Forest crabs

During our stay in Playa Larga we booked a trip into the nearby swampy wilderness known as the Península de Zapata. This is a national park, Gran Parque Natural Montemar, and internationally known as the Ciénaga de Zapata Unesco Biosphere Reserve, that spans the entire southern Matanzas. It is a bird-watchers paradise and is home to the majority of Cuba’s most important bird species.

Cuban Trogon

One of them is the Cuban Trogon, which is Cuba’s national bird. Unfortunately, this was the best picture I could get of this bird. The bird has all the colours of the Cuban flag (green, black, blue crown, red belly and beak, and a white throat and chest), hence it was chosen as their national bird.

On their way to the beach

On the way into the forest we travelled along a coast road, with water on one side and the forest on the other side of the road. May is crab season in Cuba, which means the crabs leave the forest and make their way to the ocean. All over Cuba you will see them scuttling over roads, through houses and over anything else that is in their way, to get to water.

Our trip took us into the forest, along a boardwalk over some swamps where we glimpsed a crocodile, trekked over and under trees to reach three separate lagoons sitting in the rocks, with turtles swimming serenely in two of them. All the way through the forest we saw crabs either climbing up or down the trees, hiding under them or just stopping where they were on the ground while we passed them. I was amazed by the different sizes and colours of the crabs we saw, and there were a ton of them!

A rather large specimen

We didn’t see as many birds as I had hoped, but just seeing crabs in a forest was amazing enough for me!

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Of shells and crab

During our beach stay in Playa Larga, Cuba we came across a number of different shells, none of which I had seen before. The majority of them were washed up on the rocks, so we left them there as they seemed to be someone’s house!

These seem to have occupants

What a pattern and colour!

One of many beautifully patterned shells

We also saw a number of crabs in the waters, again, some with wonderful patterns on them.

A colourful crab in the waters of Playa Larga

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Fishing boats

In my last post I introduced you to the small harbour of Playa Larga.

Today’s post is just show casing some of these boats being taken out and/or returning from their fishing trips. The majority of local fishermen go out before sunrise and return around 8 or 9am. There are a number who go out for night fishing and you can spot them by the little lamps bobbing up and down on the dark sea.

Rowing out for some night fishing

Unfurling of the sail

Coming back in

After a successful morning’s fishing

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Caletón’s little harbour

Playa Larga’s little harbour

Caletón? I hear you ask – yes, Caletón is the name of the little beach village, which, strictly speaking, is where our casa was located; although Playa Larga and Caletón pretty much run into each other, and if you didn’t know any better you would think that all of it is called Playa Larga, which is how I will refer to it going forward to keep it simple.

Just around the corner from our casa

Just around the corner from our casa lies this beautiful little harbour. It is not a very big cove, but enough to hold the resident’s boats, which they take out first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening for night fishing.

In the sun the colours of the boats just pop, but even when it rains they still look great.

Even when it rained the boats still looked great!

We did see some crabs and an octopus in the harbour waters and my husband saw quite a lot of fish while snorkeling.

Pure tranquility


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Our little slice of Cuban paradise

After spending 5 exciting and busy days in Havana we were ready for something more peaceful. I had booked our next casa in Playa Larga in advance of our trip, so we didn’t have to worry about accommodation.

Our beach oasis

A few days prior to us leaving our Havana casa owner Marie booked us a shared taxi (a colectivo) down to Playa Larga. There was some issue with the number of people who were apparently booked for this trip, but after that was resolved we set off. However, within one hour of this 3 hour trip, our colectivo stopped on the motorway behind another taxi. At first we thought we were picking up the 2 passengers, so we all got ready to squish together; it turned out that we were all transferring to this taxi (a new people carrier with aircon!), as the original vehicle had apparently developed some issues.

So, after an eventful start to the trip down to Playa Larga we arrived with no further issues. The moment we stepped onto the veranda of the casa and saw the view we knew we had found our paradise for this trip!

Every afternoon a storm would come over from this direction

The owners, Tony and Osmara, were fabulous hosts and couldnt’ have done more for us. As Playa Larga is a small town, options for eating out are limited, and our casa offered not just breakfast but also evening meals, which we gladly agreed to (and what a great choice this was – the food was wonderful!).

The view at breakfast and dinner

All our meals were taken on the veranda which looks straight out to the sea.

Playa Larga’s main beach was just a few steps away, as you can see from the photos. However, we used the little cove just across from our room to get in and out of the water. Due to the fact that we were not located immediately on the beach our stay was a very quiet and relaxed one, which was exactly what was needed after the hustle and bustle of Havana.

Our fabulous casa at the end of the beach

Playa Larga’s little, but perfect beach

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Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución) in Havana

In a previous post I gave some history on the Museum of the Revolution and I thought this warranted some further photos from inside this former presidential palace and some practical tips for a visit.

Museum of the revolution (Museo de la Revolución)

Tickets cost CUC 8 per person, at time of writing, and for a further CUC 2 you can get a guided tour (English tours are available), however, there really is no need to have a tour, as the majority of the exhibits have English translations (it does help however, to have a little knowledge of Cuba’s history). Once you have your ticket you are required to hand in your bags, as no bags are allowed, however, cameras are allowed. There may be a little wait at this point as the museum only has so many bag tickets, so you may have to wait until someone comes to pick theirs up before you can hand your bag in (we only waited a few minutes before a ticket was available).

The museum descents chronologically from top to bottom, with the top floor also housing some art and a gift shop. I suggest you follow the signs to go up the stairs and start at the top and work your way down.

Revolutionary art on the 3rd floor

It was Governor General Aubert who, in 1909 decided that a new venue for the Provincial Government was needed. The original design did not include the tiled cupola and was added to the design at a later date.

The tiled cupola

In 1918 the building became the Presidential Palace when President Mario García Menocal took possession of it while it was still under construction. Construction was finally completed in January 1920 and the building was officially inaugurated.

The Carrara marble main staircase is not open to the public, but is wonderful to view from the bottom steps or from the third floor. It dominates the lobby and leads up to the second floor.

The Carrara marble staircase

The Salón de los Espejos is a replica of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles and was under renovation when we visited, so although we were not able to enter the salon, we still had a great view looking into it from the top floor.

The Hall of Mirrors (Salón de los Espejos), a replica of the Versailles original

The wall detail in the Hall of Mirrors (Salón de los Espejos)

The presidential office is another part of the building that you can only view from behind a barrier, but the room does give you a good idea what it may have looked like during its heyday.

The Presidential Office

The other side of the Presidential Office

One wonderful room that was open to us was the Salón Dorado (Golden Hall), which is made of plated yellow marble with gold embossing on the walls. Four canvases mounted on 18-carat gold sheets grace the walls.

The Golden Hall (Salón Dorado)

The former palace is an important part of Cuban history. From 1959 to 1965, after the revolution, it housed both the Government and the Council of Ministers, and in 1965 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba was formed here. In 1974 the presidential palace transitioned to the museum to the Cuban Revolution, two years later witnessing the approval of the 1976 Constitution, and in 2010 it was declared a national monument.

The Cuban flag on the inside court

Note that there are not many opportunities to sit down, so if this is important to you, be prepared that you may not get the chance to rest. I did find a vacant chair on the upper floor in one of the exhibit rooms, as did some others, and we all took the chance to take a rest and cool down, as the upper rooms were very hot indeed.

As you walk downstairs make sure you take a close look at the walls and you will find some bullet holes, a leftover from an assassination attempt in 1957 on the then president Batista.

The 2nd floor of the museum

The ground floor also contains a little bar (with fantastic aircon!) where you can get a mojito or some bottled water. After cooling down venture to the outside part of the museum, which amongst other items contains Castro’s yacht the Granman, which is housed in a glass building and can only be viewed from the outside.

Despite the fact that some of the exhibits could do with some better English translations, we thought it was well worth visiting this museum. We visited on a weekday in early May this year and did not find it overly busy. All in all I think we spent about 3 hours here and you could easily spent more time here.



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Havana’s Art

Havana is home to a number of museums dedicated to the arts, be it paintings or photography, there is something for everyone. Additionally, there are a number of small galleries to explore and then there are the statues and street art to marvel at. Havana’s artistic roots go deep.  The oldest arts academy in Latin America (founded in 1818), the Academia de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, is in Havana.

As you would expect in Cuba, there is a fair bit of propaganda art around, and on a building by the Plaza 13 de marzo we found the heads of Julio Antonio Mella, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara.

Cuban revolutionary leaders Julio Antonio Mella, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara on a building at Plaza 13 de marzo, Havana

The strangest bit of art we came across was this statue by Roberto Fabelo; it is called “Viaje Fantástico” and was installed by the artist in 2012 without any explanation of its meaning or any context. There are a number of theories going around as to its meaning, but in truth, only the artist knows for sure what meaning sits behind this statue.

Roberto Fabelo’s statue entitled “Viaje Fantástico” in Plaza Vieja, Havana

There is some fantastic street art to be found all over Havana, and the below are just a few examples that we came across.

Wooden crates wall art in Havana

Street art in Havana

More street art, Havana

This sculpture of Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s side kick, on his long-suffering donkey  was in a little park halfway down Calle Obispo next to a open-air bar. This bronze was created in 1989 and won an award in a sculpture competition in 1993.

Halfway down Obispo you will find Leo D’Lazaro’s sculpture of an obese Sancho Panza borne by his long-suffering donkey. The bronze was created in 1989 and was awarded in a sculpture competition on July 26, 1993.

Leo D’Lazaro’s sculpture of Sancho Panza, Havana

The biggest statue by far was this one, entitled Primavera (Spring), which stands at the corner of Galiano and the Malecón and is a tribute to Cuban women. It is by the artist Rafael San Juan and was completed by him and his team in just 3 months and was erected in 2015 for Havana’s XII Biennale. The statue is a total of 7.5 meters high and nearly 4 meters wide and is made out of steel.

Primavera (Spring) sculpture by Cuban artist Rafael Miranda San Juan

And my final piece of art hangs in a restaurant called Lamparilla 361 Tapas & Cervezas (which I highly recommend – great food and great service!).

Painting hanging in the restaurant Lamparilla 361 Tapas & Cervezas

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Cuba’s Classic Cars

These are some of the cars lined up near the Capitolio

Aside from its crumbling buildings, Havana is known for its classic cars, but they are not just in Havana, they are to be found in all of Cuba. Everywhere you go you come across cars from a bygone era, be it a classic American Chevrolet or a Russian Lada; some are very well looked after while others seem to be on their last cylinder.

Slightly worse for wear but still going

In Havana we hired an open top classic car for a tour around the city; you can arrange those through your casa owner/hotel, or just pick one up near the Capitolio building. Whichever way you do it, make sure you arrange the price and length of tour before you get in. We arranged ours with a driver as he was waiting for his clients at El Morro. He picked us up from our casa the following morning and although we arranged for a 1 hour tour, it actually ended up being much longer, with a Cuban coffee stop at his house (we had a fab time, and if you need his details, let me know!). It is common for drivers to rent their vehicle either privately or through an agency and aside from the rental fee they also have to pay the agency a fee for working with them. If you visit Havana I can highly recommend such a tour, just pick a driver and car that appeal to you and enjoy.

Sitting in the back during our classic car tour through Havana

On our day trip to Viñales we sat in what I think was the best kept car we used during our Cuban trip. The car has been owned by the same family since the grandfather bought it all those years ago. His grandson, who was our driver for the day, told us that his grandfather no longer drives it, but helps to maintain and repair it. I like the idea of a car like that being handed down the generations and everyone pitching in to keep it in tip-top condition.

We had a day out in Viñales in this car

If you don’t own a classic american car or a newer vehicle (of which there seem to be quite a few), chances are you own a Lada. Russia’s Lada is as popular as ever in Cuba, with an estimated 250,000 of them navigating the Cuban roads. They are used as taxis, ambulances, police cars and private vehicles. The casa owner we stayed with on our last day in Cuba has a Lada, which is 36 years old and still seems to be in good condition.

Outside our casa in Havana

I have no idea what the hire cars are like in Cuba, but have read variant accounts of other people’s experience. We decided not to bother with a hire car, instead using taxis are bike taxis when we needed to get about. We also used shared taxis for the longer trips, called colectivos, which you can arrange through your casa owner/hotel or finding their official taxi rank in the town/city you are in. Colectivos pick you up at your casa and deposit it you on the other end at your chosen casa and are much cheaper than a normal taxi (buses are available, but can be crowded and don’t take you directly to your casa, but are cheaper than a colectivo).

On the Malecón

A wedding party getting ready for their mass city tour

A typical scene in Havana

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Plaza Vieja

Entering Plaza Vieja from the corner of San Ignacio and Teniente Rey

This plaza was first laid out in 1559 and is Havana’s 3rd oldest plaza after Plaza de Armas and Plaza de San Francisco. It’s beginnings start with a tale that tells of Franciscan monks complaining to city officials that their celebration of mass at Plaza de San Francisco was hampered by local business activities in the square. They suggested that a new square be built to house a food market so that mass could be celebrated without further interruptions. The city officials relented and the plaza was built and named Plaza Nueva (New Square) and was an instant hit with local vendors.

Plaza Vieja just after a rain shower

Over its life the plaza has seen many changes; it was transformed into a park, an amphitheatre and most outrageously of all an underground car park; it has had many names: Plaza Real, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Fernando VII, Parque Juan Bruno Zayas, and Parque Julián Grimau, before being bestowed with its current name Plaza Vieja (Old Square). The mansions that surround the square date back from the 17th and 18th century and have always been a mix of residential dwellings on the top floors with businesses on the ground floors.

Plaza Vieja, Havana

Now, let’s go briefly back to the monstrosity of the underground car park. In 1952 Batista transformed the square into an underground car park, and at the time many of the surrounding buildings were already in poor condition and after the revolution they sank further into disrepair. In the 1980s UNESCO listed Old Havana as a Cultural Heritage site and the city began their restoration work of the plaza. They demolished the car park, relaid the plaza and replaced the original 18th century Carrara fountain with a replica (the original having been demolished during the construction of the car park). The mansions around the square were restored to their former glory and some still have residents living on the top floors with businesses below. Plaza Vieja is home to a number of small museums, galleries, cafés, and boutiques.

The replica of the 18th century Carrara fountain

The square itself also contains some new sculptures and at night it really comes to life with the restaurants and cafés spilling out into the square. We had a wonderful lunch in one of those and when we emerged it had just finished raining and the plaza was almost empty. The plaza is a great place to sit and what life go by and do some people watching. So, grab a seat, order a drink and immerse yourself!

On Plaza Vieja

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Havana’s Buildings – Part 3

Havana is a city full of surprises, least of all its buildings; everything can be found here; newly renovated houses, crumbling colonial builds, public buildings, and old majestic stone mansions.

This next set is a mix of new and old, some of which we discovered during our classic car tour (more of this in a later post).

I have no idea where this building stands (I think it was somewhere in the Vedado district), but we passed it on our car tour. The gold decorative detail really drew me in; clearly it has been renovated and I’d like to think that this is how it originally looked. I would love to go inside and have a snoop around – maybe next time!

This building has been beautifully restored

This tall and colourful building stands near the Monte de las Banderas, a plaza directly opposite of the US Embassy on the Malecón. In the background you can see the Edificio López Serrano building, which was built in 1932 and was Cuba’s first skyscraper. It is a replica of the New York Empire State Building (just with the lower 70 floors chopped off). However, I was actually concentrating on photographing the red and yellow tower, and only realized later that the Edificio López Serrano building was in the photo!

Standing tall on the Malecón, Havana with the Edificio López Serrano in the background

This imposing building is Havana’s university, which moved here in 1902. The original university was in Havana Vieja and was founded in 1728 by Dominican monks. This neoclassical complex was built in the second quarter of the 20th century and, other than the university, also contains a natural history museum and an anthropology museum. Some 30,000 students study social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, mathematics, and economics here.

Universidad de la Habana/University of Havana

Havana has a number of plazas throughout the city and each one is worth a visit. This baroque building, the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, stands in the northwest corner of Plaza de Armas, which is Havana’s oldest square, dating from the 1520s (it was originally known as Plaza de Iglesia). This building was constructed in 1772 as the headquarters of the Spanish vice-governor. Since then it has been a post office, the palace of the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the National Academy of Arts and Letters. It now houses a museum dedicated to Cuban-European cultural relations.

Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Plaza de Armas, Havana

For more buildings, please visit my previous Part 1 and Part 2 posts.

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