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10 Photos: Time Travel to Havana

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Our “10 Photos” essays include tips on exploring destinations, getting travel discounts and redemptions and as always, how to have a great time for less. TPG Contributor Mitch Berman and his son, Kofi Lee-Berman, share their recent experiences in Havana in photos — with text by Mitch.

Going to Havana is like traveling in time. No visitor will ever forget their first trip to town from José Marti Airport (HAV), seeing car after car after vintage car — in Havana alone, there are perhaps 15,000 of them. The city itself, already faded in the 1959 film Our Man in Havana, has since undergone another half-century of wear — but remains glorious.

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The Capitol, reminiscent of our own in Washington, DC, was actually inspired by the Pantheon in Paris. Photo by Kofi Lee-Berman.

It’s not only the ongoing US embargo — or as one billboard calls it, “the longest genocide in history” — that has lifted Cuba clean out of the stream of time. It’s that the country is still in the hands of the same men who began the revolution 62 years ago: Fidel Castro is now behind the scenes, and his brother Raúl is President.

The former Presidential Palace in Old Havana has become the Museo de la Revolución. Kids play soccer out front and a driver with a blue vintage sedan asks where we’re from and then tells us how “Jay-Z, great New Yorker” loves Havana. This museum is one of those places that needs to be seen now before it changes. With its yellowing white-granite cupola and its Tiffany-designed interior, it’s a frozen slice of history and will defrost as relations between the US and Cuba do at the same time.

Until then, the exhibits will remain furiously propagandistic, such as the map pins and tiny plastic toy planes on the relief map that illustrate the 1961 victory over the US at the Bay of Pigs. Blood-stained uniforms, mistranslated speeches and guitars covered in prison signatures — it’s all here, for now, along with bullet holes in the grand staircase, left by the failed 1957 revolutionary assassination attempt on then-President Fulgencio Batista.

The placard on this life-sized exhibit: “Sculptoric assembly dedicated to commanders Ernesto CHE Guevara and Camilio Cienfuegos. Made in hyper-realistic style.” Photo by Mitch Berman.

Che Guevara is everywhere in Havana — writ large on murals, larger in the metal railing across eight stories of the Ministry of the Interior and even on the currency. Like many developing economies, Cuba has a dual-currency system, consisting of the official convertible peso (CUC), pegged to the dollar and the national peso (CUP), worth 1/25 of a CUC. Right before you travel, make sure you check which foreign currency gets the best exchange rate — we’d heard Mexican pesos, but despite a 10% penalty when changing American money, we still did better with dollars.

Among the joys of Havana are the window cafes that open onto the streets, where we paid ten CUPs, or 42 cents, for a small freshly baked pizza. Servers and customers are particularly friendly to adventurous foreigners who eat at their window cafes. Not so many Americans do. In fact, Cubans are very friendly to Americans, though many tried to hustle us out of a few CUCs after chatting us up. As one man shouted to us in the street, “We need you!”

Georgina, a fellow customer at a window cafe who has lived in Vedado since her marriage 50 years ago. Photo by Mitch Berman.

We took TPG’s enthusiastic recommendation to stay with a Cuban family in a casa particular. It requires a little patience to line one up, because few Cuban homes have reliable internet. First, you need to decide whether you want to stay in Old Havana, historical but touristy; Centro, a mix of old and new; Vedado, modern, with all the big hotels; or Miramar, posh and residential.

Mother-and-son hosts Deysi and Adiel, in a working-class neighborhood of Centro, offer a high-ceilinged room with sorely needed air conditioning and a full-sized refrigerator. Our stay included a hot breakfast for three with fresh-squeezed juice for $42 per night.

Right across the street was La Guarida, one of the best restaurants in Havana, where Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed. When we wanted to head home, we told taxi drivers to take us to “La Guarida” — and when we arrived, the restaurant’s doorman would eagerly open the door for us.

Napkins at La Guarida
Every Saturday, the famous restaurant La Guarida hangs its napkins out to dry, and kids play amidst them. Photo by Kofi Lee-Berman.

After a few days in Centro, our host Adiel suggested that we might enjoy the quiet trip across Havana Bay to see La Cabaña, a huge 18th-century fort, and nearby Castillo el Morro, a smaller 16th-century fort and lighthouse. After we took the ferry to Casablanca, we walked up the hill to Cristo de la Habana, the 66-foot statue unveiled on Christmas Eve, 1958, just days before Fidel entered Havana. The road leads past the proudly exhibited wreckage of an American U-2 spy plane downed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Inside La Cabaña are cafes, exhibits on the Revolution, rows of cannons, a pop-art slide that looks like a human tongue and an eye-level pyramid of cannonballs surmounted by a tiny green lizard.

Lighthouse Keeper
The keeper of the lighthouse added to Castillo el Morro in 1846. Photo by Kofi Lee-Berman.

As good as the view is from the lighthouse at the tip of Castillo el Morro, it can’t match the vista from the TRYP Havana Libre, which was built by Batista as the Havana Hilton in 1958. Conrad Hilton cut the ribbon on what was then the largest and tallest hotel in Latin America. Less than 10 months later, Fidel Castro took Havana and made his headquarters in Suite 2324. The next year the hotel was nationalized as the Havana Libre.

Now much the worse for wear, the Meliá Hotels property is still Havana’s second-tallest building. We found the roof restaurant closed in the afternoon, but the elevator operator recommended the view from the 20th floor.

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Out on the narrow open-air balcony on the 20th floor of the Havana Libre. Photo by Kofi Lee-Berman.

The US Embassy, which was just blocks away, opened only a month before our visit. What draws the eye is not the embassy itself, but the forest of flagpoles in front of it. They tell quite a story.

For nearly 40 years the building housed the US Interests Section, which remained in constant conflict with the Cuban government, with accusations of spying flying in both directions. And then the US upped the stakes on the ongoing sparring match by splashing a digital billboard across the top five floors of the building.

Turning on the juice on Martin Luther King Day 2006, the US displayed provocative messages like Frank Zappa’s “Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff,” and this one:

“In a free country you don’t need permission to leave. Is this a free country?”

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138 flagpoles in front of the new US Embassy in Havana, but only one flag. Photo by Kofi Lee-Berman.

The Cuban government answered by planting a sea of flagpoles and running Cuban — or sometimes black — flags up all of them, blocking the billboard from public view. Three years later, the US turned it off, in one of the first gestures that eventually led to the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

No visit to Vedado is complete without seeing the Cemeterio de Cristóbal Colón (known as the Necropolis), the most historically important graveyard in Latin America. The 5 CUC ($5) admission gets you a guide, and we were lucky to be assigned Irma Bergantiños, who’s also a math professor at a nearby university. According to Irma, two million people have been buried at the Necropolis since its founding in 1876, roughly the same as Havana’s living population.

Among all the graves of presidents, generals, corporate heads and murder victims in these 140 acres, the one that receives by far the most visitors is that of an ordinary young woman.

Stone tablets at the Necropolis giving thanks to La Milgrosa (the Miraculous One). Photo by Mitch.
Stone tablets at the Necropolis giving thanks to La Milagrosa (the Miraculous One). Photo by Mitch Berman.

Señora Amelia Goyri de Adot died in childbirth at the age of 23 in 1901 and was buried with her baby at her feet. For 13 years, her grieving — some say mad — husband visited daily, often three times a day, insisting that Amelia was only sleeping. He would knock the heavy brass rings on her vault in an attempt to wake her up, leave flowers, and exit walking backward, gazing at her until the last possible moment. Word spread of his devotion, and soon the great sculptor José Villalta Saavedra worked for free to create the statue that adorns her tomb today.

When Amelia’s father-in-law died in 1914, the undertakers opened the grave to put in his corpse. According to legend, they found Amelia’s body uncorrupted, with her baby in her arms. The legend of La Milagrosa (the Miraculous One) was born.

Now believers, sometimes hundreds a day, come from all over the world to ask for La Milagrosa’s help. They knock using the tarnished brass rings, touch her statue, pray to her, leave notes or flowers and back away toward the exit.

At closing time, someone had left a bouquet of flowers and made a Santería sacrifice of a white chicken at the front gate.

Boys handline fishing on Avenue Céspedes, where the Malecon continues along Old Havana. Photo by Mitch.
Boys handline fishing on Avenue Céspedes, where the Malecón continues along Old Havana. Photo by Mitch Berman.

Nightfall draws everyone to the Malecón, the ring road that encircles the city at water’s edge. Deserted during the sweltering summer days, the Malecón begins to fill up with Habaneros at dusk — first the fishermen, all males and of all ages; then the older folks, promenading until they take their places sitting on the thick seawall; then, at sunset, the young couples, strolling or sitting; and finally the vendors who cater to them all, selling plastic flowers or homemade caramels or popcorn. “Palomitas!” (popcorn) they cry as they walk along. And everyone will hang out deep into the night.

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The Malecon just after sunset. Photo by Kofi Lee-Berman.

Getting to Havana

… just got easier. Our visa took only $20 and five minutes at Cancun Airport (CUN). As the US and Cuba defrost, more flights keep being announced. TPG liked Sun Country Charters (and loved everything else about his recent trips to Cuba). American will start charter service from LAX in December, while Jetblue made its first flight from JFK in July. You can now use CheapAir to book flights. Even Carnival will start cruises next May. (I’m telling you — go now!)

Our own $233 regular round-trip from Cancun on Interjet just a few weeks ago required us to use the site’s drop-down menu to say we were anything other than American — but I’m happy to report that requirement has already disappeared. Keep checking back with us, because changes are coming rapidly.

What would you like to see in Havana?

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