sit, admire the sunset or fresh ocean breeze and just hang out. From the fortress of  Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta about 5 km away is located Hotel National, a luxurious accommodation for many famous start and which played a scene for some revolutionary actions.

Fumes behind the beauty of classics

Among strong Spanish influence, and American spice in Havanna is very visible. Old classic cars from the 1950’s America are everywhere and are strongly a part of Havannan image. What is there not to like about sitting in an old colourful and well-maintained American classic convertible and just stroll around the city while driver giving you a tour?
In addition to American oldmobiles, Russian counterpart Ladas are still widely in use. And they are all in heavy use everyday as distances in the city are quite big and public transportation available only in newer parts. Besides American classics and Russian Ladas, there are several possibilities to get around on a bicycle taxi, on a horse carriage or a little three-wheel moped taxis. Trucks can’t be really seen in the Old town; however, very much present in the back alleys and newer parts. And when everything with an old motor on goes on a 83 octave gasoline, you can only imagine the pollution and fumes they bring to this pretty town…! Something that would never be accepted back home (but was very much common still in the 1970-80’s…).

Images: Our hotel in El Prado, an avenue dividing Old town and new town, old classics everywhere, and even moped taxis have to stop for (poor mixture) of gas…

Ever again?

Sure, why not. It’s a city with plenty to do. If I did, I would go in an adult-only trip, make sure to stay in a fine hotel with good services, a pool and decent location in the Old town. I believe in an adults-only trip you can get even more out of the colourful culture (not just the drinks, but eg shows too!). Havanna is ok to visit with kids too – eg. with a day trip from Varadero resort area. But to stay in Havanna, I would go with out and combine Havanna with a village in countryside. That is quite easily done and can be arranged when in Havanna too! Next time I go to Cuba, I’ll be surely visiting East end of the country, eg Santiago de Cuba.