A Trip Back in Time

The first couple days had been all clear skies and sunshine, but then the weather decided that it wasn’t going to play nice anymore, with the morning of the third day dawning grey and soggy. It was a good thing the convertible ride had been done on the previous day!

A view from the rooftop of the Parque Central hotel

A view from the rooftop of the Parque Central hotel

Another big breakfast to start the day and then off towards the Partagás Cigar Factory nearby the hotel behind the Capitolio. To the surprise of all, tours were no longer organized at this old site (although this is the one referred to everywhere online). The actual operating factory is now at the corner of Penalver and San Carlos  in Centro Habana about 1.5 km from the old site, which still houses a cigar shop. Well, at least the walk offered a chance to see bit of the more modern Havana.

Outside the old and inside the new Partagás cigar factory

Outside the old and inside the new Partagás cigar factory

Walking along the streets of both old and new Havana is actually an experience for all the senses. There is so much going on that there’s a serious risk of visual overload, not being able to take it all in at once. The air is filled with music floating out of open windows and the honking and beeping of passing cars and bicycle taxis, mingling together with the scents of food but also the stench of garbage overflowing from dumpsters, so thick that it can almost be tasted along with each heavy breath of humid heat. Underfoot, the pavement rarely stays even for more than a few feet, with someone inevitably stepping in a more or less dubious puddle collected in a pothole.

Some bright Havana colors cheer up a rainy day

Some bright Havana colors cheer up a rainy day

Overall, there is a strong feeling of travelling back in time to an odd cocktail of the decades spanning from the ’40s and ’50s  to somewhere in the mid ’80s with a dash of the 21st century thrown in. Classic cars glide alongside Ladas and Moskvitches past buildings ranging in style from classically renovated colonial to dazzlingly colorful art nouveau to collapsed ruin. Glimpses of the modern age can be seen as flat screen tvs in cramped street-level apartments and as crowds of people gathered in parks and other areas where the state-owned wifi service is available. A really unique place.

A typical view in Old Havana

A typical view in Old Havana

Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in the newer part of Havana

Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in the newer part of Havana

The tour of the modern Partagás cigar factory, which produces brands such as Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagás, and Romeo y Julieta, was truly interesting: they really are all still rolled by hand! Each worker has a target of approximately 100 cigars per day from start to finish which means a lot of repetitive work, but apparently jobs at the factory are quite desirable due to higher than average salaries and the daily allowance of cigars. Literally in the next block is another famous cigar factory, H. Upmann, but since all the factories are state-owned, it can’t really be seen as competition. Unfortunately photos were not allowed, but you can find some pics of the process here.

So many options!

So many options!

After spending a bit over an hour breathing in the scent of dried tobacco leafs, a walk in the open air was again welcome. The rain had luckily ceased for the time being, but the heat made water most desirable. However, actually obtaining a bottle of water (or soda or anything to drink other than rum) turned out to be a bit more difficult than expected: small food stands didn’t have any and the supermarket (!) that was found just blatantly informed all that the drinks section is closed. Luckily a tiny local shop was finally spotted back in old town and dehydration averted.

Alleys of old Havana

Alleys of old Havana

Then on to a cuban-style lunch of sandwiches and beer at Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco, a brewery bar located in what used to be a wood and tobacco warehouse. The beers brewed on site were quite ok, but the food didn’t really impress: the Cuban sandwich was a letdown compared to those available in Miami.

After some rest at the hotel, the evening began with drinks on the rooftop terrace before heading out in old Havana for an Italian dinner at the state-owned La Dominica. The food was decent and the flan was quite nice, although getting oregano to top off the pizzas was a request that couldn’t be fulfilled. Finally, drinks at Art Pub Cuba along with a cigar brought the day to an end.

Time for dessert!

Time for dessert!

The last full day in Havana turned out once again to be disappointingly rainy, which meant that the plan of renting bikes and getting a wider view of the city was not to be. It’s a good thing taxis are not hard to come by in Havana.

The first sight of the day was the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, a cemetery founded in 1876 and claimed to be one of the largest in the world. Full of ostentatious tombs constructed by wealthy habaneros over several decades and also rows and rows of more modest tombstones from the later half of the 20th century, this was quite an impressive sight. Even the sun came out for a while, making the walk around the 140 acres quite pleasant.

Exploring the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón

Exploring the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón

Lunch was enjoyed on the second floor balcony of the Unión Francesa de Cuba, situated in a mansion in the Vedado district right next to the John Lennon Park, where a life-size statue of John Lennon has been lounging on a bench since 2000, unveiled back then by none other than the recently deceased Fidel himself. Really inexpensive food with a lot of flavor.

Hanging out with John in his park

Hanging out with John in his park

The rain had held off by now for a few hours, but now it was back with a vengeance. Time to pile into another classic car (not a convertible this time) and return to the hotel for a pre-dinner nap before heading to dinner at El Templete, a state-owned seafood restaurant by the seafront in Old Havana. The server pointed out which dishes on the list contain fresh and which frozen, which was a nice show of honesty. Not the cheapest place to eat, but the dishes were quite taste and service very friendly.

The moon over Havana Vieja

The moon over Havana Vieja

The rest of the evening was yet again full of wandering around the alleys of old town, wondering at all the forms of art sprinkled everywhere. Every tiny plaza and park has at least sculpture or statue, and street art is everywhere!

Havana street art by day

Havana street art by day

Havana street art by night

Havana street art by night

One of the more unique things to see in the Plaza Vieja of Old Havana

One of the more unique things to see in the Plaza Vieja of Old Havana

The plan was still to enjoy a few drinks and try out a couple new bars, and the first stop was Kilometro Zero. A a live band was putting on a show indoor and locals were partying on the street outside, enjoying the music pouring out of the open windows. Unfortunately, the evening was cut short by a massive downpour, making all plans of further barhopping obsolete. Back to the hotel for rum and a cigar. The next day it would be time to move on to the beach!

Now what could be more Cuban?

Now what could be more Cuban?

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