January 27, 2008 - Havana
We rolled out of bed in time to have breakfast and catch the free shuttle bus into Havana. It dropped us off along the Malecon. But where along the Malecon? Pulling out the Lonely Planet and looking around and around didn't help. So Adrian and I just started walking, hoping that eventually we'd find a sign or landmark that would point us to the Plaza del Catedral. We stopped to get our bearings we realised we were in the Plaza - the starting point of the old Havana walking tour in Lonely Planet.
It was a small cobblestone plaza flanked by the cathedral, and beautiful old colonial buildings. We ducked inside the cathedral to check it out just as mass was beginning. The crowd was mostly locals with the occasional tourist popping in. Two that caught our attention were heavily bandaged and limping, Adrian and I wondered if they had been in the bus accident we had seen on our first day way heading to the hotel. Rather than stare at them, we quietly left the Spanish mass after 30 minutes to continue on the walking tour. We didn't get more than a few steps when Adrian spotted a cafe.
"Coffee." he announced. It was a good call. The cafe was El Pacho and gave us a great views to take in the plaza. There was the post office with its unique post office box. A band playing in front of a museum. And beautiful balconies looking over the square. After getting caffeinated, we continued on the walking tour. I love the Lonely Planet walking tours - they're perfect if you don't have a lot of time. They give you a taste of the city so you feel comfortable getting around on your own. Usually. This time, the many tiny streets and alleys got us a little turned around. And just when I was going to through my book, a woman began tugging at my arm. She pointed to my guidebook and when I didn't respond, she lead me towards a little old man sitting on a bench. Again she pointed to the guidebook and then at the little old man. Guidebook. Man. Guidebook. Man. Click. It was the man from the cover photo of LP Cuba there in the flesh- our first celebrity.
"Como se llama señor?" I asked in my limited Spanish, hoping his response would be just as simple.
"Reinaldo." So far so good.
"Encantado señor. Una photo por favor?"
"Si". They didn't cover celebrity spotting in my online spanish course so I didn't know how to ask for his autograph. But I did get a photo to mark my first ever celebrity meeting.
Next we dropped into the City Museum - another gorgeous colonial stone building with a beautiful inner courtyard complete with peacocks. The displays themselves were okay but many of the rooms seemed to be off limits. When a matron ushered us into one of the closed rooms, it dawned on me that the doors were closed to keep the air conditioning in. The matron talked a mile a minute in Spanish motioning to random flags and portraits hanging in her rooms and trying to give us the history of everything. She tried talking to Adrian but gave up when he started making shooting noises while near a cannon.
When we came out of the museum, it took a while for our eyes to adjust so we relaxed in the leafy park in the middle of the plaza. I took a group photo for a group of Spanish tourists while Adrian started talking to an old man who spoke amazing English. He was 90 and a musician who'd travelled all over the world playing music. He showed us yellowed newspaper articles that documented his travels. And told us about his recent cataract surgery which made him feel like he was 19 again. It started to lightly rain so we said our goodbyes and continued on the walking tour.
We passed a small group of revellers dressed up and walking on stilts just as the skies really opened. So we ducked into a swanky hotel - that's the great thing about being an obvious tourist, no one kicks you out of hotel even when it's way out of your price range. We hung out under pictures of Fidel and waited out the rain then continued the tour. We soon found ourselves in line at el Museo del Chocolat. It's not really a museum but rather a little cafe that serves nothing but chocolate.
The line-up was mostly Cubans except for us, until a group of european girls walked up. They went right to the front of the line and tried to get in without waiting. Thankfully, the person at the door was having none of it and motioned for those in line to come in before them. We sat at a table in the corner and were handed a menu. It was exactly three item long; There was hot chocolate, hot chocolate mayan style and cold chocolate all only 50 centavos each. Adrian and I each enjoyed a hot chocolate - they were pure melted chocolate. Delicious.
Fuelled by the sugar, we walked on to Plaza Viejo. It was a larger plaza that until recently was home to a giant parking lot. Thankfully, the plaza was being rejuvenated with every other building under construction hoarding. Actually most of old Havana seemed to be under hoarding. The construction was funded by tourist dollars, half of which goes into renovation, a quarter to social programs, and the final quarter to new build. To get a look at all the work, we went up the elevator of the camera obscura. The 360 views of Havana were nice but when we looked down we spotted something even nicer - a lively bar. We made a beeline for the bar, thirsty for one of the huge beer bongs that people were drinking. However, they held two pitchers of beer and we still had a lot of walking upright to do so we settled for a glass each.
The bar was the end of the walking tour so we went off in a new direction and saw a different side of old havana. Here the buildings were mostly untouched and crumbling. I saw an open door and poked my head in to see what the inside looked like. There was no light but I could see a huge sweeping staircase half covered in vines and crumbling plaster. Supposedly 75% of the living conditions in Havana were like this. Yet it didn't feel as poor as other places we had travelled just very rundown. In the midst of the rough and ready section of the city we stumbled across a beautiful art nouveau hotel. As we stood there gawking at it, a member of the staff waved us inside and showed us around. The lobby was beautiful but empty with a stained glass ceiling three floors up. The man lead us to the elevator and we went up to the top floor and got the same view as we had in the camera obscura - but without the 2 peso charge. Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the hotel. We turned down random streets, walking by men working on old cars and kids playing pickup baseball. It felt like a completely different city.
I feared we were getting lost but soon the shops selling cigars, miniature old cars and mass produced paintings were getting thick again and I knew we were back on the tourist track. Finally, we found our way to the Malecon. We had 20 minutes before the bus arrived so we started walking around the inner harbour across from the fort and lighthouse. However, the Malecon is quite long and we didn't get out of the harbour before we had to turn back.
We hopped on the bus and were back at the Concrete Monstrosity™ in time for dinner. We loaded up with an armful of free drinks but enjoyed them in our room instead anxious to get out of the lobby's soulless atmosphere.