For more than eighteen months I have been plotting a trip to Havana, Cuba. Known for its classic cars, beautiful architecture and live music scene, Havana has been on my must-visit list for years.
Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of being in the ‘go now before it’s too late’ boat, fearful that the lifting of the trade and travel embargo with America is going to turn this Carribean island into the 53rd state. However, after spending 8 days in Havana at either end of our mini-tour of Cuba it’s clear that, while you’ll definitely hear some American accents in the crowd, that reality is a long way off- if ever.
The principal areas of Havana are Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Vedado. While Habana Vieja (old Havana) and Centro Habana are the more tourist-trodden areas that you will be used to seeing, we decided to stay in Vedado – to the West of the city and slightly more suburban with a great selection of bars and restaurants… And embassies.
Our first spell in Havana was for three nights and, in true Cuban style, we stayed in a casa particulare, Casa del Musico. Anyone that has spent time in Cuba will tell you that casa particulares are the way to go. Similar to a traditional bed and breakfast, you stay within someone’s home, often with your own bathroom and the option to have breakfast each morning. Though we had booked via Airbnb with the reassurance of some great reviews, we really didn’t know what to expect when we turned up outside of Ana-Maria’s apartment block. My first thoughts when I got out of the taxi could simply be summed up by ‘uh’, and I was convinced we had made the wrong decision about the neighbourhood. The street that the apartment was on looked somewhat abandoned with overgrown bushes and slightly dilapidated houses in need of a good paint job. However, it soon became very apparent that this was exactly what Havana was like – a diamond in the rough.
Our stay at Ana-Maria’s was, in fact, everything we could have hoped for. The neighbourhood was safe and the room was spacious with high ceilings, a private bathroom and even a TV (though I can’t say that any of the Cuban TV channels were worth watching). More importantly our host was a wonderful lady who went above and beyond to ensure we had a comfortable stay, as well as making us a break-FEAST every morning for an additional 5CUC (£3.85) each. There was ham, cheese, eggs, bread, more fruit than two people could possibly eat (though we had a good go) and some form of dessert; pancakes, pastries and even mini cupcakes on my birthday.
For our first stint in Havana we set aside two days to explore Habana Vieja, armed with an old edition of the Lonely Planet guide that Ana-Maria had lent us. From where we were based in Vedado it is a 50 minute walk to Habana Vieja, though it is also possible to get an old-style taxi for 5CUC (£3.85). On our first morning we decided to walk it along the malecon, which essentially is a sea wall that stretches 8km along the coastline. Walking along the malecon by day is quite quiet and you will pass a few locals, tourists and fishermen. But as the sun starts to set the malecon springs alive and becomes the living room of the locals. Friends and families congregate along the wall, some drinking rum and others drinking fizzy drinks and eating crisps from the vendors that push their carts up and down the length of the wall. It’s great to see so many people enjoying the outdoors and each other’s company.
After about 30 minutes pacing along the malecon we stopped in a garage so that I could buy some water. While I was inside Rob began chatting to a local who had wished him a ‘happy holiday’, which at first seemed nice and friendly. Not a minute after leaving the garage we were approached by another local, supposedly called Roberto. An unbelievable (and later it really would be) coincidence, Roberto had recognised us from the window of Ana-Maria’s casa, which he said was opposite his girlfriend’s house on Calle 13. 12-hours-into-Havana-naive we got chatting to Roberto, who spoke amazing English, and allowed him to take us to a house a few blocks away. According to Roberto the house was occupied by workers of a local tobacco factory and on one day a month they are allowed to take a share of the cigars they have produced and sell them, keeping any of the income for themselves and he was going along to see what bargain he could come by. We stood, sweating away, in the living room while Roberto and another Cuban took us through all of the cigars they had on offer, ranging in price from 100-250CUC (£80-200). Eventually Rob overcame our British politeness and explained that even at the discounted prices there is no way that we could afford the cigars. We left Roberto (who unsurprisingly had made no attempt to purchase anything for himself) and the cigar salesman disappointed but in good spirits and were pointed in the direction of Habana Vieja. Later that evening Rob recalled that he had told the first guy at the garage that we were staying on Calle 13 and it dawned on us that we had, bar the awkward sales pitch, avoided a common tourist scam. Later that day we were also approached by several people who told us that today was a special day because there was a Rumba concert happening and they could take us along – we declined the offer and then watched as they disappeared and then returned to the same spot to prey on the next obvious tourists, confirming our assumption that this was another tourist scam.
After the ‘tobacco house’, the walk into Habana Vieja took us through some pretty ropey streets, which were a far cry from the well-maintained colonial buildings and twentieth-century polished hotels that dominated the historic tourist center. In some places the contrast could be seen on either side of a street. Nevertheless, Havana really does possess the old-school charm that makes you feel as though you have gone back in time. Everywhere you look there are shiny, candy-coloured Cadillacs ferrying tourists around and when you walk along streets such as Obispo your ears prick to the sounds of Latin music coming from the restaurants and bars.
On our second day in Habana Vieja we took a trip to the Museo de la Revolucion, the entrance fee was 8CUC (£6.40) per person and slightly more if you wanted a guide. We decided to make our own way through the museum which exhibition-wise is rather small and the size of the building is comparison (which is the old Presidential Palace, one occupied by Fulgencio Batista) is a bit misleading. The long-term exhibition was predominantly in Spanish, though the occasional section had been translated. If you decide to visit be prepared for some comical anti-US propaganda and information boards that would be better placed in a classroom in the 1970’s. The outdoor area, which can be seen from the street, however was really cool. On display are a selection of cars, planes and weapons used during the Revolutionary wars and in the Bay of Pigs battle, as well as a to-scale memorial of the Granma Yacht that carried Fidel Castro and 81 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to launch the Revolution.
Havana is the kind of place where there is lots to do, if you want to, but you can also while away the days wandering, which is mostly what we did. There is always something to stop and look at, whether it’s the opulent architecture, the sea views, an open artist workshop, a house band at a restaurant or the local Habaneros going about their days. A great first insight into Cuba.
Where we stayed:
Casa del Musico available to book via Airbnb.
Where we ate/drank:
Helad’oro, Habana Vieja:
An awesome little ice cream shop tucked away in an unassuming side street, where scoops are available for 1CUC (£0.80). If you’re feeling fancy, like we seem to be every time that we get ice cream, treat yourself to the 2-scoop waffle bowl for 2.50CUC (£2).
Sloppy Joe’s, Habana Vieja:
First established in the 1930’s, Sloppy Joe’s was a Havana institution famed for serving the Sloppy Joe sandwich and being a magnet for American celebrities such as Frank Sinatra. After the success of the revolution in 1959 the business took a nosedive as most of the clientele were American, eventually closing in the 60s due to a fire. The bar reopened in 2013 and, while the menu is nothing to shout about, Sloppy Joe’s is a good spot for a 6CUC (£4.80) sandwich and a chance to pick out the famous faces in the photos adorning the walls.
Mediteraneo Havana, Vedado:
Located just around the corner from our casa, this cute restaurant with a balcony overlooking street was where we decided to eat on my birthday after our reservation at La Guarida fell through. I recommend the pizzas and sausage gnocchi both at around 8CUC (£6.40) each, the cocktails were also very good.
Paladar El Idilio, Vedado:
Again located a few blocks down from our casa, we ate at Idilio for convenience on our first night in Havana, but the food turned out to be very good. I went for the lobster, fish and prawn grill for 11CUC (£8.80) and Rob went for the pork mixed grill (two types of sausage, ribs and a pork chop, 9CUC or £7.20), both dishes were perfectly cooked and so so tasty. Make sure you bring your appetite or share a main with a selection of sides as Cuban portions are BIG!
Another Vedado gem, this bar is found on Calle 17, not too far from the John Lennon memorial. We actually ended up in here after refusing to pay the overinflated cover charge for Yesterday (the Beatles bar) and definitely lucked out. A trendy upper-level bar and tapas restaurant with great artwork, plants and decoration, Cafe Madrigal is the perfect spot to enjoy a mojito and some banana chips. The best seats can be found on the covered balcony where you can watch over the classic cars passing by.