Cuba: Fun on a Budget Near Marina Hemingway
by Ralph Trout
Whether you’ve gone through all the bureaucratic hassles to gain official permission to take your US-registered boat to Cuba or arrived more simply on a differently flagged boat, you’ve finally successfully tied up at Marina Hemingway. It is time to take a breather and get ready to have fun.
The marina hotel has a beautiful pool, and more bars than I can remember. The best is Tres Reyes, where you can watch cigars being hand rolled while having a jolt of Cuban coffee or excellent rum. A must-see are the sculptures at the defunct Old Man and the Sea (seaward) hotel. The marina has several good, reasonably priced restaurants — even a good Chinese — and a disco that opens late. But don’t stay in the marina when Cuban culture, music, and art abound everywhere. There’s plenty to do close to the marina that doesn’t cost much.
If you are ready, able, and willing, go for a walk out the main gate and turn left. The streets of Cuba feel safe and we had no problems with any hustlers, as often encountered on other islands. Across the main highway — Fifth Avenue — on the first street to the right at a green wall there is a small alley that takes you to a nice, inexpensive place for breakfast. Cruisers should understand the vague directions. Just ask, “Donde está del desayuno?” If you miss it, a bit farther along on the same side of the street is a great bakery.
If you aren’t feeling energetic, hop aboard the shuttle bus at the Hotel Acuario in the marina (ask for a ticket in the lobby) and get dropped at any destination you choose. Just tell the driver, or his assistant who collects the fares, where you want to stop. The bus travels toward Havana along Fifth Avenue as far as a spot called Cecilia. You’ll recognize the Cecilia drop-off by the circus tents across the road.
Club Havana is a good any-day destination. It is a posh private members’ club. A weekday pass is ten CUCs and the weekend is 15. Bring a copy of your passport to leave at the main gate. You are issued a card that must be returned when you leave. It is well worth the money and can be a day well spent pampering yourself after your arduous passage. You’ll never know who might be hanging out at the several bars. Fidel’s son often relaxes there.
Club Havana is the reincarnation of the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club, started in 1933. In the pre-revolution years, the Biltmore was the playground of the rich and famous, with horseback riding, golf, baseball, and swimming pools. The present government dock adjacent to the west was the original yacht club. An odd note: pre-revolution president Batista was an honorary member, yet couldn’t enter since he was the wrong color. A free history of the hotel can be found in the main offices.
Club Havana is an architectural beauty. Unless there is a specific function, anyone can wander the grounds. As you enter the grounds, on the left is a series of shops where you can get quality souvenirs. One of the very best cigar bars in all of Havana is in this complex. (The first day of the Cuban International Cigar Festival was held at Club Havana this year. For only one day of the four-day convention at Club Havana, the sponsors spent an immense sum to promote Cuba’s main export, cigars. A ticket — if you could get one — was $700.) The actual clubhouse is a sprawling two-story mansion with lavish décor. The porches are great places to enjoy a cocktail, snooze, or catch up on reading. The beach has clear water, enough shade from small, thatched palapas, and an international clientele. We met tourists from Eritrea, Africa, the Maldives, and almost everywhere in Europe and the US. With the beach bar looking out on endless blue, surrounded by jet setters, all you need are the adjacent swimming pools to wash off the salt.
On a raised deck are three beautifully maintained pools with just enough shade. Follow the deck to the east and find an excellent, very reasonably priced restaurant. Lunch on the veranda is luscious. The pizza is a bargain and the toppings, such as lobster, are exotic. If you have the stamina, stay the evening and hit the disco. Appropriate attire is required.
Bolstered by the relaxing day, walk back to the marina along shaded Fifth Avenue. We encountered many friendly Cubans who wanted to practice their English. It wasn’t taught in the schools until recently. With the burst of tourism from the US, English is now an economic requirement.
Closer to the marina, in the village of Jiamanitas, is a unique display of mosaic art. Keep your eyes open because art is everywhere in Havana, but these works are different. If you don’t notice this particular bus stop on Fifth you need a seeing-eye dog. José Fuster created stunning wall mosaics throughout the streets of the area now known as Fusterlandia. Although he is internationally renowned, you may see his smile passing on a scooter. Venture off Fifth Avenue into a free maze of open-air mosaic galleries. Artist Fuster has covered almost everything for several blocks around his studio with mosaics. Most of his neighbors have permitted Fuster to use their walls and roofs in his work. Take your time; there’s a lot to see. Some are works in progress. One of the best is Fuster’s depiction of Granma, the boat that returned Fidel to Cuba from Mexico.
Closer to the marina, the next stop should be Santy’s Seafood Restaurant. If you look north from the bridge, Santy’s is the brown, two-story building on the water. Take the street before the bridge and keep looking for another small alley. Ask, because everyone but you knows where it is. Santy’s has the only intercom door we encountered in Cuba. It also had the best seafood. Plates of sushi and ceviche are ten CUCs. Everything is fresh, beers are cold, and dinners are reasonable.
Immediately before the bridge, at the locals’ marina, you might be able to purchase fresh fish. The prices are as nice as the fishermen. If you have any spare hooks, these guys could use them.
For another excursion, take the bus to Cecilia and walk eastward along Fifth Avenue. This area is Miramar. This jaunt will take you past a supermercado where you can see the monthly ration for the locals. It isn’t much. In contrast is the nearby ferreteria (hardware store) where posh bathroom fittings can be purchased. There is also Palco, the Cuban version of Costco, where you might find something you want, but roving the aisles might make Americans homesick.
Fifth Avenue in Miramar is closer to Havana Centro, but it is quiet and relaxed. Miramar is where the rich and notorious lived before the revolution. You will see lovely gardens with more sculptures. Beautiful homes — supposedly of the mafia — were converted into embassies and consulates. (The oddest building is the Russian Embassy; the tall, centered tower looks like a rocket.) I’m surprised no one does a mafia tour of Havana. The beautiful houses and classic cars are reminders of the profits of organized crime.
Everything can be found along the main street into Havana, including countless restaurants and great music. There are two magnificent cathedrals and a few old churches along the same route. For art, just keep your eyes open. All you have to do is get off the boat and seek it out.
Laurel’s Bar & Restaurant
On another short stroll, exit the marina, turn to the right and walk along the avenue to locate Laurel’s Bar & Restaurant. (There might be a short cut through the marina, but ask anyone as there are no signs on the main street.) It is situated on the far side of the marina entrance almost directly across from the Immigration building. It is a lovely local place with excellent and affordable Cuban dishes. Laurel’s has the best local ambiance of any of the places near to the marina.
Trout’s Top Tips
• First, as it always is, money is necessary. Find the cambio across the bridge on Fifth Avenue in the village of Jiamanitas (Hi-man–ee-tas). Ask anyone for directions. It is within close walking distance, safe, and legal. Get small denominations to make change easier. Bring Canadian dollars, as they have the best exchange rate. You will lose 13 percent on US. US credit or debit cards do not work in Cuba.
• Internet can be frustrating, but did you really make this trip to check Faceboook? In the marina, bring your tablet or laptop to the Hotel Acuario’s main desk and buy a prepaid card for a dollar and a half. The hotel lobby has the best WiFi within the marina.
• Always use the marina bathroom before you leave. It’s best to carry some bottled drinking water in addition to your required toilet tissue.
• A great free app to learn simple Spanish is Duolingo. It only takes minutes a day to acquire a functional level, and the price is right.
• The guidebook we used the most was Frommer’s. It has basic information. Cuba, and Havana in particular, are quickly evolving their tourism, so addresses, e-mails and phone numbers are constantly changing. But the architecture, museums, art galleries, and friendly people are constants.
• Finally, be sure to meet Cubans. Traveling around Havana we were pleased to discover that everyone we met seemed to have a positive attitude. Cubans are almost universally friendly and helpful and will make every effort to communicate.
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