Five Days in Havana: Part One
When I travel, my goal is to wander aimlessly in a city to see how the local people live. Since I’m an urban planning wonk and this blog is about urban living, that’s what I focus on in my travel blogs. This post is the first in a series about my trip to Havana, Cuba.
This first post will be about transportation and infrastructure.
I can’t comment too much on transportation as I didn’t experience much of it.
There is a lot of walking in Havana. I imagine most people cannot afford a car. I walked because I wanted to connect with the streets. Every few blocks, I was asked if I needed a taxi by either a pedicab driver or a classic car driver. If you take a taxi in Havana as a tourist, always negotiate the price first or you will overpay. I imagine they don’t overcharge the locals.
I saw many city buses and a few tour buses. There is also a train station in Havana and a ferry station that takes you across the inlet.
I didn’t see many bicycle riders in Old Havana, other than those with utility bicycles.
I stayed in Havana Vieja (Old Havana), and it has a rough, gritty character. Let me tell you, it is nothing like Old Town in Prague except for some vestiges of grandeur that indicate a city once mighty that has fallen. Here are some of the ghosts of beautiful buildings in Havana.
Most of the pristine buildings in Havana today seem to be fancy tourist hotels or government buildings. Havana is at war with itself. Buildings and streets fall into disrepair, and, in many cases, there is no one to fix them. I would’ve assumed that infrastructure was part of the common good that was taken care of by communism, but that does not seem to be the case. The following three images are, in order, 1) the corner of the street I stayed on, 2) a crumbling building on the block with a resident sitting on the barely-there balcony smoking a cigarette, and 3) the entrance to the building I stayed in.
Among the buildings on the street, the one I stayed in was extremely modern. The outside didn’t look like much, but it had a modern elevator, and everything seemed very up-to-date inside, including the mini-split ductless air conditioner in my room. The only thing that wasn’t exactly modern was the lack of glass windows in my room. The windows were wooden louvers that opened and closed. The louvers were great for air circulation but not so great at keeping noise and humidity out.
There was some random street repair going on while I was there, but I also came upon huge holes in the road and sidewalk that were hazardous to drivers and pedestrians. The streets and sidewalks of Havana are not places I would want to be if I had mobility issues. I honestly don’t know how people with physical disabilities are able to traverse the old part of the city. The new part of the city seems slightly better cared for. The following are some examples from Old Havana. There were frankly so many that I stopped taking photos.
The sidewalk, street and building conditions I saw would be very rare in the U.S. Crumbling buildings with gaping openings onto the sidewalk where a child could wander in. Balconies that look like they’re about to fall onto the sidewalk. Needless to say, Old Havana is not a place where you look at your phone while walking down the street. I almost tripped into a pothole the one time I looked up at architecture while walking. In Old Havana, where the streets are very narrow and the sidewalks even narrower, people walk down the middle of the street. When a car comes, the driver honks the horn so people can scurry up onto the skinny sidewalk.
I saw very few crosswalks, even on larger streets. The most terrifying experience I had in Havana was crossing a 6-lane street. I waited for someone who looked like a local to cross. It was two women and two young girls. I followed them to the middle of the road, which was just the 12 inches that held the two yellow stripes. There was no opening to finish crossing, so the five of us stood on those two yellow stripes for about a minute while cars whizzed by within inches of us in both directions.
I saw some buildings that looked like they were being “officially” reconstructed. I also saw some road work that looked promising. There clearly are no safety standards, though. It seems to be an extreme case of relying on personal responsibility to avoid getting hurt. There are buildings with wires sticking out of boxes, exposed water pipes or rubble pouring out of a doorway. My AirBNB host told me that several weeks ago, a neglected building suddenly crumbled onto the street without warning.
Surprisingly, the elevator in my building had been inspected up until October 2016. But there was no inspection sticker in the tourist elevator I took to the 8th floor of an Old Town Square building to see the Cámara Oscura.
I saw many small trash bins around the city but only one recycling bin. That surprised me since getting new materials there is difficult. What happens to the millions of plastic water bottles tourists buy? Because the streets are narrow, trash is sometimes “right there” as I’ll discuss again in a later post.
From many of the buildings I saw, it is clear that Havana was once an opulent city with much wealth, but now the wealth seems to be interspersed with extreme poverty and crumbling infrastructure. It makes for a varied and confusing landscape.