An eclectic mix of architectural designs through the ages, some immaculately maintained others crumbling and weathered. Kaleidoscopic facades straddling faded exteriors. Mint condition vintage cars cruising beside struggling antiques. Live music. Colorful art. And some of the most friendly and accommodating people I’ve ever encountered.
Welcome to Cuba. Finally!
After two failed attempts and a near-miss that left us with less than a week to book flights, get our visitor passes and find accommodation, we landed in Havana greeted by sweltering heat and an inexplicable hour and a half long wait for our bags. I was exhausted but ecstatic.
Cuba has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I’ve had one and it was everything I expected and nothing I imagined all at once. Beautiful. Multi-faceted. Complicated. And so intriguing!
The Lay of the Land
When you think Cuba you think Castro and Communism. At least I do. But having a theoretical understanding of communism is completely different to experiencing it first hand.
Being that insulated from the rest of the world is a jarring experience. Things to note:
Internet: Not commonplace – accessible only at Wifi parks that are easily identified by masses of people sitting around staring at their mobile devices. Finding cards aren’t that easy as we got conflicting instructions on where to find them. It was only on our last full day that a guy approached us asking if we needed one. Yes please!
Currency: A bit tricky because Cuba has two currencies – CUP and CUC – both referred to as ‘pesos’. Most nationals are paid in CUP while tourists use the CUC which is a lot more valuable but it isn’t accepted everywhere. When negotiating prices with taxis and other vendors be sure to confirm which currency they’re referring to.
Bank Cards: Credit cards aren’t widely accepted and the ATMs don’t acknowledge all bank cards (they rejected my TT credit and debit cards) but when they do they only dispense $150 CUC a day so it’s best to walk with as much cash as you think you’ll need for the duration of your trip.
Language: Some of the Cubans we encountered spoke some English but they were all more animated and candid while conversing in Spanish so if you’re not fluent do like me and find a travel buddy who is. We found out so much more about their culture and thoughts on their way of life through arbitrary conversations with passionate taxi drivers and curious vendors.
There are so many options for moving around in Havana, transportation is one thing there’s never a shortage of regardless of the time. Your options are:
Private taxi: Easily available, you’ll have your choice of mint condition vintage vehicles, cars that show their 60+ years on the road, and modern yellow cabs. Whichever you choose, confirm your destination and price before you get in. It’s best to have exact money as they frequently find themselves without change and you’re forced to leave a sizable tip.
Collective taxis: Great bargain if you’re not staying in the heart of the city and need to take long(ish) taxi rides daily. It’s a shared ride, used primarily by Cubans and costs half a CUC per ride so you’re saving big. The only drawback may be that they travel along a fixed route so extra walking might be required.
Bicitaxis: Perfect for moving around in town because they’re able to access many places the cars can’t. Most of them offer 1.5 to 2 hr tours of the city for around $7-10 CUC per person.
Where to stay
Old Havana is a popular choice for visitors because it’s convenient and there are hotels like Hotel Raquel and Hotel Sevilla in charming old buildings that add to the romance of your stay. However, we were looking for a more intimate experience through a bed and breakfast so we chose to stay at La Rosa de Ortega, a ‘casa particular’ about 20 minutes outside of the city-centre. We made the decision based on rave TripAdvisor reviews and I am pleased to report that our experience surpassed all expectations.
On the outside, a concrete facade partially covered by bright pink bougainvillea. On the inside, exposed brick, arched doorways and windows, antique furnishings, and a collection of old telephones, cash registers, cameras, clocks and mirrors that make you feel as if time had stood still for almost a century. Perfectly appointed. Perfectly maintained. I felt like I had stepped back in time. It was surreal.
Apart from the aesthetics, the food and the service were beyond reproach. Breakfast every morning was a massive spread of fresh fruit, a variety of breads, cheese, ham, eggs, juice, tea and a sweet treat – all for $5 CUC per person.
To top it off the staff were all so friendly and helpful at every turn, they even provided us with a map of the city, including directions to the house for taxi drivers who may not know the location. This was the only drawback – walking to the city wasn’t an option so taxis were mandatory. There was the cheaper option of the ‘taxi collectivo’ at half a CUC per person, which we tried once, but battling the heat to walk to the main street where they operate wasn’t worth a repeat. We therefore ended up taking taxis to ($7 CUC) and from ($10 CUC) Old Havana day and night which ended up racking up quite a bill.
Still, I absolutely loved La Rosa de Ortega and would recommend it as a place to stay for at least a couple nights, just to get that peaceful experience outside of the city.
What to do
It goes without saying that you have to visit Old Havana and take in the amazing architecture that has been so well preserved for the most part. Buildings in mint condition stand beside and between those that have seen better days. The contrast can be jarring at first as you take in the intricate details of beautiful hotels and government buildings, abutting the pealing paint and rusting gates of apartment buildings that serve as home to many Cubans. But it’s a part of the complicated dynamic that makes Havana like no other city I’ve ever visited before.
Museo de Revolucion
Honestly, my main reason for visiting this museum was the impressive building’s neo-classical architecture, not its contents. After moving through every room in it’s 3 floors however, I had to admit the material curated within this massive structure was quite impressive. The story of the revolution is told in great detail, providing me with a history lesson I never knew I needed. From the moment you climb the stairs you encounter bullet holes in the walls from the failed assassination attempt by student revolutionaries against Fulgencio Batista; and as you progress through the museum you encounter other important pieces of Cuba’s very intricate history, including uniforms worn by key members of the revolution and dolls used to transport messages to various groups within the resistance.
Shop at the Craft Market at Almacenes de San José
There are no shortage of stores selling crafts and other souvenirs in Havana, but this massive market housed in an old warehouse on the port of Havana is your best bet for one stop shopping in my opinion. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of booths, crafts and vendors all vying for your attention, but the fact that you’re able to negotiate prices means that you can get the best value for money, providing you have the time to walk around and do some comparison shopping. There’s everything from leather goods (handbag for $20 CUC), to crochet clothing (dress for $15), to cigar boxes ($15 CUC and up) to artwork (5 pieces for $10 CUC).
View of Havana from La Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cabana
The views of Havana from this sprawling fort can’t be beat. There’s also a museum with interesting artifacts, including a massive catapult and other weapons that span several several centuries; a quaint chapel; two restaurants and the cigar shop, La Triada, so you can easily make a half-day excursion out of this visit. It’s $1 CUC to gain access to the compound, but that will get you as far as the cigar shop and display at the entrance, where you’ll see Guinness World Record breaking cigars by Jose Castelar Cairo. An additional $6 CUC grants you access to the entire compound and I think it’s absolutely worth it.
Callejon de Hamel on a Sunday
Callejon de Havana is a must if you’re in Havana and love art and music. There is so much creativity and expression chocked into this short strip that at first you’re a little confused in terms of where to look and what to do. Colorful murals cover every wall surface accompanied by intricate art installations made from every type of material imaginable. Into art? There’s a gallery where, for $400 CUC you can purchase an original piece by Salvador, the artist responsible for a majority of the work on display (NB: they don’t accept card) or you can do like me and purchase a painting from his son for a more reasonable $30 CUC. There’s live music from around noon on Sunday’s and before you leave you have to step into the quirky La Paladar bar and sample the ‘negron’, a yummy beverage that allegedly can’t be had anywhere else.
Day Trip to Viñales
Lush green fields, towering mountains with intricate rock faces, quaint and colorful houses dotting acres and acres of land, tobacco houses, horse drawn carts transporting goods and people – Viñales was just the peaceful escape I needed after a few days in Havana. Life is slower, simpler, and more ideal. Take the time to observe the differences in the way of life of those in these rural areas versus their countrymen in the city. Definitely visit the Indian Caves – a short walk in through manageable terrain that ends with a calm boat ride – and take in the 80 ft tall by 120 ft wide mega-mural, Viñales Mural de la Prehistoria by Leovigildo González Morillo.
Have a Drink at one of Ernest Hemingway’s Haunts
You can’t walk two feet in Havana without someone mentioning Ernest Hemingway. The famous author of classics like A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls spent a significant amount of time in Havana and Cubans speak of him as proudly as if he were one of their own. He is featured in photos alongside Fidel Castro at the the Museo de Revolucion as well as several restaurants and bars he was known to frequent during his time there. One such popular spot is La Bodeguita del Medio, where you can enjoy a mojito just as Hemingway did back in the day. It seems to constantly be crowded but it’s a must if you want to experience Havana as Hemingway did. His former home in San Francisco de Paula has also been converted into the Ernest Hemingway Museum for those true Hemingway fans who are interested in seeing exactly how he lived.
Visit Plaza de Catedral
One of five in Old Havana, this Plaza is home to one of the most significant cathedrals in Cuba. The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of Immaculate Conception, or La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana. It’s intricate facade is a result of its Baroque architectural features and it is a truly impressive structure to look upon. The plaza is also home to the Museo del Arte Colonial, as well as a few dining establishments, so you can check a few items off your list and grab a bite before heading off to your next stop.
Where to eat
La Guarida Rooftop Bar
The plan was to have a nice dinner at La Guarida based on a recommendation from this Buzzfeed article but we didn’t make a reservation and the dining area was packed. Instead we were led to a rooftop bar on the third floor which had an even better view of the city and a chill vibe that you wouldn’t get in the dining area. The menu wasn’t as extensive but I had a delicious steak meal with three unique sauces that was divine and their mojitos were right on the money. It was by far the most expensive meal we had while in Cuba but definitely worth it for one night.
La Taberna del Pescador
We were led to La Taberna del Pescador by a shop vendor after asking for a good spot without too many people. The main stretch off Plaza Vieja was packed and noisy so on our first night it was nice to get away from the chaos and just soak in our surroundings while eating some hearty Cuban food. When we arrived there was only one couple wrapping up their meal and they departed shortly after we ordered. The service was quick, the dishes were freshly prepared and the portions were reasonable – I had no complaints about my shredded beef with rice and vegetables. I should also note that this place had the best flan I tasted while on the island (and I sampled a good bit).
Restaurante Vuelta Abajo
In this busy part of town most of the restaurants are right off the street and for those that aren’t, there are usually employees on the sidewalk inviting you to dine at their establishment. Restaurante Vuelta Abajo was the complete opposite. We stumbled upon their menu by chance and dipped inside mainly to escape the scorching heat. It was empty and quiet but as soon as we were seated the band picked up with live music and we were served almost immediately. Three courses for $12 CUC was a steal compared to the other restaurants offering the same deal for $20 CUC and up. Portions were perfect and the meal tasted great.
We went to the Hotel Sevilla to book our day trip to Viñales and wrapped up just after noon. Instead of battling the heat to find a lunch spot we decided to dine in their courtyard restaurants and bar – second ‘best’ idea of the day (after booking our Viñales tour). The pineapple and ham pizza hit the spot and was a nice familiar dish after our adventures with Cuban cuisine, but the highlight for me was what I must say is the best sangria I have ever had. Ever. It’s so good I have to share a pic.
Have you ever been to Cuba? What’s the most interesting thing you did/saw while there? Share your story in the comments!