Havana or La Habana? It’s the same time machine.
If Spanish is your mother tongue then you would say “La Habana” otherwise you adopt the anglo-saxonism “Havana”, but at the end you are referring to the same time machine, the Cuban capital city.
I felt it was almost surreal but yes, I landed in Havana sponsored by TravelJust4U.
I flew from Miami to Havana on a chartered flights with Gulfstream Operated by Dynamics Airways (2D). There are multiple options nowadays to get to Havana or LA HABANA as the Cubans call it. It was a 53mins flight and it departed on time. Gulfstream departs from Concurse F Miami International Airport Mondays to Saturday to La Habana and to Santa Clara on Sundays. There are also options from other United States airports, to name some; Atlanta, New York and Chicago. Outside the US, but still the American Continent (North and/or South) you can fly from Mexico City, Panama, Lima and Bogota to name a few. There are direct flights from some European cities as well.
Welcome to JOSE MARTI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
There are two (2) terminals in Jose Marti International Airport in La Havana. The newest one has been dedicated to major airlines and as such there are better facilities. The smallest one (T2) is tiny and has no Jet Bridge, meaning you will walk on the Tarmac to proceed to immigration and customs. You are kinda going back on time once you leave the airplane. I couldn’t take pics of the installations as I was advised not to do it to avoid upsetting the Cuban Aviation Authorities.
When entering the immigration area there are around 10 booth and most of them where staffed. Going through the immigration process was rather surprisingly quick. They didn’t even ask what are you going to Havana for. At least they didn’t ask me anything at that point. They just said, please stand one step back and look at the camera for me. Then I heard a loud sound as my Tourist Card was stamped (which I bought form the airline counter and filled in by myself).
Welcome to Cuba, enjoy your visit
Next thing I heard from the official was “Welcome to Cuba, enjoy your visit”
Next I heard a buzz at the door, I pushed and opened a door that gives you access to the x-ray scanners. You go through the usual airport scanning process, continue to the customs area where there are two options, green lane if you have nothing to declare (you know, not carrying more than $5000 in cash or money instruments, etc) and no checked in luggage (my case) or the red lane if you are declaring something and/or have checked in luggage.
Once I cleared customs, I found an automatic sliding door that takes you outside the terminal and soon you will see the multiple billboards above the people waiting for their families to come out of the terminal.
I looked for Cuban Operator with a sign with my name and introduced myself to the representative. You will be greeted and welcomed and asked to produce a sort of proof that you are the person they are expecting. In my case the boarding pass was enough. In the introduction, the representative will go through your itinerary and provide you with vouchers for your visit. After a couple of minutes your transfer vehicle (a Classic automobile) arrives at the waiting area close to where you are. Typically the conventional (public) taxis will be parked there as well so there is little parking space for the private taxis.
Leaving the airport, Heading Home!
Once you board your private transfer and start heading to your hotel, you realize that you are in Cuba as you start seeing the iconic vintage automobiles featured in so many advertisements and references about Cuba. You will also be surprised by those old motorcycles with baskets on the side carrying another rider. That’s kind of cool to see. Then you also start to freak out a little bit as you haven’t buckled up your seat belt and the driving is kind of unruly. But this you will get used to after a couple of minutes. The people in Cuba do not drive too fast and you notice that they have a proper driving etiquette. You will be in your hotel (typically in Old Havana) in around 25 mins.
The Real Cuba
I asked my guide/driver (Yairon) to take me through the real Cuba on the way to Old Havana. And he was happy to do so… Along the route, Yairon explained to me the demographic differences between the suburbs and what it means in terms of the suburbs inhabitants. I noticed a stark change in the infrastructure as Yairon was talking.
Something that I noticed immediately as we left the airport behind, was the many groups of people waiting for public transportation. I asked Yairon how the public transport worked. He explained that the transportation system is regulated by the government and that there are private and public taxis as well as buses and mini buses. Some taxis work on shared basis with a predefined route. Typically 5 seater cars, that stop along the way and pick up passengers as they fill up the seats. At the same time they stop on demand to drop off passengers that have arrived at their destination. The private taxis… I don’t think there is a need to explain how they work. Although Cuba is famous for its vintage cars, there are also modern cars used as both private and public taxis. These newer cars are government concessions available to the general public.
Just as we enter Old Havana, Yairon pointed to a wall that shows signs of being ancient. “That wall (and an access door) is the remains of what used to be the limits of a ‘Safe Havana'”.
Back in the days of 16th-17th Century Havana was an important port and was used as a hub by the Spaniards to ship goods to Europe.
The pirates were no strangers to the island either and used to run their errands after dark. Cuban authorities at the time decided to build a wall to protect the city and its citizens.
This wall enclosed the city in 5KM radius approximately. 11 heavily guarded doors were the only way into the city. The history tells that there was a 9:00 PM curfew and people had to be inside the wall to be “safe”, otherwise they were on their own and subject to be robbed, assaulted and anything else you could imagine.
At 9:00PM there was a cannon shot fired followed by the closing of the doors. No one could leave or enter the doors until the next morning. Nowadays, the cannon still fires every night at 9:00PM, but no door closes and life goes on.
The cannon ceremony is perfomed at La Cabaña fortress. Soldiers dressed in 18th century uniforms fire the cannon over Havana bay at precisely 9 p.m. It is a historical reconstruction dating back to the colonial era.
If you want to witness the ceremony, you will need to plan to be there around 8:00PM and you need to organize your transfer to and from the fortress in advance. The whole representation takes around 15min before the cannon is fired.
It’s not only Old Havana
Old Havana is the main attraction of the island due to its World Heritage Site listing by UNESCO in 1982. But Cuba has a lot more to offer and you will need more than a full week if you want to visit some of the major attractions of the island. To name some of these attractions; Cayo Largo del Sur (Long Key of the South) has beautiful beaches, two of them included in the top 10 list of the most beautiful beaches of the world. Sirena and Paraiso, a soft and white sand that looks amazing. It can be the hottest day in Cuba and yet, the sand will be always cold so that you can walk on it. There are also the major cities, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Varadero, Holguin, Santa Clara, Viñales and Cienfuegos. This last one is considered to be most beautiful city of the island and also the cleanest one.
Heading to Viñales
I went to Viñales (around 3hrs from Havana) in the Pinar del Rio region, South West of Cuba, almost the last corner of the island. Viñales’ main attractions are it’s Mogotes (moutains with a round shaped top and stalactites), La Cueva del Indio (Indian Cave), the massive wall painting depicting the fossils found in Viñales and the Tabbaco plantations show casing the authentic hand-made Cuban cigars.
La Cueva del Indio
My first stop visiting Viñales is La Cueva del Indio. The most interesting part of this cave are the stalactites inside, forming shapes challenging your imagination. You can see Crocrodiles heads (see the photo), a man skull, little pigs falling to the water, a fish, and many other shapes that you might be able to spot. Just be ready to imagine what the shape is…
There is a waterway inside the cave and a boat takes you on a ride that last around 10 minutes.
Before you enter the cave there is a small show of an Indian that interacts with all the tourists waiting to enter the cave. Be prepared as you might need to wait a bit before your group has access to the cave. They have a number allocation system to control the access to the cave. Because there are just a few boats inside the cave, the wait can be long if you arrive to the place after the big buses arrive. I was lucky enough to be in group three and there were just a few people before me. Two tourist coaches arrived after we took our number and by the time we were called to enter the cave we waited at least a good 20 minutes.
The Prehistory Mural
One of the largest in the world, The Mural represents the life of the first inhabitants of the Cuban Archipelago. During the early days of 1959, Dr. Antonio Nuñez Jimenez told Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez about his visits to these mountains in Viñales and how he had found fossils. Fish, skulls of big saurians and evidence of aboriginal settlements were found in local caves. This talk led to the idea of a pictorial mural on the wall of one of the Mogotes.
On September 11 that year the work to clean the rock was initiated. Painting began in March 1960 and lasted four years. The Cuban painter Leovigildo Gonzalez who had studied with the great muralist Diego Rivera, was chosen for the task. The painting has a surface area of 80 meters in height and 120 meters long.
The lines were drawn by farmers of the local community, who hung by strong ropes of henequen plant fibers attached to parachute harnesses and directed from the ground by the painter. The Megalocnus, Plesiosaurus, the Ammonites and the other figures describe the evolution of life in Cuba. The Mural of the ‘Prehistory’ represents the great biological and geological processes that took place in the territory.
Authentic Handmade Cuban Cigars in Viñales
Your visit to Cuba is not complete if you miss the Tobacco farms. Viñales is perhaps the best place to go as it has been recognized for growing the best Tobacco plants in the world. In fact, Viñales has been recognized by UNESCO in 1999 as a World Heritage Site. It was a great experience to hear from the “Guajiro”, as he lectured us about the process of making the “Authentic Cigar”, mostly known as Habano or Puro (pure).
Curing the Tobacco (leaves) is a lengthy process. It takes around 3 months from the moment the leaves are taken from the plant till the moment they are selected to roll up a Pure. The Tobacco leaves are dried inside small barns in the Tobacco farms. The art of growing and curing Tobacco has been passed from generations to generations and today the vast majority of tobacco farms are family owned. Such is the case of Mr. Benito Camejo Nodarse, whose farm has been in the family for five generations and Benito has inherited the small farm that extends for some 25 acres.
They (Farm owners) sell the majority of their production to the government and are allowed to keep a portion for private use. Once the tobacco leaves are cured, they are taken down from the barn and transported to cigar factories in Havana. It is believed that the quality of (farm) handmade cigars is far better than the factory made ones.
Old Havana or La Habana Vieja, A Living Museum.
Havana, the largest Cuban city can easily be described as a living museum. And inside Greater Havana you find the Old Havana precinct. This place will probably give you the sensation that your trip already has been paid for itself. There is history on every corner, every cobblestone street, every wall of the Spanish architecture. You just feel you have traveled back in time. By visiting Cuba, I think I now have a glimpse of the concept of a time machine. Add to it the majesticness of the well conserved automobile fleet from before the 1950’s, in fact you can still find cars from late 1920’s as the one I’m pictured in below.
Havana is really a Living Museum of vintage cars, and if you are passionate about these old beauties then Havana is the place to go. You find yourself tirelessly chasing the best spot to take a picture of each one of these antiques. It seems the fleet of these vintage beauties is just infinite. It is beyond believable the creativity and ingenuity of the Cuban mechanics to restore and maintain the fleet. And they are proud of their uniqueness. You can ask them how they do it and they will provide you with all the details of how they adapt the engine and transmissions so that the car can run as close as possible to the original design. It’s really an art that you will enjoy even if you are not into cars.
Enough Room for two . . .
It is great fun to see how these cars are driven with millimeter precision around the Old Havana streets. Let’s visualize for a moment the streets built at the time when the Spaniards reigned the island. The Spaniards most likely envisaged the street to be wide enough for allowing two royal carts to share the street, right?
Well, see below a classic vintage car and a truck sharing the same small street the Spaniards built. It’s just amazing!
Cubans exhibiting their best
The one thing you will notice as soon as you interact with a Cuban is their infectious friendliness. They are always willing to engage in conversation with you even when the language barrier could be a challenge. I experienced it myself as I sat down and spoke with Felicia on a bench of the Plaza Jose Marti. I started by greeting her and introducing myself in English and she replied back in English, admittedly with some limitations. But I hope you get my drift… There she is, making the effort to break the language barrier. At this point I thought it was time to end my experiment and switch to our common mother tongue. She was laughing and surprised that I spoke her langauge.
Felicia openly spoke about her life on the island. She was forced to retire early from the workforce to look after her husband who lost his battle against cancer. It was a rich half an hour conversation where I learnt a lot about the Island and the way of living of the Cubans. The Cuban live in a system that is somewhat difficult to understand but the Cubans have adapted to it.
All in all, the happiness in every Cuban almost makes you feel that you want to move to the island. Cubans radiate so much happiness that it is sometimes hard for you to digest it but you love it at the same time! A big smile is always their best presentation card no matter what that smile is hiding from you. Happiness is paramount for a Cuban.
So what are you waiting for? Do Like I did! Book a visit to Cuba now with one of suggested itineraries. Start packing your luggage. Is not the same living it through somebody else’s experience, You have to get there and experience it all by yourself. Whether it is on your own or with a friend or a group of friends, Cuba is that time machine that you want to discover now and enjoy it to the fullest!