And there he was, Dr. Al Campbell, who flew directly to Havana from his home in Switzerland. Eager to explore, we piled onto our bus and set out for a walking tour of Havana. There was some confusion about who our government guide was going to be, but when we met her and got a sense of her humor, we were thrilled. Although we have Al as our professor guide, Cuba also requires a government guide to lead groups through the country. It’s also helpful when handling logistics. Our guide, Lian, was a dream.
For the Havana walking tour, Al brought in his good friend of 30 years and historian Ayleen Robainas. Ayleen led us through Old Town Havana and pointed out dilapidated beauty. With an average of 3 buildings collapsing a day and limited resources for infrastructure, Havana is in a crisis. Yet, innovation is Cuba’s middle name. To address the concerns, specialty vocational schools have been opened to train students in specific historical building reconstruction.
Old communist propaganda lines the central park in Old Havana. Clearly there for tourists, but the novelty was appealing. This is where we saw hints of capitalism seeping in. Locals doing what they can for a CUC (Cuban Convertible Currency). Ladies with cigars, caricature artists, peanuts sold in paper cones. Although there to attract tourists, it wasn’t nearly as invasive as many other tourist spots in the world.
It was impossible to move fast through these streets, so many amazing things to look at! We eventually made our way to a local “paladar” in the heart of Havana. Under Raul’s rule, Cubans began opening up privately owned restaurants called paladares. These are sanctioned by the government and allow citizens to earn a little extra money on the side. Today, they are one of the best sources of income for Cubans. Set in an old Havanan mansion, the eclectic Paladar Cristobol treated us to a spectacular first Cuban lunch. Complete with a mojito and cigar. Our gracious host offered both!
After lunch, we checked into our former mafia-run hotel, Hotel Capri. Today this hotel is one of the busiest for groups of tourists and doesn’t have a tie to the mafia, that I know of. Tired, but energized, we were welcomed with beautiful fruity cocktail upon check-in.
And a gorgeous sunset at the end of the day.