Before the late 1950’s Cuba and America were actually on pretty good terms and business was booming. So much so that most of the cars driven in Cuba at that time were American and would be considered classics today. When relations took a turn for a worse however and trade for Cuba was completely cut off (in writing with the U.S. but in reality with most countries except the similarly communist Soviet Union) car importation came to a screeching halt. Because of this the majority of cars you see on the roads are, from a distance, beautiful American classics. Up close however is another story.

While we love hanging out at the marina near the ocean, strolling to Jaimanitas for $1 lunches and chilling with Fuster’s Roosters but we were itching to get ourselves to Havana. Since the boat can’t stay in Havana Harbor without paying the same rate as large commercial vessels we had to park the boat roughly 15 miles away in Marina Hemingway, too far to walk both directions. You can almost smell Havana in the air, it was so close yet so far away.

Being “budget cruisers” we had to carefully execute our taxi plan for Havana. With round trips ranging from $4 to $40 you can see our need to be picky. Neither Tate nor I need the nicest of accommodations and in fact I would have gladly rode in the back of a truck hauling grain if it would’ve saved some money. We’ve heard that as soon as you leave the Marina gates you can get a taxi to a place halfway to Havana called “Playa” for $1 ($.50/each) and from there you can pay another dollar to get all the way into Havana. There are also bus options for pretty cheap but they are confusing and can take way over an hour. Or if you prefer you can take a very nice newer car for $20 one-way.

With our hopes high and our pockets full of small bills we proceeded to walk the half mile to the marina walls and in the process were stopped by a 1950’s white mob looking taxi trying to make a deal. It started at $20 then was dropped to $12 which was still too pricey for us. He spoke absolutely no English and we spoke such bad Spanish that he thought we wanted to go to the beach (Playa). We politely said No Entiendo enough times and he drove away, but not very far. Just before the marina exit he waited for us and said he would take us to “El Capitolio” for $8 one-way. Thinking that this was a great deal even in America and not confident in our Spanish to ever make it to this mythical “Playa” we took this deal.

The interior was bright red and light blue with splitting vinyl seats, and rusted floorboards. The headliner was missing and diesel fumes filled the interior, but we were happy. We rode with our heads out the window and got to Havana for $8 in around 20 minutes.

Diesel fumes? But those old American cars were gas weren’t they? Yes, they WERE. Overtime time after the original gas engines died the Russians supplied the Cubans with a variety of diesel motors, tractors and other farm equipment. Because of this most of these American cars now all have diesel engines in various states of disarray and THE FUMES ARE INTENSE. Not just inside the cars but out on the street, inside houses…pretty much everywhere. I’m no environmentalist or expert but the emissions floating around in the air of Cuban cities is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. There’s nothing like it in America. But that’s ok, we aren’t in America we’re in Cuba and riding in the back of a sweet white and red mob car that was surely a beaut back in its day.

The road to Havana had some pretty interesting sights with old churches and ocean waves crashing right up onto the street.

Statue’s pop up all over the place, can someone identify who this is?

Real Life Barbie cars.

The Hotel Nacional built on top of where a fort used to be. We’ve been told there are tunnels under this hotel in that big rock foundation.

And then a portion of a fort still intact used long ago (1500’s to 1800’s as a lookout and to protect the entrance to Havana from large sailing ships such as pirates or enemies.

Finally after a quick stop to fill up a quickly deflating tire we were dropped off near El Capitolio and set off to explore this wild new place, albeit breathing shallowly from time to time. Havana has an interesting mix of architecture ranging from buildings that looking strangely similar to our own…

To just absolutely grande old Spanish designs full of details and scale that take your breath away.

This is the biggest door I’ve ever seen. There a door inside the door taking up the bottom right quadrant that’s actually in use.

Just like in New Orleans there are horse carriage rides offered for around $40/hr to tour the city.

And just like in New York there is a (actually many) statues of Jose Marti, a great leader during Cuba’s successful fight for independence from Spain beginning in 1895. A cause so passionate he died leading a charge on horseback for it. Cubans even today greatly celebrate Marti’s life and writing as evidenced by many books, paintings and memorials prolific around the country.

After excusing ourselves, “Permiso”, from this bustling center full of venders, taxis, panhandlers and tourists we made our way to Obisbo Street or the main drag.

This area, while also full of tourists was a site to see and is actually quite famous for, of many things, being a haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately we are unseasoned travelers and we stopped relatively early on our walk down the street to a restaurant that I swear looking like a joint in New Orleans. The food here was subpar and pricey for this area but still inexpensive for U.S. standards. The waiters seemed unhappy and slow even though we tried our best to speak Spanish, something we have tried to do mostly while we are here. Tate had a Cuban sandwich (his first since coming to Cuba), I had shrimp and rice and we each had a cocktail and a beer. The total bill was $21.

A bit later after we left we saw a fun looking joint with a band, cheaper drinks and a happy crowd. Lesson learned…walk an area a bit first then make your decision. Tate had suggested this but now it’s a rule.

Tate has mentioned it before but visiting Havana was a lifelong dream of his. So many American movies show what fun Havana was in the early to mid 1900’s and he has read many naval and history books detailing its rich history back to when Spain took control over the island in the early 1500’s. I’m sure this city resides in the vivid imagination of many men, from the youngest to the oldest. One of the top three things he wanted to see was La Floridita. When Hemingway lived in Havana in the 1940’s he frequented a little bar called La Floridita.

Entering the place was a blast from the past and unfortunately this joint is absolutely, positively a tourist stop. Cameras are going off nonstop and there really isn’t any relaxing to be had, at least when we were there. Also with the drinks being $6 each (DOUBLE the price of the most expensive places we’ve been) quite a lot has changed since Hemingway drank into the afternoon writing his masterpieces.

Just look at these star shaped lights with individual glass panes and welded metal frames, straight up out of the 40’s or 50’s.

There was another room that looked to be a dinner hall or perhaps a place to be rented for special occassions.

We chilled at the bar while we had our drink and relished in our accomplishment to making it this far. Regardless of the current environment, we were sitting at the same bar Hemingway frequented nearly 75 years ago. It was worth every cent to have this experience. As soon as the Canadians (there are TONS of them in Cuba) sitting next to us at the bar started a rant about Communism we knew it was time to bid a Adieu and farewell to this lovely piece of history. Checkout this life sized statue of Mr. Hemingway at the end of the bar, it’s as if he was actually there.

Another of Tate’s top three reasons to visit Havana of course had to do with cigars. The best in the world are rolled here and he was on a mission to smoke a certain four that read about over the years that appealed to him.

Right next door to La Floridita was the Havana Club. We had no idea what was inside but to his great delight it was a full on Cuban Cigar store. Stores like these are regulated by the government and all the cigars sold have to meet set standards.

It was here that Tate was able to find the “Ghost Cigar”, the Partagas Lusitanias. Apparently it is very hard to find these cigars even in Cuba because they are so good. He had to go snooping around the humidor to find a hidden box pushed back on the top shelf. The cashier didn’t want to acknowledge they had this treasured cigar until he actually showed her the box. Of ALL the cigars (and let me tell you it’s a lot) he has said this cigar was by far the best he’s ever had in his life. He regrets not buying the whole box, but at $10 a cigar he restrained (Dirt CHEAP comparatively to the U.S.). I encourage him to smoke whatever he likes while he is here as fine tobacco is a great pleasure to him and he’ll probably only be in Cuba once.

Another of the four was the Bolivar #1. This one is easier to find around the country side but does not disappoint.

We had a spot of rum in a room with a giant open air window overlooking the busy streets below while he smoked these cigars. After we leisurely strolled further down Obispo until we got to the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Mr. Hemingway lived for a while. We walked up 6 flights of stairs to make it to the roof top where they serve $3 drinks and the most beautiful view of the city and ocean. We skipped the drinks and instead partook of the view.

A GIANT statue of Jesus overlooks the Havana.

Across the water way we could see a steep stone staircase leading up to an entrance to the fort. Imagine arriving by a large ship and rowing to shore in dinghy to have to climb these stairs. It’s scenes like this that make the forts that protected Havana some of the strongest in the world.

Draw from the rooftop by the sight of cannons (Tate’s 3rd reasons to visit Havana) we walked just a bit further through a square where vendors were selling the same gov’t regulated used books and made it to the fort section that was on this side of the water you see in the 1st photo above. This waterway was incredibly protected on both sides with cannons facing out.

Since this blog reads like a history lesson here a bit more food for thought. Why all the cannon power you ask? From the 1500s through the 1800s after the Spanish conquered the island and took control Havana was used as point midway between South/Central America and Spain where large Spanish ships carrying gold and other precious goods from various conquests of the Americas could stop to make repairs, do business or wait for good weather to cross the Atlantic to Spain. During these years the city became very prosperous and business was booming with the exportation of 1/3 of the worldโ€™s sugar and the importation of slaves. A lot of money, in gold, was changing hands in Havana and the forts around the city and near the water protected those interests. Imagine the lure for pirates…the real pirates of days past.

The drawbridge into the fort with the drained mote below.

This section of Havana is obviously old with limestone pavers and weathered walls.

Unfortunately like most of the cities a lot of it is falling apart. Stressed from years of political unrest, revolution and now Communism there just aren’t enough funds to keep up these grand old buildings. Literally there are cracks in in some multi story buildings that appear they could collapse at any time. Working toilets are rare and the water plumbing leaves a lot to be desired. But I’m not complaining. I’m sure there isn’t another place on earth like this and I am SO happy to have been a part of it and see it in its current state.

Over the past 10 or 15 years more and more “newer” cars have been imported from Russia, Korea and other countries. I’m not sure what this one was and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t built for 6’2″ Tate but it was taking us home for $10. $18 round trip to Havana, fair enough.

We had considered spending a few nights in Havana at a $25/night casa de particular (a room to rent basically in someone’s house) but after spending a day there we decided against it. While I’m sure we missed a ton of what Havana has to offer we saw what we had set out to do and we only have a limited amount of money and time. One has to draw the line somewhere and it was there.

Next post Tate will take you on a trip through Vinales where we DID stay a couple of nights and also “reveal” where we are going from here. Stay classy.