Just finished the four day Norwegian cruise to Havana.
Havana is a very cool and interesting travel destination. Because we were on a cruise our introduction to this City was limited, but enough to insure that we will be coming back.
Because Cuba is only 90 miles south of the United States it is a natural travel destination for Americans now that the political barriers between the U.S. and Cuba are beginning to be resolved.
One of the funnest part of traveling is observing different cultures. Since the late 1950’s when the Cuban revolution took place much of Cuba’s infrastructure has been locked in time. As we disembarked from our Cruise Ship I realized that I was not just traveling to a new place but a different time. A day in Havana is not just a visit to a different culture it is a visit to a culture that has developed in relative isolation since the 1950’s.
While the Americas, Europe Asia and most of the third world where fixed on the wonders of the modern world like Star Wars, The Beatles and Dancing with the Stars, Cuba was set on their own track of cultural development. The music we heard in Havana is a lively Latin Jazz that shows little or no deference to pop, rock or rap. It is to my ears a pure happy sound that make you want to dance and laugh and enjoy the company of the people around you.
There is very little “modern” architecture in Havana the buildings are primarily cement construction with attention to the ornate artistic detail that is rare in the modern world and this attention is what reflects Havana’s Old World heritage.
The string of taxis outside the cruise terminal take you back to the 50’s. They look like a rare car show parade. Since 1959 there has been a restriction on cars imported into Cuba so the Cuban people have developed the art of preservation of their 60 and 70 year old cars and art form.
Unpainted cement buildings reminiscent of the city streets their grandparents may have walked make up Old Havana. Architecture resembling residential streets of Paris, Madrid or the French Quarter of New Orleans, with ornate doorways and rod Iron balconies are present thru out the city. In one bustling block you may see a ruin so old and unattended that 20 foot trees sprout from it’s foundation surrounded by a dozen flourishing shops and well kept homes.
The cruise ship offered tours for over $150 per person of Havana but only a few yards from the main exit of the cruise terminal was a Big Red Bus stop. One of the best ways to see Havana is on the $10 Big Red Bus. About an hour and half into the Big Red’s two hour route we had the driver drop us off in Havana’s city center next to the National Theater. After consulting our map we began a slow adventure back toward the cruise ship. Our wonder was punctuated by stops at small open air bars that seemed to all offer lively latin bands and a variety of tapas style appetizers.
About every two blocks we found a new band and so the going was slow and the amount of live music was amazing. We wondered the small shops hunting deals on Havana Club Rum and Cuban Cigars. We admired the thousands of pristine cars that drove down every road like a parade of antique history and checked out the abundant local art and crafts.
Like much of the third world the streets are narrow but unlike most of the third world the streets are clean and well kept. The shops are bustling with business and the shelves are full of local merchandise.
In one of the open air bars we stopped, a half dozen musicians seemed to be engaging in a cross between a jam session and a practice session. We sat down at the bar and struck up a conversation with the bartender who happily told us the bar had a three piece band and she didn’t have a clue where the other musicians had come from. The Mojitos were good the bartender was chatty, so we decided to hang out and see what happened.
After about 20 minutes of short bursts of music punctuated by the musicians breaking into good natured conversation and beer drinking a tall man in a white shirt and pants took center stage, organized the chaos and a trumpet solo initiated the start of a lively latin salsa. Soon another trumpeter, a sax and the key board player joined in. The man in white began to sing and the not only the bar but the entire street surrounding the open air bar care to life. On the street two middle aged Cuban women in a bright cotton dresses began to dance with each other and yell encouragement to the band. Inside our bartender was pulled away from our conversation as a rush of tourists and locals poured into the bar. In a matter of minutes the quiet little bar was transformed into a swinging raucous party.
The musicians played for about fifteen minutes and then one by one lost interest and went back to drinking, talking and joking around. The man in the white finished a song handed the mic to a young man at the keyboard and walked to the back of the room to talk to the man on the sound board. The base player turned away from the room began quietly flicking the strings of his big instrument. As quickly as it had started the party was over.
The dancing ladies saluted the musicians and went on their way and the bartender, her rush being over, came back to visit with us. “That was a little crazy”, I said when she handed us our second mojitos. She smiled and shrugged.
The streets of Old Havana feel safe, clean and most of all happy. You can’t walk two blocks with out being in earshot of the cities lively latin jazz. The people are lively, happy and open. Charlene and I walked the streets of Havana for about four hours and loved every minute. The food and drinks are extremely inexpensive and excellent. A can of Cristal Beer will cost around $1.25 and an excellent mojito will cost around $2. A Tapas of fried pastries will cost around $3 and you can get a local lunch for $5. The whole time we were in Havana we never saw any menu item priced over $20.
On the streets of Havana the dominate language is clearly Spanish but you will have no trouble finding enough English spoken that there is very little language barrier.
All in all Havana is a great stop and in the future we may come back for a longer visit.
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