Cuba | Day 3: Playa? What Playa?

Despite being completely exhausted from the thirteen plus miles of walking in high heat and humidity the day prior, we were awake at 6:30 on day three. The early rise was thanks in part to many factors, sore legs, sore blisters and oh yeah, the roosters at the farmers market on the side of our apartment building. 

With both Kelly and I being up long before we planned to, and no real entertainment in the apartment, we decided to take a walk down to the Malecón and check things out. A fairly nasty storm had rolled through overnight.  We read online prior to the trip, the Malecón is occasionally closed to vehicle traffic during bad storms due to the heavy waves that crash over the sea wall onto the street. We of course had to go check this out for ourselves!

We took what was now our normal route through our neighborhood of Vedado towards the Hotel Nacional. Along the way I stopped to take some photos of the various homes around our apartment building. Having seen a good portion of the city the day prior, it was now quite clear that we were actually staying in what used to be one of the more affluent sections of Havana.

Compared to the smaller cramped quarters found in Old Havana, the homes in our neighborhood were quite grand. Most were multiple floors, which at one point were lived in by a single family. They have since been converted into smaller units, inhabited by multiple families, instead of just one.

We passed by a little morning farmers market and took a stroll through to see what was available. There was a variety of fruits and vegetables, but nothing we felt like carrying around all day, so we kept strolling towards the Malecón. 

Behind the Hotel Nacional, the roadway is actually divided into two sections, with concrete islands in the middle. There are three lanes on each side, with the side closest to the seawall traveling west-bound and the side furthest away traveling east-bound. It takes exactly zero fingers to count the number of crosswalks along this stretch, or well any stretch of the Malecón really, because there are none. We figured out very quickly in the first two days walking around, pedestrians don’t seem to have the right away in Havana. 

At this hour of the morning traffic wasn’t too bad trying to cross six lanes of roadway, but you need to use extreme caution during busier times of day, as the drivers will not slow down or stop for you. We had cars who were fairly far away from the intersection we were crossing at, who would honk in disgust that we were in their way. 

We found a break in traffic and ran from one side of the road to the other, stopping on the seawall side to catch our breath for a moment. 

I was immediately jealous of all the people out for a run, as I had not brought any running clothing with me.  Trying to fit everything in a carry on bag was already a daunting task and I wasn’t even sure if there would even be a safe area to go for a run. My jealousy quickly faded however when I remembered how sore and blistered my feet were. It was also only around 7am and already stifling hot and humid out and with the lack of easily accessible bottled water, a run seemed like a horrible idea. 

Instead, we strolled down a little way, to where the roadway started to straighten out and where we could see an unobstructed view of the city skyline, and climbed up onto the seawall to sit for a while. While the waves were not breaking up over the seawall as expected, the haze in the air still made for some amazing photos. 

With the haze lifting and the sun getting hotter by the minute, we decided it was time to stroll back towards the apartment. We made a quick pit stop along the way to check out the US Embassy which sits along the same stretch of roadway. Having seen this in person came in handy a year later, when the show Madam Secretary hilariously tried to pass the same building off as the US Embassy in Uganda, thinking no one would be wise enough to know the difference. Sorry CBS, you aren’t fooling me!

This area of the city was a bit of a surprise though, as the buildings were all much more modern in style than central Havana or Old Havana. 

It was at this point that we realized Kelly’s non-waterproof face sunscreen had started running (aka melting) off her face and down the front of her chest, leaving an interesting pattern of unburnt streaks on her skin. We made a beeline for the Hotel Nacional and it’s gift shop in search of better sunscreen then headed back to the apartment to convince Philip a day at the beach was in order to escape the heat.Thankfully it didn’t take much convincing, as there was no other logical option, and I in particular was really starting to melt down from being overheated. 

Some of the hotels did have pools you could pay to use as an outside guest, but we were in the Caribbean afterall, so why go to a pool when you can go swim in a crystal clear ocean? 

We all got ready and walked out to the main street by our apartment and flagged down a taxi driver. With no one in our group really speaking fluent Spanish…or even basic Spanish for that matter, it became an interesting game of charades. A taxi pulled over, I pulled up the map on my phone and scrolled over to what appeared to be a beach club, looked at the driver and said “Playa?” and made a swimming motion with my arms. He shook his head and hand no and drove away. This happened a couple more times until we finally found someone who would agree, though apparently had a better location to take us to.

The rate was $20 pesos which was cheap, considering the ride ended up being almost an hour. We didn’t mind though as we got a nice tour of some more residential areas outside the main city and the breeze of the moving car was much better than sitting in a hot apartment. We weren’t about to admit it to him, as all taxi rides run on a barter system versus a timed meter, but we would have paid $100 pesos for that ride to the beach. 

We finally arrived at a parking lot right next to the beach, which turned out to be Santa Maria Del Mar. There wasn’t much there facility wise but the beach was beautiful. The driver asked us if we wanted him to stay and wait for us. We weren’t sure if he was just being nice or if he knew something we didn’t, like getting a ride home was going to be impossible. Not knowing how long we planned to stay, we politely declined and headed towards the water to find a spot. 

Everyone immediately dumped their belongings and ran (or in my case hobbled) for the water to cool off. If you recall from day 2, and my stubbornness to wear sandals for 13 miles of walking in 90+ degree heat, I had the world’s worst blisters and thanks to no real drug stores (at least in the US sense), I had zero supplies to properly cover up said blisters to protect them. The sand combined with the super stretched out skin managed to rip them open, to no surprise. This helped a little by taking the pressure off and probably disinfecting a bit with the salt water, BUT it also left giant gaping holes in my feet for sand to collect in and now raw skin showing for things to rub against. I quickly realized I physically couldn’t put my feet down in the sand to walk up the steep incline to get back to the beach to sit down. 

I tried to flag down Kelly, who thought I was just waving at first, then realized, nope, she is stuck in the ocean! She thankfully came to my aid and pulled me up onto flat sand, where I was able to hobble back to my towel. 

We hung out for a while, people watching and trying to plan what story we were going with if customs questioned us on being at the beach upon our return into the United States. See, per that visa paperwork we signed going to the beach or doing any other traditional tourist/vacation activities was forbidden, since we were there on an education visa. 

Well customs, we were getting what I call a medical education on how not to die of heat stroke in the hot Cuban sun. Sorry, not sorry!

By early afternoon we were ready to return back to town. It was still sweltering hot on the beach, but since I was literally incapable of getting in and out of the water without major amounts of pain, and since there was no shelter to grab food or get into some shade for a bit, I was back to roasting hot and cranky. 

We packed up and headed out to the road in an attempt to find a taxi or pretty much anyone with a car to take us back into Havana. Thankfully a guy with a fairly new car (comparatively speaking anyway) pulled up and asked if we needed a ride. We told him we were going to Havana and he said no problem. Same fee as the trip out, $20 pesos. We happily hopped in and quickly realized….it has air conditioning!!! No joke, I would have given this man every single peso I had for the remainder of the week, just to drive me around in the AC until the sun went down. 

We felt like royalty on the ride home with our AC blasting as we passed hoards of locals trying to more or less hitch hike back home from work, by piling into the beds of pickup trucks that would stop along the road for them. It was quite the sight and not something we were used to at home but really makes you appreciate the little luxuries in life. 

Once back at the apartment, I needed to macgyver a sanitary way to get all of the sand out of my open blisters. None of the shower heads in the apartment had more than a light drizzle, so that wasn’t going to work. I remembered that I had double bagged all of my liquids in gallon size ziploc bags, so I grabbed one and filled it with warm water from the sink then sat in the shower and swished my foot around to get as much sand out as possible. This was not super effective but better than nothing. Thankfully I had packed neosporin and band aids, so I was able to at least sort of patch things up once I had fully showered. 

Since the food shack at the beach was a literal shack cooking food, with little to no plumbing or obvious hand washing area, we opted not to get lunch there. We were absolutely starving by this point though so Kelly and I went off in search of lunch while Philip wandered into Old Havana to shoot some photos that were required for the grant he received to go on this trip.

We came across a fairly modern restaurant that honestly could have been in the United States called Cafe Presidente and decided to check it out. As expected they only had menus in Spanish. The waitress was kind enough to do her best to translate some of the items for us so we at least had a general idea of what we were ordering. I ended up with a thick white fish that was pan seared in a butter sauce with salt and pepper and included a side of rice and beans. I also ordered a giant frozen daiquiri out of pure desperation for something cold, despite it being a bit early in the day to start drinking. It was honestly one of the best meals I had while in Cuba! 

With full bellies and a setting sun (aka more bearable temperatures), we decided to stroll around the neighborhood and check things out. We came across a fairly sizable monument for Jose Miguel Gomez. I would have at the time loved to look up who this man was and why he had a monument the size of a city block made for him, but alas no data service in Cuba. 

We found ourselves making a list of random topics during our conversations over the week there, that we would otherwise at home immediately jump on our phones and look up the facts. It was occasionally frustrating but also nice to not be constantly checking phones for email or social media notifications and instead enjoy eachothers company and conversation!

As I learned later upon arriving home though, Jose Miguel Gomez was a former president of Cuba in the very early 1900’s, and was one of the leaders in their War of Independence. 

Cubans really love their monuments! The city was loaded with them, so it was no surprise looking back, this guys was so huge.

Despite having just filled our bellies with a late lunch, we met up with Philip at the same restaurant as the night before, for another round of bruschetta and frozen daiquiris before heading back to the apartment to get some sleep. We had big plans tomorrow to take a day trip out to Viñales Valley where the tobacco fields are!

One Comment

  1. Give me next day soon, please!