Panorama of Old Havana plaza Vieja with colorful tropical buildings - Google Images
Havana, the capital of the
Republic of Cuba, is in a socialist country and therefore unique for most, quite different from the gated communities that comprise the popular packaged Cuban holidays. Several packages offer escorted one-day trips to Old Havana where you can check out this city of two million people. Unfortunately, to experience Old Havana requires more than a few hours.
However, if you are fascinated with history, intrigued by old buildings, old cars and just plain curious, a visit to the capital city of the largest island in the Caribbean is a propos. The best way to learn about Old Havana is to wander about its lively streets. It's a bit of a challenge sometimes as hustlers are ubiquitous, offering myriad services or cigars (not the real ones) for a few pesos. And navigating crumbling sidewalks is not easy. Remember, this country has endured a long economic quarantine by the U.S., so the inhabitants are poor and the infrastructure crumbling.
The capital building is a replica of the United States capital in Washington, D.C. (but slightly bigger), built by Americans before removed by Fidel Castro in the late 1950's. One local described the event as "the triumph of the revolution in 1959." On the front steps of the capital, you may have your photograph taken by a camera that is older than you. Try to spend some time here simply to people-watch.
Outside the hotel district, few Cubans speak English and vice versa. When you wish to escape the humid heat, there are a few downtown museums to explore. Notice the clothing hanging from the balconies of the once-beautiful buildings.
Old Havana happens to enjoy the greatest living car museum in the world. I felt a surreal sense of being caught in a time-warp. Stylish 50 Chevy's, 57 Packard's, 57 Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop's and Oldsmobile Golden Rocket's weave amongst the sober Russian-made Ladas, their large engines guzzling precious gas at an astonishing rate. These yellow-plated vehicles are just a few of the privately owned items, so ingenuity flourishes to keep them running, and you witness car repairs performed ad hoc on the street.
Another item that strikes one is the music which permeates the air as it provides the rhythm of everyday life. The Rumba is never far away, an integral part of the island's character and history.
To travel beyond the inner city, book a tour narrated by an English-speaking guide. Purchase the tour from the lobby of one of the few large hotels in the city centre. Three-hour tours cost about 15 pesos, but expect to spend an hour picking up other passengers outside Old Havana before the tour begins. Regardless, it's fascinating and worth the money.
To enter Cuba, it is essential to prove to customs that you have a place to stay. Make prior arrangements for accommodations through a qualified travel agency. Remember that a four-star hotel is unlike those with Canadian standards. To be safe, you might consider packing a face-cloth, toilet paper and a bar of soap. Bring something to read because magazines and newspapers are scarce.
Upon arrival at the airport, convert your Canadian or U.S. currency into the tourist peso, the only officially acceptable tourist money in Cuba. The currency exchange counter is near where you pick up your luggage. Figure on $100 pesos per day, excluding your accommodation costs. Credit cards are rarely accepted outside of resort hotels. A taxi ride into Old Havana is about a half-hour drive and costs approximately 25 pesos.
When leaving, you pay a 25 Cuban Convertible Peso departure tax at the airport. As our weather gets cooler, you might consider a trip to this intriguing part of
George Bailey contributes to Sun Media's 43 paid-circulation newspapers across Canada as well as numerous magazines. George has appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Canada AM, the Discovery Channel, and Live with Regis and Cathy Lee. He has published five books on Niagara Falls.