In the past few weeks, we have heard, “My friends went to Havana and said it was like going back in time.” And, “My brother was there, and he only posted two photos on Facebook…maybe they don’t allow photos.” And, “We saw lots of old buildings and ancient hotels.” Well, we are here to say, uh, NO. It was really fun. There are lots of statues and contemporary sculptures on the street. There is a lot of color and vibrancy. The old cars are mostly all restored, painted in gorgeous colors, and have air conditioning added (which is really a necessity, might we add). You can see in a photo below, one of the drivers is keeping out of the sun by lounging in his trunk! Under that photo is one of a good-sized SUV that rode alongside us for a few blocks. It is a communal taxi, driving a set route, and like a bus, picks up people along the way. It is much cheaper than a private taxi. We counted 13 people inside! Yoiks!
Buildings are being remodeled. The parks, which seem to be on every block, are tended to, neat, flower filled, and have people everywhere. Havana has the hustle and bustle of other large cities, particularly those that have almost daily cruise ships putting 1,000+ people onto the streets, people who are taking tours and having coffee, eating lunch, and buying local goods.
We really enjoyed the murals and sculptures. The brass statue of the nude woman riding a rooster and holding a fork, titled Viaje Fantastico, was installed in Plaza Vieja in 2012 by Roberto Fabelo without explanation. Some say it is a symbol of chauvinism, others a nod to the history of prostitution in Cuba. The woman is expected to earn her living, symbolized by the fork, while riding a male rooster and wearing high heels, always also ready for whatever a man wants of her. It has created quite a stir.
Okay, so no doubt, the buildings could be in better shape. They could do with new coats of paint, and inside they could have more variety. The people look resigned to their way of life. Some young people told us they would love to travel the world, but they are not allowed. The government fears they would not return, and we were told that that is most likely true. We went into a local grocery store, and all are owned and run by the government. It was very dirty, since they don’t have to worry about competitors. The floors and frozen food cases were filthy, as you can see in the photos. There is little variety. You can see a woman stocking the shelves with the same mayonnaise that fills the entire aisle, top to bottom, left to right. Every aisle was like that….the same exact brand and size is the only brand and size, and it fills the shelves.
It was hot. Unreasonably, absolutely HOT. Every time we got out of our air-conditioned car, we were walking into an oven, barely able to catch a breath. No matter what we were seeing, no matter how interesting, all we wanted to do was get back inside the car, where it was cool.
The photo of the street just before the grocery store photos represents a remarkable material….planks of wood. Many (many) years ago, the governor’s wife was tired of hearing the click-clack of carriages on the brick street outside the mansion. They replaced the bricks with wood to make it quieter! It has been replaced many times since then. Looking at it, we weren’t sure what it was made of, at first. It looked like bricks, but not quite.
Then came two jewels of Havana. After the grocery store photos are pictures from Fusterlandia. Jose Fuster was inspired by Gaudi and his work in Barcelona. If you look carefully, you will also see many similarities to Picasso. Fuster wanted to create a similar place of whimsy in his native Havana. So, he started making mosaic art installations in his house and his neighbors’ houses as well. There is no charge to enter and take photos to your heart’s content. There is a donation box, which was quite full, and you can purchase items too, of course.
The last photos are of the Gran Parque Metropolitano, also called the Forest of Havana. It is fabulous….a lush rainforest in the heart of Havana. There were tour buses and taxis all along the river, with people taking photos of this improbable treasure in the midst of the city.
All in all, would we return? You bet! We had a fabulous Cuban lunch at Paladar Buenaventura, an open-air restaurant with excellent food, including plantains, black beans, piccadillo, chicken with pineapple, tamals, and a wonderful soup. The bread basket was served with spicy garlic-infused oil. Lunches were typical American prices. Entrees with beans, rice, salad, and bread cost between 13-16 CUC. If you are not on a cruise, Cuba can be very expensive. Havana’s hotels range from $200-900 per night. Their money, the CUC, is on a par with the American dollar, but with fees, you only get 87 CUC for $100 US. The average worker earns $3 per day. In the grocery store, a small “snack-size” bag of Oreos cost $3.45. Can you imagine spending what you earn in a day on a bag of cookies? We are hopeful that after almost 70 years of Communism, people can again, in the near future, have a taste of freedom, earn real money, travel, and enjoy robust trade with other countries. It feels like it’s time.