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24th February, 2017

Havana, Cuba

The entrance into the sheltered harbour of Havana is quite special, passing the defences of the Spanish built Castillo del Morro to port, magnificent views of the city open up to starboard. Behind the Malecón, the avenue that runs alongside the sea wall, it is possible to see the Cathedral de San Cristóbal and many other buildings of old Havana, all the way to the magnificent National Capitol.

We were a little late, delayed by the movement (or lack of it) of a small vessel occupying our berth. Eventually, with a little verbal interaction, the authorities completed their paperwork and the folks were on their way. Coming out of the impressive entrance of the terminal Sierra Maestra, we headed first towards the grand old waterside warehouse that is now the home of the wonderful paintings and crafts produced by local artisans. Outside, five old steam engines act as ‘gate guardians’, while inside there was a great hive of market like activity. It is a fascinating place just to browse, if that were only possible. Mrs R has another new bag and I was sorely tempted to purchase a superb atmospheric painting of an old American car negotiating a narrow street of old Havana, vivid in colour, expensive in price.

We moved on and started to work our way back through the scruffy streets and poorer neighbourhood that is the old town, back towards the area which has had some degree of restoration, heading for the caféO’Reilly where I had last been five or six years ago. It had been fairly quiet then, but not now, and as it was so busy with tourists a table was out of the question. We continued to walk deeper through the old town, getting to feel the real heart of this charismatic quarter where people live and work in classic tall buildings which looked as though they had been through a war many years ago, damaged, dirty, unpainted and unloved.

But there was a palatable buzz of human activity in the streets, bicycle taxis and tatty old Lada cars vying for right of way with refurbished American gas guzzlers from the 50’s. Above us, washing hanging from rusting railings, an old lady looking down watching the world go by (she gave me a thumbs up and a smile after I took her photo). Open dilapidated doors exposed the odd shop that seemed to have just a few items for sale, or a workshop with a man beavering away on some mechanical repair in shadows illuminated by a florescent tube. A greengrocer had only a diminishing pile of potatoes, outside a crowd had gathered, waiting to use their ration coupons. This remarkable quarter had an atmosphere you could almost taste, certainly smell at times and of course that distinct Cuban music was never far away.

Some of the more grand civic buildings were built in the baroque or neoclassic style in wealthier times, but unfortunately many have deteriorated over the years. The Cuban Government, despite difficult times, has undertaken enormous efforts to try and preserve some of them and we later drove by, in a 1957 American Ford Fairline, the Grand Theatre of Havana and the impressive Capital, the ‘Capitolio Nacional’, testament to their efforts.

Havana is changing, slowly at the moment, but no doubt that will accelerate. I noticed for example, far more tourists than before, and far more refurbished American classic cars making the city tour. In the evening there were plenty of places to go for a Mojito, but as the money starts to come in I wonder how long it will take to percolate to those who need it most. Hopefully the impending changes will not be to the detriment of why Havana is, in so many different ways, such a great city.

Captain Philip Rentell

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.