March 5, 2018
Our airport arrival transfer at Havana airport was something else! A green 52 Chevy rumbled up to the curb to meet us.
The 40 minute drive to the Historical Quarter was full of head turning sights. Classic 50's cars around every corner, some dilapidated, but most looking beautiful!. The UNESCO World Heritage city of Old Havana can be divided up into three parts. The "Historical Tourist area" is a beautifully renovated area 4 blocks by 5 radiating out from the ancient Church on San Francisco Square, down by the waterfront. Here along cobbled streets the old colonial Spanish houses, churches, and buildings have been restored to their former glory. Brightly coloured, and pristine examples of colonial Cuba.
Havana has an undeniable charm about it. Beautiful people, quick to smile with a "halo my frand, where are you frum"
This is the tourist quarter, with clean bars and restaurants to eat in, beautiful old world hotels, and ATM machines (some of which work!). The larger unrenovated "Historical Poor area" radiates out a further 7 blocks by 17. The poor area really is poor. The same wall to wall colonial buildings as the tourist quarter, just in complete disrepair. But it is safe, and oh so enchanting. Individuals and families sitting on their doorsteps that lead straight out onto the narrow cobbled streets, laughing and chatting. Kids playing ball and simple games, gossiping and giggling. It's an easy glimpse into the lives of the struggling populace. Peer through the open doors, and see that they have very little. An armchair, a couch, and of course something to play their music on. And when the sun sets, music wafts from every second door.
Transfer in Havana
The poor blocks separate the Tourist area from the "Capital Area", which in stark contrast, has splendiferous Government buildings, and centres of Commerce. There are grand hotels, museums, and chic cafe's & bars. Our hotel, "The Raquel" sits on Amagura Street right on the fringe between the restored area and the poor area. Never have I seen a more magnificently marbled lobby with huge pillars and ornate decoration. The antique metal elevator, with mesh doors providing a beautiful internal view of the floors as it ascends past the stain glass ceiling and up to the rooftop bar. Complete old world charm. Then we got to our room....ummmm ....hmmm. Like so many 4 star hotels in historical Havana, the rooms are closer to 2 star. Weak water pressure with very little hot water, old beds that feel like camp stretchers, dodgy electrical wiring, tired furnishing, and very dark interiors with no outside window. But very clean. Who cares anyway...there was music in the street and I didn't come to Cuba to hold up in my hotel room! On day one we took the first obligatory excursion that you must do - The half day Old City walking tour. Our guide Laurenzo was an enthusiastic young chap, full of the details of Cuba's colourful history, and an intimate knowledge of the immediate neighbourhood. Havana has an undeniable charm about it. Beautiful people, quick to smile with a "halo my frand, where are you frum". It took a while for me to work out that they weren't trying to sell me something (well, not all of them), they were just being hospitable. And their style. Even the way the poorest people dress has an eclectic style that I could never emulate, and they manage it with complete casual cool. Early evening, we ventured deep into the poor neighbourhood, in search of the sounds of the City, and we weren't disappointed.
Across a square, past the budding young "Pele's" kicking their tattered ball we saw a small crowd swaying to the rhythm coming from a tiny bar. Two supercool hipsters stood sentry on either side of the open double doors. Inside, the band belted out "Timba", that modern take on classic Cuban sound that was a fusion of jazz and pop to a rhumba beat. On vocals, a Cuban queen memorized the small crowd with both voice and hips, accompanied by backup band on trumpet, acoustic, base, and Caribbean drums. We sidestepped and shuffled our way through the dancing crowd, perched on the only two vacant stools, and spent the evening soaking up the magic of old Havana!