Planning a Caribbean trip, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
For the majority, I would guess that it’s beautiful white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, cocktails and palm trees. Is that you? Well, it’s definitely me, I can promise you that. So once upon a time, my other half suggested that we go to Cuba. I dismissed it, thinking immediately of Havana – I didn’t want a ‘city break’. Don’t get me wrong, Havana was definitely on my bucket list – it just wasn’t that kind of holiday. I carried on scanning through pages of luxury resorts in Antigua, St. Lucia and Barbados putting Cuba out of my mind completely. Then, one day, I stumbled upon some beautiful coastline images and beach resorts in Cuba. The Cayo’s, Holguin and Varadero. Miles of pristine white sands, happy people sipping drinks from coconuts and exclaimed, as if it was my idea all along, ‘Why don’t we go to Cuba, it looks gorgeous’!
After a roll of the eyes, and a not so quiet mumble of ‘Are you kidding me?’, we did some research and planned an awesome break to Cuba involving two nights in Havana to start, followed by six nights at a beach resort in Cayo Ensenachos (you can read that article right here), followed by a final couple of nights in Havana to end the trip.
So what were my thoughts on Havana? Well, aside from a couple of less than favourable experiences in two domestic airport terminals and a taxi ride that we were not sure we would make it out of alive (I may tell these stories another day), I found it absolutely wonderful, insightful and interesting.
We spent our first couple of nights in Havana, staying at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba – well you have to really, don’t you? A hotel steeped in history, this building sits on a hill above the Malecon (the 8 mile esplanade that sits along the shoreline of Havana), offering great views out to the harbour and the city. Having an air of faded glamour and dating back to 1930, if the walls could talk they would have stories to tell, I’m sure. It was the location of a political siege in 1933, where the building sustained extensive damage – some of the bullet holes can still be seen today.
The hotel has extensive grounds – a perfect place to sit back in the sunshine and enjoy a Mojito or three, refreshingly piled with ice and mint. More so, it’s a great base to get out and explore some areas of the city further afield from Old Havana, which we’ll come to later.
If you need transportation from the Hotel Nacional, then there are plenty of options. Being in Havana you will surely want to take a ride in an old American classic car, which were lined up outside the hotel. The streets of Havana are teaming with brightly coloured classic American cars, a hangover from Fidel Castro’s ban on imports of foreign cars, meaning Cubans still drive around in vehicles from the 1950’s.
We took a ride out to the Plaza de la Revolución to see the José Martí Memorial and the Ministry of Interior building featuring the famous facade of Che Guevara.
If you fancy a slightly different ride back, then another one of Havana’s tourist trap transportation options are the Cocotaxi – an auto rickshaw type vehicle – a half dome painted in bright yellow, so pretty easy to spot and flag down. They are not fast, not particularly reliable (ours broke down!), but another thing to tick off the list.
As we were fresh into the city and keen to experience some culture, we opted for one of the holiday rep excursions – an evening at the Tropicana cabaret club. This wasn’t the famed place from the Wham song ‘Club Tropicana’, and although the drinks were not all free, a complimentary bottle of Havana Rum was placed on each table (of six people, I think). The evening was fun, camp and colourful – full of bright costumes, music and dance routines. I sampled the rum, but was reasonably sensible due to our 7am airport pick up the following morning. Not sensible enough as it turned out, as our 7am pick up had changed to a 5am pick up. If we hadn’t have picked up the voicemail in our room at 1.30am, we needn’t have worried because the holiday rep phoned us at 2am to tell us, just as we were dropping off to sleep. Sigh.
Anyway. The six days at Cayo Ensenachos were fantastic as you will imagine from the photo above, and a great opportunity for some R&R before heading back to Old Havana for the last couple of days of our trip.
The last couple of days in Havana involved walking. Lots of walking, which is really the best way to navigate the streets of Old Havana. We based ourselves at the Hotel Parque Central – located in a perfect central position near El Capitolo. The hotel was great, its best feature for me was the rooftop bar and pool. I mean, who doesn’t like a rooftop bar and pool, but this one had fantastic views across to the Capitolo building, as well as the giving you the scale of the sprawling city in general.
The main thing that struck me in Havana in comparison to other large cities, is that there didn’t seem to be boundaries between developed and undeveloped buildings / areas. A beautifully restored building could stand next to crumbling apartment block, where only some floors seemed habitable. We saw it over and over while we wandered through the city.
Anyway, I’ll take you on a little tour around Old Havana – there’s tons of stuff to see. El Capitolo is the building that housed the government organisation until the Cuban Revolution in 1959. From then on it became the home of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. It has only recently reopened to tourists (but our visit was before it closed), and guided tours are available. The interior of the building is as impressive as the exterior.
From El Capitolo, you can take a walk down Paseo del Prado, a tree lined avenue, which leads all the way down to the Malecon. Make sure you turn around for more great views of the Capitol building.
As you reach the Malecon, take a bit of a detour to see the impressive neo-classical Museo de la Revolucion and the art nouveau Palaco Velasco buildings, before crossing to the Monumento a Maximo Gomez, an impressive monument designed by Italian sculptor Aldo Gamba in the mid 1930’s.
The Malecon is the seafront esplanade and sea wall of Havana which stretches along the coast of Havana. It’s a place for socialising and people watching for sure, and offers some great views back across to the city, as well as across the water to the Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro – a fort dating back to the late 16th century.
From this location, it’s an easy walk across to Plaza de la Catedral – one of five main squares in Havana. It’s a busy tourist spot with pavement cafes and people visiting the Catedral de la Habana, a baroque church dating back to 1777.
Another one of Havana’s squares is only a few minutes from here – the 16th century Plaza Vieja, or Havana Old Square. It’s another beautiful public square with gorgeous architecture, cafes and restaurants.
You could spend days wandering the streets of Havana, taking in the beautiful architecture, sights, smells and sounds. It’s a fabulous place for people watching. There are plenty of tourist attractions, which I haven’t mentioned above – partly as I know there have been some changes since the time I have been there.
Cuba, being famous for Rum and cigars, we visited the Museo del Ron Havana Club for a tour and tasting, and the Partagas Cigar Factory for a tour (which I believe has now been relocated to a different building). The rum tour was in a fairly modern facility created purely for the tourist market. The cigar factory tour was more authentic, but I felt slightly uneasy being paraded around a working factory along with a whole bunch of tourists gawping at the workers during their twelve hour days – I’m not entirely sure how they felt about it either if I’m honest.
We enjoyed an evening drinking at El Floridita, famous for it’s daquiris and being the place where Ernest Hemingway spent his evenings during his time in Cuba.
All in all, a great time was had. A fascinating country and one you should visit if you can.