Six Days in Cuba – Day 1 (Sunday)

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After an overnight stay in Miami, we started our day of travel to Cuba Sunday morning. Though our destination was roughly 200 miles away, the total travel time was nine hours. The flight was about one hour, but we were warned about extensive delays –– that’s what we got. After landing in an overcast and rainy Havana, we waited on the plane for an hour before officials had us de-board and walk the 100 yards to the airport terminal. After we got out of the rain, the immigration and customs process went fairly smoothly, and soon enough, we were outside again and getting our first glimpse of life in Havana.

A large number of people were outside waiting to pick up friends and families returning home. Classic American cars from the ’50s lined the streets, and taxis were abundant with eager drivers to take you to your destination. As we waited for our hotel’s transportation and took in the scenery, Havana seemed to be a typical smaller Caribbean country. 

Once on our bus, the drive through the city told a more complete story of Havana. There was no new construction to be seen. Buildings were old, and most were just bones of what they used to be. The dreary weather seemed to match the mood of the city as we drove to the hotel.

Interesting facts about Cuba:

  • Cuba has 11 million inhabitants, and about 2 million live in the Havana area.
  • Virtually all hospitals, schools, and other buildings were built pre-revolution (1960).
  • The Cuban political leadership offices are well known, but their homes are carefully guarded locations for their protection.
  • Cuba has a concerning “age crisis” –– the population is aging, and the number of children and young adults is shrinking.
  • Despite challenges, Cuba has maintained a fairly well appointed medical system –– the country has 22 medical schools.
  • 28,000 students attend the University of Havana, which is free to all residents.
  • Infrastructure is the most obvious deficit.
  • The city is home to a number of urban gardens which began in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba had to find new ways to survive. The resulting “Special Period” meant a time of severe austerity –– citizens often lived off slices of tomatoes grown in the urban gardens.

We arrived at Hotel Presidente, which is boasted as one of the nicer 4-star hotels in Havana. Originally built around 1926 and then renovated in 2000, the hotel maintains a distinct character but struggles to meet expectations of its local rating. Though the hotel was clean, hallway carpets were threadbare, air conditioning worked sporadically, and the hotel staff’s service was more abrupt than accommodating. 

Dinner at La California Restaurante was a nice surprise. The eclectic décor and attentive service made for a welcoming atmosphere.  While the food was quite good, the rum was the talk of the evening. The group toasted with our first Cuba Libre –– local rum, dark cola, and a lime wedge. Most agreed it was one of the best they’d ever had. Cuba’s reputation for rum had not disappointed. An interesting fact about Cuban restaurants –– they are either government owned or privately owned. As we learned during the week, the easiest way to tell the difference was if you were given menu choices. If you did have a choice, it was likely private; if not, it was probably a government restaurant.

After dinner as we walked the streets, we were greeted and welcomed by locals once they realized we were Americans. Throughout the interactions during this first day, it was becoming clear that the Cuban people wanted to have normal country-to-country relations with the United States. That night for the first of many times, we heard the phrase “We love America.” The people are warm despite living in a city that is literally crumbling and in desperate of attention.

As I headed to bed for our first night in Cuba, my initial impression of Havana was that of a veteran movie star trying desperately to age gracefully but not succeeding very well.