Sea and The City: Le Malecon and El Morro

The city is still Havana, of course. My fascination with the Cuban capital continues far beyond my trip there end of last year. As I am going through the pictures I took at Le Malecon, the 8 km of tamed seaside, I see it again: spacious, wild and free. The sea plays such an important role in Havana’s history: the city owns its very existence to it. Grateful, Havana leans towards the sea. The real heart of the city – and it’s center – is here, with its night bars and breakfast cafés, Internet hot spots, parades and magnificent built at scale hotels, reviving the glorious images 30s when Havana was the mafia heaven.

Today Malecon is for everyone: Havana locals come here to sunbathe, swim, fish (birds do as well), play music and kiss on the parapet. Tourists flock for the stunning panoramas of the city (and for a morning run, a notion that remains foreign to most Cubans). I walked all the 8 km of Malecon and that made me feel part of this city, tune to its rhythm and want to stay more.

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Le Malecon pier in Havana, Cuba

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Havana’s Must Dos: Old Town, Classic Cars, El Prado

Most guidebooks, blogs and tour guides advise to carve out two to three days to discover Havana. WRONG. Three days is the sheer minimum to explore its Old Town, Havana Vieja. And maybe to take a ride in a classic car around the city – the entire city, cruising through Miramar with its doll houses of embassies wrapped in fantastic posh forest, pausing at the panoramic spots to take some gorgeous shots, parading through the Revolution Square. That’s what you can do in three days. And Havana is much more than that. Fun fact: the Old Town has never been the actual city center, nor it is now. Intrigued? More on that later, in the post about Malecon.

I was mesmerized by Havana Vieja. To me, it justified the entire trip to Cuba: 10h+ of flying, staying in casas particulares of doubtful quality, struggling to find the food I normally eat (the food part turned out to be not bad at all). I wanted to come back to this part of town again and again, day and night, until I learnt by heart all its curves, its smells, its treasures. The Old City is Havana’s birth place and its raison d’être: its narrow harbour is the only place along the long coasts where the vessels can approach the shores, otherwise protected by reefs. The single city entrance is guarded by nine fortresses (La Fuerza and del Morro being the most famous). The fortifications made Havana at the time the most protected city of the Caribbean, “the key to the New World”. As well as the major trade post and the most lucrative asset of Spain for other empires.

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Havana: Winds of Communism and Love

Havana is a city which is very much alive. Like the other cities that leave their mark on you forever – Paris, New York, London, Moscow, – it is a city of contrasts. Buildings of breathtaking architecture falling apart. People on the street, asking sincerely whether you like their city. Classic designs in brightest colors ever invented, gorgeous antiques in palace-like apartments where rooms are rented at 50 EUR per night. Family details, left for tourists to observe, share and make part of their own story. Pictures on the walls with the owner’s father energetically shaking hands with every political leader of the last century, from Fidel to Nixon. Smiling triumphantly, full of confidence and national pride. Tiny pizza stores, where you as a tourist you can still buy food in local currency (and at local prices), seller helping you out sort out CUCs and pesos. A very honest city. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said that Havana had been and remained one of the most beautiful cities of Earth.

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Prepared to explore Havana, Cuba on my first morning there: thrilled, untanned, not sure what to expect

You can love Havana or hate it, what you absolutely can’t do is stay indifferent to this city. I had heard many contrasting opinions before I went, from astonishing delight of people comparing it to Paris and Rome, to bitter analogy with St Petersburg of the 1990s, the early days of post-communism in Russia when classic architecture, food supply and confidence in tomorrow were all falling apart.

Communism is still strong in Havana but it doesn’t have this larger than life feeling it had in the Soviet Union I remember. As I wrote in 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know, adherence to communism was more of a forced choice for Cubans and has never been absolute. Love for Cuba, on the other hand, was – and still remains the dominant feeling on the island, in Havana as well. Love for the country was the link between the Cubans and their leader and kept Fidel popular for 64 years (and still popular even after his death). His secret? Even though Castro controlled all of the important decisions in the country’s life, the revolutionary genius made Cubans part of them. For example, once a Mexican president was not sure whether to invite Fidel or not to the event with the other political leaders. In the telephone conversation, which Fidel had recorded and later played on the national television (I love the term, as if Cuba ever had any other television), he told the Cuban President to show up to the earlier part of the reception, quickly eat and then tactfully disappear before the American politicians arrive. Did Fidel do it? Absolutely not. And his country backed him up, every one of them. This national unity is still felt on the streets of Havana.

And at the same time, Havana was the last city that fell for Fidel and his movement of 26th of July. While Cuba was suffering under the endless Batista rule, its capital flourished. Those close to power could always enjoy the perks of the Olympus, and Havana was offering plenty at the time. Generous support of the U.S. to maintain the political power they could control together with more than generous cash flows from the Miami gangsters turning Cuba into the land where all illegal dreams come true, created a privileged class. A class enjoying the wonders of the imperial world, a class building new Havana and effectively shifting the city center towards Malecon with its pompous hotels and casinos. A class nourished by politics, vice and entertainment, dancing the nights away and living the life just 10 min car ride away from the Old City with its colonial good manners, Art Deco and antiques. Havana was a city of contrasts already then.

I let the pictures of Havana speak for this city, each capturing one of the million things that makes it city so magically special. Each telling a part of its story.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Shadow

My life between cities, countries and airports, with 2.5 flights per week on average (my normal life, that is), doesn’t leave me as much time as I would love to have to put my hands on the ton of fantastic shots of Cuba and Mexico. Well, luckily Weekly Photo Challenge is a much more manageable task than filtering through 2400+ shots.

This week’s topic is Shadow. There is a lot, in fact, I can write about shadow: every photographer can. If light is fundamental to a great photo, shadow is something much more elusive and far less controllable – yet sometimes even more important to capture the mood. You can measure the light and its sources in very precise units – but there is no scientific method to control shadow: its depth, color, its light (shadows also have light, what do you think)? Shadows are elusive, too. Shadows have character. They are like cats: you have them here and now, you half-press your shutter button – and off they go before you complete your work. That’s why shadows, to me, are much more magical than the light. I love them, I flirt with them, I constantly chase them with my camera.

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Havana, Cuba kissed by the first rays of light

Here is what I have on my first sunrise in Havana: shadows fill it with sheer magic. They hide the imperfections, help the mystery of the night prevail for yet another moment and set the stage to the first rays of sun. To me, Havana is most beautiful when the sun just rises (or starts setting down).

After all,

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

– Leonard Cohen

Remember?

🙂

Weekly Photo Challenge: Repurpose

First, the theme of this week’s Photo Challenge has caught me off guard. I mean, “Repurpose“?.. But then it has dawn on me: Cuban cars! As I have just wrote in my 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should), Cuba is full of gorgeous, colourful, shiny American cars of 1920-50s, brought to the island before the embargo. In fact, many of them hit Cuban ground before their official appearance on the American roads, because their manufactures were using Cuba as a trial driving range before the grand opening at home.

These cars are impeccably maintained – or at least they look so. However, with the embargo in place from 1962, how do you maintain all these classic beauty? You repurpose. Car reparation became a special art in Cuba, the one people are proud of, – and rightly so. Anything goes: spare parts of not affected by embargo Mitsubishi, Toyota and even less compatible oeuvres of Soviet making. In fact, often the only thing left from old American cars is their shiny, seemingly untouched by the time, frame.

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Streets of Havana, Cuba, filled with fully operational cars more than half a century old

The very purpose of these cars has evolved over time as well. From means of transportation (and, without a doubt, demonstration of social prestige of their owners half a century ago) they have evolved to ta lucrative tourism revenue stream. Almost all of these cars are now private taxis. With the official taxi business (embodied by new “cool” air conditioned Chinese and Korean cars) owned 100% by the state, such as almost any business on the island (in fact, even hotels are at least 30% owned by the Ministry of Defense), classic cars is almost a unique private business in Cuba. How cool is that? Investing in beauty (and being creative in maintaining it!) brings dividends over time.

So much about conventional wisdom, uh?

🙂

Cuba-Mexico 2017: Latam Love Affair

After our epic trip of 2016 to Brazil and Argentina, we were supposed to change continents and for 2017 pick something more to the East. That was the promise I gave to Louveteau who sacrificed his (booked) trip to Australia to stay and set out the nets to catch me when me met. We were toying with the idea of Thailand, or Beijing, or Hong Kong… But here is the thing with Latin America: you leave your heart to it the moment you set your foot in there. And after not seeing it for a year (which is, if you think about it, is a terribly long time to spend without a heart!), you just have to go back.

So we did. Luckily for me, Louveteau was harbouring some politics-inspired dreams to visit the last 100% Soviet country in the world. As for me, anything Latin would do (though I preferred Peru, drooling over the pictures of Machu Picchu). We did not know much about Cuba then but overwhelming sentiment of friends who went there circled around the conditions of hotels and casa particulares. With my birthday around the corner (and our general tendency to combine several countries in one visit and to explore them on steroids), we have added the neighbouring part of Mexico as the second leg of the trip. It promised gorgeous beaches, more civilized hotels and some down time to enjoy it all. (To be completely honest – Louveteau, I hope you are not reading this part, – I chose Yucatan partly because it was promising a few, but not many, architectural monuments, to free up some time for the sun and the beach, which I LOVE and Louveteau, well, not so much.)

Why Cuba, Why Now?

Cuba is unique. It is the only place on Earth, which is completely isolated from time and globalization, and which is also a home to some of the world’s finest art – especially architecture. The gorgeous silhouette of Havana matches in its elegance and sophistication the best streets of Paris, London and St Petersburg. Only that Havana has not been renovated for the last half century, and all this architectural luxury slowly but inevitably sinks in the past.

Cuba will never be like it is now, and there are two main reasons for that. Now, with Fidel gone, and Raoul rounding up his second, and final, Presidential term in 2018, things are bound to change. With Raoul, the members of the government loyal to the ideals of the Revolution – many casting these ideals side by side with the Castro brothers, – will likely go as well. Maybe not all of them, but many, it is hard to dispute with age. At the same time, maybe, just maybe, the heritage of the President Obama, who did a lot to bridge Cuba and the U.S., will continue to develop and open the borders to more American tourists and to more American companies. And once done, it is only a matter of time for Cuba to become another cosmopolitan city with Starbucks on every corner, shopping malls, hotel chains and Chinese taxi cars, all properly air-conditioned. Just like its neighbour across the Gulf of Mexico. So go now: time will never run backwards again.

Also, make sure to check out my 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should).

The Itinerary

That’s what our 2+ weeks looked like: Paris -> Havana -> Cienfuegos -> Trinidad -> Havana -> Vinales -> Havana -> Cancun -> Chichen-Itza -> Cancun -> Tulum -> Akumal -> Coba -> Cancun -> Havana -> Paris 

By the way: which map view do you prefer, this one or that from the last year (you can click to change the scale on both of them)? Do you find them useful in following my adventures and building up your travel routes?

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Me at the Hotel National of Havana, contemplating over the map of Cuba

Now, in a good not-so-old tradition of 2016, it is time to share some brief, very brief impressions about every of the key destinations of this trip. 

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