CUBA: part 1 of 2 |

CUBA: part 1 of 2

The Union StaffLa Bodeguita del Medio in la Habana Vieja - Old Havana - was one of author Ernest Hemingway's regular watering holes.
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Part 1 of 2

So near – and yet so far away! That’s Cuba.

While it is actually less than 100 miles from the Florida Keys, the country is basically only accessible to American citizens by way of Mexico or Canada. Exceptions are made for diplomats, journalists and some Cuban-American citizens, or under special license for members of educational groups, in which case the trip can start in Miami.

Our trip was only nine days long during July, admittedly one of the hottest times to visit Cuba. It was also the high season, when Cubans go on vacation, and thus it was expensive.

Havana (or Habana in Spanish) consists of four distinct districts:

— Centro Habana: The commercial center, densely populated and crowded – and for the most part quite run-down.

— La Habana Vieja (Old Havana): Preferred by many tourists due to its central location and where we stayed. It is quite compact and easier to get around in, besides being more geared to tourists. The area buzzes with street life and there are many museums, parks, restaurants and bars.

— Vedado and Miramar: These two districts lie more to the west. They have become Havana’s showpiece neighborhoods, with wide boulevards and newer and more expensive houses and hotels. They are home to most embassies. Folks here must have their own transportation or rely on taxis.

I was pleasantly surprised by the hotel in which we spent the first few nights. It had only 10 rooms (originally, it was a private mansion in the 1930s) but had all the amenities of a first-class hotel, including CNN in English, a roof terrace, a restaurant and an English-speaking staff.

And of course, it was air-conditioned. You should know that it is just about imperative to stay in places that have air conditioning, due to the heat and high humidity throughout the country.

I first took a city tour on a tourist bus to get an overall picture of this city of over 2 million people, which has its roots in the 16th century. I explored La Habana Vieja with its nicely laid-out parks, churches, theaters and museums.

I also took the opportunity to see a ballet. The cost was a modest $10 for all seats. The performance was impressive, as was the theater – fashioned after European opera houses and probably built around the 1930s.

All of the public buildings here were very well maintained and I was pleasantly surprised by their magnificent appearance. I am thinking of the Museo Nacional de Belles Artes in particular, as well as the museum featuring Cuban art from the Colonial Era to the present.

Ernest Hemingway’s name is still revered in Cuba (right after that of Jose Marti, known as the “Apostle of the Nation”) and so I had to visit the two watering holes where Hemingway used to hang out drinking daiquiris and mojitos, both rum-based drinks.

One bar is called La Bodeguita del Medio and the other is El Floridita. The streets in Habana Vieja are narrow and the best way to get around here is by bicycle taxi or cocotaxi (a three-wheeler, so called because it has an egg-like look).

Of course, it is possible to walk. This is usually done quite slowly due to the extreme heat during the day. At night it is a little spooky, although I am told that crime, including petty theft, is fairly rare. I also noted the absence of beggars and homeless people.

But there are minor annoyances, such as peddlers who want to sell you necklaces, baskets and souvenirs while touts (“jineteros”) offer you Cuban cigars, the services of a prostitute, or steer you to rent rooms in private homes (“casas particulares”).

There is also noticeable poverty in Havana. (I am told the same holds true for Santiago de Cuba, the nation’s second-biggest city, at the other end of the island.) Many buildings suffer from years of neglect or deferred maintenance.

That applies to cars as well. You see no American cars made after the early1960s due to the embargo the U.S. imposed on Cuba. It’s no easy task to keep 40-plus-year-old cars running, but somehow they manage to do it. There are newer cars on the road, but they are Russian , French or Japanese for the most part – and they are small. Gasoline is very expensive.

Cuba feels like a Third World country, and the standard of living is very low for most folks. The monthly wage for the average worker is between $15 and $20 U.S., while doctors may receive $25 monthly plus a car. However, Cubans receive free medical care, a good basic education and substantial housing and food subsidies. At the time of our trip, $1 equaled 26 pesos.

Tourism is fast becoming one of the mainstays of the economy. Travelers come from all over the world, particularly Spain, Italy, Canada, Great Britain and Scandinavia. Ironically, everything that tourists buy in Cuba must be paid for in dollars. No English pounds, no French francs, no German marks. None of them are accepted, nor is it possible for foreigners to pay in pesos.

After three full days in Havana, it was time to see more of the country. I chose not to go to any beaches. They basically feature a bunch of new high-rise hotels, water sports and very fine beaches, some of the best close by and east of Havana. However, the scene would look the same anywhere in the Caribbean, in Hawaii, or other tropical island. I didn’t come here for a suntan!

Our next destination was the tiny and ancient city of Trinidad, which has been designated as a U.N. World Heritage site.

Walt Fraser lives in Grass Valley.

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