Market in Havana Cuba

Cuba’s Special Period and the “un” Triumph of the Revolution

“Try to enjoy my country but not to understand it”. – Abel, our Cuban guide 

There are many oddities about Cuba since el Triunfo de la Revolución, the triumph of the 1959 Cuban revolution as Cubans like to call it. However, perhaps the most peculiar is the sheer lack of necessities and goods, and the ability of the average Cuban to afford them. Nothing can prepare a foreigner for the stark reality and contrast of the tourist life compared with Cuban life while visiting Cuba. It was during my first morning in Cuba that I experienced a shockingly wide realization that el Triunfo de la Revolución was quite frankly all a farce. 

I rose early as always to grab a leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room. I normally am not a big eater for breakfast however I do like my coffee in the morning and our breakfast was included with the price of the room. I had heard that Cuba was not a gastronomical place and to expect the bare minimum during our week’s stay on the island. Not expecting much, I entered the hotel dining area and looked around with utter surprise. There was tray after tray of food. Anything and everything your heart could ever desire. Pancakes, french toast, eggs, meats, cheese, yogurt, smoothies, fruits, smoked salmon, pastries and even a omelette bar. I was stunned by the sheer quantity of food, much of it left uneaten on promptly cleared plates off table-clothed tables. Being in Cuba, our beautiful four-star hotel had a four-star quality spread to make anyone feel just the least bit guilty.

The irony of Cuba. View from our luxurious pool of Cuban housing.

The irony of Cuba. View from our luxurious pool of Cuban housing.

It wasn’t until I left the beautiful hotel Melia Cohiba in Vedado, a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood of Havana, and walked across the street into the grocery store that I realized something was not right. The floors were stripped of tiles and showing dirt, the lights were dim, the walls were grungy and most of all, almost all the shelves were less than half-way stocked with goods. In fact, there were columns and rows of shelves that were simply bare with absolutely nothing.

An enormous guilt crept through me, thinking about what a sharp contrast the grocery store was compared to the layers and layers of food just across the street in our hotel. I grabbed a large bottle of water for my hotel room, paying the 6 CUCs, realizing that the cost of the water was a week’s worth of salary for the average Cuban. My heart sank. This is Cuba.   

Havana Cuba cars

The Old Vintage Cars of Havana

The first thing everyone notices immediately when they land in Havana are the vintage, pre-revolutionary American cars. 1950s Chevys, Fords and Oldsmobiles are everywhere. In fact, there is an estimated 60,000 vintage cars in Cuba. But seeing them everywhere in Havana felt like stepping into a scene of “Midnight in Paris”. It was surreal. It was like stepping back in time.

Havana Cuba cars

In its heyday before the Cuban revolution, Cuba was a huge importer of American cars. All this came to an end when the US embargo struck Cuba allowing nothing from American soil to be imported into the island, including spare parts to fix and maintain the cars.

Desperate to find parts to maintain their beloved vehicles, Cubans began refurbishing parts from the former Soviet Union and also used their creativity to care for their beloved cars, often sacred in the family. Some Cubans have made their own replacement parts or have even used common household items to keep their vintage cars running. 

Havana Cuba cars

The Malecón Havana Cuba

Along the Malecón: Facing the Sea

Construction of Havana’s iconic Malecón began in 1901. This famous five-mile long promenade and sea wall was built primarily to protect Havana from the crashing waves and weathering from the sea. The Malecón is one of the most popular places to be in Havana and it is a wonderful place to take a walk or run, catch the sunset or hang out with friends and family. Sadly, like most of Cuba the Malecón is showing her age. The sea walls are rapidly deteriorating and decaying with big chunks falling into the water and other parts turning a brownish-green. Yet the promenade itself remains in good condition. On hot summer nights the Malecón becomes a lively “living room” for Cubans as they all head outside to escape the heat and their tight living arrangements. Live music is played, couples walk arm and arm and teenagers swarm in groups. Meanwhile, retro 1950s American cars cruise along the Malecón enjoying the refreshing ocean breeze. It is the place to see and be seen as the sea crashes against the shore.

Here are some pictures of the seaside of the Malecón.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro overlooks Havana Bay.

The Malecón Havana

A Testament of the Cuban Revolution: Along the Malecón

The most well-known spot in Havana is the famous Malecón, a five-mile long esplanade, street and seawall which stretches along the coast in Havana connecting the mouth of the Havana Harbor in Habana Vieja, passing through Centro Habana and ending in the more upscale Vedado neighborhood. Known by locals as the “big sofa” or the “living roomthe Malecón is a testament of el Triunfo de la Revolución (the triumph of the revolution as Cubans say) and is awash with the sheer irony of the Cuban revolution.

The Malecón Havana

The start of the Malecón in Old Havana

Built at the start of the 20th century, the main purpose of the Malecón was to protect Havana from the ocean waters pounding against her shore. As the Malecón was developed, glorious 19th and 20th century structures were built and lined the Avenida de Maceo (the street along the Malecón). Over time as the effects of el triunfo de la revolución slammed into Cuba, the Malecón became run-down, weathered and in a huge state of deterioration and decay. It is a tragedy to see how these buildings, which Cubans still live in, look today.

Yet the Malecón continues to be the most popular promenade in all Havana where teenagers, lovers, families and friends spend their evenings hanging out along one of the world’s most dilapidated “back porch”.  A sunset ride along the Malecón inside a 1950s convertible is the way to see it all in style! Sadly, it rained the one night we had our cars booked so I had to do it the old-fashioned way: Cheap taxi and walk.

Take a ride with me along the Malecón, Havana’s biggest living room and see how the days of the Cuban revolution have weathered this once spectacular place. Check out the old cars along the way too which are seen throughout Cuba.

The Malecón Havana

Old Havana

Rum Tasting in Havana

One of Cuba’s most famous products is her delicious rum. In a country that became wealthy from its sugar, it is no wonder that rum is as notorious to Cuba as is cigars. By the 1850s Cuba was the number one sugar cane producer in the world and around this time Cubans discovered that the thick molasses, a by-product from sugar, could be used to make rum. Like Cuba, the history of rum has a long tumultuous past and no family was more important during the pre and post-revolutionary days than the infamous Bacardi clan.

In 1862 Facundo Bacardi Massó (1813 – 1886) an immigrant from Spain, founded one of Cuba’s largest, most successful family-owned businesses of all time: The Bacardi Rum Company. Don Facundo and his Bacardi rum would become the most well-known rum in all of Cuba, and was maintained by four succeeding Bacardi generations until the company was seized and nationalized by the Castro government on October 14, 1960.

Old HAvana

Walking around Old Havana, you are bound to run into many places that serve rum.

Hamel's Alley

Exploring Central Havana’s Hamel’s Alley

On afternoon I decided it was time to explore a different part of Havana that I had yet to see, Centro Habana or Central Havana. I’d see enough of beautiful Old Havana and thought it was time to see the real Havana that has been untouched. Central Havana is the most densely populated part of town and unlike Old Havana, nothing has been restored. I hailed a coco-taxi (a three-wheeled scooter) right from my hotel in Vedado and enjoyed a fun ride down the Malecón to my first destination in Central Havana, a special place called El Callejón de Hamel or in english, Hamel’s Alley. I was in for quite a wonderful surprise!

Taking a Coco Taxi in Havana

Taking a Coco-taxi in Havana. (A three-wheeled scooter with a cover and room for two in back).

Centro Habana Cuba

Heading into Centro Habana (Central Havana), a more densely populated and rundown part of town with ramshackle buildings and potholed streets.

Centro Habana Cuba

I paid my fare which was much cheaper than a traditional taxi and wondered why I hadn’t tried a coco taxi earlier. It certainly was a fun way to see Havana! The neighborhood was dramatically different from the other parts of Havana I’d seen. Much more rustic, rundown with buildings in various states of disrepair. Yet it also felt more Cuban. More like the real thing.

Patients at the Casa de los Abuelos

Cuba’s Health Care System

Being on a people to people tour in Cuba meant that every day of our week on the island was filled with cultural interactions. We met with Cubans in the arts, explored historical sites and museums, and also learned about some of Cuba’s community projects and government initiatives. Coming from a Communist regime, of course a lot of what we were seeing and hearing was the good side of Castro’s policies. Although overall communism in Cuba clearly does not work, there are a few things that are working exceptionally well such as Cuba’s Universal Health Care System.

During my week in Cuba, I had the opportunity to meet with a Cuban doctor at one of Havana’s clinics, visit a center for elderly Cubans, and hear lectures on the Cuban health care system, giving me fascinating insight into a few of the progressive policies initiated after the Cuban revolution.

Casa de los Abuelos, Havana

The blue sign tells people that it is legal to rent rooms from a private house, a new profession that doctors and other highly educated people in Cuba are taking on in order to earn more money.

Cuba Global Health Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Women and Girls
Plaza Vieja Old Havana Cuba

Old Havana’s Plaza Vieja

Out of the five central plazas in Old Havana, one of my favorites for her beauty and elegance is Plaza Vieja or “Old Square”. Built in 1559 as a public square after the construction of the Plaza des Armas and Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, Plaza Vieja was originally called Plaza Nueva (New Square). Only six years earlier, Havana had been declared the capital of Cuba (being moved from Santiago) and the Spaniards were ready to use their newly found wealth to begin creating colonial Havana. 

Plaza Vieja Old Havana Cuba

Plaza Vieja Old Havana Cuba

Plaza Vieja Old Havana Cuba

Cuban worker

Saving Old Havana’s Beautiful Past

Back in the 1950s before the Cuban Revolution and Castro’s transformation to an authoritative Communist state, Cuba was at her glory. The 50s were filled with money, mafia and decadence as some of the world’s wealthiest Americans came to Havana’s playground to enjoy her nightlife, music, gambling, prostitution and rum. During this time period, Havana’s architecture was also at her best with magnificent colonial mansions, casinos and clubs for the wealthy few Cubans who amassed their riches over the years in the sugar and tobacco trade.

All of Cuba’s glory and decadence came to an end after the Cuban Revolution. The casinos and clubs were closed down for good, fully furnished beautiful mansions and villas  were left as the elite Cubans were forced into exile, and any kind of new building in Cuba pretty much stopped except for ugly, Soviet-looking apartment buildings and equally unattractive new tourist hotels.

Slowly over time, the beauty and grandeur of Cuba faded away as Havana’s historic buildings began to decay and deteriorate due to lack of maintenance, lack of funds, an aggressive climate and non-existent governmental programs to preserve Cuba’s architectural heritage.

It is often said that Cuba is so amazing because she is frozen in time- to before the Cuban Revolution over 50 years ago. Yet architecturally she is not in good condition and much of Cuba’s architectural treasure is threatened.

Building renovation in Old Havana Cuba

Walking down the street in Old Havana it is not uncommon to see streets like this one.

Building renovation in Old Havana Cuba

Buildings in Old Havana

A Brief Look at Old Havana’s Glorious Architecture

One of the great things about being on a cultural tour of Cuba was all the interesting stuff we learned about the arts, culture, history and people of this fascinating place. Our first morning in Havana started bright and early with a lecture by highly esteemed Cuban architect Isabel Rigol, PhD. Isabel came well prepared with a slide show and five hundred years of Cuban architectural history to enlighten our group over the next hour and a half presentation.

Much of Havana’s architecture is influenced by her four hundred years of Spanish colonial rule. Havana was settled by Spanish conquistadors in 1511 who basically wiped out the entire indigenous population and established seven villas or towns across the island. Havana was the most important place to build a grand city due to her strategic location overlooking the narrow channel entering into the Bay of Havana. An impressive fortress was built on each side of the channel offering protection from invading ships.

 Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro with the lighthouse.

Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro with the lighthouse. This castle was erected between 1589 and 1630 to protect the entrance to the harbor.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, religious constructions were very important as the Spaniards grew Catholicism. Impressive cathedrals were built throughout the city following the popular Baroque architecture of the times. Homes were built simply with steeped roofs made of clay shingles, however, the inside of these homes had incredible moorish ceilings made from precious timber and reflected Cuban’s Andalusian roots.

Plaza des Armas

Castro’s Cuba

So far most of my posts on Cuba have been beaming with positivity about how much I fell in love with this fascinating place. The welcoming warm people, the beautiful decaying buildings and old mansions, the sounds of salsa and son, the warm tropical breezes, the fragrant air, the mouth-quenching mojitos and the extraordinary history of this unique island, all have captivated my soul. As a world traveler, for me Cuba offered something different. A forbidden place with a tumultuous past that has been frozen in time.

Old Havana

Peeking into the courtyard of a glorious mansion in Old Havana.

Yet like all places, there is much more to the story and not everything about Cuba is rosy and clear. I briefly touched upon Cuba’s painful past and long fight for freedom in my post “A Look into Cuba’s Tumultous Pastbut I was not quite ready to tackle the controversial and complicated topic of Fidel Castro. Quite frankly, I wanted to complete other posts on all the wonderful things I saw in Cuba: The arts, architecture, music, culture and people.

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

A Look inside Catedral de San Cristóbal in Old Havana

Inside the center of Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana lies the achingly beautiful Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana which is perhaps the grandest church in Havana.  Built by Jesuits, this masterpiece of Italian Baroque architecture was completed in 1777 at a time when Cuba’s Catholics saw a growing need for new churches to build the religion.

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

The glorious Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana at sunrise.

I first saw the Catedral de San Cristóbal during our afternoon tour of Old Havana. The beautiful Baroque facade designed by Italian architect Francesco Borromini was what first captured my eyes.  The afternoon sun had a way of beautifully bouncing off each unique angle in a magical way.  Although the Plaza de la Catedral was quite crowded with tourists, the inside of the cathedral was peaceful and serene.

Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana