Havana, a city of surprises

Havana is like no other place on earth. The crumbling facades and graceful neglect of its formerly elegant buildings, the sight of 1950s American cars on its streets and the magnificent sweep of the Malecón at sunset, all feel familiar from a thousand photos and travel stories. It’s almost impossible to arrive in this city without the baggage of overblown expectation and a head full of cliché.

Habana street, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Habana street, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana waterfront, Cuba

Havana doesn’t disappoint though and we cut short our trip elsewhere in Cuba to have two more days in this extraordinary place. Things are changing fast in Cuba and you can almost feel this once great city waking from its 50-year slumber; it’s only a matter of time before it reclaims its spot on the world stage.

Exhausted from a long flight and disoriented by the heat and humidity after leaving the northern European winter behind, we went for dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Malecón. After a short stroll along this legendary waterfront we were back in our casa particular in Havana Centro for an early night.

Street performers, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Street performers, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

1950s car, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary flags, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary flags, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Tourist souvenirs, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Tourist souvenirs, Havana Vieja, Cuba

The thumping music woke us around midnight. Somewhere amidst the dilapidated, tightly packed streets of Havana Centro a party had just erupted. This is a city where life is lived on the streets and people have a (very) high tolerance for noise. The salsa was still filling the night air at 2am. I fell back to sleep imagining the rum infused fun we were missing.

The next day we got up early, the cool of the morning beckoning us onto the roof terrace. We watched the comings and goings in the surrounding streets and neighbouring rooftops, Havana Centro coming to life. After breakfast in the casa we headed out to see the Malecón in daylight, walking along the waterfront towards Havana’s old colonial heart, Havana Vieja.

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Fruit cart, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Fruit cart, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Centrally clustered and facing the imposing Fort of San Carlos de la Cabana, Havana Vieja was one of the greatest cities in the New World, the key to Spain’s empire in the Americas. It’s one of the most atmospheric places I’ve visited. At once familiar yet utterly different to Panama City’s Casco Viejo and Colombia’s Cartagena. Both of which offer a glimpse into one possible future for Havana.

It would be easy to describe Old Havana as a living museum but there’s just too much life for that. Parts of the old town have been painstakingly renovated under the guidance of Havana’s official historian, other parts are all crumbling plaster and faded grandeur. The joy of Havana Vieja’s narrow streets and airy plazas is just wandering and absorbing the sights and sounds.

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary poster, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Revolutionary poster, Havana Vieja, Cuba

This is the most touristed part of Havana and a hotbed of jintero activity. Hustlers and con-artists – jinteros will try to befriend you and then take advantage of you. It happens everywhere but in these narrow streets it seems magnified. It’s irritating but not as much as restaurants that overcharge or give you the wrong change – another speciality of Old Havana.

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Book sellers, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Paintings, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Paintings, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza de la Catedral, Havana Vieja, Cuba

Plaza de la Catedral, Havana Vieja, Cuba

We started our ramblings through Havana Vieja in the Plaza de la Catedral, a baroque square dating from the 18th Century. This is the place to get – for a small fee – your photos of cigar-smoking ladies wearing traditional costume, and is the perfect starting point for an exploration of Havana Old Town…

Where we stayed in Havana:
Joel y Yadilis
Industria 120 altos e/ Trocadero y Colon.
Habana.
Tel. (537) 863 0565 / Movil 05 2835769
Email palomita3ra@gmail.com
www.casa-centro-habana.de

Arequipa’s colonial charm, ceviche and Pisco Sour

After ten months in a landlocked country arrival in Peru meant one thing: fresh, ocean-going fish. That our first dish of ceviche, washed down with a Pisco Sour, came after a 20 hour journey from La Paz involving three different buses, including a nighttime journey over a mountain pass through a blizzard, and was eaten in the colonial surroundings of Arequipa, only made it more delicious.

Ceviche, Arequipa, Peru

Out of focus ceviche, Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa is a beautiful city, full of colonial-era buildings, ornate churches and one of the finest plazas in Latin America. It is also dramatically situated with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, including the active volcano, El Misti – thanks to the low cloud of the rainy season we didn’t get a view of the mountains and had to use our imaginations instead.

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Without the vast tourist hordes of Cusco, Arequipa has a more relaxed feel that could easily seduce you for several days of culinary over-indugence in-between visits to museums and churches. Arequipa is a base to explore the Colca Canyon and to climb the nearby mountains, sadly we only had three days to linger here en route to Lima and our flight to the Caribbean.

It is a great city to stroll around admiring the architecture and sampling Peruvian culinary delicacies. In fact, the only real problem with Arequipa is the traffic. The number of cars (and the number of cars being driven by lunatics) takes some of the sheen off this lovely city. When crossing the road requires life insurance there really is a problem.

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Cars, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Arequipa Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru

I’ve always found it strange when you come across an ancient building put to modern usage, where the exterior of the building is in complete disagreement with the interior. In Arequipa there are just so many ancient building that not all of them can be museums. Instead, they are banks, airline offices, government departments…and the ubiquitous ’boutique’ hotel.

Ornate doorway, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate doorway to a bank, Arequipa, Peru

Door knocker, Arequipa, Peru

Door knocker, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate window, Arequipa, Peru

Ornate window, Arequipa, Peru

Courtyard, Arequipa, Peru

Courtyard, Arequipa, Peru

Alleyway behind the cathedral, Arequipa, Peru

Alleyway behind the cathedral, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Fountain in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Arch in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Arch in colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Colonial-era quadrangle, Arequipa, Peru

Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca empire

The Inca empire lasted little more than a century before the Spanish conquistadors, accompanied by Dominican priests, arrived in what is now northern Peru and began their wholesale destruction and looting of the empire and the slaughter of its people.

The Inca’s achievements in such a short period of time amount to nothing less than extraordinary: their empire ranged from modern-day Colombia all the way south to central Chile; they constructed large, well planned and earthquake-proof cities in impossible locations; centres of population were connected by an excellent road network; art and culture were highly advanced; they were agricultural pioneers, constructing thousands of kilometres of agricultural terracing and domesticating a number animals for food, clothing and labour, enabling them to feed a population of over nine million.

Incan terracing at Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

Unfortunately for the Incas, when the Spanish arrived their achievements meant little compared to what they didn’t have: there was no steel to make armour or swords; there were no horses in Latin America and the largest animal in the Inca world, the llama, was no match for the military might of Spanish cavalry; and they didn’t have immunity to European diseases, which probably arrived from central America several years before the Spanish arrived in person and claimed the lives of thousands of indigenous Andean peoples, including Huayna Capac, the last Inca emperor to rule a united kingdom.

Until that fateful day in 1532 when Francisco Pizarro and his band of zealots turned up, the Inca empire would have rivalled any civilisation on the planet. The empire was centred on Cusco, an enormous city by the standards of the time and home to some of the largest and most elaborate buildings in the Americas, including Qorikancha, the richest temple in the Inca world with walls covered in gold sheets and featuring solid gold alters and gold replicas of llamas, vegetables and the sun.

Inca gold sealed the fate of the empire, and the Spanish melted down the cultural and religious wealth of the empire and sent it back to Spain as ingots.

Birds eye view of Cusco, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru

Arriving in Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas today is to arrive in a city that could have been transplanted from southern Spain. It feels more Spanish than Spain, as if the Spanish conquerers were determined to wipe out any trace of its Inca past by building an indenti-kit Spanish city in place of the Inca capital.

Cusco’s cathedral is as imposing as anything you might see in Spain, a political, cultural and military symbol of the power of the the Spanish conquerers. Although it isn’t permitted to take photos of the interior, I promise there is enough silver and gold inside to wipe-out debt throughout Latin America. For me though, the interior felt as crude, oppressive and brutish as the Spanish conquest was in its dealings with the peoples of the Andes.

Cusco’s cathedral

The cathedral is also home to some imposing colonial art – literally on a grand scale – including a painting of the Last Supper featuring Guinea Pig as the central dish. The cathedral’s sacristy has walls adorned with paintings of all Cusco’s bishops, including Vincente de Valverde the Dominican friar who accompanied Francisco Pizarro. Valverde is reputed to have aided the slaughter of the Inca in Cusco by encouraging the Spanish troops in their ‘work’ with the words, “Kill them, kill them, I absolve you”.

Despite 500 years of remodelling and rebuilding, Inca history still seems to seep from Cusco’s walls. Evidence of the former Inca capital is on display down almost every street – the readily identifiable Inca building style still forms the foundations of almost every structure in the historic centre of Cusco, only topped with Spanish colonial buildings.

Cusco street with Inca foundations and Spanish tops, Peru

Inca doorway with colonial doors, Cusco, Peru

The Spanish either destroyed Inca buildings and used the materials for their own structures, or they simply built on top of the Inca foundations, which means some excellent examples of Inca building still exist cheek-by-jowl with colonial structures.

Foundations of a once grand Inca building, Cusco, Peru

Inca stone work, Cusco, Peru

Contemporary Cusco comes as something of a shock. It thrives off its Inca and colonial past and is one of the most touristed places in Latin America, with large groups of Europeans, North Americans, Chinese and Japanese wandering the streets following a flag waving tour guide explaining the terrible history of the city. After 5 months in Bolivia where tour groups are, mercifully, an endangered species, the sheer number of tourists and the tourist prices of Cusco are deeply disconcerting.

Having said that, the city authorities have managed to preserve the historic city in a way that would put most European cities to shame. There is a McDonalds on the main square that is so hidden away, without any external signage, that unless you walk right past it you wouldn’t suspect it was there. That is definitely something to be proud of.

The former temple of Qorikancha at night, Cusco, Peru