Other assorted highlights of my walks abut Habana Vieja:
*Classic American cars parked in front of The Gran Teatro (Grand Theater) with the Capitolio in the background.
*A woman posing in front of the Museo Revolucion with a huge cigar, asking me to take her photo and offering me a high five afterward.
*Statues of Abraham Lincoln in the Park Fraternity near the Capitolio and in the Museo de la Revolucion. As many as 60 percent of the Cuban population are descended from slaves, so perhaps this accounts for the locals’ apparent respect for him. Cespedes, Cuba’s first President, freed Cuba’s slaves in 1868, just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Also, Fidel Castro apparently highly respected Lincoln and laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial shortly after attaining power in 1959.
*The street musicians and a particular street comic performer with little dogs that wear glasses, chew on Cuban cigars, love visitors, but are trained to growl upon hearing the word, “Trump.”
*The constant stream of 50’s American classic cars used as taxis which contributed to my sensation that I had entered a time warp.
*An elderly fisherman plying his trade along the Malecón, the seaside walkway and wall which stretches for 8km along the coast.
My most anticipated visit to a location of interest in Havana outside of Habana Vieja was to Finca Vigía , the hilltop home of Ernest Hemingway. My trip there took me through a working-class section of Havana that fascinated me with its aging buildings, bustling vegetable markets and pothole-ridden side streets. The items in the interior of Hemingway’s residence remain eerily just the way he left them when he was forced to flee during the revolution. Hemingway loved Cuba, and it is said that not being able to return there contributed to the depression which resulted in his suicide.
On the way back to Old Havana, we stopped by John Lennon Park. Here, Beatles fans can snuggle and take selfies with the life-size statue of John Lennon seated on a park bench. Make sure your driver understands to take you here and not to Parque Lenin, which is quite different (heh heh).
After a few days exploring Havana, I took a day trip to Viñales to enjoy the beautiful valley there with its limestone mogotes and watch the making of the famous Cuban cigars. There are many casas particulares in Viñales and it’s easy to arrange an overnight room. No matter where you stay, be sure to make a stop at Hotel Jazminas for a breathtaking panoramic view of the valley. Despite my limited time in Cuba, I was glad I took a side trip to Viñales to get a taste, however fleeting, of rural life in Cuba.
You'll have to prepare for a trip to Cuba like few trips you have taken. Estimate the amount of cash you’ll need on your trip, and bring more than this amount, as your bank debit and credit cards cannot be used in Cuba. It’s also a good idea to change your American dollars into euros or Canadian dollars before entering Cuba as there’s a 10 percent penalty to exchange American dollars on top of the 3 percent exchange rate. Internet coverage is spotty and expensive. It can be difficult to find reliable WiFi, even in the most exclusive hotels.
Once the internet is more accessible to visitors and credit cards and ATMs can be comfortably used to obtain cash, more visitors will undoubtedly be attracted to visit this enchanting island nation.
Despite these inconveniences, a visit to Cuba, even for a few days, can be a magical experience. It certainly was for me, one of the most memorable excursions of my life.
6/17 UPDATE: On May 30, it was reported that President Trump is planning to roll back Obama-era policies relaxing ties with Cuba, perhaps as soon as June. John Kuvalich, from the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said this would likely include an “increased enforcement related to travel.” This tightening of the travel rules may complicate your upcoming trip to Cuba, including the possibility President Trump will disallow travelers to “self-license” their trip by selecting one of 12 categories of travel as current law allows. Stay tuned for further details.
My hope is that, despite such a policy reversal, relations between the Cuban and American people will continue to evolve. One of the most memorable moments of my trip was that of the photo my driver showed me of his children holding up the California and San Diego postcards I brought. It is this younger generation that offers hope for the future.