What to see in Havana? Havana (La Habana) is beautiful. The architecture albeit very weathered is stunning and most of the houses are painted in bright colours. It would be so strange to see a modern building or sky scraper among these buildings, so I’m happy to have made it here before the Americans start pumping in money and building it up. As you wander around the streets you do get the feeling of being catapulted back in time by at least 100 or so years. If you applied a black & white filter you could easily think someone had transported you back to the 1950’s: the old school Cadillacs and Chevrolets, people just out on the streets, sitting, talking, waiting for who knows what. No one walks around staring at their smartphones, mostly because there is no internet, but this allows you to truly LIVE Cuba, enjoy each moment and soak it all in. Cuba is meant to be felt on your skin, absorbed through your eyes and scented through your nose. My body would just move to the sound of music that played all round.
We didn’t have very long in La Habana as we were on quite a mission to see as much as possible in one week, but we still managed to get a good feel of the city, so I wanted to recommend what to see in Havana. One of the hard things when you don’t know a city is deciding where to stay; we saw ‘Habana Centro’ and thought that must be the centre, but once we arrived realised it wasn’t exactly what we expected. The centre of Havana, or at least where there is more to see and so and all the tourists stay is actually in Habana Vieja (the old part of town) which is also the most beautiful part. Let’s say that Centro Habana is ‘authentic’ – it is pretty much falling apart, the roads are part dug up, there are stray cats, dogs and chicken running around.. The funny thing is that people’s houses are simply left open and you can see right inside them. You pass by and observe people in their living rooms and see people just sitting on their doorstep people watching as we are.
The amazing thing is that Cuba is incredibly safe; Fidel Castro with his communist regime made a point of trying to eliminate crime and was for the most part successful. You can walk around the beaten small streets even at night and feel perfectly safe. The locals don’t even pay that much attention to tourists, it’s nothing like the other Latin American countries I have visited where as usual you stand out and everyone stares, whistles, shouts out inappropriate remarks and comes and harasses you. In Cuba apart from a few touts who want to get you to go on a tour you are pretty much left to just enjoy your trip. I have heard otherwise from fellow travellers, mostly in Havana, but maybe the fact that we were staying in such a local residential area saved us from being constantly hassled.
Most of the people here have never left the island. An old man told us that the government controls everything, that most people will never leave Cuba, hence the only way for them to travel is by talking to the tourists. The products people have access to are extremely limited and they often lack essentials such as soap or bottled water. Supermarkets are scarce and even things like onions are hard to come by and expensive. What we found hilarious was that we’d often walk in to a bar to buy water and they wouldn’t have any. They would however have rum everywhere, at any hour 🙂 Their mixing is also interesting: about 3/4 rum and 1/4 coke/lemonade because soft drinks have to be imported and are hence more expensive than rum!
Travel Tip: before going pass by a Poundland and buy a bunch of small things like soaps, creams, coloured pencils and books for the kids; they’ll be very grateful.
You’ll be staying at people’s houses most of the time and even if you aren’t, just by walking in the streets you’ll observe what a simple lifestyle they live. We had several women coming up to ask if we had any spare clothes or soap that we could give them for their children.
However, most of the people we spoke to about politics praise Castro for the great things he brought: free health care, he reduced illiteracy from something around 70% to around 5% and most Cubans are in fact educated to university level. They say that he is a man of the people, charismatic and one of them but that his brother Raúl is not the same. The weirdest thing is that only a week or so after coming back to London I woke up in the middle of the night and checked my phone only to find a news notification that Fidel Castro had died. It was the strangest of feelings – almost like we were meant to see Castro’s Cuba and literally just made it in time.
WHERE TO EAT
Havana is full of places of all sorts, ranging from the very expensive to pretty cheap. I’d recommend the following:
Locos Por Cuba – in Centro Habana, very authentic, full of photographs and Cuban artefacts, great food and well priced
Los Nardos – Right in front of the Capitolio; don’t fall for the sign that says ‘Asturiano’ because it is Cuban, not Spanish food
Doña Eutimia – In Habana Vieja; I heard a lot about it and it’s mentioned in most guides but when we went it was fully booked, quite expensive and in the same square you have a load of other cute restaurants where you get a meal and drink for 12 CUC
I first heard this word in a reggaetón song and had no idea what it was. You’ll hear this mentioned a lot as it is the lengthy footpath that goes all the way along the coastline in Havana. Especially at night it is loads of fun as people of all ages gather there to drink, dance & play music.
All I can say is mingle with the locals, drink & dance to your heart’s content and just enjoy it.