Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Around Town in Havana

In every city there is bound to be some sort of tour guide activity, giving visitors a glimpse of the town in a condensed amount of time. New York has their "hop on, hop off" buses, London has the double decker bus tours, even Seattle has it's Ride the Duck tours. In Havana you get a horse and buggy. They are everywhere, they all look the same. The guides call out to you offering their services. How were we going to pick just one? How would we decide who was going to get our $30CUC (split between 6 of us).

 "there they are, how do we choose?"

Woman tour manager: "Hello friends, take a tour around Havana?"
Forest: "Ummm, maybe. We're not sure."
Woman tour manager: "Look, I know you don't want to but come on."

How can you resist this type of salesmanship? We couldn't and so the 6 of us piled into a buggy driven by Wilfred for a little tour and some history about Havana.


We actually did this on our groups first day together, it was a really good way to get the layout of the city, see some of the monuments and learn a bit of history. We rode past the Museo de la Revolution with it's outdoor exhibit of the Granma, surrounded by vehicles used and planes shot down during the revolution. 

From here we rode along the waterfront to the beautiful Plaza de la Catedral. Cubans dressed in traditional costume pose for (paid) pictures, music fills the square. The large Catedral de San Cristobal de la Havana sits on one side, once the resting place for the remains of Christopher Columbus!


Next stop was the Plaza de Armas. This is Havana's oldest square, originally laid out in the 1520's. There is a huge used book market set up daily in the center; magazines, books, post cards and programs bring back memories of the years before the embargo and of course the Revolution.

The Castillo de la Real Fuerza is also in the square. Built in 1558 it's the oldest existing fort in the America's complete with draw bridge, a moat and cannons!

On to the small Plaza de San Francisco de Asis with its beautiful fountain where we witnessed a girl having photos taken of her on her quinceañera, this is a traditional "debut" of sorts as the girl is now considered mature and will be permitted to marry in the next year (at 16).

With all this bumping around in the carriage we were very happy about our next stop, the Havana Club Rum Museum. Complete with salsa band and mojitos there are little exhibits set up explaining the process of making rum and the history of it.

It wasn't the best mojito we had but it gave us a chance to buy Wilfred a drink and hear more about his life. When I naively asked him where he might want to travel to he looked at me like a child and replied "this is a communist country, we are not allowed to travel anywhere". Being the beginning of our time in Cuba I hadn't learned about all these rules and felt ignorant of my knowledge of their life but Wilfred was very kind and continued to answer our questions both over the rum and back in the carriage.

We continued on our tour, past the main train station where we saw the incredibly old trains still running on the tracks built in the early 1900's. In fact Cuba was the sixth country in the world to have a railway, not much looks like it has changed including the Hershey Train which still runs today!

As a side note, transportation is looked upon as a bit of a joke in Cuba. Forest and I watched the movie "The Waiting List" (Lista de Espera) which is a very cute comedy outlining transit issues. Check it out if you're interested.

Past Parque de la Fraternidad with it's busts of Latin and North American leaders (including Lincoln) , the cigar factory (which unfortunately was closed for the holidays) and China Town (who knew?) we finished up our tour at the Parque Central Hotel where of course we went in for a cocktail. Of course!

Many thanks to fellow traveler Tim as most of the photos in this post are his. We had some technical difficulties and lost most of our photos from the first 4 days due to a bad thumb drive. Thanks Tim!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

To Do: drinking in Havana

Many of you know that I love to-do lists, I love to write them out on my pretty Kate Spade Short List paper, I love to cross off each thing I've done and I love to complete my list- pull out a new sheet- and make a new list. I'm excited to cross of "write bar blog post" when I've finished this!

I consider a category of sites in a guidebook like a ready made list. If you flip through my collection of guidebooks you'll see sites/places/restaurants/bars that are circled; that means I want to go there. And you'll see sites/places/restaurants/bars that are highlighted in pretty green, pink or yellow; that means I've been there! I get very excited about adding more and more highlights in my guidebook as I re-visit places.  For the places we have only visited once there only the few highlights that time allowed for.

As Forest, Dayne and I were consulting the "Drinking" section in our Lonely Planet Cuba Guidebook one afternoon we realized we had hit almost all the bars listed in Havana, why not set our goals high and hit them all since we had 10 days in the city? And so we did! Here is our review of LP's list; a bar crawl around Havana; and/or just us drinkers doing some bragging.

La Lluvia de Oro- I loved this bar on Obispo. It's been open since 1939. Loud salsa music spills into the street drawing us in. Who doesn't love a bar where the band gets the crowd involved, Forest was so involved she actually played with them!

And they had this adorable kid who was really quite good- a sure tip earner! This house band sang, danced and looked like they were having a great time. We only left when they stopped serving!

We've already covered La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita,  so next up is Cafe Paris. As you can tell from the picture we literally stumbled upon this bar.

Tim and I enjoying our Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain...

Loud but not as charming as others, we stayed for one round and made our way out. Maybe they were having a bad night but the music wasn't as good as other places and the drinks weren't particularly good either.

We made a quick stop at Bar La Marina one late afternoon. It's an open air bar with a vine covered ceiling. They have an old hand cranked sugarcane juicer and offer a nice selection of fruit drinks as well as cocktails.

Bar Dos Hermanos- One of the oldest bars in Havana, it was opened by two brothers in 1894. It's large, has great old star photographs lining the walls and has been newly remodeled but even with all of that we couldn't love it. The service was really bad and we ended up leaving pretty disappointed. Dayne did take the opportunity to write a little note to our President while waiting on his cocktail however.

La Dichosa is unmarked but found on Obispo by listening for the music and watching for the crowd spilling from it's doorway. We somehow snagged a table one night and ordered big beers and pizzas. The band was good, it's quite a tourist draw and it was a very fun and lively stop along the way.

Cafe Taberna is in the gorgeous Plaza Vieja. Opened in 1772, it's a very pretty bar with a few outside tables. Every morning at 9am you can take free salsa lessons!

On the opposite corner of the square is the Taberna de la Muralla. They have a huge outside patio and a fairly descent house band. They are known for their "Giraffes" of home brewed beer, which was quite good. That's way more than we could say about the food, most was inedible. The cheese and crackers I had stashed in my purse came in handy that day! But I'd go back and just enjoy the music, beer and outdoor patio.

We were really looking forward to checking out El Baturro who's description in LP is "Part of a long tradition of drinking houses situated next to train stations, El Baturro is a rough-and-ready Spanish bistro with a long wooden bar and an all-male - aggressively so - clientele. Don't come here if you're looking for girly cocktails." Woohoo! Bring on the rough and ready men! Does this look rough and ready to you?


Monserrate Bar, one of the first bars we went to on the advice of Luis (who just sent me a nice little email last week saying "hi")and one of my favorites. This is a great bar with a fabulous house band led by crooner William Valoy who, upon doing a bit of research on, turns out to have done some back up vocals for Company Segundo who you may be familiar with as he was a composer for the Buena Vista Social Club.

There was always a crowd here and many locals were perched outside listening to the music. Good cheap pizzas and excellent mojitos. An excellent bar.

There were other bars we tried, some listed in the book and some found randomly- hotel bars and rooftops bars and even a fake bar where they said the Buena Vista Social Club use to play.  But without hesitation I can tell you that our favorite bar wasn't in the guidebook at all. Bar Castillo de Farnes attracts all kinds- locals, tourists and jineteros. It's open late and they have plenty of rum- about $1.50CUC for a glass of 7 year old Havana Club. But best of all they have Felix who makes the best damn mojitos in all of Havana. Oh and I also found out that Ché and Castro toasted the success of the Revolution right here at the Castillo. We stopped in every single night!

It's good to have goals and even better to accomplish them!

Monday, March 15, 2010

A 3 Hour Tour...

Early in the morning of New Years Day our group of 6 boarded a tour bus headed for the Valle de Viñales, a 3 hour drive from Havana. This area is known for their tobacco farms, haystack looking limestone mountains and general laid-back culture.

Originally our plan had been to leave Havana for a few days and travel to another part of the island but being the holiday season there were no cars to rent and no tickets for the passenger buses available. Also realizing that Havana was pretty closed up on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day- as far as sites go- we decided on a day trip.

Our first stop was to a tobacco farm where our guide explained the growing and drying process of the plants. She also explained how the cigars on the farm didn't have the paper rings on them because they hadn't been authorized by the government but were the same tobacco leaf that was used in the big name brands. The farmers were selling these in their own homemade boxes at a very good price. It's also another way for them to get CUCs from the tourists. Next to this farm was a little rest stop with a cafe, piña colada stand and gift shop. The highway was empty except for the occasional American classic car or lone cow and it's the only highway in Cuba, built originally to span the entire length of the island it falls short about half way.

The drive out to the Valle de Viñales is gorgeous! Acres and acres of lush, green farms being plowed by ox turn into green hills and finally mountains. When we turned off the autopista the road was very narrow and unpaved in parts. I was a bit worried that the bus would perhaps go off the cliff as it followed the twisting road over a mountain range. The road was so winding that the driver had to pull over quite suddenly for one of the passengers who was a bit motion sick. Ugh.

Tour stop #2- La Mural de la Prehistoria. On the side of a large cliff is a huge painting depicting the theory of evolution. It's a bit trippy when you look at it- snails, dinosaurs, sea monsters, people. The site also has a little bar boasting the best piña coladas around. It was at the bar with our guide that we got to talk to her about life in Cuba, work, America, fleeing relatives and the future. She was very open and direct with her opinions- surprisingly so- and we learned a lot about her life and her family, both the one's in Cuba and the one's who had left for America.

A short drive from the mural we stopped again and our guide told us we would be walking in an old Indian cave that was discovered in 1920. I think we all thought of a shallow cave with a big opening but what we got was an amazing tunnel of stalactites and stalagmites (bonus points if you know which are which!) complete with an underground river (which they now run very touristy boats thru, pointing out cave markings). I just loved this cave though! There was even one part where you really had to shimmy thru an opening to the next "room". Spelunkers!
 After a really good lunch of rice, beans, salad and beers our group boarded the bus again and made it's way into the town of Viñales where we got to explore for a bit. It's a sleepy town full of casa particulars, hostels and houses with rocking chairs on their front porches.

As I was wandering around I went into the Casa de la Cultura which is the oldest building in Viñales. I asked the woman who looked to be working there if it was ok to go upstairs, she told me to follow her. She led me up to the rickety second floor and pointed out a couple of huge murals on the walls. She also took me into the theater and explained that it held party meetings as well as theater productions. She was very excited to reveal a hidden view of the valley behind a particular curtain. A few CUCs changed hands as I left, thanking her.

One last stop to take in more amazing views and then we had a 3 hour drive back to Havana.

We each spent $55CUC for the trip which was a great price for everything we saw and did, including lunch. I'd recommend Viñales for a day trip if you are ever in Cuba. More pictures of the area are here.

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