Hi everyone! Sorry for the delay on my Havana post. Its been on the back burner since I’m back into my workout routine, finalizing the itinerary for my trip next week, and randomly landed a per diem job at one of my favorite fitness studios in the city to save some money. *phew*
Anyways, lets talk about Havana! Kevin and I had a 5 night stay at a casa that is a walk away from the University of Havana in Vedado. So many things happened during our visit! First off, Kevin had GI issues the morning we were heading to Havana from Trinidad. There were a few times I was worried that he was going to hurl in the taxi, but thanks to Manuel (our driver that helped us find a casa in Trinidad) we did make a few pit stops along the way. A couple of days later, I too was experiencing mild GI issues. Luckily, we were well enough to explore the city, unlike some of the other tourist we met along the way that shared their stories of getting sick early on their Cuba trip. One thing we did learn is to bring probiotics. Near the end of the trip we met a nurse (also from the Seattle area) that gave Kevin a few to treat his stomach. By the time we departed Havana, he was back to his normal self.
One of our most memorable stories of our Cuba trip took place in Havana. We hung out at a local’s living room and purchased cigars at a great deal. Let me back up for you: On our second day, Kevin and I were hanging out at El Malecón doing some sight seeing and taking pictures. Out of nowhere, a local asked us if we were staying at Kuky’s casa (which we were) and we started talking about our hometowns and the Seattle Mariners. He then told us it was a special day in the city, where cigar factory workers were selling Cubans at a discounted rate and told us to come with him. Let me tell you, I would NEVER do this anywhere, even in Seattle! However, Cubans are very friendly and hospitable people so our guard was totally down at the moment. Before we knew it, we were watching fútbol in someone’s living room and chatting about cigars. After we left the house, we were like “wait a minute…did that just happen??” LOL!
When we got back to our casa later and shared this story with our casa mates. Turns out two of the ladies from Minnesota told us they had a similar experience as well. Our casa mom chuckled and assured us that we did the right thing by interacting with the locals, and that we got a really good deal on our Cohibas.
Of course, we dedicated time exploring Old Havana, which is unsurprisingly touristy. I mean, most tourist (including myself) lust to see the vivid-colored colonial buildings that many travel sites advertise. Walking around Old Havana, you’ll run into locals casually hanging along the side of the narrow brick road, tourist trying to savor the beauty of the neighborhood, food vendors selling roasted corn & churros (a must!) and home to some of the most talented street performers I’ve witnessed. If I haven’t already mentioned this in my Trinidad post, I find that Cubans are extremely talented in the arts.
What I find interesting about Cuba is that people are allowed to practice religion, since from what I understand, religion is against Communist views. While I didn’t get the opportunity to visit a Santeria house-temple, Kevin and I did visit the Catedral de San Cristolbal & Abdallah Mosque, which was recently built in 2015. While its no surprise that Christianity was a product of Spanish colonization via Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Cuba was introduced to Islam due to the Middle Eastern embassies and international students.
Another favorite moment during our Havana visit was stumbling upon the Havana International Book Fair in Old Havana. We had no idea the festival was going on all over the city until we arrived at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, which happens to be the main site of the book fair. Anyways, it was a fun and interesting event that featured books from almost all over the world with an emphasis of the guest country of the year (Canada). There so many books from a variety of subjects at the festival such as globalization, capitalism, diversity, fiction, and even sections for young adults and children.
While I enjoyed skimming through various books, I was in heaven with the street food options available. Kevin and I sampled as much food as we can: meat skewers, ham sandwiches, fried chicken with rice & beans, sugar cane juice, and lechon. One thing to note: all the vendors in this area only accepted the local currency (CUP), not the tourist currency (CUC). Luckily, our casa host in Trinidad gave us change in CUP so we were able to purchase food from these vendors. I think we spend less than $10 on all the food we sampled at the book fair too.
When people mention Havana, the most common neighborhoods visitors talk about are Old Havana, El Centro & Vedado. Thanks to our Lonely Planet guide, we made it a priority to visit Barrio Chino de La Habana, AKA Chinatown. According to the guide, Chinese men arrived to the island as contract workers in the late 1840s. The diminishing African slave trade was due to England’s abolition of slavery. While Havana has one of the largest Asian neighborhoods in Latin America, there are very few people of Chinese descent since many fled Cuba after the revolution in 1959.
Of course, Kevin and I had to try a restaurant in Barrio Chino and went with Tien Tan. While the food cannot compete with the Chinese food in Seattle or Vancouver, I thought they managed to make it work with what ingredients are available on the island. If anything, beef with oyster sauce is usually a safe dish to order. I personally don’t recommend ordering any noodle dishes since the chow mein we had used linguini noodles.
We also found a great dessert shop in Barrio Chino called Ton Lay. We assumed they carried Chinese desserts but instead found sweets such as cheesecakes, guava tarts (my favorite, key lime pie and cakes. I have to admit, before arriving to Cuba I was expecting to indulge in pastries and sweets similar to Porto’s, a Cuban-style bakery chain in the Los Angeles area. Let me tell you, we had a hard time finding such baked goods until we visited Ton Lay so it made our trip to Barrio Chino even more worth it.
One last thing I should mention before I end this post is that a visit to the US Embassy should be a must. Looking at the pic I shot, you’ll notice on the right, which has a bunch (148 to be exact) of flag poles. It looks odd, but there is a reason why so many were placed. The Embassy was posting up anti-communist propaganda in 2006 such as one of Abraham Lincoln’s quotes, “No man is good enough to govern another without his consent”. Of course, Fidel Castro was not happy with the messages so in response, he erected plenty of flag poles to obstruct the view of the US Embassy while Cubans protested the anti-communist messages. He then named the area Anti-Imperialist Plaza. Back then, the poles were adorn with black flags with a single white star, which has since been long gone with only a Cuban flag remaining among the flag poles. It seems so symbolic of the US-Cuban relations, huh?
This concludes the main highlights of my Havana trip. Sure, I can go on and on about every little thing I experienced in the city, but I figure that focusing on the main aspect of the trip would be more interesting…and I still have the last leg of my Cuba trip to cover!
Ciao, for now! 😉