Habana Vieja

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I woke up on Day 2 in Cuba determined to get to my morning food tour on time (unlike the day before). So I got up and was ready to go around 9:15 to make a 10:00 tour. I was excited. Ready!

Then my hosts and I could not find a taxi! We called so many places but Cubans seem to sleep in on Sundays so it was hard to find someone willing to come pick me up. Thus I barely made it but I did (in the end) make it on time. Ana, my tour guide, met me in old town Havana (or Habana Vieja). I realized I was the only person on the tour. Considering the drama of the night before, I actually was pleased. I recalled that in China, I had two back to back food tours in which I was the only person and had fun both times! I find one on one tours to be great personal exchanges with locals that I otherwise would not get with a large group. I still prefer to be around a group of people on tours (when I’m traveling solo) but I think food tours in particular are easy and rewarding to do one on one. So I had a good feeling and Ana did not disappoint. First we had a traditional cafe con leche.

IMG_0659She pointed out that in Cuba, most people can’t afford milk so powdered milk is more common in homes and that’s what this restaurant served in their coffee. It tasted delicious. We also had bread and butter except here they might dip the bread and butter into the coffee!

We had a great little meal at the mojito mojito restaurant. From there we walked around Habana Viejo and discussed various topics from the internet and phone situation in Cuba to the lives of everyday Cubans. I have to admit I was surprised by the level of difficulty to accomplish what are everyday simplicities for Americans. One thing I’ll think twice before taking for granted again is the internet. It’s available everywhere I go at home. In Cuba, it’s a real chore to find it.

We toured several plazas in Habana Viejo and tried a variety of foods from chorizo to fresh fruits.

My favorite stop was the restaurant Nao. I actually had eaten there the first night with another tour. This time, Ana introduced me to Ropa Viejo (old clothes) and it was amazing. The name comes from an old Cuban legend of a man being so desperate to feed his family that he destroys his own clothes and tries to cook it (praying god would change it to food). His wish is granted and it becomes a delicious stew. The taste of flank steak and tomato paste cooked for hours with many spices and a side of black beans and rice was unforgettable. 

Ropa Vieja
Ropa Vieja

Ana warned me that it it’s not uncommon for restaurants in Cuba to run out of food due to the difficulty of acquiring it and it turns out she was very right. I went back to Nao a third time the next day to discover they were out of flank steak! 

After finishing our day with some very delicious mojito ice cream, Ana helped me exchange my money and buy internet cards (yes you need a card). Even with the wifi cards, they have to be activated one at a time for an hour each and only in the few areas you can find a stable connection to the network. I found a little hotel in old Havana that had a great connection. 

I walked around for hours shooting Habana Viejo and getting better acquainted with it before getting a taxi back to my room and exploring more of the area around my casa particular (Airbnb).  That area is Vedado.

One thing I’ll say about Vedado is that (to me) it’s just indescribably nuts. Walking down residential streets there is part terrifying/part majestic. It truly reminds me of New Orleans both in the setting and the style of homes but it’s much rougher. It feels a little like Halloween when you don’t know which houses are actually just quiet for the night and which are actually open for trick or treating. In this case the trick or treating houses might be a hidden club or restaurant that otherwise looks like a less than enthralling house!

It is truly the most unusual place I’ve EVER explored. It is seedy and dirty and falling apart but it’s also beautiful and vibrant and overflowing with charm. Go figure.

Anyway I had a forgettable dinner with little time to plan, stopped at the hotel Melia Cohiba to use their internet and have a drink. I went to my room to change and decided to go find a place to dance Cubano style. Finding taxis is not easy in that part of Havana so I decided to just walk to the malecon (which is their riverfront district). It ended up being a 45 minute walk (and I walk fast). Something like 30 blocks! Under the dark, crazy Vedado night!

When I got to the malecon, I found a scene straight out of Back to the Future Part II. You know when Marty wakes up in Hill Valley’s alternate future and finds it to be a crazy over the top version of itself. That was the malecon at midnight on a Sunday night. Thousands of Cubans on the streets, some just standing on sidewalks for no apparent reason. Others, I assume, for a reason. Loud vintage cars, smog, police, prostitutes, and drunken Cubans and tourists alike. On the other hand, the energy level is so high and the scene so unbelievable that it has to be seen to believe. I ended up never getting to dance but I had an experience I’ll never forget and can barely describe. I ended up walking the whole 45 minutes back! I won’t lie and pretend I wasn’t on edge. You would be too in the same situation. I’m sure I was never in any danger but my senses were raised in those dark backstreets of Havana. Still, that’s why I travel. For the discovery and the minor discomfort. What’s a little fear of the unknown darkness in front of you? I love the sensation.

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