Date of stay: Oct 2011
Where you stayed: La Casa De Ana
Travelled with: Wife
Tour or pre planned: Pre-planned
Havana is likely your first stop in Cuba and if you’re flying in from either the UK or Mexico, take this as a forewarning; keep away from Cubana Air. It’s worth paying the extra to fly with a different airline (with Aeromexico for example). Reason? Almost every flight is either delayed by 11 hours or cancelled.
Havana is such a vibrant bustling stinky dirty colourful old-school wonderful city. You can be on one of the main streets in Centro or Old Havana where there are impressive colonial buildings surrounding you, colourful Chevys, Chryslers and Fords whizzing by and music from every bar spilling out onto the streets, and then you can take a few steps onto another street where you are surrounded by crumbling roads, dilapidated grey houses and the odd pile of rotting headless chickens heaped on the sidewalk.
The city seriously seems stuck in the 1950’s, as the old cars outnumber new ones 10:1. They are a real highlight, and provided many photograph opportunities. However, the amount of smoke they emit means that simply walking down the street can be hazardous to your health. Jumping in one will result in you breathing in pure unfiltered exhaust fumes that somehow leaks into the car (seriously, each car should carry a Surgeon General's Health Warning). Add onto that the wafts of cigar smoke that often drifts into your face and you have a pretty decent recipe for carbon monoxide poisoning. After a while though your lungs get used to it and you’re sucking it all in with the best of ‘em.
When staying in Havana (and all of Cuba for that matter) I highly recommend you stay in Casas Particulares (family homes) rather than Hotels. They are a hell of a lot cheaper, no hotel in the world can match their service and they are a real cultural experience.
We stayed in a home called La Casa de Ana in the Vedado area, where the father-of-the-house Pepe went out of his way to make us feel at home. He’ll also give you all the information you need on Havana. One word of advice though, bring some earplugs as the rooms can be a little noisy early in the mornings (mainly roosters crowing at dawn).
The country struggles at times. While communism may give everyone a job (although many crazy jobs are created out of thin air) it is clear that it suffocates the country. Shop shelves are virtually empty with only a few basic items to choose from; and many items we consider basic are seen as a luxury here. Despite this however the people continue living with huge smiles on their faces. They have such a passion for music too, and it may seem far-fetched but suggesting that their love for music is the glue that keeps their country together probably isn’t that far from the truth.
While we’re on the subject of music, WOW. Every bar we frequented had world-class jazz and salsa bands playing. All day. All night. And in most places it’s (quite ridiculously) completely free!
There are too many places to mention, but here are just a couple of gems we came across that I highly recommend:
Jazz Café. This very aptly named venue showcases world class jazz musicians nightly from 11pm. There is a CUC10 minimum spend which you pay at the door, but it goes towards what you eat/drink so the jazz is effectively free. Cocktails are incredibly cheap at CUC2.50 each, and really good too. You’ll get people spontaneously dancing in between tables during the night.
Habana Café. Just across from Jazz Café. We kind of stumbled on this place, but it turned out to be a great evening. CUC10 cabaret show. Probably the cheapest cabaret in town but it’s very professionally done and a joy to watch. Beats paying CUC30-CUC120 everywhere else. Kicks off at 10pm.
La Bodeguita de Media – A fantastic place and basically an institution. If you want to visit just one Hemingway bar, skip Floridita (also good, but expensive) and come here. This place is still pricey but the atmosphere is unbeatable. The tiny bar area is full of singing people smoking cigars and all the walls inside and out are covered with signatures and photographs of visitors, many of whom are famous (including Fidel Castro himself and many local and international actors).
For sights to see, there are 3 main areas for you to explore: Centro Habana, Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Vedado. Simply walking around is the best way to experience Havana, but here are some of the highlights:
This is the place to see many of the colourful cars, all lined in a row. Chinatown is nearby and interestingly also an old train graveyard. The Capitol building dominates this area, reminiscent of the one in Washington D.C.
There is a nice market strip between roads (one is Paseo Marti) leading to the Capitol building. This is full of street artists and is somewhat similar Las Ramblas in Barcelona.
Head up the pedestrian walkway of San Rafael just to the right of the Gran Teatre (also a nice building) and you’ll be led to a great market about 200m up on the left containing nice paintings and Cuban wooden crafts. You can get stuff for cheaper here than anywhere else.
This is the nicest area of Havana, and clearly the most looked after. There are several really nice squares here, and many great bars and places to eat. Don’t miss the cathedral, where good live music is played outside, and also Plaza Vieja which has many wonderfully restored buildings and a fantastic brewery (the only one in Havana) in the corner. The beers there are great, and if you need a cheap snack grab the cheeseburger; best burgers in Cuba.
The pedestrian Street Obispo is dotted with many shops and bars and is definitely worth walking the length. It’s busy but is full of life.
There are many good bars and restaurants here too. Walking along the Malecon is a highlight, and draws many people young and old. Watch out for the waves crashing over the side.
Definitely make a stop at La Torre. It’s a restaurant high up on the top floor of the tower with fantastic views over Havana. Get there for sunset and watch the city lights come on for some great photo opportunities. Drinks and snacks are surprisingly cheap.
In terms of food, it’s hard to find a great place to eat as the food is rather simple everywhere you go (due to it being difficult to gather many different ingredients). When you’re hungry during the day, you’ll find that you’ll be eating the same Jamon y Queso (ham & cheese) sandwiches and hamburguesas everywhere. In the evenings most tend to eat at home in their Casa, but there are many other casas which you can visit for a cheap eat. They are called Paladares, and they’re everywhere so just go out and explore!
Just a couple of final tips:
Cash machines tend to only accept Visa. If you’ve got a Mastercard you’ll have to go to the bank counter to get cash out, but make sure you remember to bring your passport.
Tip at least 15%+ everywhere you can. And make sure you tip musicians when they come round with their hat, even just a dollar or CUC. It can go a long way for them and it’s not much to ask when you get to listen to world-class jazz musicians over lunch for free.
If you have any questions about Havana, drop a comment below and I’d be happy to answer.
Points to highlight:
This blog is so long purely because there is so much to write about Havana. It is just so different from anywhere you’ve been before. The people, the culture, the history, the music, the cars; they all blend together to make one magnificent city worth at least 3 days of exploring. It can get hectic at times, and may seem like one big mess of colourful broken concrete, but you may just be swept off your feet and fall in love with it. Warts and all.
Would you recommend this destination: Yes
Would you recommend your accommodation: Yes
Overall rating: 4/5