Day 2 and we are finally rested and ready to explore the city. I started the morning with a short walk around the hotel still trying to get my bearings and see as much of Old Havana as possible. I enjoy seeing the day-to-day life of the people in every place that we visit, so this day was filled with not only 2 tours, but also a lot of people watching as we walked from Old Havana to Central Havana for our first tour at the Partagas Cigar Factory.
All of the school children wear uniforms. From small children to teenagers, the uniforms are different in each area of town.
Cat and her standard travel walk and face. We walk fast in foreign countries, and Cat does very well at avoiding unsavory people using her perfected resting bitch face (RBF). She was much less frequently offered cigars, tours, and taxis than I was on this trip.
Seriously…the cars are everywhere. The juxtaposition of the perfectly kept classic cars against the backdrop of dilapidated buildings makes for some great photographs.
Kids were playing everyday in the Plaza Vieja; the square nearest our hotel.
Here’s is another example of life from the stoop. Don’t miss the baby being fed ice cream in the photo above. This family is getting out of the heat by staying in the shade and enjoying a cold treat.
The capitol building in Havana (El Capitolio) is based on our own capitol building here in the United States.
Almost all of the classic cars in Havana are also taxis. These are called Taxi Particular. The rates are negotiated with the driver before taking the ride, but the prices can be very high. Here is a car for rent at 50 cucs (don’t forget…the exchange rate is about $1 US to 1 cuc) per hour. You can also choose to use the Taxi Collectivo service. This option allows the drivers to pickup multiple passengers along a fixed route. This website has a great explanation of how the Taxi Collectivo works.
It isn’t just the buildings that are interesting. Some of the people have their own dilapidated beauty about them.
Central Havana has some of the nicer looking, more colorful buildings. And of course the cars.
We got very lucky at the Partagas factory. First, we got there just in time for the very last English tour right around 12pm. The factory closes to the public at 1pm. When we arrived we learned that tickets needed to be purchased ahead of time through a hotel. Almost every hotel in Havana has a tour desk, and walk-ins are not actually allowed at the factory. Back to getting lucky, we walked in and kind of lingered until they got suspicious and asked what we were doing. When we heard someone speaking English that appeared to be a tour guide, we told him we were there for the tour. He asked if we had tickets. We explained that we did not. He said the tour cost is 10 cucs (which we knew was the correct amount from our research) and that we could pay him directly at the end of the tour. So we jumped in with the group to be escorted through the factory. At this factory they make Cohiba, Bolivar, Montechristo, and just about every other Cuban brand aside from Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann. They have their own factory that also gives tours.
The entire tour lasts only about 30 minutes, and cameras are not allowed. The photos below were taken with a camera phone during the few moments that the guide told us it was okay to take pictures.
There are several different jobs in the factory. The first room (not pictured) is filled with women separating full tobacco leafs into halves. First, they remove the center vein from the leaf, then create piles based on color and location on the tobacco plant. The next room is what you see here. Some of these workers are collecting tobacco leaves into the round shape for the filler. Others are using the outer leaves, chosen for their perfect appearance, to finish the cigar. The only thing in a Cuban cigar that is not grown or crafted locally in Cuba is the glue used to seal the outer leaf. This glue comes from the sap of Canadian trees and has no smell or taste when burned. Here is a full run down of the process from seed to cigar if you are interested in knowing more about the cigar making process.
After the tour I asked the guide where to buy authentic Cuban cigars. He recommended the shop beneath the Romeo y Julieta factory and walked us over when the tour had finished.
Once we arrived at the Romeo y Julieta factory we found out they also sold rum! So we not only picked up a nice box of Romeo y Julieta cigars, but we also grabbed a bottle of Havana Club 7 year.
Lunch kind of sucked, but at least we found a nice little outdoor cafe to stop in and have a beer nearby.
Since tourists are served different beers than the locals (due to the pricing in cuc as opposed to cup), the only Cuban beer options are Cristal and Bucanero. We both preferred Cristal. It’s nice and light making it refreshing in the Havana heat.
Next stop, Camera Oscura to begin our 2 hour walking tour through Old Havana. The camera oscura was invented by Leonardo da Vinci and works like a periscope and a projector combined. The camera part can be controlled using ropes to scan 360 degrees of its surroundings. The image is then projected onto a concave white platform that can be raised and lowered to zoom in and out. It was a pretty cool device. Read more about the Camera Oscura in Havana, and if you live in Los Angeles, check out the Camera Obscura in Santa Monica.
The camera oscura also happens to be at the top of the tallest building around, so the views of the city are incredible.
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (English Castle of the Royal Force) is a star fort on the western side of the harbour in Havana, Cuba, set back from the entrance, and bordering the Plaza de Armas. Originally built to defend against attack by pirates, it suffered from a poor strategic position, being too far inside the bay. The fort is considered to be the oldest stone fort in the Americas. This is lifted directly from Wikipedia.
We also saw the wheels from the original Cuban lottery. All forms of gambling, including the lottery, were banned in Cuba after the revolution in 1959 due to corruption within the previous government and the American mobsters controlling the games. More about the history of gambling in Cuba here.
This mural is made entirely of different colored sand gathered from the various beaches around the country.
This was our tour guide Osmin. He was pretty awesome, and if anyone needs a recommendation for a guide while in Havana, Cat and I can provide Osmin’s phone number and email.
This was a blindingly happy moment before about 3 hours of disappointment. Our first and only ride in a classic car while in Havana. We asked the hotel staff to call us a cab, and when this car pulled up my first reaction was no. I didn’t want to pay the high price for a taxi particular. When the driver said “10 cucs” I jumped right in. Why was it our only ride in a classic car? Because how much better is it going to get than a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air? There are songs about this car!
So the car was awesome, and the price was great, but the next part of the story is much less fun. We had the car take us to San Cristobal; a paladar near the Vedado. Paladares are private restaurants in Havana. Instead of being controlled and run by the government, these restaurants operate within private “residences” and pay hefty taxes to the government. There are also limits imposed on the number of tables allowed inside each paladar. San Cristobal specifically has hosted many of the most famous Havana visitors including President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger, and Jay Z and Beyonce. Because of this, reservations are now required. Unfortunately, we were not aware of the reservation requirement, and we were turned away. The restaurant gave us a business card and said we would most likely be able to get in the following day during lunch time.
Disappointed, we left the restaurant left to quickly figure out a plan b. We pulled out our $40 Android tablet to check our other previously bookmarked restaurants. We found one nearby that we had been interested in, and found it was walking distance. Through the dark streets of Havana we walked many blocks only to find the restaurant we were headed to was no longer there. While swatting away jineteros, we walked out to the Malecon to find a taxi and get us back to Old Havana.
We negotiated the price of 10 cucs for the ride, and off we went. We drove along the Malecon in a junky, but still classic, taxi particular with Cafe del Oriente in our sites. When we pulled up to the sidewalk, the driver pointed out the restaurant, and I handed him the 10 cucs. As we exited the car, the driver turned around holding up a 1 cuc bill and said “Senor” with a quizzical look on his face. I understood the implication, and thought I must have accidentally handed him a 1 instead of a 10. So I took back the 1 cuc bill and handed him another 10 cuc bill. It wasn’t until we were out of the car and the driver had pulled away that I realized I had handed him the correct amount the first time…and the second time. So our 10 cuc ride turned into a 19 cuc ride. We later agreed that it was worth $9 to learn this lesson early in the trip.
Refusing to let our bad luck get the best of the night, we went into the Cafe del Oriente restaurant, and we were seated. The waitress came and asked if we would like drinks. We ordered drinks and our entrees. Here is another first on the list of Cuban scams for us; the waiters will try to force you into ordering a more expensive dish. Cat asked for one thing, and the waitress told her that it would take 40 minutes to prepare, but we could have another dish that was 4 cucs more much quicker, and it was a very similar dish. Cat wasn’t having it. She stuck to her guns and told her that we didn’t mind waiting for the dish that she asked for. As it turns out I think it would have taken 40 minutes either way to get the food.
Here is the dish that Cat ordered, and an appropriately disappointed face. The food was not very good. 2 days and still no decent food. I ordered fish that was so well done I thought they had delivered chicken. The texture was rubbery and my food was flavorless.
After dinner we were feeling a little defeated. I had been wanting to find some live music, but I didn’t expect to prolong this night any further. On the way back to our hotel, walking through Plaza Vieja, we heard some pretty swinging Cuban salsa blaring out of an alley. We walked down to find The Tavern. The place was on fire. The staff, the band, and the patrons were all having a great time. The band was well rehearsed and talented. The drinks were strong and delicious. The place was tiny and full of life. What we expected was one drink before bed turned into 4 drinks each, a full cigar smoked, a tip for the band, and a pretty late night. I would love to give a link to the bar, but I’m not sure they have any online presence. You’ll just have to go and find it yourself. Listen for lively music and a guy on the street trying to get people inside. This is one time that the jinetero is going to do you a favor.
Not only did they get our drinks out quick, they handed us markers to write on the walls.
The band; Andy Aldana de Santiago
Kind of a strange day. We had a great time at the cigar factory. Osmin and the architectural walking tour were awesome. Everything about food was terrible including the restaurants, their staff, their food, and getting to and from each one. But the night ended on a pretty great “note”.