Cuba Libre: First impressions of Cuba

I am usually so unprepared when it comes to my travels, and this trip was no different. I assumed Varadero was a municipality of Habana. Instead, it’s a city in a whole other region of Cuba and a 2 hour drive from the city of Habana. Luckily, our package through the travel agency booked transport, and we boarded the white Gaviota van #23 (a modern Toyota with A/C) headed for Habana. Our driver was Rolando, and he immediately took a liking to me. Before we even boarded the van, I made small talk with him and he was happy to learn that I was Chinese. He said in his very Cubano Spanish, “China, you sit in the front with me so you can translate for the other passengers.” I felt honored.

Rolando continued to call me “China” for the rest of the ride to Habana: “China, tell them what I just told you about how this city used to be under the sea;” “China, do you understand what I just said” (sometimes I really didn’t and would say, “Como?” or “Otra vez”). He told me he used to date a Cuban-Korean woman, and that when he was young he worked in a Chinese bodega for a man named Santiago Wong.

We took a pit stop at a bar, where I had my first taste of piña colada with Cuban rum and cinnamon on top (yum!) and danced to very loud Cubano reggaeton music (I love reggaeton, which I listened to with fervor during my travels in Colombia last year). I asked Rolando for some tips on where to go in Habana and what to eat. He mentioned the major sites like the Capitolio, La Floridita, and el Museo de la Revolución and said that food was not particularly special, but the Cuba Libres (rum and cola) and Mojitos (minty cocktail with rum, lime juice and sugar) were fantastic. I liked this idea! I didn’t have to eat, I could just drink my way through Habana.

Along the way, I got a good glimpse of the smaller towns between Varadero and Habana. We “summitted” to the highest point (just 500 meters) in Cuba at the border between the Matanzas and Habana regions. We got a good look at shiny but old, pre-Revolution Fords. Gorgeously voluptuous automobiles, if I (someone who doesn’t know or care whatsoever about cars) say so myself! As we made our way into Habana, we passed the Olympic stadium for the Pan-American games that were held in 1978, the main promenade called the Malecón (about a quarter of the buildings along the Malecón were just crumbled facades), the Hotel Nacional de Habana that is situated on a hill with a huge Cuban flag flying in front, and the Vedado, the modern part of Habana (with lots of nightlife in the form of cinemas and bars). The modern part of the city appeared only partially this way, and I was quite embarrassed when I asked Rolando if we were driving through “Habana Vieja,” to which he curtly replied, “Actually, this is the most modern part of Habana! The old part is that way.” As he pointed out his driver’s side window, I decided I wouldn’t ask any more stupid questions.

We passed several signs that celebrated the 50 years of the Revolution and “Viva Cuba Libre” was painted on building windows and walls. Soon after, we arrived at our destination: the Melia Habana. On the way, we had dropped off other passengers (all of them, Canadian) at other monstrous but unkempt hotels like Tropicoco and Hotel Kohly, but Melia Habana is in a class of its own – in a good way. Rolando bade us farewell and we walked through the shiny glass doors eager to see the lobby. It was spotless, with a trickling fountain in the front entrance, a big bar with comfy red chairs to our left, a tasteful knockoff of the Venus di Milo statue, and the concierge to our left. We were very excited that this would be our new home for the week!

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE.