Havana Travel – A Country Excursion

Hotel Havana Libre, Sunday, April 10, 2005, 12:45 pm

After my walk through the Vedado neighbourhood, my friend Pedro came to pick me up since I had suggested a little excursion with a rental car to get to know the countryside. His wife and sister-in-law unfortunately coulnd’t make it since their cousin was coming to town. La Habana can feel a little claustrophobic since the transportation options are limited and even a basic taxi ride to the Eastern Beaches (Playas del Este) is quite costly.

Havana province coastline.

And it’s also nice to get away from the city, which can get rather congested and contaminated with car exhaust fumes from all the old vehicles. I can’t imagine what the air must be like here in the summer when it is 35, 40 degrees Celsius with 80, 90 percent humidity. All the locals talk about the extreme heat in the summer and it’s better to visit outside of the months of June to September, even October.

In addition, August and September are very prone to hurricanes which are an additional complication, that’s why many buildings have crosses of thick adhesive tape attached to the glass. The tape prevents the glass from shattering when the hurricanes hit town.

Renting a car is always an interesting experience. I rented a small skoda at the Hotel Havana Libre for about $46CUC for 24 hours. If there were no damages and the gas tank was full upon return, there would be an additional $30CUC for the insurance and an additional driver. Being in the rental car felt strangly liberating because all of a sudden it was possible to overcome all the limitations of Havana’s public transport and you could go where you wanted.

My friend Pedro is an experienced driver and loves driving, so he drove and off we went eastwards along the coast. We passed by Cojimar, Playas de Este, Playa Guanabo and stopped at the Puente Bacunayagua bridge which forms the border between the provinces of La Habana and Matanzas. The bridge is more than 100 m high and the view extends through forests to the ocean in the north and inland there is a valley with lush vegetation (Valle de Yumuri) with a chain of medium-size mountains in the background. At the bridge there is a little basic restaurant and a shop for tourists and we stopped for an hour or so. We also saw a really oversized iguana, apparently it was the offspring of the mother iguana which apparently is twice the size. The animal must have been almost 10, 15 inches long, including tail.

We then proceeded eastwards, past Santa Cruz del Mar, where there is a big rum factory, to Matanzas, the capital of the province of the same name. We just took a little drive around town and didn’t stop, but the town has a couple of nice squares with monuments and statues. The architecture is definitely much less stunning than in La Habana. After Matanzas we drove inland to a small mountaineous area called “Escaleras de Jaruco”, from where we had a beautiful view inland and towards the sea.

Driving along the north coast of Havana province.

On the way back we briefly stopped at Playas del Este to capture the sunset and then we headed off towards Cojimar, a town famous for its connection to Ernest Hemingway. The town apparently still houses a very old man who was the inspiration for the novel “The Old Man and the Sea”. Apparently the old man is still alive, probably around 100 years old or so and he used to receive visitors (for a small fee), but his health has deteriorated over the last few years and he no longer receives visitors. We wanted to have a nice dinner in a Paladar in Cojimar, but one was completely full, and the other one so expensive that we decided to continue on.

After our arrival back in La Havana we decided to go to a pizzeria near the Parque Central since I had a real craving for pasta. The food here can get a bit monotonous and I love Italian food, so we headed into a freezing, over-air-conditioned pizza parlour, where they had just run out of spagetthi. We tried another upscale Italian restaurant on the other side of the square, but it had prices that were higher than in some of Toronto’s fine restaurants and we decided to head back to the Barrio Chino since they also serve pasta.

There we tried to park the rental car, but in doing so, we had a little encounter with the local traffic police. They alleged that my friend was not wearing his seatbelt (although he was) and they ended up giving him a fine of 10 local pesos (about 40 Cents or so). Apparently it can happen very easily that a local Cuban gets stopped and the police impose a fine and there are not too many things you can do.

After a very filling pasta dinner (for less than $7 for 2 people) we headed back to the hotel which is very close to the University. There was a big concert on in front of the university’s steps and there were thousands and thousands of young people singing and chanting to the sound of a pretty famous Cuban pop group (“Moneda Dura”) which plays very popular music for young people with sociocritical undertones. The atmosphere among the people, singing and dancing in the street, was amazing. I ended up heading to bed at about 12 or so and the music from the concert stopped at about 12:20 am and the huge crowd dispersed.

Early this morning I awoke to the smell of exhaust fumes from some of the buses and old cars passing through. Since I had to take the rental car back at 11 am today, my friend came to the hotel early and we decided to visit the area of Miramar, also called “Playas” on the western side of Havana, past the Rio Almendares. Miramar is a very upscale area with many foreign embassies, upscale hotels and congress centres. “Marina Hemingway”, a nautical centre with canals, boats slips for yachts and private residences, is also located in Miramar.

It is so strange, but Miramar actually reminded me a bit of Fort Lauderdale. In general, Miramar, due to its more modern architecture, some of which is in very good condition, reminded me quite a bit of Florida. We visited a public sandy beach in Miramar which is surrounded by a range of public recreational buildings, most of which have been abandoned and are in dire condition due to the lack of public funds for upkeep. It is a real shame to see so much of the beautiful architecture around here collapsing and my professor said that in the future it may be cheaper to tear down a lot of the old architecture and rebuild from scratch than to try to preserve the old architecture, particularly in Habana Vieja.

Marina Hemingway.

As I had to return the rental car at 11 am today, we filled up the tank and although we had only gone about 250 km, the cost of the gasoline was $36 CUC (which is equivalent to about Can$45 or so), which was quite a bit more than I had expected. We took a brief tour through Nuevo Vedado, then past the Centro de Deporte Nacional, past the Comite Central (the Cuban government) and punctually returned the car at 11 am without any problems.

This afternoon I have been invited by my friend to come and meet his family at a private dinner. I am really looking forward to the experience of spending time with a Cuban family and from what I have experienced so far, Cuban hospitality is truly amazing. I’ll try to pick up a few flowers from the market and bring along some of the Canadian souvenirs that I brought from Toronto to reciprocate the favour. It’ll be interesting to see Cuban life from inside a Cuban home….

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