La Habana, Cuba
En Route to Cuba I did something that I NEVER do when traveling solo. I took the aisle seat. I hate the isle seat, but I was traveling with the family and they are exit row fans, so I took the aisle. I was able to sneak a peak out the window on the descent into Cuba. I was so excited to see this country from the air. This country, that to me, seemed so foreign. I mean I know it was a foreign country but Cuba just seem shrouded in mystery. We can read the history books and may have a friend or family member that went there once, but they are few and far between. There was an element of unknown that made me slightly apprehensive. And I knew that I was in a foreign country when the whole plane applauded loudly on our safe touchdown (the only other time that had happened to me was when I landed in the Dominican Republic).
When we landed it was not difficult at all to pass through customs, get our belongings, and find our taxi to the hotel. The drive to the hotel was about 45 minutes and it was an adventure in itself. We drove through countryside, past the Revolutionary Square, and the Capitol before arriving. We arrived at beautiful Hotel Sevilla just after sunset and checked in and killed some time before Christmas Eve dinner. The dinner was an event in and of itself. With a huge buffet, plenty of drinks, and a show to keep everyone entertained for hours it was quite the "Welcome to Cuba." There were salsa dancers and synchronized swimmers and music for a couple of hours! It was so far removed from our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, which consists of dinner at McCormick and Schmidt's on the Plaza, that we were so blown away by the experience.
Christmas Day we got up to explore La Habana (also known as Havana). We met our guide, Arturo at the hotel to begin strolling around town. The first stop was the Parque Central, a open plaza flanked by the Opera House as well as other downtown hotels. The Capitol Building (where at one point the Cuban congress used to assemble) was in view from this square as well. The Opera House was stunning, one of the angels that topped the building has been removed as she had been knocked over at an angle during Irma, it was one of many reminders of what Hurricane Irma did to the island. As we left the Parque Central we strolled down then Paseo de Prado, the buildings that lined the street were beautiful examples of the Spanish Architecture that had fallen into disrepair over the last fifty years.
From there we entered the UNSECO World Heritage Site of Old Havana. This was the area when the Spanish has originally colonized and the currant Cuban Government was in the process of restoring. They had restored about 40% of Old Town and after seeing some before pictures it was wonderful to see how they were really working diligently to bring the city back to life. We were able to see several churches, including the National Cathedral (where the current Pope and two previous Pope's had visited). We eventually made it to Plaza Vieja which had been completely restored and had the best coffee I had on the trip. It was great just enjoying the Plaza and enjoying a cup of coffee.
After we strolled around Old Town, we hopped in some 1950's Pontiacs and took a cruise through Cuba. Our first stop and only stop was Revolutionary Square. This was the Historic Square where Fidel Castro gave many of his historic speeches. It is now currently the center of government. On our way back to town our driver struck up a conversation about baseball. It stemmed from us telling him that we were from Kansas City and they only knew about that because of the Royals. I wish I could remember his name, but he was a ball player as well who enjoyed talking about the game with my Dad and the Cuban players that are in the league.
On our drive back we passed the Cuban National Hotel which was a stunning hotel overlooking the ocean and the now empty US Embassy. It was definitely eerie to pass the embassy. I am no expert on American/Cuban Relations, and I am not the most knowledgeable, but I also believe in progress. Arturo spoke about the uncertainty about the upcoming leadership change in the government and it was fascinating to listen to his calmness about it. He knows that the change is inevitable and unlike the United States, it is most likely that whatever happens will happen. But the short window of optimism for the relationship between the two countries was an exciting thing for the Cubans. The locals appreciate the money that tourism brings in and have seen a significant decrease in tourism since the current administration has taken charge. There was a huge opportunity for Americans to bring more money into the country that has seen a 100% increase in tourism over the last 10 years that simply will not be there.
Now to clarify, I don't support the form of government in Cuba, and it is important to understand the horrible things that the government did to it's people. But I personally feel that I can support the people of Cuba and not the government itself.
After the drivers dropped us back at the hotel we parted ways with them and Arturo. We had some time for ourselves and grabbed lunch and went on a mission to find cigars. We doubled back to the National Hotel and explored a bunker that housed and exhibit about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rest of the afternoon we just enjoyed hanging out. Around 7:30 we made our way across the Cuban Chanel to the Fort of San Carlos de la Cabana, there every night at 9:00PM they fire a canon that symbolizes the closing of the harbor for the evening. The old fort was nice to walk around and the ceremony attracted around 1,000 people. After the ceremony we went to Cafe Laurent, a Paladare. The Paladare are restaurant that are not state owned, typically in peoples homes, that have a long history since the beginning of communism. The dinner was outstanding and the rum based drinks were pretty great too. After dinner we got in a taxi that was not designed for four people over 5'5" and turned in for the night.
The next morning we walked around Old Town for a couple hours before our taxi came to pick us up and drive us to Trinidad.