Our first day and the hotel's courtesy bus dropped us in Plaza de Armas where we were orientating ourselves when Benjamin approached us. He was proudly standing next to his horse, Lindo, and was offering us an hour's guided tour around Havana in his carriage. The cost was 20 convertible pesos (around £10) and we reckoned that was a great way to introduce us to the City and to focus our attention on the things that we "must see". He claimed that he would show us all the important sights and would explain, as best as his English would allow, the history and culture of HIS capital city, his home.
Having explained to us a little about the place where we were standing we climbed aboard and Benjamin lowered the carriage’s canopy, as he explained, "to give us a better view". A few gentle words to Lindo and we gently clattered off down the streets. A couple of times we had to stop for some "minor repairs" to the carriage’s wheel arch caused as the wheels crashed over Havana’s notorious potholes. "Well", explained Benjamin as he almost apologetically climbed back into the driving position, "it is an extremely old vehicle and it needs a lot of care."
Our first stop was in Plaza de San Francisco which is dominated by the impressive early 18th Century Church for Francis of Assisi. This now houses the Museum of Religious Art and has a superb tranquil garden crammed with art work, beautiful cloisters, and views from the bell tower across most of Old Havana. It’s a colourful square with brightly clad buildings and some fine architecture. Back in the carriage and we’re back on the main road passing the working port, the old structures of the harbour buildings and a 19th Century promenade that was reserved for the Cuban gentry of its day. Now, work is being carried out to restore this feature to its former glory. This is something that is evident throughout the town. Cuba clearly has its eye on increasing its tourism business and there are numerous public buildings that are being given a serious renovation, hopefully retaining their original charm.
Sometimes, it felt quite precarious as we trotted the streets of Havana, but vintage cars, seemingly the majority in Havana, gave us a respectful distance as they roared passed us. I’m not suggesting that they sped through town, only that they were incredibly noisy.
At one point, we detoured off the tourist trail and were in the heart of the Cuban quarter with the hustle and bustle of day-to-day Cuban life on display—small shops with limited product lines, roadside vegetable stalls, and a lot of folk in "serious" discussions with each other. This, Benjamin explained, was his home. People have described Cuba as being poverty-stricken. No outward signs of wealth here, but there was passion, happiness, and excitement in this residential zone. Everything is not always as it seems!