The plan for today is to take the Havana Bus Tour around Havana Vieja (Old Havana), see what we see, then maybe do some exploring on foot. Lonely Planet has a nice looking walking tour of the main sites that I’d like to check out. But on the whole, I just want to wander with no agenda, letting the city unfold as it will.
The bus leaves on the opposite side of Parque Central from the bus we took yesterday. I’m looking forward to a relaxing ride while we see the sites.
We’re only a few stops in to the ride when our driver stops and tells us we all have to get off. Did the bus break down? Is this the end of the line now? The driver isn’t clear, just motions that if we want to continue, we have to get on the bus across the street. But that bus is heading back the direction from which we came. I’m so confused.
Instead of getting on the other bus, we decide now is as good a time as any to walk around on foot. It’s that or wait and see if another bus comes along, and in this heat, I’d rather find some shade. Besides, Havana Vieja is the main attraction here, and I really want to explore.
I will never tire of seeing all the colorful old cars.
I read that there’s been a huge undertaking to renovate the buildings in Havana Vieja for the past 30 years. A man named Eusebio Leal Spengler has been meticulously restoring buildings in the area since the 1970’s. He uses old photographs, architect drawings and anything else he can find to bring them back to their former glory. Over 25% of the buildings in this area have been restored, and the efforts continue. It focuses mainly on areas tourists frequent, the four main squares and nearby buildings.
It’s hard to reconcile these well maintained, tree lined streets with the visions of crumbling buildings I had in my mind of what Havana is supposed to look like. Central Havana, where we’re staying, definitely doesn’t look like this at all. There’s such a flavor of Spain here, I almost feel like I’m walking down the streets of Madrid or Barcelona.
According to my guidebook, the yellow building below is the first to have been renovated. It looks pretty good!
Randomly, we come across a group of performers walking down the street, music and drums filling the air. I have no idea if this is a normal occurrence, but the locals didn’t seem phased by it, so I’m guessing it is.
After walking awhile, we stop for a rest in the shade. Because of the embargo, things like Coca Cola and Pepsi are not to be found in Cuba (unless you look really hard, of course), so we drink the local pop. I can’t say it tastes much different than a Coke.
Throughout Havana, you’ll constantly be told “Ernest Hemingway ate here. Ernest Hemingway drank there.” It’s usually a gimmick to get tourists to eat or drink in that establishment. He also lived at the hotel Ambos Mundos for seven years, right in the heart of Havana Vieja, so of course it’s a popular stop for tourists.
As I mentioned before, so much of Havana Vieja reminds me of Spain. And maybe France, though I’ve never been so I can’t accurately compare. Sidewalk cafes are everywhere, with live music at nearly all of them. It makes for a fantastic atmosphere. Side note: by the end of the trip, I’m willing to trade all the atmosphere in the world for a decent meal. But early on, I’m utterly charmed by this vibe.
Maggie loves to dance, frequently taking salsa classes back home in Boston (she even talked me in to a few lessons a hundred years ago when she lived in Seattle, but dancing isn’t really my thing). When she sees this guy dancing on his own on the corner, she musters up the courage to go dance with him. You never know what sort of spontaneous things will happen in Havana!
Next we come to Plaza de la Catedral and the Cathedral of Havana. This is the cathedral you find on nearly every postcard of Cuba that doesn’t feature an old car on the beach.
I love this weirdo.
People selling artwork line the street. I’m so tempted to buy one, but I have absolutely no wall space to hang anything. I love how colorful they are though.
You never know what you’ll see walking down the streets in Havana Vieja.
While a significant number of buildings have been or are currently being restored, there are still plenty waiting their turn. Until then, these trees will keep them company.
Finally, we come to Plaza Vieja. This area used to be popular with bullfighting and executions. Not a pleasant past. But today, it’s a lovely spot filled with more cafes and plenty opportunities for people watching.
This guy sits on the step, waiting to pose with tourists…for a cost, of course.
This guy poses for free.
As the sun sets, we make our way back to our casa. In the end, I’m glad we got off when we did. If we had spent the morning riding the bus as planned, we wouldn’t have had such a leisurely stroll through this part of Havana, and it’s been quite a joy.