After a 50 minutes flight from Cancun, we arrived in Havana, thinking we will go back in time for about 20 years. The driver was waiting for us with a posh car that was in high contrast with what we could see around us. It took about 40 minutes to get to our hotel and on the way, we’ve admired the classic, some of them nicely painted, cars.
Havana’s streets are packed with cars more than 50 years old which I’m sure they are a headache for the owners as you could often see a driver/mechanic trying to fix a broken car in the middle of the road.
We wanted to stay in a hotel with a bit of history behind (small pretensions, eh?) so we’ve opted for Nacional de Cuba which is classified as a 5* hotel. So when we’ve booked this hotel we knew it is a World Heritage Site and a National Monument, and it was inscribed in the World Memory Register bla-bla-bla. We also knew that Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill and loads of other well-known people used to stay at this hotel. And a scene from The Godfather Part II was filmed here. The building is very imposing and the location, even if it’s not in the nicest part of the city, it’s quite central. However, the main word that comes in my mind to describe it is: dated. It is a clean hotel but the money you pay is just for the ‘privilege’ to stay in a national monument and nothing else.
After we’ve left the luggage in the room, we headed outside to find a place to eat. I like to mingle with people and to go where locals eat (not at posh restaurants) so that I can get a glimpse at their life. Just that, as soon as we went outside (it was about 7 pm and it was dark already) and walked for 10 minutes, we’ve realised it’s not that easy to find these restaurants. Reason: as long as you are not in a touristy area (like the old Havana – Habana Vieja), there aren’t many restaurants you can go to; people are poor so they don’t really afford to eat out.
While wandering on the streets, this ‘friendly’ couple started to talk to us and offered to take us to a nice place to eat. And, they took us to what’s called a paladar which is a restaurant owned by a family (family business) and the food we had there was one of the best. And the company was great too: the waiter (who was also in charge of running the paladar) was an ex-hotel manager who thankfully knew English (Cuban people don’t speak English and if you know their history, that’s no wonder). When we’ve asked him if he’s happy about how the people are living and how the country is led, his answer was: ‘It cannot be worse than this. I’m sure that after you’ll leave my country, you will feel pity for us.’
Well, it wasn’t pity that I’ve felt, but compassion. I have lived (for a few years only, as a child) in a communist country and the Romanian communist regime was the harshest in Europe so, even if I know I must have no expectations whatsoever, considering the fact that Cuba is still a communist country, I thought I will see nice, old, good-kept buildings with clean streets and a tidiness in general.
But instead, I found a capital city that looked as if it had been bombarded (I know about Ike – 2008 but still…). We were walking around the streets and we could see the remainings of what once were really nice architectural buildings that now looked so shabby, looking like they were about to fall apart any time. And people were living in them… (I have to add that the pictures are mainly from the refurbished part of the city).
One of the first things we’ve done was to take a hop-on, hop-off bus which is 5 CUC (@5 USD) each (the ticket is valid all day). This gave us an idea of the city plus we’ve managed to take nice pictures/videos. We’ve ended up in a huge hall full of craft stalls. I absolutely enjoyed walking around and looking at the beautiful paintings, wooden cars, hats, bags etc; there was such a large choice of hand-made crafts, all coloured and nicely done. I was happy to see this (compared with other countries I’ve been to, where it was a struggle to find something non-China made). So this is where we’ve bought all souvenirs from; and this was the place I’ve noticed that Cubans embrace art; you could see such an amazing palette of paintings, beautifully done. And they weren’t expensive compared to the amount of work they’ve put in. I wish I’d new it before as I would have definitely saved some money to buy 1 or 2 paintings…
Then we’ve discovered the Old Havana which is the part of the city which has been refurbished and where you could take some amazing pictures. I’d say this: if I had been a photographer, I would’ve been in trance as Havana is an enormous source of pretty amazing shots…
Old Havana has 4 main squares and each one has its own charm. This is pretty much where we’ve spent most of our time whilst in Havana.
Plaza de San Francisco used to be the core of commercial life in Havana
Plaza de Armas built in 1584 for military exercises. Now used books are sold here, mainly post-revolution editions on Cuban history.
Plaza Vieja was a site of executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas, witnessed by Havana’s wealthiest citizens, looking on from their balconies. There is a nice bar with a brew factory in this square where we’ve spent hours enjoying the view, the live music, the natural juices and D the beer.
Plaza de la Catedral: breath-taking
What I have enjoyed the most was the Cuban music which is a mixture of African and Spanish rhythms. I’ve read somewhere that Cuba is the most musical island on the planet and after being there, I totally agree. Actually, Cubans claim to be the creators of some of the more well-known Latin musical styles such as Son (which gave birth to Salsa), Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, Guaguanco, Bolero, Latin Jazz, Timba, and many others.
Everywhere we went, in a restaurant, bar, terrace, on the street, there was at least one group playing live music. You don’t even headphones or anything as the music is all around…I love Latin music and I love to dance so I wasn’t disappointed at all; on the contrary, this was the highlight of this trip for me, really enjoyed it.