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Exploring Havana


This week's mystery location was Havana - congratulations to George G and PortMoresby, who guessed it correctly.

My wife and I visited Havana in April 2016, around three weeks after US President Obama had been there. It was not our first time in Cuba, but we had not been to the capital before. We had come in on a morning flight from the airport of Cayo Coco and spent what was left of the day exploring parts of the old town - in a fairly haphazard fashion, as we had booked a sight-seeing tour for the next day, which we hoped would give us the framework for finding our way round.

However, this was Cuba and the sight-seeing tour did not materialise - a problem with the bus apparently. We were quite annoyed that we had been left hanging round the hotel lobby for a couple of hours and made our views clear to the woman who finally informed us of the cancellation. We were told we could take the tour the next day or the day thereafter, but after some more grumbling on our part we were offered the alternative of a private tour, albeit a shorter one, in a classic car. That sounded better and we arranged a date and time for later in the week.

So we were back to exploring Havana on our own and jumped into a taxi - also a classic car - and returned to the old city. This time we did things in a slightly more systematic manner, starting with the area around the Capitolio, probably the city's best-known landmark (pictured above, on the left).


We liked the colourful facades. Much of the paintwork looked very new and we wondered whether these buildings had been spruced up just ahead of Obama's visit.


The photo below shows the Museum of the Revolution, another key landmark. You can find a detailed TravelGumbo piece about it by following the link.


When we reached the harbour area, we found this fabulous tall ship. It turned out to be the sail training vessel of the Mexican navy and Havana was the first port of call on its 'Ibero Atlantic Cruise' of 2016.


Havana's cathedral is famous - the shot below shows the interior. I don't have good photos of the outside, because the square in front had been fenced off in preparation for some fashion show/shoot (by Chanel, I think). Cue: more grumbling from me (who is bewildered by the very existence of a fashion industry). Anyway, there is another excellent TravelGumbo piece which provides more information and photos of the outside.


If you are interested in classic cars, an excellent place to go to is the parking area behind Parque Luz Caballero:


The next photo shows what looks like an ancient fort. Havana does indeed have ancient fortifications, but this building actually dates from the 1930s and houses the Police Headquarters.


A good place to visit if you are looking for some refreshments in an attractive setting is the 'Old Square', the Plaza Vieja.


As in the area around the Capitolio, the buildings here appeared to have received some attention relatively recently. Several of the bars and restaurants also showed clear signs of investment in new furniture and equipment.


Elsewhere, too, we came across small restaurants and cafes that had either been newly established or extensively renovated in the recent past.



Economic reforms in the early 2010s had paved the way for these developments, but the improvements in relations with the US under the Obama administration appeared to have accelerated the trend. After the president's visit there seemed to be a pervasive atmosphere of optimism about the future. Not everybody was blue-eyed about the thawing of relations with the US and the effects of foreign investments - the effective renting out of the Cathedral Square to a fashion house clearly illustrated some of the potential dangers, and not just for me. However, most people we talked to expected the future to bring increased prosperity to the country. Sadly, nobody could foresee the political developments of the last few years - or, of course, the pandemic.

The new establishments were certainly popular. It was sometimes difficult to get a table in a restaurant - we resorted to making reservations at lunchtime for a dinner slot - and the cafes frequently also had queues. Food and service were generally of a high standard and we had some very enjoyable meals.


The day of our private tour finally arrived (we had taken a day-trip to the Viñales Valley in the meantime) - and so did the car: a 1951 (or so) Chevrolet, bright pink, open-top, and dead on time! The driver asked what we wanted to see. We told him that we had already visited most of Havana's key tourist sights and that we wanted to go round some of the less visited parts. He suggested a forest area nearby as the first destination and we readily agreed. It was small, but utterly enchanting.


The stop there also provided a unique photo opportunity:


In retrospect, the cancellation of the bus tour proved to be a blessing in disguise.


We thought we should perhaps see Revolution Square. It turned out to be a dreary open space and we - or rather our car - quickly became a photo motif for the people who had come here on a bus tour.


The driver adhered to our request and took us through some of the back streets, which were often near-deserted - and generally lacked the attractive buildings and colourful facades we had encountered in the more touristy areas.

After we completed the tour we decided to explore these streets on foot. Below is a shot of some nicely-restored buildings on the Malecón, the wide ocean boulevard which runs along several miles of Havana's seafront.


However, you didn't have to go very far to see a different kind of Havana. This is how things looked just one or two blocks up from the Malecón.


It would clearly need a major improvement in economic conditions for these areas to get the resources which they required. However, the people we encountered here seemed, almost without exception, cheerful and very friendly. We took many photos in the back streets and they are amongst my favourites from this trip to Cuba.


Before you ask: I did request permission to take the shot below (the people in the shot had a good sense of humour) - and I think it is a very good idea to try to reuse an old toilet, rather than just taking it to the rubbish dump (as would happen here).


Salvador Dali perhaps would have liked the building below: a real-life manifestation of his famous crutches. Whether the people living in those flats shared this perspective is another question.


Every now and then you would encounter, amongst the near-derelict houses, a building that gave an indication of how the street would have looked some time ago - and might again at some point in the future.


In the next shot we get back to the more touristy parts. The tall building on the
left houses the headquarters of the Cuban telecommunications company. It featured in the first puzzle clue (obscured by trees).

WITW#415_30Near there is the gateway to Havana's Chinese Quarter. One of the buildings in the quarter also featured in last week's clues.

WITW#415_31You will find quite a few Catholic churches in Havana. More surprisingly perhaps, there is also a large Russian Orthodox church: the 'Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Cathedral' near the ferry terminal. It was consecrated in 2008.

WITW#415_32Images relating to the revolution could still be found all over Havana, but you needed to seek them out. That is not to say that people had turned their backs on it - we always had the impression that the principles had the full support of many Cubans (which did not stop them from taking a scathingly sarcastic view of some of the things going on).



Taking photos around Havana, I often felt as if I had been transported to a different era. I think, for instance, that (apart from a few minor details) each of the next three shots could have been taken some 50 or 60 years ago. The first two depict a cinema and a theatre, respectively, the third a side street in the leafy embassy district. The old cars, of course, greatly contribute to the illusion of time travel (as does the black-and-white effect in the last shot).


We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Cuban capital, but towards the end of our stay we were looking forward to a rest - a bit like the fellow in the photo below.

WITW#415_38Our rest would come in the form of 10 days on Cayo Guillermo in the Jardines Del Rey archipelago. Below is our plane just before the departure from Havana. It was an Antonov AN-26 transport plane, which had been converted to carry passengers.

WITW#415_39I was not 100% sure that I had the aircraft's type designator correct, so I googled the call sign. I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback, when the top hit was an accident report relating to the plane's final flight in April 2017, almost exactly a year after we had been on it. It crashed on a training flight just west of Havana, resulting in the total loss of the aircraft and all those on board


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Comments (1)

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Thanks for a beautiful picture set and a great story!

We spent two weeks in Cuba just before you, in January 2016, a month before the announcement that Obama would visit, so I can fill in a bit on one of your questions, whether the big spruce-up you saw was for his arrival.

And the answer is really yes, and no. Even though the visit had not yet been announced, the big relaxation of restrictions had, and there was great anticipation that 'los Americanos' would soon be coming in waves to join the Canadians, Brits and Germans. The expectation that the numbers would be large freed up a lot of fix-up money, and a lot of deals in which hotels owned by government and military groups changed management to operators more attuned to the expected sort of visitors. Everywhere we went, we were told over and over how great Obama was, and how much they loved Americans.

We did most of our Havana touring on foot, wandering in older and newer quarters; we found a lot of decay as well as a lot of building and renovation activity. It seemed as if anyone with a building and a bucket of paint was getting ready for more of us. Scenes like this one were common...

Havana transition

We found Havana a fascinating place; I mean to go again and see how things have turned out from what I wrote then in Havana in what?

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations


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  • Havana transition
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