Day 5: Havana - Monuments and a meal on the Malecon

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Image: Photo of block tourist map of Cuba, logo for Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Day 5: Schleppin' back to Viazul

Less politics, more pictures!

A young man grimaces in the fresh morning Havana air on la Rampa.

December 18, 2015, Havana, Cuba — Our day started early. A helluva lot earlier than we'd have liked! It seems the building across a really narrow alley from our room at Abby's Place belongs to the Ministerio de educatíone and they have decided today was the day to do loud drilling things to its facade only three or four metres from our bed.

So much for sleeping in. (Though maybe it was for the best, as I look back on the day; after all, we won't be in Cuba forever!)

We arose with much grumping and got dressed, I suddenly thrilled that I'd managed to find a 25.00 CUC pair of shorts from the dreaded FOCSA mall just before closing time last night. It's one thing to wear the same pair of pants four days in a row in even an exceptionally warm Ottawa December, but quite another to do it in Cuban diciembre.

Tired and hungry, we set out to find some breakfast, heartened by our luck last night with the Paladar Santa Barbara.

Image: Photo of a transmission on the sidewalk next to a red vintage American automobile, with the Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine  in the foreground, Abby's Place at right.
It's true, Havana is nothing but contrasts, or so it seems. Abby's place is the building with the green balcony on the right, while the Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine is on the horizon at left.

We started by walking towards the Malecón, down Calle 17, then taking a right on Calle O. On our left was the sea, and the famous Hotel Nacional. On our right, the sort of half-ruins that seem ubiquitous in Cuba.


Image: Photo of the Hotel Nacional on the Malecon in Havana.
Havana's landmark Hotel Nacional.

We were briefly distracted (if your value of "briefly" equals about 30 minutes) by Raven's interest in tourist knickknacks; there was a small artisans' street sale going on in a vacant lot. We didn't buy anything, but I'm sure Raven kept mental notes. If we don't come across something much better, we'll be back!

Empty-handed and still hungry, we didn't walk too much farther before location, serendipity and familiarity called out to us under the name of California Café, a hole in the wall that sparked dreams of a Canadian-style breakfast and, just maybe, a giant mug of Canadian-style coffee. (Also the CUC 2.50 price was a factor.)

Image: Photo of the interior of the California Cafe in Havana
The California Café serves a decent breakfast and heavenly honey!

The coffee turned out to be strictly Cuban (which I'm learning to like, if slowly), and the breakfast a reasonable simulacrum of Canadian bacon and eggs. The revelation was Cuban honey, its consistency more like maple syrup than the thick Canadian version. Raven shamelessly drank down her entire container (maybe an ounce or two), since she isn't much interested in bread.


Our pleasures might sound boring, but Raven and I have learned there are two things we love about travelling. Eating good food and walking the hell out of unfamiliar roads. Raven tends to over plan (to my mind), while I tend to be too disorganized (in hers), but I think our meeting in the middle keeps both of us pretty happy.

One could also say that Raven likes to have a goal, and today's was to get to (and possibly enter) the Museo Postal Cubano (yes, she's a little weird), which wasn't my first choice, but one I was happy to aim for if our feet were to be the means of transportation of choice.

Image: Photo of traffic on a street approaching La Rampa. Note the broken down white van in the centre lane.
Traffic on a street approaching la Rampa. The broken-down van was far from the last injured vehicle we would see that today.

I'll save you the suspense. We never reached the Museo, but we did experience the remarkable (and remarkably filthy) parade of multiple generations of automobiles and buses trundling along La Rampa, a major thoroughfare on the eastern edge of Havana's Vedado district (I'm told, its commercial centre). This is a wide boulevard of crumbling stone mansions and larger buildings, interspersed by newer but almost-as-run down Stalinist towers.

Image: Photo of traffic on la Rampa with ugly building in background.
Traffic on la Rampa. If you look closely at the right, you'll see a Toyota insignia; not every vehicle is ancient. (Nor is every building hideous.)

(Can anyone please tell me why Soviet-influenced architecture is almost invariably hideous? Is it just that ugly is (usually) the cheapest and easiest way to go, or is there something philosophical behind it? That Soviet architecture largely coincided with some of the ugliest periods in Western building leads me to suspect the culprit is philosophy and not economics. As Samuel R. Delany pointed out in Heavenly Breakfast, future generations may look back upon 20th century Capitalism and Marxism as separated twins with a lot more in common than either would like us to believe. But I digress.)

Image: Photo of statue of skinny Don Quixote from rear.
The first, but not the only, statue of Don Quixote we would see in our Havana wanderings. But one of my favourites.

There was one note of striking beauty in that section of our walk: a playful, almost cartoony statue of Don Quixote, a creation of coiled steel that could have been a child prodigy's work in plasticine enlarged a thousand-fold.

Image: Photo of statue of skinny Don Quixote from side.
So much so I'm including a side-view, despite the glare.

Raven's plan led us to another, even grander boulevard, known both as Calle G and Avenida de los Presidentes. This road is split by a tree-lined pedestrian median, with the sea at one end and the imposing Monumento Maxima Gomez at the other.

Image: Photo of Avenida de los Presidentes, looking towards the Malecon from intersection with la Rampa.
Looking North along the Avenida de los Presidentes, from the intersection with la Rampa.

We would likely have been drawn by the view of that statue in the distance even if it had not been on the way to the Museo (which I had more or less forgotten by this sweaty point — have I mentioned that it's been bloody hot (and muggy!) since we've been in Havana?).

Physically, the Avenida reminds me of Toronto's University Avenue as it approaches Queen's Park, but in Havana most of the tall towers are residential buildings, not offices or hospitals. Towers from which were hung from nearly every balcony great quantities of laundry, as if Depression-era Brooklyn tenements had 20 stories added to their modest four and five-storey beginnings.

Image: Photo of an apartment building on Avenida de los Presidentes, looking South from la Rampa.
An apartment tower on the West side of Avenida de los Presidentes, just north of la Rampa.

And of course, the air in which those clothes dried was absolutely foul with the exhaust from a constant flow of ancient Detroit iron, Soviet tin and a motley assortment of European, Japanese and even Chinese plastic of more recent vintages. The air on the wider streets isn't quite so bad as it was in Santa Clara, but I still feel like I've taken up smoking again.

Anyway, past the Monumento Maxima, we found ourselves on a large and confusing traffic circle. So large, we decided to forgo making a landing on the Monumento itself

Image: Photo of the Monumento Maxima Gomez.
El monumento a José Miguel Gómez, seen from the north.

As I said, we never did find the Museo Postal. Instead we were distracted by the sight of a peculiar tower in the distance.

We started for it and soon realized (because our map told us so, and so did some smiling Cubans, both at about the same time) that we were looking at the Plaza de Revolución. The map further told us that beyond that lay the Palacio de la Revolución (Parliament).

Photo of Jose Marti Momument, seen from across the Plaza de Revolucion
Bizarre and hideous Monumento a José Martí, seen from the north-east.

Well, hell. Raven and I live in Ottawa, where Parliament Hill isn't just a landmark, but a really lovely piece of architecture. How could we resist?

Cuba generally, and Havana in particular, is not exactly pedestrian-friendly. Drivers are liberal indeed when it comes to tooting their horns warning anyone in their path that they are in the way and had better move. Still, we gathered our nerve and waited for a break in traffic, then made our move to the other side.

I guess the Plaza de Revolución is a plaza, because it says so on the map. But looks more like a ginormous parking lot. In any case, we started across it, stopping from time to time to work out what the two high-rises facing the weird tower were and why armed soldiers were guarding what looked like twin hotels of a Certain Age, one with a giant mural of Che upon its outer walls, the other with either Marx or Fidel or (as Raven thought, Jesus Christ). (Me, I put two CUCs on it being Fidel.)

Image: Photo of the Ministry of the Interior (left) and Communications (right), seen from across the Plaza de Revolucion
The Ministry of the Interior at left, and of Communications, right. Both guarded by armed soldiers. We learned later that the figure at right Bizarre and hideous Monumento a José Martí, seen from the north-east.

The map says that that sporting the stylish Che mural belongs to the Minesterio del Interior, while Marx, Fidel or Jesus blesses the Museo Postal Cubano. So I guess we did reach the museo, after all!

Or so says the map. But if so, why is it protected by armed soldiers?

Who knows? Well, lots of people I guess; but not me, not now, not without Google available to me. [Author's note, January 7, 2016: Google maps informs me the building at right is in fact the Ministry of Communications.]

As we approached the Weird Tower, we had to face facts: this was the centrepiece of the Plaza de la Revolución: A brutal (if not "brutalist"; maybe someone can tell me), concrete pyramid behind a statue of some imposing male figure that must, we felt, carry some important symbolic weight.

Damned if we knew what it might be though.

We thought we might find answers to that question (and who knows, maybe others), and decided to climb the stairs we saw that led up to the monument itself.

A metal chain barred the way. To the left of the stairs sat a common, hollow-legged metal chair with a cheap padded seat and back-rest, from which hung a faded sign reading (in English as well as Spanish!):

Image: Photo of sign showing visiting hours.

Visiting Hours
Monday to Saturday
from 09:00 a.m to 04:30 p.m.


My phone read 16:24, then 16:25 when we got a usable photo. There was almost nobody around, certainly no stream of people heading for the exit as closing time approached. We remembered our half-hour late/one hour early bus ride and laughed. "Cuban time," I said.

Well, what the hell. We could still see the Parliament, couldn't we?

Actually, we could not.

Before we carried on, though, we stopped at the intersection of Passeo and the Eastern branch of Avenido de la Independencia to gawk at traffic and, more importantly, rest our dogs and drink some water.

Image: Photo of a red Lada with open hood at intersection near Plaza de la Revolucion.
A Lada broken down near the Plaza de la Revolución.

But apparently, you're not allowed to sit on curbs near the Plaza de la Revolución.

A young soldier called out and hurried over, gesturing at me to stand up. He didn't shout or threaten, but I felt kind of pissed off anyway (not that I showed it; I live in freedom-loving Canada and know better than to mouth off to Authority).

Raven just laughed at me when I bitched about it, though. In China, she said, the guard would have screamed at me, not just politely told me I wasn't supposed to sit where I had planted my tired bum.

Anyway, we left the broken-down Lada to its fate and carried on in search of the Parliament.

So far as we could tell, at least from the Avenida R. Boyeros (which runs to the south-east of the Palacio de la Revolución before becoming the east wing of the Avenida de la Independencia), there is no public access to the Palacio de la Revolución. There are crumbling staircases, and one or two dismal-looking drives that are chained off, but no sign indicates its existence and certainly nothing at all offers egress to citizens or even to tourists.

Image: Photo of a ruined stone staircase
Stairway to Nowhere, somewhere around the Avenida de la Independencia.

Exhausted, we rounded the mysterious park and this time found a bench on which we could rest. By this point we realized we were not that far from the Viazul bus station at which we had debarked yesterday. We knew it would be prudent to buy (or at least, if things worked in Havana as they did in Santa Clara) to reserve our tickets to Varadero now, rather than making a special trip later.

Truth is, we were hot, sweaty, exhausted and running low on water, but figured another half-hour would do the trick and so set out again.

Image: Photo of entrance to an urban farm or market
Entrance to a market of some sort. It was closing when we passed by and we too tired to enter in any case.

We passed by an urban farm and the Park Zoológico de la Havana, as well as a few stretches of housing that looked like nothing more nor less than slums, before we reached our destination on Calle 26.

Image: Photo of run-down highrise apartment tower on way to Viazul station.
A residential tower we passed on our way to the Viazul terminal.

We were able to buy our tickets [ha! See the upcoming entry for Day 8!] in short order, though of course we had to hand over our passports for the privilege. Every transaction here seems to be recorded in pen and ink, or else on a computer that probably isn't networked, but with a little legwork, Cuban authorities could keep pretty close tabs on where we have been, if not necessarily on where we are in the now. We left the station with our "tickets" in hand, grey dot-matrix print-outs with our names, destination and ceteras.

The map says we did seven or eight kilometres during the hottest part of the day, easy. And with the sun just about ready to set, there was no question but that we would take a cab.

Cuban cabbies are mostly an informal bunch. Most have no metres and we've been told it's advisable to agree on a price before you enter a taxi. Good advice.

We'd paid 5 CUCs to the driver arranged by Abby's Place yesterday. Our first offer today was seven; our second, 10 CUCs. At that point we said to hell with it and left bus station parking lot and started to walk towards downtown along Calle 26. As soon as the first stoplight had changed, a Lada (another Lada! When do I get my classic Ford or Chevy?) crossed from the direction of the bus station and pulled up beside us.

"Cuanto cuesta?" I asked, and pointed to Calle 17 and the Malecón on our map. The driver said "Seis." "Six," I said to Raven. "What the hell, it's close enough." We got in and endured another white-knuckle ride home.

Cuban roads are brutal, and Cuban cars rough, but so far Cuban food has been mostly delicious.

Tonight's dinner was no exception, nevermind that it was not remotely Cuban and that the restaurant was on the fifth floor of an apartment building only a couple of blocks from our hotel.

Raven found a listing for the Cafe Laurent in our handy-dandy Lonely Planet guide-book and, since it was merely a couple of blocks away, we decided to give it a try.

Who knew brilliant dining can be found in hideous high-rise apartment towers!

I'm too tired to write a restaurant review, so i'll just say that I had a lamb stew priced at 15.00 CUCs (maybe $20.00 Canadian) and didn't begrudge the price for a second. The meat was melt in your mouth succulent, the sauce fucking exquisite. Raven felt the same about her black rice and seafood risotto and that's all that needs be said.

We like to eat and we were more than satisfied, we were sated.

And that's it. It's late, a big wind has started to blow over the Malecón, and I will report again tomorrow.

Image: Photo of the Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine at night.
The wind picks up as we visit the Malecón once again before bed.

Next up: Day 6 – From slum to Old Town!

Previous: Day 4 – Havana ho!

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