Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Exploring Cuba – First impressions of Havana

Cuba Ready!
El Capitolio - La Habana
My wife and I did a quick 3 day trip to the largest island nation in the Caribbean, Cuba. Flights to the country from the US just started recently after former US President Barack Obama partly lifted sanctions on the country.

We flew to Charlotte, NC the night before and took a 8:50 am flight to Havana from Charlotte. The c
heck-in process for American Airlines was a little different, as once you get the boarding passes, you need to get a "Cuba Ready" stamp on the boarding pass before boarding the flight, which is done at a separate counter near the check-in area. The agent basically verifies that you have a valid "Tourist Card", and stamps a red "Cuba-Ready stamp" on the boarding pass, as shown in the pic above.

The Malecón
We landed into Havana at around 11:30 and reached our "casa particular", which we had booked thorough Airbnb, around noon. It should be noted that Cuba has a dual currency system, one for tourist called CUC (pronounced Kook) and pegged to the USD, and another one for local called "Moneda nacíonal" which is approximately 25 to 1 CUC. Tourist are technically allowed to use either currency but most restaurants will accept CUC and it will be easier to carry transactions in that currency.

We had brought Mexican pesos, Canadian dollars and some Euros to exchange, as USDs incur a 10% penalty in addition to the 3% conversion fee for exchange.
View from our Airbnb

View from Cámara Oscura building
Havana, or La Habana in Español, is the capital city, a major port, and the leading commercial center of Cuba. The city is divided into three parts Old Havana, Modern Havana and East Havana.

We explored the Old Havana on day one and Modern Havana on day two, with excursions booked via a local company called "Nosotros Cubaneamos".

On day 1, we walked and discovered historic places through Old Havana. Starting with the El Capitolio (modeled after the US Capitol in D.C.), moving on to Plaza Vieja passing by historic
From Castillo de la Real Fuerza
hotels such as Hotel Ingleterra on the way. Plaza Vieja is home to the Cámara Oscura. The Cámara Oscura provides a 360-degree panoramic view of much of Old Havana in real time. Its operation is based on the principles of light reflection through the use of two lenses and a mirror located on a periscope.
At the bosque del Habana
Our next stop was the Plaza de Armas, where we made a stop inside the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Originally built to defend against attack by pirates, it suffered from a poor strategic position, being too far inside the bay. This was followed lunch and then, a walk along the famous malecón where we talked to our guide about her experiences of living in a communist country.
Colon Cemetery, Havana 

 Day 2, we explored the modern part of Havana. Our drive picked us up in a classic blue American car and drove us first to Miramar and then the famous 5th avenue which hosts almost all of the foreign embassies in Havana. Our first stop was a visit to Casa Fuster, Cuba's answer to Gaudí. Renowned Cuban artist José Fuster uses his entire barrio of Jaimanitas on the outskirts of Havana as a canvas, decorating the walls, squares in ornate ceramics, mosaics and bold splashes of color.
Casa de Fuster
Mass at Iglesia del Miramar
This was followed by a quick stop at the Iglesia de Jesús de Miramar, which was hosting it's Sunday mass, and then onto Bosque de la Habana, a forest on the outskirts of the city. The river in this forest is unfortunately polluted by the chemical companies that release their waste in this river.
Our next stop was the Necropolis de Colón (Colon cemetery). Founded in 1876 in the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana on top of Espada Cemetery, it known for its many elaborately sculpted memorials.
Revolution Square

Colon Cemetery, Havana
Next stop, Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). The square is notable as being where many political rallies take place and Fidel Castro and other political figures address Cubans. Fidel Castro addressed more than a million Cubans on many important occasions, such as 1 May and 26 July each year. This has also been visited by a couple of Popes over the years. Opposite the memorial are the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications, whose facades feature matching steel memorials of the two most important deceased heroes of the Cuban Revolution: Che Guevara, with the quotation "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) and Camilo Cienfuegos with the quote "Vas bien, Fidel" (You're doing fine, Fidel, which is what he always said to Fidel when he was his right-hand man). It is also the site of national library.
Malecón as seen from Hotel Nacíonal

Cristo de la Habana
View from Cristo de la Habana
Our next stop was the Hotel Nacíonal, a historic luxury hotel located on the Malecón in the middle of Vedado, Havana, Cuba. It stands on Taganana hill a few metres from the sea, and offers a view of Havana Harbour, the seawall and the city.
 Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro
Watchtower at the fort
After that we made quick stop at Callejon de Hamel, where there is loud music and dance, before heading across town via the under-sea Havana tunnel for lunch and then to Cristo de la Habana. The statue, similar to the one in Río de Janeiro in Brazil, was carved out of white Carrara marble, the same material used for many of the monuments of the Colon Cemetery.
Our last but one stop was at the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Moro, and was the highlight of the day. Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Moro is a fortress guarding the entran
ce to Havana bay in Havana, Cuba. The design was drawn up by the Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli; originally under the control of Spain, the fortress was captured by the British in 1762, and was returned to the Spanish under treaty terms a year later.

Museo de la revolucíon
Our final stop of the day was the Revolution museum, and it was a bit of a disappointment for the price of 8 CUC ($8). The museum is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista. It became the Museum of the Revolution during the years following the Cuban revolution by Fidel Castro. The museum's Cuban history exhibits are largely devoted to the period of the revolutionary war of the 1950s and to the country's post-1959 history, and are based on Fidel's perspective.

Our AirBnb accomodation

University of Havana
This brought to end an amazing weekend in Havana.  Below are some tips on visiting Cuba,
1) Buy the tourist card before boarding if departing from the US to avoid lines/hassle at the airport.
2) Avoid USDs, or exchange USDs for some other hard currency like Euros at the US departure port, as it still be cheaper than the 10% penalty imposed. FYI, Cuba has a dual currency system.
3) Cuban food is bland, so don't expect excellent or flavorful food.
4) The US does not care, any longer, if you visit Cuba, but you need one of 12 reasons to visit and stick to the reason throughout the journey. This applies to US residents only, so if you're flying from Canada, they will not ask for this.
5) Internet is a little tricky in Cuba.
6) Hotels in Havana are booked up to 6 months in advance and are operated by the government. Hence, Casa Particular or Airbnb is probably the best way to experience the local life, save money and support the Cuban people.

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