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The Haunting Beauty of Havana’s Buildings

Cuba‘s well-known for, among other things, its architecture. However, after 50 years of neglect, many of its now historic buildings are falling apart. Many others struggle to retain their majestic beauty.

Gran Teatro de la Habana

Hotel Inglaterra

I can only imagine how splendid these buildings looked back then.

Hotel Plaza

This building would have looked nicer without the clothes

La Floridita - one of Hemingway's haunts

We should have stopped at La Floridita for a daiquiri, but didn’t.

This could use some work

Bacardi Building

Previously supporters of the revolution, the Bacardi family left Cuba rather than let the regime nationalize their business. Bacardi is now headquartered in Bermuda.

The Bacardi rum is the main ingredient in Cuba Libres and daiquiris.

Convento de San Francisco

Old Havana

Old Havana building

Square in Old Havana

Decaying beauties

The restaurant atop the Hotel Ambos Mundos provides a panoramic view of some of Havana’s decaying buildings.

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Why Cuba?

A few people have asked me why I went to Cuba. In case you’re one of them, here’s why.

To me, Cuba is like the neighbor behind a wall that you hear but you can’t see.

In Western Jamaica, where I grew up, from very early on, I could hear Cuba from my house through the sometimes faint, sometimes clear sounds of music and voices in a language I didn’t then understand. Over the years, I created my own narrative of the place adults talked about in sometimes panicked, sometimes hushed tones.

I wondered about the people, who it was explained to me, could not leave. I tried to imagine what it would be like not being able to leave or do whatever pleased me.

The image I had, even at that age, was of being trapped, being imprisoned. No, no one wanted that.

Cuba was the Caribbean’s bogeyman – there was always the fear that what happened there could also happen in Jamaica. And many Jamaicans were, understandably, concerned.

Then as I grew older, stories began to come out. Stories told by my mother of two aunts – sisters of her father’s, my grandfather – who went to Cuba, married and never returned.

l also found out that another grand-aunt, this time on my father’s side never returned either.

Between 1916 and 1940, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 Jamaicans went to Cuba in search of work. No one knows how many returned despite being allowed to following the revolution.

My paternal grandfather did. As did my godfather and a family friend – all spicing their Jamaican English with Spanish words and speaking Spanish among themselves – clear signs to everyone else that they had been “a foreign.”

Some of those words became so commonplace, they became part of the lexicon. I didn’t realize until I started learning Spanish in high school that these words were.

My fascination with Cuba never waned – blame that privacy fence, the closedoffness of it. And with family connections, it isn’t a place I could put out of my mind easily, despite all that I learned from my Cuban friends.

When I decided to visit, I told each of them in turn. Not one objected.

My family wanted me to look up the ones who never returned.

But, in the end, I went for me.

Fifty years of repression have not dampened the spirit of the Cuban people. The country hasn’t lost its grandeur, its style or its flare. And I’d go back tomorrow. Because now I have my own images to match the narrative of my childhood.

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Ready to Travel to Cuba? Know Before You Go

If you’ve been reading my posts about Cuba and would like to travel to that country, there are a few

Monument to Jose Marti

things to keep in mind.

Despite the Obama Administration’s recent announcement of further relaxation of the ban on U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba and expanding the number of airports that offer direct flights there, Americans still need special permission from the Office of Foreign Asset Control to enter Cuba.

But if you can’t wait, here’s what you need to know before you go.

Getting There: Fly to another country (Canada, Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica, etc.) and get a flight to Cuba. I flew first to Jamaica, purchased my ticket (I had made a reservation beforehand but I don’t think the price would have been different) and left for Havana the next day.

Visas: You’ll need a visa to enter Cuba. Not to worry, it can be purchased from the airline or on arrival. It costs about $30. Your passport will not be stamped.

El Capitolio

Accommodation: There are several companies online that will book your accommodation, whether you’re looking for a hotel or a casa particular (B&B). I used Cuba Accommodation.

While you’re there: Since U.S. issued credit cards are not accepted for use in Cuba, cash is your best option. Unfortunately, U.S. dollars carry a 10% service charge when you change them for Cuban Convertible Dollars (CUCs) so that $100 will be only worth $90. I brought mostly Canadian dollars but I could have brought UK pound or Euros. I did have some U.S. as backup, which I changed eventually. You can change funds at the airport, banks and Cadecas (exchange bureaus).

We used CUCs for most of the things we bought – from souvenirs to food. But if you plan to take the bus, for example, you’ll need pesos, the currency Cubans use.

If, at the end of your trip, you have CUCs remaining, you can change them back.

Departure tax: Speaking of leaving, you will be required to pay US$25 departure tax. No exceptions.

Transportation: Cuba has a good system of transportation including road, rail, air, buses and taxis making it pretty easy to get around.

Cuban Food: I wasn’t very impressed with the food we got at some of the restaurants but what we had at paladars, those small, family-run eateries, was exceptional.

Cuban Art: If you buy art while on your trip, you’ll need to get a license from the Registro Nactional de Bienes Culturales to take it out of the country. The license costs 10 CUCs for 1-5 pieces from the same artist. If you don’t get the license from the Registro, you can get it from a Registro Specialist at the airport but it will cost you more – 7 CUCs per. Without a license, you will not be allowed to leave with your purchases.

Cell phones: Your U.S. cell phones won’t work in Cuba and calling out can be pretty expensive, about $3/minute. If you really need to call home, head for a major hotel.

Email: If you need to send emails, go to a major hotel and, for a fee, you can send emails or surf the Internet. You’ll need to bring your passport for identification.

Cigars and Rum: Don’t forget Cuban cigars and rum are not allowed into the U.S., so enjoy them while you’re there. Also, make sure if you purchased anything that’s stamped or tagged Made in Cuba (Hecho en Cuba) that, if possible, you remove the tag. That would be a dead giveaway to U.S. Customs.

Bear in mind, Cuba is a Communist country and almost all activity by its citizens and visitors is monitored.

When we arrived at the airport, we had to let the immigration know exactly where we would be staying and a few days later, someone did come to the casa particular to check that we were there. Cubans aren’t allowed to have American visitors in their homes.

Neighborhood watch groups (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) which were set up to keep watch and report on any internal and external threats to the revolution, still patrol neighborhoods to sniff out illegal activities – whether criminal or political.

Monument to Jose Miguel Gomez, Cuba's second president

Used to being connected 24/7 in the States, my first day was an adjustment but it was great to disconnect and focus on being on vacation and enjoying all that Cuba has to offer. And there’s a lot. We spent a week in Havana only and there was still a lot we hadn’t seen.

If you remember these things, you’ll have few surprises when you get to Cuba.

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Havana: Saying it with Pictures

As we meandered around Havana, these are a few of the things we saw.

Sidewalk homage to Ernesto "Che" Guevara

Another sidewalk homage Che

Monument to Che at the Plaza de la Revolucion

A few mornings we walked the Malecon, from Vedado, where we were staying. to Old Havana. We’d always see people sweeping the streets and cleaning up in front of their buildings.

We were impressed by many of the metal gates, fences and window grills we saw.

Impressive gates

Another impressive gate

Medallion from the gate

Gates at the Union of Writers and Artists Building

Sculpture garden at the Union of Writers and Artists building

Sculpture

One of the things that struck us right away was the absence of graffiti and advertising. We did see one or two political signs and lots of signs reminding Cubans not to litter, etc.

I live in a free country

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