Cuba: Day 1, Part 1: Miami to Havana, Revolution Square, Almendares Park, Miramar Park

In my previous post about Cuba, Cuba Part 1 — Introduction, I gave an overview of my impressions of the sites, sounds and flavors of Cuba. That was just a taste, however, of everything I experienced in a full week with my friends from the Inner Circle Club of Halleck Vineyards. Now it’s time to start the deep dive into everything we saw.

We had to be up at zero-dark-thirty to catch an 08:00 charter flight from Miami to Havana. Since we were at an airport hotel, we hopped the 05:00 shuttle and were there by 05:15. If you are an early riser, that probably sounds perfect, but Valeria and I (and most of the people on the trip) are not. We grumbled our way onto the bus and through the extraordinarily long check in procedure. It took standing in three lines to get documents issued and checked, boarding passes issued and checked and luggage checked, but eventually we were all done. The flight was a chartered American Airlines flight, but we learned there were no frequent fliers miles awarded for flights to Havana. The morning was getting better and better.

There was still plenty of time before the flight and, since none of us had had breakfast, finding food became a priority. As it happened, a restaurant names Ku-Va (which is approximately how Cuba is pronounced in Spanish) was near our gate.

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We decided to take that as a sign that we should start eating Cuban cuisine. The management was kind enough to push enough tables together for the whole group to gather around. The plates on display as we entered the restaurant did not look especially Cuban, but they did look like breakfast and that was what we were after. Maybe the morning was starting to look up.

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We are a wine-loving group and it usually does not take much of an excuse for us to open a bottle when we get together, but 06:00 was just a little early even for us. The Mojito (the glass just left of center full of green mint leaves) looked a little more interesting, but still not like a breakfast drink. (You’ll hear a lot more about Mojitos before this trip is over.) The Bloody Mary (just right of center) is traditional enough at breakfast, but not with shrimp, olives and heaven knows what else hanging off of it. The correct garnish for a Bloody Mary is a celery stick and a wedge of lime—nothing else.

So we all ended up with coffee or tea to drink and some pretty American looking breakfast fare.

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The “hash browns” looked more like Tater Tots. Whatever they were, they were delicious. I’m not sure what magic fairy dust seasoning they sprinkled on them, but they were addictive.

The Breakfast Quesadilla, which is more Mexican by way of Texas than Cuban, was also a hit and quite tasty.

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Suitably fortified, we all felt much better and headed off to the gate to wait for the short (57 minute) flight from Miami to Havana (228 mi = 367 km).

It was just after 09:00 that Valeria and I stepped off the plane and onto the “forbidden” soil of Cuba for the first time.

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I have traveled extensively in the Caribbean and Latin America over the last 30 years. Things have certainly gotten better, but I have dealt with small airports, military personnel acting as customs agents, no air conditioning in sweltering climates, and endless questions about what I had in my luggage and what I planned to do with it. I had heard horror stories about getting into Cuba and the detailed questions they asked about electronic equipment (my beloved cameras and computers), pornography (not a normal part of my baggage) and why I was visiting the country. I was prepared for the worst, but it never happened.

Oh, sure, the airport was small and crowded. Baggage took a while to arrive and there was no air conditioning, but things did move fairly quickly.

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Moreover, passport control was quick, the customs forms were of only average complication, and there were no questions at customs at all. Getting through the airport was a breeze. It was not long before I was standing outside and the fun began.

A quick plug for the company that Ross Halleck worked with to set up the trip, Cuba Explorer. The company is based Canada and owned by a Cuban. The staff knows Cuba inside and out. They arrange all kinds of tours for groups of all sizes, from just a couple of people to a bus load. If you want a weekend tour, an in-depth historical tour, an LGBT celebration, a birding expedition, or a focus on pretty much anything that interests you, they can arrange it. If our experience is typical, they are very good at what they do. For us it was all about food and wine and art (with rum and cigars on the side). The Cuba Explorer representative was waiting outside the door as we cleared customs.

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One of the coolest things about Cuba is the fleet of beautifully preserved American cars from the 1950s that are still in use. After the Revolution in 1959, the embargo was put in place and US cars could no longer be sent to Cuba. The Cubans have found ways to keep them clean, polished and running beautifully even if it means incorporating a sewing machine motor or whatever else can be made to work into the vehicle. Car buffs (not really me) and photographers (definitely me) love this place, as will anyone who just likes the sight of beautiful, very colorful, old cars.

Sure enough, I was only a few yards out of the door when I saw my first classic car: a Morris Motor Company Minor, Series II, which was produced from 1952 to 1956.

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This would prove to be only the tip of the automotive iceberg, as you will see as this tale continues.

In stark contrast, only a few yards farther on, was a row of ultra-modern busses.

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As you can see, the buses, like the cars, are clean and colorful. Unlike the cars, however, the buses are new with plenty of space and good air conditioning. Ours was also well stocked with cold water wherever we went—a necessity in the tropical climate. We spent a fair among of time on the bus as we traveled from place to place. Most of the places we visited were not air conditioned, so having a place to cool off and drink plenty of water was important.

Our official guide for the trip was a lovely young lady named Mariana. Mariana had just graduated from college. Her education was “free,”but she was required to work for the government for two years in return for her degree. (A good example of how the “free stuff” in a socialist country is never really free. Somebody, somewhere, somehow is paying for it, in this case by two years of service. That is not inherently good or bad, but that’s how it really works.)  Mariana is also the daughter of the first and only Cuban astronaut, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, who flew aboard a Russian spacecraft in 1980. How cool is that?

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Our bus driver was also a government employee and the subject of a lot of speculation in our group. Was he just a bus driver, or was he there to keep an eye on our guide and the rest of us? My wife, who grew up in the Soviet Union and had to develop a keen sense for recognizing KGB members and other government agents, was convinced he was some sort of undercover law official. I’ve learned to trust her instincts. Besides, there was more direct evidence that the government was watching, as when one member of our group had his internet access (limited as it was) cut off with a note that he was conducting illegal business by email. After a while, it was hard not to feel we were being watched most of the time, but I suspect that an average tourist who doesn’t think about such things might not ever notice.

If you are an American, you will have some kind of tour guide assigned to you to make sure you stick pretty close to the agenda that was agreed to before your arrival. (Non-Americans can, in general, wander around like tourists everywhere else.) It is still illegal for US citizens to visit Cuba as a tourist. You must be going to visit relatives or for one of a dozen or so broadly defined purposes related to academics, culture or sports. As I have noted, our cultural tour was focused on food, drink, music and art. This is where a company like Cuba Explorer is very helpful. You can tell them what your interests are and they can create an appropriate itinerary, get all the government approvals and save you all kinds of hassle. Valeria and I are normally very much lone hunters when we travel, making all our own arrangements and planning our own itinerary. There are places, however, where  little help is needed and in Cuba it is essential for Americans.

As we leave the airport and start driving toward downtown Havana, we passed many signs and billboards reminding us that the revolution is not over. Most include a quotes and images of Fidel Castro (who everyone calls simply “Fidel”).

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Fidel may have stepped down as President, but his presence is still everywhere. His face is on billboards, his books are in all the stores and his columns appear regularly in local newspapers.

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Since our first day was spent almost entirely at sites that are reminders of the revolution, I will spend some time in this post and the next reviewing and commenting a little on the history of this event. I am not a political blogger, however, so I won’t go into great depth. The other six days of the trip were devoid of overt politics, but there were always reminders of the revolution, Fidel and socialism nearby. Of course there was also the mystery (never resolved) of whether or not our bus driver was more than just a bus driver.

Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus landed there on his first voyage in 1492 and claimed it for Spain (presumably without consulting the tribes that had been there for a few thousand years). Spain ruled Cuba until 1898, when, as a result of the Spanish-American War, it was briefly under the control of the United States. The Republic of Cuba became an independent state in 1902. Over the next 50+ years there was a succession of election, revolts, coups and new constitutions. Fidel Castro led an uprising against then President Fulgencio Batista that began in 1956 and ended in January, 1959 when Batista fled into exile and Fidel entered Havana.

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The United States initially welcomed Castro, expecting him to promote democracy after the Batista dictatorship. He soon began to align himself with the Soviet Union, however, and built a government based on the Soviet communist model.

The United States tried to overthrow Fidel with the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. It was a complete failure. There are all sorts of stories about how the CIA tried to assassinate Fidel with poison delivered multiple ways, including exploding cigars, assassins and more. I am not going to take the time to try to sort out what is true and what is conspiracy theory, but just Google “CIA assassinate Castro” and you’ll find endless articles from main stream news sources to, shall we say, less scholarly ideas from fringe individuals and groups.

Castro quickly moved closer and closer to the Soviet Union. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, during which the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, was a defining moment in the Cold War, John F. Kennedy’s presidency, and the lives of those of us who lived through it. The world came very, very close to a nuclear war that year. If you are too young to remember the events of October, 1962 (do they teach much about this in schools these days?), or if you want to remember what it was like, I recommend The Missiles of October, a made-for-TV docudrama that is really quite good. It’s a little slow to start, but things get really tense as the movie moves along. The acting is excellent and it sticks very close to actual historical facts which, in this case, didn’t really need Hollywood embellishment.

For a much more detailed, textbook approach, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, by Michael Hobbs is excellent.

Finally, for a review of the entire history of Cuba, I recommend A History of Cuba (clever name) by Clifford L. Staten, for a relatively quick read, or The Cuban Reader, by Aviva Chomsky of an in-depth history of the country.

The Soviet Union continued to support Castro and Cuba until it fell apart in 1991 and billions of dollars in annual subsidies dried up over night. This began what is called the Special Period (“Period especial” in Spanish) in Cuba. There were massive shortages of food, medicine and just about everything else. Our guide said that the average Cuban lost 20 pounds during this time. The United States offered humanitarian food and medical aid, which Fidel initially refused but, after a couple of years, accepted. Eventually, Cuba developed strong ties to China, Venezuela and Bolivia and these countries provided relief from the worst of the effects of the loss of Soviet support.

Since 2008, when Fidel resigned as President and his brother, Raul, took his place, restrictions on Cubans and the interaction of Cuba with the rest of the world have been slowly easing. The American Embassy in Havana has been reopened. The US embargo on trade with Cuba is still largely in place, but has been eased a little, as have travel restrictions.

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The multi-billion dollar question is, “Where do things go from here?” If relations between the US and Cuba are normalized, corporations, especially hotels and other tourist-related businesses, are poised to flood Cuba with money, buildings and jobs. I will leave it to more politically-oriented writers to debate the how and when such a normalization should (or should not) occur, but almost all of the Cubans I talked to very much want it to happen. They are a bit frightened by the possibility of their culture being overrun by hotel chains, fast food restaurants and tourists, but they also know that the financial benefits could be huge.

After that rather lengthy aside, let’s rejoin the tour as our bus arrives at La Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). The plaza is a large open area that can accommodate thousands of people for ceremonies, speeches and holidays. Three memorials surround the space: the Memorial to José Martí, an iron sculpture of Camilo Cienfuegos and an iron sculpture of Che Guevara. While Che’s name and face are well known around the world, José Martí and Camilo Cienfuegos are much less known outside of Cuba and parts of Latin America.

The largest monument is the 358 ft (109 m) tall concrete Memorial to José Martí. (As a point of reference, the Washington Monument is 555 ft high.) Martí was a writer, philosopher and political theorist who was instrumental in organizing the Cuban War of Independence from Spain. While he died in battle during that war, he is a beloved national hero.

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On the inside of his monument are an observation tower at the very top and several mini-museum displays on the ground floor. The view is amazing. The history immediately struck me as biased propaganda, but then I had to ask myself: were the history texts I studied any less biased, just in a different direction? I am still pondering that question. I have to say that the tower itself is, well, ugly. To me, it looks more like a bridge support than a monument, but your eye might be quite different.

Outside the tower, a statue of Martí looks out over the square and serves as a podium for political speeches.

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I’ve seen videos of Fidel Castro making his impassioned three-hour speeches here to a plaza crowded with people. I never imagined I would actually stand there. In a strange way, it felt a bit like standing outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where I have seen many videos of very different speeches made to large crowds of Americans.

If you don’t know Martí’s face now, you will if you spend a few days in Cuba. Fidel’s face is more common, but Martí is everywhere. Most schools, for example, have at least a bust of his head in the schoolyard. I have not been able to find a good biography of him in English. There is a Wikipedia entry, but it reads more like an ode to Martí than an objective review of his life. I did find a very inexpensive collection of some of his more famous quotes, such as “Others go to bed with their mistresses; I with my ideas.”

Another face that will unfamiliar to many is that of Camilo Cienfuegos.

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Cienfuegos was a member of Castro’s inner circle during the revolution, but he died in a plane crash soon after they took control of the country. (There are some who believe that the crash was not an accident, but rather was engineered by Fidel and/or Raul Castro to eliminate a less radical rival to power.) The text on his sculpture reads “Vas bien Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel). I tried to imagine a “Way to go, George” sign on the Washington Monument or “Good job, Abe!” on the Lincoln Memorial and concluded that our presidential monuments were rather more elegant and dignified, but perhaps different styles work in different cultures. There’s a good summary of Cienfuegos’ life on Wikipedia and an inexpensive biography available from Amazon.

Across the plaza, on the side of the Ministry of the Interior, is an iron sculpture of a face you have seen a thousand times on t-shirts, coffee mugs and more: Che Guevara.

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I am about as far from a Socialist Revolutionary as you can get, but there was a certain thrill to standing on a spot where Che no doubt once stood, looking up at a massive iron sculpture of his familiar face. Unlike Martí and Cienfuegos, Che, who was born in Argentina, is part of the culture in much of the world. He was apparently a brilliant man and an articulate and persuasive writer and speaker. The authoritative biography of Che is by Jon Lee Anderson.


Paperback              Kindle Edition

A number of Che’s diaries and books have been translated into English. In the New York Times best seller, The Motorcycle Diaries, he describes his trip through Latin America as a 23-year-old medical student on a 1939 Norton 500cc motorcycle which he named, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, La Poderosa (“The Mighty One”). The book is also the basis of a 2004 movie that you can watch in Spanish on Netflix or in English on a DVD available from Amazon and available for streaming on Amazon Prime.


    Paperback          Kindle Edition         HD Movie           SD Movie

Che also wrote what is considered by may to be a definitive text on Guerrilla Warfare as well as his own account of the Cuban Revolution (which was turned into mediocre movie you can find on Netflix).


    Paperback          Kindle Edition        Paperback         Kindle Edition

History and revolutionary memories aside, you should visit La Plaza de la Revolutión for another reason: Those magnificent cars.

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You’ll find them parked all around Revolution Square. Some are taxis, some are available for private tours, some for just riding around and a few just showing off. Some owners speak pretty good English, some you will have to practice your Spanish to talk to. All the owners are more than happy to tell you about the work and love they put into their prized machines. We’ll see more of them before this trip is over.

There is another vehicle that you will see all over Havana, the bright yellow Cocotaxis.

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These 3-wheeled, rickshaw-like vehicles reminded me of the Tuk-Tuks I rode in Bangkok, Thailand, though these were much cleaner and neater. They are cheaper than regular taxis and a lot of fun.

Moving on from La Plaza de la Revolución, the scenery changed dramatically when we drove the short distance to Parque (Park) Almendares.

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A five-minute drive covering about 2.1 km (1.25 miles) took us from broad streets surrounded by concrete buildings to a lush green wood with a river running through it. There were also what was left of some some walls, steps and bridges in the park.

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There were old, vine-covered trees….

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…and a Turkey Vulture feeding on the remains of some other bird.

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There were also the ubiquitous antique cars…

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…and Cocotaxis waiting in the parking lot.

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Our next stop would be lunch. As we were riding in the bus to the restaurant, I snapped this shot.

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Notice the unrestored building on the far left, the fully restored, sea-green building to the right of it, and the white building undergoing restoration in the middle of the shot. You can see that all three of these buildings are architecturally unique and interesting. The fully restored home is beautiful, and the white one that is being restored no doubt will be, too. The unrestored home was probably beautiful at the time of the revolution, but has slowly decayed to the state you see here. This is the story of architecture in Havana in a nutshell. A small percentage of buildings have been restored (at least on the outside), a few more are being restored, but many have been decaying for almost 60 years. It’s easy to imagine why Havana was so popular with the rich and famous before the revolution. It must have been beautiful. One of the potential upsides of the slowly opening economy is that much more of the beauty will presumably be restored.

I also saw many of these little traffic control control huts as well.

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I have seen similar huts on corners and in the intersections of streets in other Latin American countries as well. At various times they have been staffed with military personnel, police or, as is more common these days, no one at all. It was always a little disconcerting to see uniformed, body armored soldiers with automatic rifles on almost every street corner, so I am very glad those days are past. There did not seem to be enough traffic in Havana to warrant full-time police control, but in other Latin American capitals traffic jams are epic for most of the day and the police struggle constantly to keep it flowing.

The bus parked for lunch about 20 minutes before our reservation at the El Aljibe Restaurant (circled on map below). Fortunately, Parque Miramar was just short block from where we parked. Miramar is an upscale neighborhood in Havana that borders on the coast (“miramar” means “sea view”in Spanish).

As we walked into the park, the first thing we saw were huge Banyon trees.

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These trees are called Jagüeys in Spanish and the park is also called Parque de los Ahorcados or “Park of the Hanged.” What look like long branches hanging down from the trees are actually roots called “prop roots” as they hold (prop) up the branches of the tree as it grows and spreads. They can also look a bit like hangman’s nooses hanging down. Banyons are a type of fig tree, but the fruit they bear is not edible for humans. It is eaten by wasps who, in turn, pollinate the trees.

The next thing that caught our eyes was a romanesque set of columns with some benches in the middle.

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This is certainly not typical Cuban architecture, but it was pretty cool. A little father on was a structure that looks like a Roman temple.

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I have no idea what the story behind these two structures is. I spent a lot of time with Google trying to find out, but no luck.

There were more surprises to come as we wandered through the park. We were already used to seeing images of Fidel and Martí everywhere, but Gandhi?

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The plaque on the statue identifies Gandhi as “an apostle of peace and non-violence,” which struck me as a bit ironic given the violence that has occurred in Cuba and that Cuban mercenaries used to inflict on other countries during the Cold War.

As we strolled back to the restaurant, we passed another great view of the Banyons…

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…and saw a really cool old Ford coming down 5th Avenue.

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Now we were very ready for lunch! It had been a long time and a lot of miles since our early-morning breakfast in the Miami airport. Our first meal in Cuba was to be at El Aljibe, and I’ll tell you all about that in a separate post.

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Take  a few minutes to browse the images in the slideshow. There are many that are not included in the article above.

The author is a member of the Halleck Vineyard Inner Circle Wine Club and the Amazon Associate program, but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the places, companies, equipment or locations mentioned in the article.

All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6000 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F4 ZA OSS lens or Sony 18-200mm (24-300mm full frame equivalent) F3.5-6.3 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins. 

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