Back to Havana

We were heading back to Havana today and had told Tony that we didn’t want to leave until 11am.

Our breakfast 'room' in Vinales
Our breakfast ‘room’ in Vinales
The symbol at the bottom denotes tourist accommodation
The symbol at the bottom denotes tourist accommodation

We have both felt that this part of the tour was a bit of an expensive addition, having had to pay a relatively substantial local payment, the guide having very little to do and it being advertised as a five day tour, when, in fact, it is barely four. Consequently, we took our time this morning, whilst Pedro hovered, looking at his watch, as he had a long drive back to Trinidad, once he had dropped us in Havana.

We were ready before 11am but, by this time, they were both embroiled in the phone game again, so we had to wait for them. We didn’t stop at all on the way, and were back in the city by 2pm where we were dropped at our Casa for the night, which was different from the one we had previously stayed in.

After Tony and Pedro had left, we walked into Obispo Street and to a very Cuban restaurant where we had a fairly unspectacular lunch but were joined at the table by a mother and her two sons, one of whom was quite small and entertaining.

Afterwards, Deb wanted to check her emails, so we ambled up to the Parque Hotel, which is very grand, eating coconut ice cream out of a coconut, whilst we walked. I sat in the foyer and had a coffee whilst she was using the internet. The people watching, as usual, was entertaining.

Inside the Parque Hotel
Inside the Parque Hotel
The wooden circle is for pedestrians to step over the ditch!
The wooden circle is for pedestrians to step over the ditch!

Whilst we were there, we realised that the Buena Vista Social Club was playing that evening, so we booked tickets, as this was something special for the last night in Cuba. However, we had to return to the Casa first, to smarten ourselves up, which was a bit of a mission in my case.

We then had dinner at the Italian restaurant we had visited previously before joining all the cruise ship passengers in the Parque Hotel function room where the band was playing. It wasn’t really quite the right venue with its white table cloths and suited waiters but the band and accompanying dancers were excellent, even if the programme was geared to tourists. At one point, they asked everyone which country they came from and then played a few bars of a relevant song. I was the only New Zealander and the song was ‘How Bizarre’, which was a little curious!

Afterwards, we sat in the foyer and listened to some music from another band before hailing a bicitaxi to take us back to the Casa. This was entertainment in itself, as it was about midnight, and the driver was very chatty and kept stopping and turning round to talk. Consequently, it took quite a while to arrive at our destination.

Mosaics and religion

We were picked up by Tony and Pedro (our driver) at 9.30am and made a couple of stops in Havana before we set off for Las Terrazzas. The first port of call was at Hamel Street, where the artist, Salvador Gonzales Escalona, had decorated the walls and created art installations in the area. Originally, they had just been art but had gradually developed into the theme of Afro-Cuban religion.


A local guide show us around and explained something about the religion itself as we went but, as he said, ‘I can only tell you about the ‘A’ of the A to Z’, as it would take hours. It was quite complicated and he mumbled somewhat, which made it even more difficult to understand. However, as I understand it, members of the religion pray to the gods of earth, water, forest etc. and believe that the spirit is within them and needs to be protected. This may be done in a number of ways including sacrificing chickens and wearing bracelets, the colours of which vary according to which god they want to protect them.

I had seen ladies in town all dressed in white and I now discovered this was part of the initiation into the religion, which included such strict rituals as keeping their heads protected, wearing white for a year, not going out of the house after 6pm or letting the sun shine on them at midday. Both Deb and I felt uncomfortable in the street as the whole concept of the religion was quite alien to us.

Community Medical Centre decorated by Furster
Community Medical Centre decorated by Furster

The next stop was at the artist, Furster’s, house. He had created mosaic murals, inspired by Gaudi, all around his house and in his neighbourhood. The result was quite fantastic and surreal and the garden bore a resemblance to an amusement park. Many of the murals show elements of the Revolution as Furster is a strong Castro supporter.


The interesting part of both these areas is, according to our guide, the fact that they have actually been allowed to exist, particularly in the case of Hamel Street, as religion had been banned in the early days after the Revolution, as the Revolution itself was regarded as the ‘religion’. No open display of religion would therefore have been permitted. It was only recognised following the visit of Pope John Paul.

Lunchtime cafe
Lunchtime cafe

We finally got on the open road and Tony suggested we stop at a typical Cuban restaurant for lunch. The first one we tried had changed its menu since he was there a month ago, with CUC prices and was very expensive (by our standards), so we drove to another where it was full of Cubans and the prices were ridiculously cheap and in Cuban pesos. Unfortunately, my stomach was feeling a little odd so all I could eat was some very tasty bean soup but Tony and Pedro tucked into enormous plates of pork, plantain, yucca and tamales.

Las Terrazzas
Las Terrazzas

It was a short drive after this to Las Terrazzas, which is a National Park and, to us, very disappointing. We were supposed to stay in the hotel, which had been built around the trees growing there, but it was full and we had to drive on to Soroa and stay there instead. The houses in Las Terrazzas are all occupied by workers in the park and it seemed quite an artificial sort of place. The Cubans love it though. We had a walk down to the waterfall, (which was small) along with a coach party or two, and also viewed the most interesting part of the whole place, which was the cabins that could be rented for the night, and which looked quite appealing!

Hotel at Las Terrazas with trees growing out of it
Hotel at Las Terrazas with trees growing out of it
Cabins for rent at Las Terrazas
Cabins for rent at Las Terrazas
Waterfall at Las Terrazas
Waterfall at Las Terrazas

Another short drive took us to Soroa and the hotel, which is very like a resort. Apparently, we are being compensated with a free dinner for staying there. How hard! The rooms (admittedly not exactly luxurious) are set around a beautiful swimming pool and unlike anywhere else we had been.

We met Tony and Pedro again in the evening for a drink and then dinner in the restaurant. I still wasn’t feeling 100% and was extremely tired so just had soup and ice cream whilst the men ate vast amounts from the buffet. I’m not sure how they fitted it all in!

The hotel we were forced to stay in at Soroa
The hotel we were forced to stay in at Soroa

Hop on hop off bus and bears

Inside the Casa
Inside the Casa
Who needs to come downstairs when you can just lower a basket?
Who needs to come downstairs when you can just lower a basket?

Today was a completely free day but first we had to say goodbye to Mariana who was very excited to be travelling on to Senegal. Once she had gone, Deb and I walked into town, where I hopped on a double decker city tour bus whilst she went to sort out some flights.

The trip lasted about an hour and a half and took us around the suburbs as well as through the old city, along the Malecon, through Revolution Square and out to a beach where there were a number of up market hotels (although, to my mind, not in a particularly attractive area). There was a commentary but I couldn’t distinguish the words. Nevertheless, it was well worth the 5CUC and gave a different perspective of Havana. The bus itself was a little delapidated, rather like a large part of the city, with some seats that were decidedly wobbly and didn’t have any backs. Luckily, I got on when there was still a ‘normal’ seat available!

Che again
Che again


Afterwards, I wandered down Obispo street again and over towards the Cathedral, where I stopped in a craft gallery/coffee shop for a coffee and some lunch. It was a very peaceful retreat from the bustle and noise outside.

Statue outside St Francis Church - touching his beard brings you luck!
Statue outside St Francis Church – touching his beard brings you luck!
Horse in Obispo Street
Horse in Obispo Street

As I was feeling quite tired today, I decided I would have a quick stop at the Teddy Bear exhibition and then head back to my room. The quick stop turned into an hour or more as there were relatively few people around them today so I was able to have a proper look. There is one for each country in the United Nations and it is a travelling exhibition to promote peace. Some of the bears bore quite elaborate decorations, both front and back, whilst others seemed to have no connection with the countries they represented, so it was quite fascinating.


After a very short rest, I joined the others up on the roof terrace again and I later met with Tony, our tour guide for the rest of the week. Deb has been undecided as to whether to continue with this tour as she really wanted to go to Colombia so it could have been a very cosy four days with just me and the driver otherwise! (The Melburnians are leaving Cuba and going to New York.) However, she is now leaving on Saturday so there will be two of us. Interestingly, whilst we were talking to Tony, the lady of the house asked for their I.D.s and then phoned someone to check their credentials. Apparently, everyone coming into the Casas has to be checked out and they regard this as quite normal. (We have always had to present our passports and the details have been recorded.)

Dinner was had at a very small pizza/pasta cafe, which was OK but nothing special. We considered going to a bar and listening to some music but decided we were both too tired and headed home to bed.

A walking tour and cocktails

View through my bedroom window grill
View through my bedroom window grill

After breakfast on the roof terrace, we met Monica for our last morning with her, during which we had a guided tour of Havana Vieja with a local guide.

This took about 3 hours and we ambled all around the old part of the city, much of which has either been restored or is part of the restoration project. The buildings in Havana are magnificent and it is heartening to see that an effort is being made to restore them.

Our walk talk us down the main street, Obispo, to the University, Plaza de Armas, the beautiful Cathedral Square, the Plaza of St Francis, where the United Nations exhibition of teddy bears is currently being held, and into the Plaza Vieja, the whole of which has already been restored. There were a number of men and women dressed up and smoking their large cigars and posing for photographs for the sum of 1CUC. I paid for one of the many peanut sellers, who sing out their wares in very deep voices, and Gerard was hassled by a couple of women, one of whom became quite aggressive when he tried to escape from her clutches. This was quite unusual for Cuba as people would ordinarily not persist if you told them you weren’t interested.

Book stalls in Plaza de Armas
Book stalls in Plaza de Armas
Statue in Cathedral Square
Statue in Cathedral Square

The city was buzzing, not least because it was Sunday and everyone was out perambulating. Once the tour had finished, we had lunch at a not very good Government run restaurant, where the service could not have been more casual and unfriendly if they tried. It seemed that there were a number of items not available, but there were still queues at the door waiting for a table. I’m not quite sure why! Monica was very emotional at saying goodbye. It was her first major tour and she has gone out of her way to be helpful, to the point of almost being smothering. However, the Australians put her straight!

Last lunch with Monica
Last lunch with Monica (Jules, Cheryl, Gerard, Deb, Monica and Mariana)

After lunch, we all went our separate ways, having arranged to meet on the terrace at 7pm and go out together for dinner. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering wherever the fancy took me, which was back to a couple of the Plazas we had visited this morning, on to the Malecon, where I was greeted by a very tall black man who ‘always wanted to visit my country’ and wanted to know what was I doing this evening, and then up the Prado, where a number of artists were displaying their creations and where I bought a couple of etchings.

Once I had walked the length of Obispo Street again, I was in dire need of a sit down and a drink so sat at a cafe in the Saint Francis Plaza having a beer whilst watching the mass of people who swarmed around the teddy bears.

Later, I met all the others on the Casa roof terrace, where a reasonable amount of rum was consumed before we walked into town and had dinner at a restaurant with an excellent band playing. More rum was consumed, and when Mariana decided her mojito was too strong, I drank that too. She doesn’t like ice and I think they must have replaced the ice with rum. I definitely should not have drunk it!

Eventually, we staggered back with Cheryl, who had trained the staff in many bars in Cuba to make Espresso Martinis (a lethal but very tasty cocktail), and who had drunk more than her fair share this evening, making a lot of new friends along the way.

Bay of Pigs, cenote and voodoo

Tank parked in the garden of the Giron Museum
Tank parked in the garden of the Giron Museum

I had a very claustrophobic night in my pink cell with no windows or air vents. This is the third such room I have had on the tour and, with visions of having the same room in Havana that I had had previously, I asked Monica if she could make sure I have a room with some air for the next couple of nights.

Sign for the Museum
Sign for the Museum

We had a day in two parts today. Our ultimate destination was Havana, which was about 6 hours drive in total, but first we stopped at the Giron Museum and then at the Bay of Pigs (or the more romantic sounding Playa de Conchines) for a swim in a cenote and in the crystal clear turquoise sea.

At the Giron museum, we first watched a documentary about the attempted invasion by the U.S. in 1961. This was two years after the Revolution and, apparently, was a counter revolutionary attack led by Batista supporters living in Miami, who were supported by the CIA, and which was defeated by Fidel’s troops. It was, of course, also related to the Russian missiles that were housed in Cuba and which posed a major threat to the U.S. in the context of the Cold War. Nothing changes! In this era, we have the same problems but a different arena. It has, however, been interesting to note the presentation of history from the other side, so to speak.

The Cenote
The Cenote
Crystal clear water at the Bay of Pigs
Crystal clear water at the Bay of Pigs

The Bay of Pigs was a short drive from Giron and we were soon able to swim in the very soft, very deep cenote water and afterwards in the sea, in which a number of people were having a dive lesson and even more were snorkelling.

I contented myself with a swim in the beautifully warm water. We spent quite some time relaxing and having lunch before getting back in the bus and continuing on to Havana, having one stop along the way, and arriving at about 5pm when we said goodbye to Ricardo.

Monica was desperate that I was happy with my room (it is quite amazing how much she has tried to please us) which was indeed excellent with some quite spectacular light fittings. It is at the top of the house and is probably the best room of all. I am beginning to feel a little guilty about making a fuss even if it is only a small one but I really cannot cope with being in an airless box.

We all went in separate directions after this and I walked all the way along the Malecon, which was thronging, it being a Saturday afternoon.

On returning to the house a bit later, I sat on the roof terrace listening to some African Cuban music that was being played in the house opposite, whilst sipping my rum and coke. As Mariana and Deb had not returned from the Internet place, I then ventured out for dinner on my own, something I would not normally do in a city but Havana is extremely safe. I ended up in a wine bar that could have been anywhere in Europe and had an excellent ‘menu’ comprising grilled chicken with rice and perfectly cooked vegetables, an exceedingly strong mojito and the best coffee I have had so far, all for 8CUC.

The landmark pile of rubble next to our Casa
The landmark pile of rubble next to our Casa

Mariana and Deb had just returned when I arrived back at the house, and I was chatting about the music I had heard earlier, which they would have loved, when we were invited into the Africans’ house opposite. Mariana and I then had a most bizarre experience in which we were taken into a room with what appeared to be a shrine of flowers, told to kneel and shake some maracas and then give money. In return, we got flowers and cake. We discovered from our Casa lady later that it was a common ploy with the occupants to lure tourists in and persuade them to part with their money. And I thought we were going to listen to music! Obviously, my naivety is still alive and kicking!