The day continues; and if you want to know what happened earlier that day, please go Back to 1953: Exploring Havana’s Old City Center and the Four Plazas
Havana – a capital city of a communist country; wherever I went, it was like I just traveled through time and went back to the 1950s. Previously I was talking about how pleasantly surprised I was waiting in front of the Hotel Telegrafo, little did I know that it was actually a private tour and we spent the morning exploring the four main squares of the old town Havana: Plaza de la Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco, and Plaza Vieja. Afterward, I was brought into the business area outside of the old town to have an “intimate” lunch with my guide on the rooftop of a small building, without a big billboard or road sign – a place that I would never know if I was not accompanied by a local. 😛 (Though I saw numerous recommendations from different travel media at the front of the kitchen door).
Lunch at Restaurante Paladar Café Laurent
It was a quiet restaurant with homey and comfy décor, and we sat down on the balcony overlooking the Havana skyline, with views of the Gulf of Mexico. The owner of the restaurant was friendly and he insisted on treating me a glass of Cuban Mojito. The Mojito has more rum than the typical ones and I felt like he added syrup in there so it was sweeter. We had a selection of chicken, beef, or fish as our main dish so I went for fish. Although it didn’t exactly taste top-notch and amazing, the dish had a nice finesse when it was brought to the table. Imported Coca-Cola was still available in the city, I was tempted to try Cuban Coke which tasted great and I couldn’t tell if it was any different from Coca-Cola. 😛
The history of Rum
Open the book of Sugar Cane and Rum, this is an important chapter of Cuban history. A sip of strong rum is a great reward for a long hard day working in the sugar cane field. This is a drink for the poor workers in Communism, even Hemingway was a fan of this signature drink.
Rum was originated in the West Indies in the 17th century, produced by distillation of sugar cane, a techniqued invented by Britain. The natives drank this wine and felt excited, screaming “Rumbllio!” in their native language, and so the wine was later called “Rum” in a short form.
Cuba enjoys tropical weather with fertile soil, abundant rainfall, and plenty of sunlight. Sugar cane was brought to Cuba by the Spanish, but they grow so well in Cuba they were like a native crop. The country enjoyed economic growth exporting sugar cane, and it is also an important ingredient for manufacturing rum. Rum is Cuba’s national wine and the cheapest bottle of Añejo Blanco is only 3 CUC, and Havana Club is about 4.5 CUC (as compared to bottled water that is 1 CUC). The locals like rum when they listen to music and dance, it’s a great drink to share hanging out with friends, cooling down from the heat, or even driving away diseases. Music is in Cuban’s DNA, and rum is in their blood.
In fact, the production of rum has been an important part of the Cuban’s colonial and slavery history. While slaves tried to drink their pain and struggle away with rum, they sometimes lost their sight or suffered from alcohol intoxication for drinking impure rum. The production and sales of rum was at its peak in the 19th century, yet it was controlled by the Spanish government. The restriction was loosen later, and Barcadi was the first locally-owned rum producer in Cuba. The company was later acquired by Facund Bacardí i Massó, and he discovered a way to produce a rum that’s gentle and rum and immediately won the heart of the world. Eventually, Barcadi had to leave Cuba during the revoluation in 1959, as most of the private corporations are forced to be nationalized.
How about Havana Club? The logo can be seen in many glasses and cups. After Bacardi sold its business in Cuba, Cárdenas, created the brand, Havana Club, and ban the sales of Bacardi’s rum in Cuba. Havana Club was owned by Arechabalas and it was launched in 1934, it’s now an international brand with annual sales over 4 million cases.
This brand was then became national corporation, and due to the US embargo, the wine was reigstered in the US but export to Russia, and other countries. When the Cuban government made a deal with Pernod-Ricard to sell worldwide, the Arechabalas sold their secret recipe to Bacardi; as a result, there are two “Havana Club” brands exist in the world today, manufactured by two different companies, and their rivals and competition of this trademark never ends.
There has been various court case with Bacardi to legalize their own Havana Club trademark outside the United States. I wonder which company will eventually become the owner of Havana Club?
As we were having lunch, my guide and now friend shared with me a lot about the Cuban daily lives and how they got in touch with the outside world. She told me, the income of doctors or lawyers are lower in Cuba than being a waitress in the US… and many used to pay a lot of money just to get a Mexico visa, and then find a way to sneak into the U.S. … Apparently, the closed country was not that closed after all as there were ways to stay connected with current issues (the taxi driver talked with me about the news in China, the travel operator was aware of the US-Cuban relationship the same day with the rest of the world). She also told me she would love the opportunity to travel and see the world; I appreciated a lot the freedom that I had– and how I should defend it and not take it for granted. More about the restaurant, find out here.
Enjoy the tropical breeze in a vintage car in Miramar
After lunch, the vintage car driver was already waiting outside for a spin! As I was told the drivers were quite lucky to have inherited a vintage car and so they could make a living in the tourism business. Besides, there was a lot of fixing and repairing to keep it functioning! The driver offered me the car to drive it, I turned it down as the only time I drove a stick was in a driving lesson and I didn’t want to crash. Took a front seat we began our journey in the Miramar district, a residential neighborhood where upscale condos, international schools, and embassies are located. Driving along the Quinta Avenida, it is named Havana’s “Fifth Avenue”, we enjoyed a nice afternoon breezed under the shadows of tropical trees that lined up on the sidewalk. We soon arrived at Revolution Square.
Vintage cars in Cuba are called Almendrón – a word that originated from Spain because the elongated shapes remind people so much from an almond. Most of these vehicles are models from 1940 to the 1950s. Surprisingly, these cars are still in good condition and function today, making Havana an open-air museum of vintage cars. After World War II, Havana is the paradise of investors, gamblers, and drug lords. They opened upscale hotels and resorts in the city and Chevrolet, Packard, Ford, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, and Chrysler were brought in to Havana. After the embargo was imposed in 1962, Cuba relied on Russian’s support, and many of these cars remained without any new cars entering the country. They were passed down to the next generations, and most men in Cuba are experts in repairing these cars, with the restrictions of no spare parts for maintenance, therefore, they have a deep knowledge of the mechanism, as well as unimaginable creativity to keep these cars from broken down; it might be a struggle, but the situation enables the locals to truly, and fully recycle everything to the extreme.
Today, the scenery of seeing these vintage cars running on the streets is the main draw of tourists.
Admire the national heroes at the Revolution Square
The city square is an important area as being where many political rallies took place including Fidel Castro’s address to more than a million Cubans on countless occasions. One of the most striking features of the square was the José Martí Memorial, a 109m-tall, star-shaped tower that pays tribute to the national hero, José Martí. Another photo-shooting moment was the steel memorials of another two important figures of the country, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, that were built on the façades of the opposite two buildings, the office of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications. Another highlight of the city’s monument is the Memorial a Jose Marti, a 109 feet tall tower that has a pentagonal shape and is dedicated to Jose Marti (1852 – 1895).
Three Cuban Peso-dollar note
There, I got a surprise from the guide as she said she was going to surprise me – a three Cuban Peso-dollar note. She told me as most tourists used US dollars in Havana, they don’t usually receive Cuban Peso and some of them would love to keep one as it was printed with a Che Guevara Head. What an amazing gift!
For some time, I kept this dollar note together with my lucky one US dollar note in my wallet, hoping that the “two national leaders” could have a nice time in there. 🙂
Sip drinks at the Hotel Nacional and what a gorgeous sunset at the Malecón!
Then we had a spin around the Colon Cemetery and went through the Parque Almendares, where the giant trees were grown hundreds of years in the “Havana’s forest”, and the Flora and fauna were stunning as a green lung to the city. I was amazed by the volume of greens in an urban park I literally felt like I entered a rain forest.
Soon we headed back to the city and we were on the waterfront main road. It was a sunny day and driving along the road was pleasant and enjoyable. We went past the highly guarded US embassy and quickly turned we entered the city for a drink. Originally the guide planned to bring me to El Focsa, yet it was closed for the day for a private function so we walked to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which was pretty nice too as it is a very important hotel to the city, and the yard at the front has a great panoramic view of the ocean.
As I headed back to the old town after a vintage taxi ride, I walked along the Malecón, an 8 km long waterfront esplanade facing the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. On a rough day, waves could hit the walls and wet the passing cars. But that day was not the day. At the perfect twilight, everything looked pink. People sat on the side of the road in front of the ocean, chatting and chilling, and as for me, I sat there, looking at the Morro Castle, soaking in the beauty of the sunset, and enjoying the weird feeling of isolation as I had no signal reception (for once) that connected me with the rest of the world.