Cuba: Timeless Havana

Havana is where I grew up.  No, I’m not referring to the capital and largest city of Cuba but to a street in a little town of Tanauan in the island of Leyte, Philippines.  As a kid who was entranced with geography and world history I learned about the city of Havana in Cuba, definitely grander, more famous and controversy-laden. I dreamed of setting foot on it one day even though it seemed out of reach for me that time, being thousands of miles away from the other Havana I called home. I never stopped dreaming.

I almost made it to the other Havana on January 29, 2017 with my parents and two siblings only to suddenly make a turnaround flight alone upon landing at the Jose Marti International Airport. Arrival-Immigration-Customs-Checkin-Boarding. Kudos to Jetblue for the wonderful service providing me a dedicated staff as I breezed past through everything. Kudos to Jetblue too for the complimentary, fast and efficient Wi-Fi that I was able to learn about the family emergency while we’re up in the air that I really needed to head back to New York.  As persistent as I could be, two weeks later I tried again to make it to Havana, this time all alone. Yes, on February 10, 2017, I finally reached Havana, Cuba, one of the most enigmatic cities that I have always wanted to discover. This time Jetblue’s lower fares for its direct flights to Cuba were already sold out so I had to take that detour to Mexico City via Aeromexico for more than three hundred bucks of savings.


Flying into Cuba is not a big hassle.  The communist nation is warmly welcoming visitors from all over the world even Americans.  However, if your flight is coming direct from a U.S. city, you will be asked by the airline about the purpose of your travel.  As tourist travel by Americans remains prohibited, you should choose one of 12 U.S. government-approved categories of travel to Cuba. At the airport check-in is where you usually buy the Cuban visa.  An alternative way to enter Cuba is to fly via Mexico, Canada or a Caribbean island.

Tip:  If you are coming from the U.S., Jetblue Airways charges the cheapest Cuban visa issued by an airline at US$50.  Other U.S. airlines charge US$75.  However, if you are coming from Canada, Europe or via Mexico (just like me), the airlines at the airport only charge less than US$20.


IMG_8361We arrived at the terminal 3 of Havana’s ageing airport. I was able to clear immigration and customs in less than 30 minutes. The lines for the currency exchange and taxis at the airport seemed like a mile long so I took the offer of an English-speaking taxi driver for an easy way out of the airport for 30 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Currency).

IMG_8337The 30-minute trip to Vedado along streets with beautifully lined-up palm trees included a quick stop at a major hotel in Vedado where there was no long line to exchange my euros into CUC which is the currency used by tourists. I then quickly dropped off my things at my Airbnb lodging in Vedado and changed into a more comfortable outfit. I requested the same taxi driver to take me to Old Havana, a 10-min. drive away for an additional 5 CUC.

  1. Bring a lot of cash and as much as possible try not to bring U.S. dollars into Cuba as you will be charged an additional 10% fee using this currency.  Bring British pounds, euros, Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos.
  2. If you are the uber adventurous, you can leave the airport and walk a bit into the main road where taxis can bring you to the city center for just 10 CUC.  This is what a German lady told me when we chatted in Old Havana that she and her husband have been doing for many times.
  3. Taxis would charge usually higher than the normal fares (7CUC instead of 5CUC for example) so always try to bargain.  If they won’t agree, try to find another one but they usually would settle for the reduced amount.




DSC_0844The taxi driver dropped me along Malecon about 2 minutes walk to the Plaza de la Catedral area.



DSC_0755The first major attraction I saw was the Plaza de la Catedral where the imposing 240-year old Catedral de San Cristobal stands. It is one of the five main squares of Havana, a city that will celebrate its 500th year of existence in 2020.

CSC_0854A restaurant called El Patio is at the left side of the square and is a popular place to people watch while dining.



DSC_0654Completed in 1777, the cathedral is a striking example of Cuban baroque architecture.

DSC_0769At sunset, which is my favorite time to shoot on a clear sunny day, the square exudes a different character as the evening lights are starting to come alive.

DSC_0779In front of the Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum) is where photographers would mostly converge to take the best shot of the cathedral and the buildings around it.

DSC_0771At this location too is where I met two young, lovely and friendly Peruvian ladies, Helen and Susan. Helen, the half-Russian, half-Peruvian, made the first move and gladly offered to take my photos. They became my travel companions for the rest of my short stay in Havana.

IMG_8355Just a few steps from Plaza de la Catedral is La Bodeguita del Medio, a very famous restaurant bar which is one of Hemingway’s stopovers. Quite cramped and crowded, I would call this place a bit over-rated.


DSC_0749Linking the area of Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Armas with Parque Central and Paseo de Marti is the very busy Calle Obispo.



DSC_0660Both locals and tourists fill in what is probably the most crowded street in Havana.



CSC_0665You could even find a lot of Cuban students roaming around too for whatever reason.



CSC_0765The stretch has plenty of souvenir shops…..







DSC_0667…and full-packed places like the tiny Floridita. At the end of Calle Obispo near Parque Central before reaching Paseo de Marti is the famous bar that still attracts a huge number of Havana visitors.



IMG_8350In the 50s, it was named by Esquire magazine as one of the seven greatest bars in the world together with Raffles Bar in Singapore, Ritz Bar in Paris, 21 Club in New York, Pied Piper Bar in San Francisco & Shelbourne Hotel Bar in Dublin.



IMG_8351It may have lost its position in that listing but still when you get inside the place you could feel the grandeur it once had.



DSC_0736The classic main bar still remains and the staff are truly nice even if they are so busy.

IMG_8349Whether you like daiquiri or margarita, you would love the place with its reasonable prices and great-tasting cocktails.



CSC_0739Until this day it is frequented by a lot of visitors daily.  It was late afternoon when I got in and it was full. It was hard to get a seat so others would be glad to just stand and stay at the bar or even drink outside.  I had one glass of a drink and I left.



DSC_0735Just outside Floridita is the station for the cool Coco Taxi.


Along Paseo de Marti & Around Parque Central

DSC_0787The most relevant and the most splendid of Havana’s boulevards is Paseo de Marti that encompasses the area from the west end of the Capitolio to the east end of Parque Central shown above.



DSC_0790To my back is the Gran Teatro Nacional and the classic Hotel Inglatera both situated along Paseo de Marti,



DSC_0795Hotel Inglaterra is Havana’s oldest hotel. In late 2017 it would soon become part of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG).



IMG_8367This is part of the grand lobby and behind those steel bars is one of the hotel’s restaurants where the buffet breakfast is served.



IMG_8365I took my breakfast here one time and the 8 CUC I paid was more than worth it.  There was wide variety of food like the usual Western choices of eggs, sausages, toast, potatoes and many others. I was surprised in a positive way that they even served sardines!  Yes, the coffee was good too!



IMG_8363In the hotel lobby is a plaque honoring Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti.




CSC_0857Opposite Hotel Inglaterra is a stop for the HabanaBusTour.




DSC_0669In front of the Gran Teatro Nacional and around Parque Central is a staggering display of colorful American vintage cars.




CSC_0703Along Paseo de Marti is the Payret, the oldest and largest cinema in Central Havana.



CSC_0698To the left is the partly seen Gran Teatro Nacional and to the right is part of the Payret.



CSC_0695Several steps away from Parque Central one can have the best view of the Gran Teatro Nacional.



CSC_0694With the vintage cars of different colors constantly passing by,  selfies are truly worth all the effort at this vantage point.



DSC_0688Paseo de Marti is a major street and buses also ply the route.



DSC_0716Walking farther away from Gran Teatro Nacional, one can have the striking view of the Capitolio and the colorful buildings along Paseo de Marti.



CSC_0699At this area is where I met the German lady who told me about the cheapest way to get out of the airport to your destination. With the colorful buildings as background it is worth the time to spend a bit of your time here watching colorful vintage cars pass by.  Name the color, pink….






DSC_0721…yellow, you will surely find your favorite one!


DSC_0670Horse-drawn carriages are still available too albeit only for visitors.



DSC_0706At this area too was the first time I watched old sedans picking up local commuters who would squeeze themselves in with as much as 10 other people. It is probably their alternative mode of transportation that is akin to a mass taxi.  I wonder how much the locals pay and how far those cars can take passengers.



IMG_8359This is the Gran Teatro Nacional at night.


Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial)

DSC_0814We took time to visit the historic Plaza de la Revolucion where Fidel Castro delivered speeches in this vast square, attracting more than a million people at times. In the center of the Plaza de la Revolucion stands a 109-meter gray tower, a memorial to the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti, while a large, white marble statue of him lies at its base. Below the statue is the entrance to the interior of the Jose Marti Memorial, which contains a museum on Marti. Visitors can ascend the tower for incredible views over Havana.



DSC_0815Opposite the memorial, the famous giant portrait of Che Guevara adorns the Ministry of Interior building.



CSC_0856In another building, the portrait of Castro adorns another building.  Oh yes, that is me in a vintage orange Chevrolet car!



DSC_0799We hailed this taxi in front of Hotel Inglaterra. Our initial agreement was for the driver to drop us at the Plaza de la Revolucion but we ended up getting the return trip to Old Havana for free as he agreed to take us back since he was going the same way anyway for a passenger pickup.



IMG_8368Everything was made possible with the negotiation skills of my new found Spanish-speaking friends from Peru, Helena and Susana, whom I met at the Plaza de la Catedral the previous day.



DSC_0817We enjoyed the ride on the streets of Havana….



DSC_0821…and along the windy coastal stretch of Malecon.



DSC_0800Yes,  the two ladies made local heads turn.



Plaza de Armas

DSC_0926From Malecon, instead of turning to the direction of Plaza de la Catedral going straight would lead you to Plaza de Armas.



DSC_0753You would encounter ladies in colorful garments….



CSC_0764…..who would shower you with hot kisses!



CSC_0917You can also chance upon colorful musical parade.



DSC_0848In the middle of the day you can also sip freshly made piña colada sold at stalls around the area.  You can request for free for more rum if you want the drink stronger!



DSC_0751If you would like to dine or chill, restaurants and cafes abound the area surrounding Plaza de Armas.



DSC_0754Colorful paintings of Havana and Cuba for sale are on display too.



Along Calle O’Reilly

IMG_8383Calle O’Reilly is parallel to the more famous and busier Calle Obispo.  One time, coming from Plaza de Armas we traversed this narrow street to go into the road less traveled avoiding the crowd at Obispo.  It was not bad after all as we found restaurants and shops waiting to be discovered tucked on this stretch.


IMG_8380Also, at Calle O’Reilly we had some barber talk. I was not the one who actually got engaged in a conversation but my newly found Peruvian friends who speak Spanish. They chatted with the barber how Cuba had survived despite the U.S. trade embargo. Venezuela, Russia and North Korea were its only trading partners. Cuba made its way to create its own refineries to fuel its economy. However as I experienced it, the trade embargo still affected the Cuban people in a big way.


Palacio de los Capitanes

DSC_0859In the same way going to Plaza de Armas is the historic Palacio de los Capitanes which is just in front of the plaza.



DSC_0864With a bargain 3 CUC entrance fee, this museum was worth the visit.



DSC_0869Yeah, the Cuban flag!  This was taken at the entrance to the palace.



DSC_0911The two-story massive building is the former official residence of the Spanish governors of Cuba.



DSC_0878The galleried second storey of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales are preserved with their original colonial decorations and furniture.



CSC_0922The complex houses exhibitions of art and historical artifacts.



CSC_0923This was taken in one of the rooms in the upper level with all those classic canons.

DSC_0889This was taken from the upper storey that looks down onto a central courtyard with its signature two palm trees.



CSC_0900The Hall of Heroic Cuba contains important objects from the wars of independence and many flags of national significance including the flag of Carlos Manuel Cespedes, the “Father of the Homeland” (Padre de la Patria).



DSC_0912On the ground floor, only two things caught our attention.  One was the colorful peacock roaming around….



DSC_0910…and the opulent and well-preserved carriages used by the Spanish governor generals.



Parque Historico Militar




Hotel Nacional de Cuba

DSC_0943My last day was spent in the magnificent historic luxury hotel, Hotel Nacional de Cuba located in Vedado area where I was staying.

DSC_0942The hotel was built with a mix of styles including Sevillian, Roman, Moorish and Art Deco.



DSC_0946The hotel opened in 1930 as the National Hotel of Cuba.  30 years later Fidel Castro nationalized the hotel.



DSC_0934Our best moment here was the Cuba libre time!



DSC_0935The overflow area of the hotel lobby was fully occupied during the happy, sunset hours.



DSC_0930We finally got a table and our drinks!  Cheers!



DSC_0939Here they are again my new friends from Peru who were with me again on this happy, sunset time.



DSC_0944Fidel Castro is immortalized in this painting inside the lobby of the Hotel Nacional of the Cuban revolution he led in 1959.



IMG_8387As I was on a taxi on my way back to my Airbnb lodging along Malecon watching as the sun was about to set, I felt extremely thankful to God for making this trip possible and made me experience the Cuban life even in such a short period of time. Cubans are one of the nicest people I have met.  Crime is almost unheard of  and the city is relatively safe but still I would recommend utmost care especially at night. Cuba has the highest literacy rates in the world at 99.7% but still most of them are struggling to make a living because of the Cuban trade embargo. The poorer ones who are in the tourist-related service would persistently convince visitors to take a tour, check-in to a certain hotel or to dine at a recommended restaurant so that they can earn extra via commission but certainly they are not  rude. They touched my heart in a certain way.  Even poverty (as defined by world standards, not mine) cannot extinguish their joy.  Life goes on in this beautiful island nation.




17888928_10211113364984491_1719925327_nAfter reading the somewhat negative reviews of hotels in Havana all over the internet, I decided to take my first Airbnb booking! I chose the upscale residential area of Vedado and I was not disappointed at all.  I was able to experience how to live like a local.

17888502_10211113003455453_315082916_nI took this two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Vedado.  My parents and two siblings stayed in this place two weeks before I did and they gave high marks for this place and the owner so I unhesitatingly booked this place.



95449023_originalThe living room was spacious and cozy.



17909518_10211112994615232_588966798_nb6775aa2_original-1The bedrooms were equipped with cabinets, air-conditioning system, a fan and safety boxes.



17888796_10211112994775236_1204263226_nForemost homey, the place was also consistently clean and very contemporary.



17888289_10211112994495229_76060224_nComplete with a fully-equipped kitchen, living and dining areas…..

cd37a978_original-1…….plus a spacious veranda, this place is home far away from home.  Just in front of the house is a wet market so if you plan to cook your own food this place will be more than perfect for you.



17888133_10211112994415227_891926426_nThe bathroom is nice as well. No bathtub but warm water is readily available.  As an honest suggestion, just bring your own soap or body wash. Trade embargo says it all.



17888909_10211112997455303_807540602_nPictured here are the extra pleasant and very accommodating Airbnb owners Osmary and Jose with my parents and two siblings.

17888827_10211112997575306_1897241033_nThe couple took care of my family and myself very well.

If you want to be very near Old Havana then choose the high end hotels like the Hotel Inglaterra or Hotel Parque Central. I am really not sure though on the condition of the rooms and services. But if you do not mind being 10 minutes away from Old Havana, then choose Vedado area, either staying at the expensive Hotel Nacional or at one of the nicer Airbnb lodgings, like I did, to experience how to live like a local.




IMG_8411This is the departure area of terminal 3 of the Jose Marti International Airport. The duty free area is in a sad, poor state, at least in this terminal where we departed. It is small, a bit dark and the products are of low quality except for these two world-class items: cigar and rum. These two are Cuba’s most celebrated exports.

If entering Havana was one for the books for me, I never expected that leaving the city would be a bigger story as I almost did not make it to the airport terminal.  The taxi driver that took me from the airport to the city center on my arrival agreed to pick me up at 3 a.m. for my ride from the city to the airport on my departure day. He did not show up. The owner of the Airbnb lodging gave me a ride and found for me a taxi that would take me to the airport. He found one but due to misunderstanding I was dropped at the wrong terminal that was not even open for the day yet! I waited at the airport entrance almost panicking because the correct terminal was two miles away! Yes I was contemplating on walking two miles until the unexpected happened! Thank God for sending a taxi driver who was trying to pick up passengers at the still closed terminal that I was able to make it to the correct terminal.

It was indeed an unbelievable story from beginning to end. So long Havana! It would be really nice to come back to experience Cayo Largo Sur, Trinidad and Santiago.

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