BootsnAll Travel Network

Havana, Cuba

October 13, 2011. Visiting Havana before Cuba changes has been on my list for years. The city reminds me of Venice – walking around this city is like stepping into a museum (albeit a badly maintained museum). Most of Havana is a crumbling mess of buildings from the early to mid-1900s. The most interesting area for us was Central Havana where people actually live (as opposed to Old Havana which is for the tourists). You see little streets with broken sidewalks, old cars on cement blocks, washing hanging out of balconies, electric wiring strung out in every direction, and buildings that had once been beautiful which have crumbled and faded with time. Old cars are everywhere and if you like cars or other modes of transport (like old trains – we saw a few on display dating from the 1800s) then Havana is a great place for you. I talk about how Havana is a crumbling mess -but with its Caribbean setting there is a lot of beauty in its decrepitness.

Old Havana (photos below) is probably what the authorities want you to see – it has forts, plazas, and cathedrals dating back from the 16th century. Although interesting, I found that Old Havana had been restored to such a degree that most of it seemed almost artificial (it reminded me of walking around Old Montreal).

Overall, we can’t say that we loved Havana. The touts are pushy and you can’t walk anywhere without someone wanting to give you a tour or asking for clothes or toiletries. After two days, we couldn’t walk out of the hotel without seeing the “usual suspects” making a beeline for us (usual suspects: Mr. Bicycle Taxi Man, Mr. Old Car Man, Mr. Horse Carriage Man, Mr. “Let me show you the real Cuba” Man, Mr. “Let me take you to the foreign exchange” Man). By the last day we were slipping out of the hotel’s back door because we would see Mr. Bicycle Tax Man waiting accross the street for us to come out. It became annoying because everyone wanted to stop and chat. We also found the city incredibly loud and polluted – diesel fumes were overwhelming. It didn’t help that we both got sick to our stomachs the third day (the Vindaloos, as we like to call it) and that our energy and tolerance levels weren’t the highest.

Nevertheless, Havana has to be seen. It also made us appreciate what the people who live here go through every day – the great thing about travel is that it always reminds you to be thankful for what you have.


We stayed at the Parque Central Hotel which is a 5 star government run hotel in the middle of Central Havana overlooking the Capitolio. It is a beautiful hotel with the most fantastic views from its rooftop.

Below is what I posted on Tripadvisor – a warning for other travellers going to Havana:

We stayed in Havana Sep 29-Oct 3. Although Havana is a safe city, we were the target of a scam that implicated the hotel. I think other travellers as well as management should be made aware.

The day after we arrived, walking the paseo, we were approached by a man who greeted us like long lost friends “I know you” he said. He said his name was Alex and that he worked security at the Parque Central and that he had been on duty when we had checked in. He laughed when telling us that hotel staff had thought that my wife was Cuban (she’s not – but everybody seemed to think she was throughout our trip). Because of the details of the checkin, we bought his story. He went on to tell us of a music festival and said he would show us where the daily festivities were. Not wanting to be rude we said ok.

To make a long story short, he gave us a small tour, showed us the music hall, then took us for mohitos. At this point he started discussing politics (which we made sure we stayed clear of) then went into talking about changing money into pesos. He talked in detail about CUCs and moneda nacional and I got confused because what he was telling me was not consistent with what was described in my book. It was then that I became suspicious. He asked if we had a Cuban friend, without one we couldn’t change money at the cadeca. We told him that we would exchange money at the bank. At this point he started to get upset and ridiculed us, saying we must be rich if we didn’t mind paying bank rates. This made us more suspicious and I told him we weren’t interested – I gave him 3 CUC for the tour and we went back to the hotel.

Although there are many touts in Havana and we were prepared for them, the story of working at the hotel and naming reception staff was his “in” and had us fooled. Either 1) he does work at the hotel, 2) he knows someone who does, or 3) he hangs around the hotel and keeps an eye on people checking in. The goal clearly was to fool us into converting our dollars into Cuban pesos at moneda nacional rates and not at convertible rates.

Alex – very dark skinned, tall, well dressed (wore beige pants and a pink polo shirt the day we saw him) between 25-30. Came across initially as very friendly.

Apart from this, we found Parque Central a very nice hotel and it gets a 4/5 from us. Great view from the pool, a beautiful room, comfortable beds, and friendly staff (I’ve seen comments to the contrary – it always helps if people realize that this is a Spanish speaking country and make allowances for for that.). A great place to relax when the city starts to wear you down.

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