We motored through the narrow channel and tied up at the clearance dock at Marina Hemingway. You are not allowed to anchor in Havana, all boats must go to the Marina. We went through the usual clearing in process, but this time they also brought in the drug and ammunition sniffing dogs. One of the customs officials had his hand out more than any other we had come across in Cuba. The clearing in process took a few hours and then we were assigned to our “slip”. Really, it is nothing more than a spot to tie up to alongside a wall in a narrow canal with boats on either side. We weren’t sure how we were going to turn around as we would hit the boat on the other side of the canal if we tried, but we would figure that out another day. We were put in front of the all-inclusive hotel and were treated to music every night! The Marina has seen some better days and the pool is no longer in service, but it was nice to be in Havana anyway! The dockage in the marina was $0.45 per foot per day and the water was metered. We didn’t hook up to the electric. The marina property also includes a small grocery store where you can get your basic necessities, including rum! We found a little bar as well and treated ourselves to some mojitos, of course!
We took advantage of the fresh water and washed down the boat and did much needed laundry the next morning. Then, in the afternoon, we couldn’t wait any longer and decided to trek into Havana itself. We tried our hand at figuring out the bus situation…what an adventure! We walked about 5 minutes to the exit of the marina compound, crossed the street and started looking for the buses that said “Habana”. They come by fairly regularly, so we hoped on that, paying 2 pesos each and thinking it was going to take us right into the city…not so much. It took us to the main bus “street” (rather than stop) where every bus in the area connects through. We asked the bus driver which bus to Havana and he told us (I think it was the P1, but don’t rely totally on that!) We went over to the area of that bus and there never really is a line – you are supposed to ask who is the last person that got there, and when the bus shows up, you get on after that person. Good theory, but in reality, when the bus comes it is a free for all and everyone just shoves until you get on. That bus also cost about 2 pesos, but it is a crap shoot if you have to pay or not – depending on if they guy can reach you to get your money. We were squished in like sardines, sweating, but to take your mind off of that, they blare Cuban music in the bus. If you are lucky, you get to stand by a window – if not, you stand by a sweaty armpit holding on for dear life as the bus makes crazy turns! Anyway, we rode for what seemed like 45 minutes and thought we must be getting close and had no idea where we were, so we just got off. Well, we learned from the closest bar we could find that we were in Verdado which is a suburb just outside the main part of the city. We were told we could walk to downtown, so we started a long walk toward the Malecon (the wide sidewalk by the seawall). It was a pretty far walk but we got to see the majority of 23rd Street, which is one of the main streets. We walked by jazz clubs, dance clubs, old movie theaters, and a variety of restaurants. We reached the Malecon and walked along it for a while. We had aspirations of walking all the way to Old Havana, but realized it was a little too far and back tracked. Of course, we made a few mojito stops and around midnight decided to go back to the marina. Instead of getting back on the bus we opted to take a private taxi – this time another ’57 Chevy and negotiated 10 CUC for the 6 of us. Instead of the 2 hour bus ride, the taxi only took about 15 minutes!
|Peso Cafe Bar|
The next day, we decided to go straight to Old Havana via a taxi rather than the bus! About 20 minutes and 8 CUC poorer (better negotiating this time) we were in the middle of historic Old Havana in Plaza de San Francisco. It is a picturesque plaza, surrounded by a beautiful chapel and old buildings. We wandered through the cobble stone streets and bought tamales from a street vender. The cool thing was the cook was making them in her kitchen three stories up and sending them down in a bucket on a rope! We passed by the Museo del Chocolate where they have reportedly the best hot chocolate (we later got some and can confirm that it is indeed awesome hot chocolate).
|Cathedral de San Cristobal de la Habana|
We found a local peso restaurant amid the more expensive CUC restaurants and had a great local meal of fried eggs and French fries for about $3 US. But the best find was the 1 peso ($0.04 US) espresso bar! It was a U-shaped bar that was lined all around by people. The espresso makers just kept brewing the tiny cups of coffee and sliding them down the bar to eagerly awaiting people. They had old glass containers of sugar on the counter that you could help yourself to. It was some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.
We walked over to Plaza de la Cathedral, saw the Cathedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, built between 1748-1787, which one novelist described as “music set in stone”. We had a mojito at the Restaurante El Patio upstairs on their balcony overlooking the plaza. It was starting to rain, but the views were still amazing. We were only a block away from La Bodeguita del Medio, one of the two bars in Havana that Earnest Hemingway made famous, so we darted through the rain to the small bar. There is a handwritten note in the bar from Hemingway which says “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita”, so of course, one can’t go in there without having a mojito! It was pretty crowded and touristy, so we had our cocktail and boogied out of there, following our ears to great traditional Cuban music floating out of yet another watering hole that was right around the corner. We went inside huge wood doors to find a nice cozy bar with a 4 person band. We decided we needed to do a taste test between the 7 year and 15 year Havana Club. The 7 year is good, but man oh man is the 15 year smooth. Later, we looked at the prices of the 15 year Havana Club in the rum stores and it was 150 CUC! There weren’t too many people in the bar and so the band played directly to us and even made Cathy and Dena come up to be their back up dancers! We had a quick bite to eat and decided to head back to the marina as the rain wasn’t letting up yet and we were pretty drenched.
The following morning, we made our pilgrimage back to the city, this time to check out Centro Habana. The streets are much wider than in Old Havana and have a middle section that pedestrians can stroll down under trees’ shady protection from the glaring sun. As we made our way toward Parque Central, the street scenes looked like something out of a movie with all the old American cars, grand old buildings and colorful people. Parque Central is home to a statue of Jose Marti as well as lots of locals gossiping about baseball. We continued our walking tour towards the Capitolio Nacional, which is very similar to the US Capitol Building. Along the way, we came across the best 5 peso pork sandwiches on the street.
Unfortunately along the way, we also met one of many street hustlers. We had been doing well up until that point of picking them out, but this one got us. We had asked where we could find another peso espresso bar and a young woman told us to follow her. We did, and she led us to a bar/coffee shop. We were a little skeptical but went in with her. She immediately ordered four cups of coffee and a cocktail for herself. Her “husband” just happened to walk in at the same time and she invited him for a drink as well. At this point, we knew something was up but didn’t really want to make a scene. So we quickly drank our coffee and said we were going to go. She tried to get us to buy her milk because she claimed she was pregnant, and we pointed out that if she was indeed pregnant, then she shouldn’t be drinking cocktails! Anyway, we got our bill and it was a staggering 30 CUC! We tried to argue but to no avail. We later learn that hustlers bring stupid tourists into these places, order drinks, the bartender charges a huge amount and the hustler goes back later to get their piece. Just be more careful than we were!
Our next stop was to check out Hemingway’s other favorite bar, El Floridita. At the bar, there is a bronze statue of Hemingway at his favorite stool. We just went in to snap some pictures and then had Hemingway’s infamous daiquiri at the bar next door where the prices were much more reasonable. We then popped next door to El Casa del Ron Y Del Tabaco Cubano (Cuban rum and cigar store). There was any kind of Cuban cigar or rum there you wanted at reasonable prices.
We made our way over to Calle Obispo which is a nice street to walk down that is lined with small shops where you can buy Cuban crafts and souvenirs. There was also a bar in a garden setting that had a great band playing local music, so of course we had to stop and relax. Kevin, the only guy among three women, welcomed the cold beer as well after dealing with us all day! We then had to go back to the Capital building to find Josh and Connor. They had a local guy hanging out with them as usual, and he offered to show us a good place to eat. He took us in the back streets to a few of his friends’ houses which doubled as restaurants but they were all pretty expensive. So, we broke off on our own and found a great chic restaurant which was also in local pesos! The name was Mango Habana Restaurante – Cafeteria on the corner of Industria and San Miguel. The décor was all swanky red, they played old MTV videos from the ‘80s and had the best food we had experienced in Cuba and good white wine too, all at a reasonable cost.
|The Blue Bomber with Dad and Son|
After dinner, we walked back out to the Parque Central area and spotted a great old blue car that almost looked like a hearse! There were two young guys who were driving it for their dad as a private taxi. We chatted with them a bit and talked them into taking us to a nightclub for a few hours and then take us back to Marina Hemingway, all for about $15! We all piled in – it was very big fit all eight of us very comfortable. The windows were all Plexiglas and it looked like the entire car had been repaired with Bondo, but it got us where we wanted to go! They took us first to their favorite night club and we hung out there with them, had a few beers and danced with the locals. At about 2am, we decided we had better be getting back to the boats. On the way, we talked with them about picking us up in a few days to take a tour of the countryside outside of Havana. They told us they would have to talk to their dad, but it should be okay.
The following day, Maria and I went back to Old Havana just to wander around some more and pick up presents for our families back home. We had heard from the young taxi drivers and set up a tour for the next day for about $60 USD.
The next morning, the Dad and his son met us out front on the Marina with their blue bomber. We drove for about an hour, watching the city fade to the countryside and then stopped at a nice little place for a cup of coffee. We continued on driving until we got to a pretty little resort complex with a big pond, boat house and two monkeys living on a small island in the middle of the lake! We bought some churros, which is basically fried dough, from a guy who was making them fresh from his portable stand. We explored the property a bit, found Maria’s coffee house and had another café con leche, and then headed off to have lunch at a local restaurant. We shared spaghetti, pork, rice and beans, all for about $3 US per person. It was pretty good food and you can’t beat the price. We found pineapples being sold from the back of a horse pulled cart, and couldn’t resist buying a few.
Our next stop was a beautiful swimming hole where all the locals go. We didn’t bring bathing suites, but sat on shady spots on rocks and put our feet in the water as the little fishes swam around them. It was a great, relaxing spot. It was getting later in the afternoon and so we started our drive back. Along the way, we stopped at a nice beach and made it back to the marina just as the sun was going down.
|Our great friends, Dena and Kevin from Sabbaticus|
|Kevin needed beer after dealing with us|
Since we were planning on leaving soon, we spent the following day getting ready for our trip to Mexico. One big thing we needed to do was to fuel up. Since I couldn’t use credit cards nor my ATM card, I had been carefully watching my dwindling money supply. Between the marina bill and imminent fuel bill, I figured I had just enough. Both Sabbaticus and ourselves need fuel, so Kevin and I went to talk to the Dock Master about how to get fuel and to settle our bill. The fuel dock is on the end of one of the canals but is not run by the marina. Maria had US dollars left, and Kevin offered to pay my fuel with his Canadian credit card and she would give him US dollars so that she didn’t have to pay the 10% surcharge. That sounded great to us, until the fuel guy told us we couldn’t use a credit card. What! A fuel dock that only accepts cash? We argued with him for a while and finally he called his boss and his boss said he would drive there with a credit card machine. When we asked? Tomorrow morning. Umm, that won’t work. Okay, in a few hours. More specific, we asked. Between 11am and 2pm he told us. Well, that was as good as we were going to get. At 11:30, the dock master came by and said the credit card machine was at the fuel dock. Kevin paid and we jerry canned the fuel to our boat (it was much easier than moving the big boat!). After that job was done, we went back to the dock master to pay our bill. I had tried to figure out what my bill was going to be and figured I had just enough. We sat down in his office and I got my bill first and Kevin was amazed that I had EXACTLY enough. We were all congratulating me on my awesome math skills, when the dock master cleared his throat and pointed out the line after the total titled “taxes” and said that was not included. Opps! I had no more Cuban money left nor did we have anymore US dollars on board! Luckily, Kevin lent me $30 so I could pay my bills.
That evening, Kevin and Dena treated us to dinner at the Chinese restaurant that was on the marina property. Kevin wanted to use the rest of his CUCs and we told the waiter how much we had to spend. “No problem” he said and we ordered away. We asked him if he thought we would have enough money and he said “No problem”. We ate like kings and the food was very fresh and good. But, we think the only English words the waiter knew was “No problem” because when the bill came, there was a problem! We didn’t have enough CUCs to cover it and all Kevin had left was US dollars, which the restaurant didn’t accept. We told the waiter our problem and he talked to his boss. They just kind of murmured amongst themselves, and Kevin shoved the rest of his CUCs and some US dollars in the bill and we scurried out of there. What a classic last dinner!
The next morning we had to say goodbye to our good friends on Sabatticus as they were heading to Florida and we were sailing to Mexico. We had to stop at the clearance dock to get our Zarpe, which took about an hour and a half and then we were on our way to our next adventures!
Cuba is an amazing place and I hope everyone gets a chance at some point to see it. The officials don’t care if you are American, it is our government that doesn’t want us to go there, not theirs. Don’t be afraid of Cuba – it is a wonderful country.
Quick side note – for those of you who are trying to go from Havana back to the States, we had spoken to many non-Americans on foreign flagged vessels who had done it. Most who went into Key West, got hassled and threatened to get prosecuted or have their boats taken by Customs. Many had their cruising permits taken away. After hearing these horror stories, Kevin and Dena (who are Canadian on a Canadian registered vessel) decided to go Ft Lauderdale to clear in and had no problem at all. In fact, they later told us that the customs officer told them she just wished everyone would get along! We have heard through other people that West Palm or Cape Canaveral or really anywhere North of Lauderdale is okay to go into as well after Cuba, it is only Key West that gives people problems.
|House of Rum and Cuban Cigars|
|Great old building|
|Hemingway’s Favorite Mojito Bar|
|Beautiful Courtyard in the El Patio Restaurant|
|Mojitos and a Band – what more do you need?|