My Continuing Havana Story

I last left you sitting with me in Café Europa.  If it seems we’ve been there a long time, trust me, we were – or at least I was.  This is not a “fast food” establishment – the waiters will get to you when they get to you.  The food is plentiful, drinks are good and the entertainment cannot be beat. However, every pleasant afternoon needs a little more variety.  So, after saying my good-byes to the band, the dancers and paying my extremely reasonable bill, I headed back to the streets, wandering along – and in and out of various marketplaces. Interesting things I encountered…

An old drug store

Johnson Drugstore

A marvelous statue of Sancho

Sancho statue

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A woman wearing white and blue grabbed my hand and kissed me on the check. She was dressed in a similar fashion people who practice Santeria and I felt blessed by the ocean.

The Floridata Bar – home of the daiquiri

Floridita Bar

Of course, I saw classic cars!

Classic cars in Havana

Monuments and beautiful buildings

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Ending the day with a glorious sunset – and a mojito (of course).

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Hitting the streets of Havana

Continuing my saga of my latest adventure in Cuba, I did not get to my hotel until after 2 am – yet I did not want to miss a minute, so I was up before 9 and headed to the breakfast buffet. The best I can say is that the fruit juices and coffee were great, but the eggs were cold and bacon (and how can you ruin bacon) was more grease than bacon. Maybe I was just too excited to get out and see what awaited me.

Of course, I missed the free shuttle bus to the old city section of Havana but there is a hop-on, hop-off bus that costs $5.00 CUC and stops in front of the hotel – in fact, it stops in front of most of the big hotels in Havana, and many smaller ones. It is a good way to get you’re bearings for the city and see things from a different perspective.

I wasn’t quite sure where the stop was but I saw some people who looked like me, aka obviously lost tourists standing at a corner, so I joined them. Eventually a bus appeared and we were one our way. In addition to the hotel stops, we saw Revolution Square with the iconic Che and Fidel art on the sides of government buildings and, of course, the tallest monument in Havana dedicated to Jose Marti.

Che

Fidel

Jose Marti

We drove down the Malecon and finally into Old Havana.

Malecon


Havana Fortress

By this time, I needed to get out and walk, so I got off near the cruise terminal. In port was the Fred. Olsen Braemar. Why would that be important? My trip in October will be on this ship!  So, it was fun to see it before my future cruise.

Braemar

Across from the cruise terminal, and in front of the San Francisco church, is a presentation call Unity Bears.

Unity Bears

Each bear represents a different country from around the world. Of course, everyone was looking for their own country and Canada should not be hard to find, right?  Just look for red and white, maple leaves, moose, beaver, hockey sticks … we have a lot of iconic symbols that typically represent Canada.  So, please, anyone, explain this to me – the Canadian Unity Bear! (NOTE: several of us Canadians stared at the bear together and tried to make sense of it. None of us could come up with an explanation).

Canada Unity Bear
The Canadian Unity Bear — please explain it to me!

Bears aside, I started doing what I do best – wandering around the streets of a beautiful city and getting lost!

Streets in Havana

At one point, in my wanderings, I decided to actually check a map (I know, surprise!) and discovered that I was only a couple blocks away from Obispo Street which is a pedestrian street know for art galleries and some famous Hemingway bars.

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I stopped in one art gallery and really enjoyed the different materials used to create different works.  One that intrigued me the most were the painted toe shoes. The former dancer in me got excited – here is what I could do with old toe shoes, if I could paint! There were a number of brightly coloured paintings of the Orishas, the ancestor spirits worshipped in the local Santeria religion. One of them caught my eye, a bright-eyed woman in yellows with cigars. I thought it would be a great gift for a friend of mine. Then, I saw some prints of photographs. The one I like best was call Los Tres Revolutionaries. The background was a old wall with graffiti drawings of John Lennon and Bob Marley. Between the drawings was an old car with the iconic drawing of Che on the door. That one is going in my living room!

I wandered down the street a bit more and came to Café Europa – looked at the menu and thought this would be a good place to stop for lunch.  What a treat was in store for me! I got a table right next to an open window and the band that was setting up. For the next couple of hours, I drank mojitos, ate Cuban food, listened to great music and saw some amazing dancing.  At one point, there was even a Samba band that danced their way down the street outside! Here is a small “taste” of my afternoon.

Cafe Europa

Malanga fritters!
Malanga fritters!
Samba Dancers on Obispo
Samba Dancers on Obispo

Arriving in Cuba

Probably the least interesting part of travelling is the getting form one place to another — especially if travelling by air.  However, this is also how many of my trips begin.  So, on a very cold and snowy day in Toronto, I headed for the sun and warmth of Cuba. Ok, the snow didn’t start until AFTER I got to the airport, but it was still cold! Check-in at Air Transat was easy and all I had was carry-on.  Even though I really planned out my packing based on the “rules” stated on the Air Transat site, I was told that I needed to back my small shoulder purse into either my roll-on (which I weighed carefully but they never checked), or my smaller bag with my camera equipment.  So, I re-arranged everything. then I went through security and won the prize!  They choose me to be “thoroughly checked” so they had to open all my bags, etc. This then meant Re-pack Number 2 wherein I misplaced the lock on my roll-on suitcase. Now, nothing was exactly where I wanted it, so I found my gate and found a spot for Re-pack Number 3.

Having to use my cane was also a bit stressful and my knee was really starting to hurt. But I found a nice place to site close to the gate — and then they moved the gate!  Yeah!

So there has to be some good news, right? Well, there was. There was an extra seat in Comfort Class — which I was able to snag, thus giving me priority loading and a nice cushy seat, free food and wine, etc. Now things were looking up.  We loaded the plane right on time and I was handed a glass of champagne — this is the way to fly!

By now, however the weather turned uglier — the temperatures were dropping, making it harder to load all the luggage — and it was snowing.  We sat at the gate for an additional hour, then had to go to the de-icing zone. So 90 minutes later, we were in the air.  This also meant, however, that we would land after 11 pm and I would still have up to a 2 hour bus ride to Havana.

I have heard all the bad stories of going through the immigration and custom steps in Cuba, so I was prepared for the long lines as each person had to go through the immigration check one at a time.  It reminded me a bit of going into  St. Petersburg, Russia. with the only difference being that the Cuban immigration agents would actually smile and talk to you — and they take your picture.

Once through the locked doors, there is another line — this time for scanning all passengers and carry-on luggage.  It was a little shorter because you are filter through the immigration doors.  Once through this, there is the place for checked luggage — which I could breeze by on my way to hand in my customs form. I was now, finally, in Varadera, Cuba!

Next challenge, finding my bus to Havana, was really pretty easy — but a bit overwhelming with so many people and buses and I have no clue how they kept everything straight.  But I was directed to a bus, and soon there were a few other people with me and we were off to Havana.

My first sight, as we entered Havana was this statue as we made our way to my hotel (of course I first saw it in the middle of the night).

Statue of General in Havana

 

The last stop the bus made was, of course, at my hotel — the Melia Habana. Reviews stated that the outside of the hotel wasn’t nice, but the interior was amazing.  I have to say the the entire place is amazing. Check-in was easy and you can exchange money at the hotel desk 24-hours a day.  So, with my room key and CUC money, I went on search for me room, and here was the surprise — the rooms are arranged in a partially open courtyard and the first thing I felt was the breeze coming off the sea. Here are more pictures of the hotel.

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Planning for Cuba

Cat on the beach in RioAnyone who knows me, also knows that I plan my travel and have extensive documents filled with suggestions, maps, metro tips, plus just all the basics like how am I getting there.  I even have an extensive packing list that includes how and where items will be packed. I like to say that the research part of my travel planning is because I am a librarian and I’m all about the research.  The packing list that is colour-coded and even maps out the various outfits I can have with the clothes selected … I think that started because I was trying to cut down my packing from needing sherpas to cross the airport to being more efficient and using carry-on as much as possible. It may also be my weird Aquarius need for strange organizational schemes. All of the documents I create as part of my planning, including any e-Tickets and travel vouchers, are organized into a pdf file that I can access via my computer, Kobo, smartphone or now my tablet. One place for all the documentation I need!

So, when I started planning for my trip to Cuba, I started the same way — researching, organizing and figuring out what to pack (like do I really need 3 cameras because each one does something different???). And, like all places, Cuba has some unique things to know before you go. Being Canadian, I can travel solo with no restrictions, however here are some of the things unique to planning for my next adventure to Cuba!

Entering Cuba
The Cuba Customs web page is a good place to find out what to expect when you enter Cuba for the first time. Some of the things include

  • Passport, of course, along with proof of health insurance
  • Information on the Tourist Visa. All tourists to Cuba need to have this.  It is usually provided by the airline, however if it is not provided, it costs $27 CUC and you can get it when you arrive (leaving costs $25 CUC — so I need to remember to tuck this aside!).
  • Foreign money exchange — there are two types of money used in Cuba. Visitors need to exchange money to CUC. It is easier to exchange cash — Canadian or Euros preferred, although there will be changes as travel from the US increases.
  • There are few ATMs and currently none accept credit cards issued from US banks, although this is quickly changing.
  • Lists and description of what is considered “personal items” that may be brought into Cuba. for example, I’m opting to not take my smartphone, but I am taking my computer, as there is WiFi in my hotel and I want to be able to store and share photos.

A bit on Health  and Health Insurance
This is the first time I’ve been required to show proof of health insurance when I traveled. I have travel health insurance from my credit card, so I called the credit card insurance provider and requested a letter of proof that I had the coverage required.  I also travel with a booklet from the insurance agency that describes the coverage and includes emergency phone numbers.

A visit to a travel health doctor is a good thing. They can advise you on any health concerns when travelling.  In this case, it was recommended that I do a two-dose of Dukorol. In Ontario, you can get this from your pharmacist and it is easy to take — but I think it really activated my allergies after the first dose. I’m better now!

Register with the Canadian government
This is a habit I’ve done for most of my traveling aboard. There is a web site allows you to register your trip and will send you advisories, if needed.  You can also register an emergency contact. While I have never needed this when I traveled, I think it is nice to be prepared.

Packing
So, what am I taking?

  • 2 dresses (one will also work as a beach over-up)
  • 2 skirts (may cut this down to one)
  • 3 pants / shorts
  • 6 tops
  • 2 swimsuits
  • 2 sandals
  • 1 walking shoes
  • hat (folds-up)
  • Scarf / sarong
  • 2 cameras (one that I don’t mind handing to someone to take a picture of me)
  • tablet (which also functions as an e-book, photo storage, and entertainment on the plane)
  • suntan lotion (travel size acquired!)

And, if my planning works, it should all go easily in a carry-on!

Where am I going?

  • Havana for my first two days
  • Cuba Cruise on the Louis Cristal
  • Hologuin
  • Santiago de Cuba
  • Montego Bay, Jamaica
  • Cienfuegos & Trinidad, Cuba
  • Punta Francis on the Isle of Youth

Can you tell I’m really excited!