When was the last time you jumped into a 1957 Thunderbird taxi at an airport? You can catch one at José Martí International Airport and, by the way, welcome to Havana, Cuba.
This city oozes charm, history, culture, music, and love of life. Havana has three distinct areas. Most visitors congregate in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site declared in 1982. The Vedado section is also home to many places of interest. The newer area is certainly a more suburban district. Take a walk with me and experience a taste of Havana, Cuba.
First Impressions of Havana, Cuba
OK, I already mentioned that lovers of vintage cars will be fed plenty of eye candy. A mechanic might have nightmares after looking under the hood of these automobiles, but they do look impressive on the outside.
Another marvel is the city’s architecture. Some buildings appear to be crumbling to near collapse and others are architectural wonders demanding the attention of your camera. You’ll be sure to angle for some shots of places such as El Capitolio, Teatro Nacional de Cuba, Catedral de San Cristóbal de La Habana, and countless more. Take advantage of a Hop-On-Again, Hop-Off-Again bus, and venture to La Necrópolis de Cristóbal Colón, which is the second-largest cemetery in the Americas after La Recoleta in Buenos Aires. There are over 800,000 honorably-marked graves and over a million interments in all.
Stroll the Perfect City for a Walkabout
Old Havana is a pedestrian’s dreamland. There are so many photo opportunities around every corner. I think it is a shame when I see visitors walking around with guidebooks or using smartphones to find their way around. Those are great as research tools, but chuck them in your bag in the room or leave them at home altogether. Just wander aimlessly instead. I prefer to allow my instincts to be my guide. For me, that is what a travel adventure is all about.
There are numerous landmarks in Old Havana upon which to set your bearings, but perhaps the most noteworthy is the Malecón. This is the seawall and promenade hugging the bay. Watch the waves crashing against or over the seawall. The Malécon is the gathering point for many locals. Here, you can observe carefree kids jumping from rocks and swimming, witness young lovebirds caressing and kissing, and enjoy the sunset in the shadow of the lighthouse of the majestic El Morro castle, built between 1589 and 1630 to protect the bay from marauding pirates and unwelcome colonists.
Enjoy Al Fresco Cuban Entertainment
Havana is choc-a-bloc full of colourfully-dressed people and street performers to entertain visitors and locals alike. Take a stroll around the block and you are likely to see living statues, mimes, garishly-costumed stilt walkers, and women traditionally dressed as salsa dancers plotting to plant a kiss on your cheek.
Stride through Parque Central and a Fidel Castro or Che Guevara impostor might cozy up beside you in the hopes of a photo op in exchange for a few pesos.
Sitting in front of a placard commemorating the Cuban revolutionary heroine, Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado, I encountered a female follower of the Yoruba-Cuban religion of Santeria. She was resplendent in remarkably long fingernails and smoking an even longer cigar.
Move Your Feet to the Latin Beat
You can hear live music everywhere. Plenty of buskers work the streets. You might be sitting in a park and at the other end of the bench, someone will sit down and start playing his saxophone. Around noon every day, musicians descend upon almost every bar and restaurant and begin performing. They do not receive payment but earn their living from pass-of-the-hat contributions. What better way to wile away a sultry afternoon than absorbing the atmosphere and listening to rhythmic Latin music?
In 1999, German filmmaker Wim Wenders, along with guitarist Ry Cooder, released a documentary titled Buena Vista Social Club. This film presents a fantastic array of Cuban music performed by a collection of veteran Cuban musicians. Among other things, it showcases their performances in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall. I highly recommend watching it if you want to become more familiar with the seductive musical styles of Cuba.
Read up on Havana’s History Before you Go
Cuba has a rich historical past. Do some historical research before you visit and you will truly appreciate your experience more. I remember reading the story of Hatuey, a Taíno chief who fled Hispaniola with a few hundred people in canoes to warn the Cubans about Spanish invaders. Hatuey’s image is used as a brand name of many products in Cuba today — including a popular national beer.
Research El Morro and then visit it for yourself. Climbing the spiral staircase inside the lighthouse will reward you with a view of the bay. Relive the Cuban Revolution by paying a trip to the Museo de la Revolución while in Havana. This museum dedicated a small section to the 1895-1898 War of Independence waged against Spain. However, the museum mostly focuses on the revolutionary war of the 1950s and post-1959 history.
Check out Craft Factories and Pay Homage to Ernie
Two products Cuba is world-renowned for are rum and cigars. You can easily arrange tours of Museo del Ron Havana Club or one of the cigar producers. The original Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás situated itself just behind El Capitolio. However, it relocated to still central Calle Pedro Varela in 2013.
And then there’s Ernie. Ernest Hemingway was a bibulous writer who produced many successful novels. He once claimed, “I drink to make other people more interesting.” He spent many years of his life living in Havana and wrote some of his most popular books at that time. In Cuba, the people knew him as Papa Hemingway. He had two watering holes he claimed to love. One was El Floridita, specifically for the daiquiris.
I visited El Floridita in the mid-1990s and felt distinctly underwhelmed. Now it seems to be a popular tourist stop. On my more recent visit, I went to Hemingway’s other beloved cantina, La Bodeguita del Medio. This was his mojito haunt. I liked the small bar, but alas, it wasn’t long before there was the intrusion of a group of day-trippers. For those who might like to follow the Hemingway tourist trail (I’m not one of them), you could visit Finca La Vigía (his former home). Another Hemingway location is Cuba’s largest marina, just on the outskirts of Havana in Santa Fé named Marina Hemingway as a tribute to him.
Socialize with the Wonderful People of Havana
I believe the greatest measure of any travel experience lies in the people one has met. Some might describe my Spanish language skills now as rudimentary. In the 1990s, I made frequent forays into Latin American countries and I became reasonably semi-fluent in Spanish. This particular Havana trip I am recounting occurred some 15 years after that. I made this jaunt to Havana during an extended visit to Canada close to two decades after my first taste of Cuba.
I met so many people in Havana who wanted to share stories and experiences and they all seemed to forgive my linguistic limitations. Communication was not a problem. Musicians encouraged me to join the festivities. I would often eat meals in paladares, usually family-run eateries, in which I was doted on and made to feel like I was eating at Grandma’s place as a kid.
Everywhere I went in Havana, I found the people to be helpful and genuine. The people of Havana are the icing on this travel cake. And who doesn’t love icing?
I don’t write about places in an attempt to persuade people to go or not go. I simply share my experiences and leave it to the reader to decide which cups of travel tea they prefer. Check out my Dreams Abroad archive for more of my wanderlust musings.