Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Our Man (and Woman) in Havana*

I have always wanted to return to the island paradise of Cuba after vacationing there in 2004 and having a spectacular time. My memories of the people, the beach, the sun and the sand made such an impression on me that I’ve longed to see this beautiful country again. Jason and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Cuba on February 2, 2008 for a blissful week in the sun.

For this vacation we chose to stay in an all-inclusive resort called Blau Arenal, east of Havana on the ‘Playas del Este’ beaches. This location offered us the best of both worlds; unlimited food, drinks and beach time while at the resort, and the opportunity to absorb the culture and take in the amazing city of Havana. (Note - if you click on any of the photos a larger version will open.)

After a rocky start to our vacation (our flight was 10 hours delayed….) we landed on the Caribbean's largest island at around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning as the sun was coming up. We boarded a bus bound for our resort and took in some of the country side on the 1.5 hour ride. We arrived at the hotel tired and weary, but we were past being able to sleep, so we checked in, had some breakfast and hit the beach!

The sight of the ocean as we came over the sand dune from the hotel was breathtaking. Sparkling blue-green, crystal-clear water as far as the eye could see. Aaahhh.... paradise! We spent the week languishing in the sun and enjoying every minute of our stay. We swam and read and relaxed; the perfect way to spend a day (or two, or three or four….). We thoroughly enjoyed the beach, and then the cervezas, Ron Collins, and Mojitos while lazing at the patio bar in the late afternoons.

The resort offered free bus rides to and from Havana twice a day and we took advantage of this service on Tuesday and Thursday. Havana is truly an amazing city rich with character and history. We spent the first of our two days in the city walking, wandering, learning, observing and finding our way around. We strolled through a couple of Plazas (Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza des Armes) and up Obispo Street. This street is not open to traffic, and there are restaurants, shops, crafts, and cafes lining the sidewalk. We followed it to the end passing by El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway's favourite haunts and came to Parque Central. The park is a popular gathering place and we witnessed a group of men seemingly arguing with each other, which is, apparently, a daily occurrence. We later learned that they 'argue' about baseball! We made our way to the Capitolio and sat on the steps to ponder our next walk. We decided to head down the Prado which is a very large, wide sidewalk that runs down the middle of a busy street. The Prado has benches dotting the perimeter and is tree lined providing shade and making a walk through the city very pleasant. We followed the Prado to the sea and the Malecon – a wall that runs all along the water and harbour of Havana. I took some photos looking over towards the newer section of Havana. It was quite a contradiction to stand there and see buildings dating back to the 1500’s to my left and tall office buildings and modern hotels to my right. Old Havana seems to be frozen in time in some ways with cars dating back to the 50's everywhere and horse and buggies on every corner.

We ended up having lunch at a small, off-the-beaten-track restaurant. When we asked for a menu they told us they had “chicken, rice and salad”. So, we ordered chicken, rice and salad! And, of course, a couple of cold Cristals (beer). Despite being the only patrons having lunch, there were about 7 people working and it took quite some time to get our food. While we waited we chatted with one of the waitresses, Victoria. She asked us for soap, perfume, toothpaste, etc. but we had to explain that we didn’t have anything with us and had given it to the hotel staff. She told us that those that worked in resorts/hotels were much better off than those that worked in the city as tourists always bring gifts for the staff in the hotels. Next time we go to Cuba, we will bring a bag of soap and toiletries with us into the city.

We strolled back through the city after lunch and rested on a Terrazza (patio) at a restaurant called La Mina right by the Plaza des Armes. A Cuban band played while we sipped mojitos and other cocktails. What a way to spend an afternoon!

Our second trip in to Havana was on Thursday and we had a couple of specific things we wanted to see and do. We had been told that there was a large market on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays near where the bus dropped us off. We also wanted to visit Taberna de la Muralla – its appeal was that we read we could have a beer tap right at our table! We headed to Plaza Vieja (Old Square) which was my favourite place in Havana, to find this Taberna. The square looked like something you’d see in Europe (or so I’ve heard since I haven’t been to Europe). It was a cobblestone square surrounded by old buildings with patios to sit on, a fountain in the middle, music playing, locals wandering through, and school kids in uniforms playing. We ordered the beer we had read all about and some appetizers (we had no idea what we were ordering, the menu was in Spanish, but we chose well!). The sight of this huge beer ‘tube’ with a tap was a bit daunting but I had no doubt that we could polish it off… and we did! It was great fun to sit there and observe the scenes, listen to the music and consume 3 litres of beer that was brewed right on premises.

Before we got back on the bus, we had about an hour to wander through the huge market. There were vendors selling crafts and clothing and a very large selection of paintings and photographs. We bought some of each and headed back to the resort.

There weren’t a lot of English-speaking people at our resort, so when we found one we tended to say hello, where are you from, etc. We were very lucky to befriend a wonderful man named John who was seated next to us at the patio one day. John has been traveling to Cuba and the Havana area for 22 years and imparted a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to us about the country, the city and the resort. He offered to take us into the town of Guanabo one evening to really experience the local culture. Jason and I had walked 45 minutes down the beach one morning to this town to see what it was all about, but we were very anxious to take in the night life and go with someone who knew the town and the people. On Friday night we met up with John and started the walk down the beach road heading to Guanabo. Soon after we started out we met up with John’s Cuban friend, Damien, a massage therapist who said he would join us in the town a bit later. John brought us to a small, open air patio bar on the main street of Guanabo called La Cocinita. This seemed to be a favourite bar of locals and we each had a couple of yummy Mojitos. Damien joined us shortly after and then we left the bar to have dinner on the patio of an Italian restaurant. We had delicious fire-brick oven pizza and of course, cold cervezas. Having Damien with us was really great. His English was broken, but we managed to communicate. Listening to him and conversing about politics, the country and his life in Cuba was very eye opening. Following some discussions about the United States, socialism and capitalism, Damien told us that Jason was going to be ‘the next President of Canada!’ After dinner we headed back to La Cocinita for more Mojitos. The scene was something to behold; loud music, people singing at the bar, and some real characters approaching our table and dancing around. We were very grateful to John for taking us to Guanabo and for the wonderful evening out experiencing the ‘real’ Cuba.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and we departed from the hotel on Saturday evening to head to the Varadero airport. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the island; I was anxious to go home to Brayden and my own bed and kitchen, but we had such a great, relaxing time I could have stayed for another week.

*Our Man In Havana (1958) is a novel by British author Graham Greene htttp://