Monday, June 2, 2008

Your Man in Havana

It was with great trepidation that your correspondent arrived at customs and immigration control at Havana airport. The guide books and web forums were filled with stories of hour long interrogations; not so subtle requests for bribes, and particular scrutiny to check that expensive state owned hotels had been reserved as a condition of granting visas (which I hadn't done, of course). There were two other obvious solo travellers on the plane, so we hooked up together for safety in numbers. In the end we needn't have worried; but Andy, Janet and I got one so well together we ended up travelling together for multiple stages of our respective trips !

Customs safely navigated, we shared a taxi into town to our respective accommodations. The best option for independent travellers in Cuba is to stay in Casas Privadas - private homes that function more or less as Bed and Breakfasts. Although mostly legal, the Casas take away business from the sterile and over priced stated owned hotels; and as such are subject to much harassment and exorbitant taxation from state officials. I'd arranged to meet up with a fellow solo-traveller at a Casa Privada in the old part of town so I said a temporary goodbye to my new friends and made my way there.

The next day was the first chance to really see Havana. Storms the previous night had cleared the air and the city had a fresh washed feel to it. Apart from the historic old town (Havana Vieja), which has been renovated to within an inch of its life, Havana is in a desperate state of disrepair. Depending on which guide book you believe, 100s or even 1000s of buildings a decade simply crumble through a combination of neglect and corrosive sea water. The roads (outside of a few key areas) are pot hole ridden warrens; and walking at night-time (street lighting is at a premium) requires real concentration not to end up going for 6.

Havana Vieja, on the other, hand, has been subject to years of funding from UNESCO and Spanish provinces, and is considered the best example of colonial-era Spanish architecture anywhere in the world (including Spain). It's the only part of Havana many of the European tourists get to see, and as such is strictly policed and almost completely free of the hustlers and scamsters that proliferate in the rest of the city. While this makes for a stress free tourist experience, there is a slight Truman Show feel to this part of Havana; as beautiful as it is it would be a travesty to miss out on the real feel of the town, which can be found walking 10 minutes in any direction.

I also made a visit to the Necropolis Cristobal Colon (or Christopher Columbus, as we know him), Havana's main cemetery. I was looking for the grave of Jose Raul Capablanca, a former world chess champion, who was supposedly buried here. I failed in that search, but the scenic cemetery was still worth the visit - not least for the bizarre story of La Milagrosa, known as Cuba's unofficial saint !

1 comment:

Letizia said...

I love the photos, you're making me feel like visiting the place :-)