There is so much to do in La Habana. There are old buildings to gawk at, street art to discover, museums-that-are-also-working-pharmacies to wander through. This post is only covering the morning of Day 3 because DUDE. The Colon Cemetery. So much.
So, the morning of our 3rd day, we took the time-honored traditional tourist excursion: the hop-on, hop-off bus. This red double decker bus makes a loop around some of the farther out sites and then returns back to Central Parque.
The one thing I wish we had known ahead of time:
The bus follows the same route away from Habana Viejo as it does returning. We would have stayed on top of the bus the whole way out to Miramar (section of the city) and then got off at our destinations on the way back. By the time we were ready to go home, we were hungry and hot and the bus was packed.
That said, we did have a chance to hit up some great places. I would absolutely recommend taking this bus for a chance to see more of the real Habana.
Plaza de la Revolucion
Tobias seemed really excited about this spot. Plaza de la Revolucion was where Fidel held his first big political rally after the coup. It was where the Pope came and blessed the Cubans in 2015. Aaaaand, it’s a big ol’ parking lot.
There are some cool things: for instance, there is a large monument of Jose Marti (political activist/writer who was against Spanish/US expansion in Cuba). This was actually built by the Batista regime (which was bolstered by the US), and finished just before the Castro coup (definitely NOT supported by the US). Behind that, there is a tower with an elevator where you can go to the highest point in Habana (it’s not that tall), and there is a small museum.
We would have done that, but to get to the monument from where the buses drop off, you have to frogger across FOUR LANES of traffic. It’s huge buses, classic cars moseying and small compact cars zooming by. It looked terrifying. There were no street lights, no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no pedestrian bridges. Straight: Walk Into Traffic, Gringa.
So we didn’t go. We figured that it was a way the Cuban government kept down lines for the elevator (which also sounded super sketch). But if one doesn’t brave the traffic, there are still large portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the buildings.
Che and Camilo had the bromance of the century during the preparations for the coup. Camilo disappeared in a plane accident not long after the coup, and Che was executed later in Bolivia. They are pictured together in many parts of the city.
The exploration of the parking lot complete, we hopped on the next bus.
This made my day. If I can say to go to one absolute, crazy-weird thing, go to the Colon Cemetery. While this site feels very much like a work-in-progress (it is still an active cemetery for an almost 500 year old city), they did apply to have it designated a World UNESCO site. Like the famous La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, Colon feels like its own City of the Dead. While the ornate mausoleums are not as tightly packed as La Recoleta, Colon is bigger in terms of square mileage.
La Recoleta, of course, was a bastion of wealth and prestige. But in Cuba, the cemetery is a little more egalitarian.
The only way I could make sense of this place was to purchase a map. We had no idea what to visit, had no guidance regarding what to see. Liz and Kyle went off to explore the Baseball Corner (true thing: there is a section for baseball players only). While Andy, Tobias, and I guessed at what to do next. Thankfully, Tobias gave us direction by suggesting the Galleria de Tobias because he shared its name.
Galleria de Tobias
The Galleria is near the wall separating the outside world and the consecrated grounds. It is long and yellow, and reminded me of what a bathhouse would look like at a ritzy hotel in South America (it was still made of cement). There was a thin, older black man who waved us in, a dog sleeping under his chair, completely unconcerned with us or anything. The man introduced himself as Carlo, the caretaker of the Galleria. He spoke only Spanish, but he was kind enough to go slow, so that between the three of us, we understood his meaning.
He asked if we wanted a tour, so we said yes. Carlo led us through the open gate, where there were small cement boxes slightly longer than a shoe box, but about as wide, with names and dates written on the ends. The boxes were piled high, apparently at random. Carlo shuffled over to a metal locker, the kind I had in high school, removed a flash light, then beckoned us down the stairs.
The temperature cooled as we walked down the stairs, and of course, got darker. The main portion of the Galleria is underground, while sky lights roughly three feet across let in light and let air circulate. The day was getting hot, so going underground felt nice.
Large niches on either side were walled off by plywood doors and numbered. Carlo removed one of the doors, so we could see that each niche had space for five of the shoeboxes. The middle of the floor was a massive stack of the boxes, and that was when we all seemed to realize that each box was a person.
The most recent date I saw was in the 1990s, but some were much older, always sometime in this century. Carlo led us down the hallway created between the stack of boxes and the niches. Occasionally, Carlo would point out a specific box, lift the lid, and show us something unusual about the bones. The back of one skull was broken in such a way we could see the inside of the face, effectively looking through the eyes of skull.
In another case, Carlo showed us a skull where trepanning had been used to relieve the pressure of the brain swelling. The skull had also been cut by a machine, leaving a smooth edge where the two pieces fit together. Each time, Carlo asked Tobias to take a photograph of it, and each time, Tobias got more and more uneasy.
Carlo said he’d worked there for 26 years, that it was his job to organize the bones, and help families find their loved ones. Some of the boxes had offerings left beside them, a small bit of tobacco and water, a plastic flower on another.
As he led us out, he showed us a person so tall that the bones were too long for the box. He took out a leg bone and held it to his shin to demonstrate. Andy, knowing a thing or two about a bone, showed him it was not a shin bone, it was in fact, the femur. Carlo shifted the bone to his thigh and seemed impressed.
Now that we knew what we were looking at, we peered into the boxes whose lids were not entirely shut. Some had a bit of tissue left on it.
“Curioso!” Carlo chuckled at us.
Andy asked where I thought all the pelvises were, since a pelvis was too wide to fit in a box. That stopped me cold. Each box held a different number of bones. Some were full, some only had a skull and a few long bones like an arm or a leg. Some had a pile of vertebrae. So WHERE DID THE BONES GO?
Looking at the cemetery with new perspectives, we found more weird things.
Next to one of the large cement burial vaults was a tiny, handmade coffin, the size one might make for a squirrel.
Some of the vaults were empty, open to the air with weeds growing inside. I found one that had shorts and a tank top drying on a stick.
Along a less trod-upon path, we discovered what looked to be discarded disintegrating casket liners with possible leftover people-bits. We identified hair and clothing in the mess, but none of us wanted to explore any deeper.
Late for our meet up with Liz and Kyle, we hopped the bus, and rode it back to Central Parque. It was time for paella, cuba libres, and a discussion to digest What. Just. Happened.
I’m leaving you here today, at lunch time, trying to figure out the weirdness of the Colon Cemetery. I still haven’t figured it out. And huge thank you to Tobias for sending the incredible pictures of inside the galleria. I couldn’t even shrink them down on the page because they were SO AMAZING.