Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), Cuba: A journey into the past
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The way to learn about old Havana is to wander the lively streets. It can be a challenge. Aggressive hustlers are everywhere and will offer all kinds of services or cigars (not the real ones) for a few pesos. Navigating crumbling sidewalks is no walk in the park. Dogs run freely so look where you're stepping. It's almost impossible to find a well laid out street map so let your intuition be your guide. Watch when you cross a street, the car rules.
You can't miss the country's capital building because it's an exact replica of the capital of the United States in Washington, D.C. (only slightly bigger), built by Americans before they were booted out by Fidel Castro in the late 1950's. One local described the event as, "the triumph of the revolution in 1959." On the front steps of the capital you can get your photograph taken by a camera which is probably older than you. Spend time here and people-watch. They'll also be watching you. One of the most intriguing sights are the local Camels travelling the streets packed solid with over 300 people. These Camels are tracker-trailer units that carry people instead of merchandise.
Contrary to what the tourist brochures contain, smiling faces are far and few between. Offer the locals a peso and they'll sometimes smile on cue. Outside the hotel district, few Cubans speak English. When you wish to escape the torturous humid heat there are a few museums in the downtown area to explore. Everywhere you will see people and clothing hanging out on the balconies of state owned buildings.
The other thing that strikes you is the music. It cannot be escaped no matter where you walk. It provides the rhythm of everyday life and the Rumba is never far away. It's part of the islands character and its history.
To escape the inner city, book a tour narrated by an English speaking guide to see the rest of Havana. Purchase this tour from the lobby of one of the two or three large hotels found smack dab in the middle of the city. The 3 hour tour costs about 15 pesos, but expect to spend an hour picking up other passengers outside old Havana before the tour begins. Regardless, it's a fascinating tour and worth the money.
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George Bailey is a professional photographer and writer. He is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and writes a regular column for Canadian CAA Magazine. He can be contacted at Wonderful.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author