Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Havana Running Part 8: Searching, Shopping, and Stumbling Through Havana


I'd like to think I'm a quick study in a lot of ways, but the ins and outs of buying Cuban cigars was a challenge.  This is likely because going in I knew absolutely nothing going in.  My faltering high school Spanish doesn't help either. 
I only happened to be roaming around Havana looking for cigars in the first place as a favor to a friend, but it also seemed like one of the 'things you do' on a trip to Cuba.  Plus, trying to search out and then go to the legitimate shops in town gave me more reason to explore and stumble upon other sights.  Havana is the type of place that overwhelms the senses in many ways, and you can walk the same street several times, and see things differently with each pass.

Stumbling upon beauty on the way to someplace else
Cigars are, unsurprisingly, very commonly counterfeit.  Because the more famous ones aren't cheap, even at the source, this trade is lucrative.  Knowing this sent my paranoia into overdrive, and resulted in my doing a fair bit of comparison shopping, and incremental money changing.  

Statue in the entryway
The actual process of the purchase was fairly straightforward once I learned what of the types on my 'shopping list' they had in the store.  Even though I felt like a total poser, I went through the process of checking the boxes for the required seals, stamps, and barcodes.  I'm sure they knew I was winging it, but they were already laughing at me for coming in three times in an hour, so what do I care? 

Interior doors of Casa Del Ron Cigars and Rum 
In the end I made the majority of my purchases at the Casa Del Habanos shop called Casa Ron which, coincidentally, is directly next door to La Floridita- a common haunt of Hammingway back in the day, and the self proclaimed 'Cradle of the Daquiri.'

Grabbing a spot at the bar at Bar Floridita
As an aside- this place is very well known and packed in the evenings, to the point of being uncomfortable.  If you're inclined to a bit of light day-drinking, even just for the atmosphere, I'd say that's your best bet with this place if you want a chance at a seat.  That said, the place is worth checking out, if only to watch the bartenders pour up to 20 daiquiris at a time, and to take a selfie with the bronze statue of 'Ernesto' who is immortalized, leaning on the bar. 
Ernesto, still at his favorite haunt
Also between the cigar shop and my Casa was the Plaza Del Cristo, which just so happens to be the location of El Chanchullero, a hole in the wall traditional Cuban restaurant with 5 tables, and a whole lot of good food, reasonably priced.  Finding this place was a challenge though, and I walked right by it several times.  To get there, find the plaza, and the restaurant is opposite the plaza in the middle of the block between Cristo and Bernaza.  Look for either a set of nicer big wooden doors, or if they're already serving, a crowd, and likely a line out the door.  Go early by a few minutes and wait for a table.
As became my tradition for the trip, I ordered the ropa vieja, which was made with pork here (I think).  It was much, much better than the one I got last time stateside in Houston a few weeks back.  However, I should have known I was in for a lackluster dish when the waiter tried to tell me that ropa vieja meant "old rope."  Google it.
After lunch, I wandered back through the city to my Casa to change my clothes (a perfunctory task though, given how even 5 minutes outside in Havana and you're sweaty again) and to put away my shopping before heading out again to check out the waterfront and get dinner. 
On the way back, a particularly stunning building caught my eye, and I headed into the open foyer.  It turned out to be the lobby of the Raquel Hotel, who's signature is the well maintained stained glass ceiling.  There's also a restaurant in the lobby and a bar if you want to stay awhile and enjoy it.   I wouldn't have minded a little more time, but there was another part of the city I wanted to make sure I checked out before the sun went down, so after a few minutes I went on my way.
And that is a story for the next update...

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