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High Times in Havana at Cubas World Heritage Site

Sitting in the vanishing afternoon light, sipping a cold mojito in the faded Grandeur of Plaza Cathedral while listening to the beat of Cuban jazz, it’s easy to picture the splendor of Havana’s hedonistic past. The small square flanked by the Havana cathedral has been described as ‘music set in stone’. This is perhaps reminiscent of all of Havana, from crumbling ruins to the recently renovated buildings and churches; the whole city resonates with melodic undertones.

Walking around Havana Vieja (old Havana), a Unesco World Heritage Site, you get a feeling of a city suspended in time and yet life goes on. Cuban jazz floats around every corner. Streets are alive with hustle and bustle as locals go about their daily lives and tourists swarm to see history in the making.  Old ladies smoking fat cigars sit on street corners and classic old Chevrolets cruise the highways. Everything you envision Havana to be, it is and more. Huge Spanish colonial buildings of enormous proportion line the streets.  In the old town, buildings have been restored in an effort to encourage tourists to visit its former glory. Yet for every beautifully restored mansion, church or building, you will see others in ruin. And for every pristine Chevrolet you will see a dozen beat up old Ladas or Fiats.

There are many landmarks and sights to se while exploring Havana’s dramatic past.

All the forts date back to early Spanish occupation, including the magnificent El Morro fortress, as well as the former palaces and Havana Cathedral surrounding the Cathedral Plaza. Large buildings and palaces, influenced by the French, with neoclassical designs, were built during the late 1800s early 1900s. The colossal Capitolio, inspired by the US Capitol building, is a massive 72 meters (238ft) high and dominates the centre of Havana.

The Grand Theatre is an immensely ornate building inside and out and the Museum de la Revolucion—interesting enough on its own—is housed within the former Presidential Palace. The Plaza de la Revolucion is actually home to a 142m (468ft) high memorial to Jose Marti, a poet, writer and nationalist leader during the late 19th century. Looking down on the plaza’s north side, the face of Che Guevara is marked indelibly on the side of the Internal Affairs building.

On windy days the famous Malecon, a sea front road that runs between the city and the ocean, is often covered in huge spumes of seawater spray. A great way to tour the city is either by horse and carriage or on one of the little yellow bubble taxies that weave in and out of the traffic.

But all this wealth and spender is of a bygone age. Today, life under a socialist regime shows.

We took our boat to Marina Hemmingway, as you are not allowed to anchor elsewhere. The huge marina, made up of four long, man made canals, is almost empty. The officials that climb on board are friendly and courteous, but some, not all, ask for a small gift. Anything is accepted – deodorant, unwanted clothes, baseball caps, cooking oil and soap – are all luxury items. They leave most grateful. The dock master tells us he earns $18 US a month.  Everyday the doctor comes around to ask if we feel unwell, though this is perhaps more due to the bird flu epidemic that was around at the time. The marina is ten miles from Havana; our taxi driver is a doctor who earns more driving the streets than in the medical profession.

There are two currencies: one for the Cubans, the CUP, the local Peso, and the convertible tourist peso, the CUC, which runs on par with the US dollar.  The dual currency has divided the economy into the haves (CUC’s) and the have not’s (CUP’s).  Anything you can buy with the Cuban pesos is incredibly cheap, especially by foreign standards, but your goods are limited. It’s the convertible peso that has the buying power, although at hugely inflated prices. The government subsidizes local housing and a basic ration of food including rice, dried beans, cooking oil, soap and toothpaste; there is free medical care and an education system.  But most houses don’t have a phone let alone a mobile phone or computer. There is no free press or freedom of speech. Despite all the hardships, Cubans are a kind, solidary people surviving years of embargo and isolation.

Havana is fascinating, as rich in history as it is in culture. At first glance it looks like a crumbling old city that has recently been ravaged by war. But if you look a bit closer you will find a vibrant, magnificent city, albeit one that is shabby around the edges.

Rosie and her husband, both from the UK, have cruised the Caribbean and North America for the last seven years on Alianna their Corbin39.

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