Fresh Eyes on Old Havana
On arriving in Havana, we immediately realized that we were no longer in the US of A - passport control resembled a third world country, but with several large high definition televisions on the baggage carousel! These are not items easily obtainable in Cuba; I discovered later that the benefit of an HDTV in Cuba is being able to watch movies (many counterfeited), as the Cuban people have access to only four TV stations. Unlike many scenes in Europe, there were no satellite dishes visible from roof tops!! The drive from the airport contains numerous billboards extolling the virtues of a socialistic state!
We started our trip with four days in Havana, staying at the Hotel Parque Central. Our accommodations were comfortable, and being just down the street from the Gran Teatro and the Capitilio, the views were incredible. Although our itinerary was very structured (having been approved by the Cuban government), the location of the hotel enabled us to easily explore Havana on our own, and see parts of Havana that really gave texture to our visit.
We began the first full day by exploring Havana by foot. As we walked through old Havana, we stopped to admire the city's many squares, the Cathedral de San Cristóbal (considered one of the most beautiful in the Americas) and talked with local residents, many of whom have returned to homes renovated by Habaguanex, the semi-private entity that manages the restoration of old Havana. During our walk, we observed many structures in need of major repair.
In a throwback to the former Soviet Union, we visited a storefront where Cubans buy their monthly food rations. From the chalkboard, we could tell that many important items were in short supply, or since we were near the end of the month, not in supply at all. The Cuban diet is challenged because of insufficient protein, and diabetes is a major issue, owing to the consumption of sugar, a significant part of Cuba's agriculture.After lunch, an architectural historian treated us to a city orientation tour. We stopped at the University of Havana (which has a certain resemblance to Columbia University). We also spent time in the former Bacardi Building, an art deco masterpiece, and drove by the former stock exchange. One very interesting fact is the reason behind the bright colors of some buildings -- it seems that paint color is often a function of what color is available, and not what color one prefers!