“MAKE MINE A MOJITO”… HIGHLIGHTS OF HAVANA, CUBA

Havana or La Habana is really quite ASTONISHING! Famous for Fidel and Che and home to Hemingway… salsa, fragrant cigars and vintage cars, this enormous sprawling and enticing capital city of Cuba is a feast for all the senses. A hotchpotch jumble of eras, it is an absolute delight for those who crave old world style and simplicity, rubbing shoulders with communism and Spanish/Caribbean colonial charm. Drink in the scenery and smile at the friendly locals, get lost in her loud, crowded, vibrant streets and laneways and dance your way to happiness. Raise your glass of rum and shout Hola Havana…it’s high time we met!

The first thing you notice when you arrive into Havana’s José Marti International Airport is the odd uniform configuration of the girls stationed at luggage screening! Khaki (revolution throwback colour I presume) mini skirts teamed with black fishnet stockings and stilettos! Sexy señoritas! Strange choice of ensemble to welcome visitors to this diverse city, but… whatever floats your Cuban boat! This is just the first in a long list of peculiar observations that one encounters when exploring Havana but needless to say, our time here was far from boring!

Driving into Havana’s old town centre, La Habana Vieja, the traffic is sparse and the roads are wide, boarded by rows of  trees. Being a former owner of two veteran cars and a lover of all things past, a double dose of nostalgia and sheer bliss immediately hit when I laid eyes on my first brightly coloured, heavy as a tank and big as an aircraft, vintage American automobile for which this city is well renowned. These fabulous wheels from a somewhat ‘troubled’ bygone era are unique to Havana and are everywhere! Used as ordinary day to day, A to B vehicles by the locals, taxis and touring cars, I must confess that, by the end of our trip I had, embarrassingly, become quite desensitised to them and their somewhat worn-out beauty and felt a degree of shock and sadness when I arrived back in Panamá at the sheer ugliness and modernness of today’s excuse for a motor.

‘Stepping back in time’ is an understatement when it comes to describing Havana as at every turn you feel caught somewhere between 1920 and 1970, (some of the greatest times in my mind) and I now understand why Ernest Papa Hemingway made this his home for 20 years. The baroque, neo-classical style buildings are still breathtaking in all their dilapidated Spanish/French glory, with sagging lines of washing skimming the decrepit balconies and crumbling doorframes home to inquisitive locals and (strangely) a vast number of ice-blue eyed husky hounds and rudimentary nail salons! Children play, friends call across apartments, doorstep stores sell coffee and drinks and lively music of all genres is blared from 80’s style speakers! Havana is larger than life, bursting with passion and pride and definitely lived on the street!

WIFI: Maybe the first modern convenience you have to surrender here in Havana as well as the beloved luxury of television. To partake in some guilt free online activity, take yourself off to ‘The WIFI Park’ for a quick lesson in underhand wifi/internet card buying and selling training, worthy of an award in cartel style drug negotiation! To procure one of these much sort after pieces of plastic communication devices, stand around in the park (there are designated ones) holding your phone and look lost. This approach worked for me. After a short while, you will hear “wifi wifi” muttered in a stage whisper out the corner of a local’s mouth and the deal has begun!

Cheap at 2CUC (US$2) a piece and lasting 1 hour per card, have the money ready for however many you require. I recommend buying a few as to not have to go through this dramatic pantomime every time. The rules are as follows: Do not, for the love of God, look directly at your dealer, make eye contact or a scene! I did this once and it WAS NOT appreciated! Say casually and quietly how many cards you need. Then he might either get you to sit on a bench near him or stand somewhat away, take the money quickly, give you the cards, scratching off the username and password for you (in case you are questioned by police then you are not considered a provider as they look used) and exit! A walk in the park…literally!

You see, these transactions are illegal here in Havana and many police are surveilling the area so the sellers (everyone knows what’s going down but the charade continues on a daily basis nonetheless) have to be careful not to get arrested! Hard life but someone has to do it and a huge gracias to them! When you have your card(s) feel free to sit in the beautiful leafy park and scroll away! The beauty of this internet ban is that children actually play together and read books and everyone talks to each other in restaurants! Mind blowing! I think it’s a marvellous albeit controlled idea and think it should be introduced in all capital cities! A shock to the system at first if you are an internet addict, but one that is very liberating once you forget to care. Want a wifi cleanse? Come to Cuba!

MONEY: In Cuba there are two different currencies. The CUP – Cuban Peso Nacional and the CUC – Cuban Convertible Peso. The CUC is the equivalent of the US dollar as in one to one. This is the currency that tourists and some locals use. The CUP is the local currency and is less than the CUC. For example: 1CUC= 25CUPS. This currency can be used when purchasing things from the street sellers and some businesses. Not all places will allow you to pay in CUP if you have CUC. Most products are labeled in both currencies. Make sure you pay in the correct currency and receive correct change. Only CUP/CUC is accepted in Cuba and to change money go to a bank (have passport and local address handy) or use the many ATM’s. It’s very safe. It’s also cheaper to change Euro to CUC as US$ are taxed. Australian dollars are not accepted. Try not to ‘cuc- up’ your CUPs and CUCs… it is easy in the end! FYI: Make sure to ALWAYS have some 1CUC coins on you for the toilets. None are free in Havana!

SHOPPING: Now shopping for groceries in Havana was something of a surprise for us. I have shopped in many countries and this takes the cake! Firstly, there are no ‘large supermarkets’ as such and mostly small Mercados (Markets). Inside these mercados, are different counters all with glass cabinets and individual sellers. For example, one cabinet will have their wares displayed with the prices in both currencies. You choose the product and if they have it on the shelf behind you can buy it. Many times it is not available. For another product, you must go to the next cabinet and buy it from that particular seller from their stall and so on. In the larger mercado’s you can roam the shelves and find what you require and purchase it from the teller at the front. It is all quite regimented, but mostly, if you hunt around, you can find what you need. Strangely enough, we discovered that many of the service stations have good mercados offering a wide variety of products, including alcohol. If not one then hunt around a few and eventually you will locate what it is you require! Some of the smaller ones in the city centre only allow a certain number of people in at a time to prevent theft or over purchasing.

For bread there are many bakeries but all offer the same mass produced bun type variety, some in different shapes and sizes. Butchers are everywhere but are quite rustic and have long lines of people all queuing for their pound of fresh meat. Tantalising fruit and vegetables can be bought from the little men wandering the streets with their carts loaded with produce. They are great! We bought excellent limes (for our Mojito’s of course) from the man near our WIFI park…two birds, one stone and all that! Luxury items like milk (there is no fresh milk only evaporated), sausages, ham and butter are difficult  to acquire and usually sell out quickly due to word of mouth with the locals and limited supplies. I imagine this style of shopping would be a struggle if you lived here. We are so very lucky in our easy, modern and stress free shopping world.

Regular shopping in Havana is ok… I wouldn’t say it’s fantastic. There are loads of stores selling the usual tourist items like t-shirts and caps, mostly with Havana Rum or Che Guevara motifs and many unusual paintings. Leather and wood is popular here also as are cuban straw hats. The best place to buy everything you need is the huge undercover market near the cruise ship terminal called Almacenes San José. Be warned, it can be very busy and pushy! For designer items, think Versace, Armani and Gucci, check out the Galerias de Paseo across from El Floridita. There is even a small Zara here too, but the prices are inflated. My tip is to wander around the streets of Obispo and O’Reilly which are the main tourist areas and you can discover some interesting stores. Try bargaining here too as it is accepted. For something truly unique and special to Havana, check out the famous store called El Quiltrin in Obispo Street. This shop stocks the beautiful white cotton and linen clothes favoured by the Damas de Blanco or those practicing the Yoruba religion and typical cuban men’s Guayabera shirts. The small factory is next door and you can actually watch the ladies making the delicate items if it is open! So whilst you’re in Havana, make sure to cough up some cuban CUC’S to help out the locals!

GETTING AROUND: Transport options in Havana are plentiful and diverse! Bici-taxis (bicycle taxi), horse and carriage, regular yellow cabs, Grancars (the coloured vintage vehicles), the adorable Coco-taxis (tuk-tuk) and fat wheeled E-Bike push bikes are all up for hire. Make sure you bargain the price first before take off! The opulent and most popular Open Top Grancars can take you around the city for about US$50-80 for a one hour trip or just hire one for fun to go anywhere as they are the epitome of Havana travel heaven! A round trip to the popular beach area of Veradero (2.5 hr drive from Havana) will cost about US$200. Hiring a car or scooter from the internet or a rental company can be done but it is not easy! Do your research before you go as some companies have a bad reputation. After much effort, grief, sweat and tears, MB and I eventually hired a large 3-wheeler Piaggio scooter( US$39 per day) from a dodgy parking guy opposite the rental car place next to the Hotel Capri in the new town. The amount of time this took to organise would be another blog in itself, so I won’t go into detail, needless to say that it was all above board in the end (it was from a bike hire place called Cuba on the Road near the Hotel Bello Caribe). It was worth all the headaches and stress though as we managed to have our very own wheels for some of our stay which saved A LOT of money in taxi fares! Just outside of the city, you also see many horse and carts, like in Spaghetti Western movies, clip clopping along laden with school children or locals going about their everyday lives. This to me was beautiful. Witnessing the progression of transport through the ages from basic to modern all commuting peacefully side by side was astounding.

BICI-TAXIS

AROUND TOWN: Now Havana is HUGE! This city has been through hell in its time and the evidence virtually slaps you in the face. A sight for sore eyes, she is spread out, gritty and grungy but ever so elegant in her old age. Like a well ripened movie starlet, her crumbling façades are resplendent in sepia tainted photographs to slightly blur the crooked lines of time. At first glance, Havana old town appears confusing and slightly intimidating, especially the soaring National Capitol Building, El Capitolio with its enormous dome, being the highlight. But after trudging the streets on foot for nearly two weeks, we became like locals in the end and could locate a bar/ shop or restaurant with our eyes closed! It was worth not having wheels for a time just to conquer the area and could find our way back to our accommodation sans map! In the wise words of MB, ‘remember to always know where to find the sea’ and you are done! But I find being lost in a town all part of the charm of travel and that’s the best way to discover, don’t you agree?

What did surprise us was to see the amount of progress and renovations that have occurred, especially near Plaza Vieja in the ‘cleaner, more affluent area’. Popular with the cruise passengers and wealthy tourists, this is where many of the upmarket boutique hotels, restaurants and bars are located. It is very pretty, but didn’t have enough soul for me.

A big drawcard is the very long avenue along the sea front called the Malécon. With its seemingly never ending promenade taking you from the old town all along to the new town, it is great for walking or jogging, riding a pushbike or just to cruise alongside and be seen in a topless Grancar or the very popular motorbike/sidecar combo! Most of the buildings nearby have now been restored to their original glory, some housing funky looking bars and restaurants all with glorious sea views and cool breezes. The new town is interesting in her own right as the architecture is more ‘modern’ so to speak. It is also home to the diplomatic area where Embassies now occupy some of the grand old, ornate houses that line the vast, leafy green boulevards. Huge hotel chains are located here also as is the main road leading out to Hemingway Marina and beyond.

Trendy Bar on the Malécon
Cruising the Maécon in a Grandcar

An excursion out to the picturesque town of Matanzas, about 1hr drive from the old town is a great way to spend a few hours and see another local area. A smaller version of Havana, this sprawling little city on the water is Parisian in style with her belle époque bridges, lampposts, and cobbled streets. Home to a very laid back, young hipster crowd she is affectionally referred to as the City of the Arts and is renowned for poetry, culture and Afro-Cuban folklore.

Needless to say that even before the ‘scooter acquisition’ we made sure to wander the less touristy areas of the city centre which are glorious in their own right, shocking the locals with our carefree abandon of the inner-city safety net to observe another side of everyday Cuban life and absorb the atmosphere. We didn’t see it all but we gave it a good nudge!

EAT AND DRINK: SALUD! Probably the best part of any holiday is the ongoing discovery of local bars and restaurants tucked away in and around a city. Havana is no exception as there are a multitude of hangouts to savour in one place, many of which have been made famous by Havana’s adopted papa Ernest Hemingway.

“Make mine a Mojito!” Following in Hemingway’s alcoholic footsteps and to savour Cuba’s most popular cocktail, you can’t go past La Bodeguita del Medio. A smoky watering hole kind of affair, her walls are covered in scribblings from patrons past. Blue, loud, crowded and hot with a lively nightly salsa band, it is the place to go with teams of people lounging inside and out all sipping on a glass of this local liquid freshness. Saying this however, this classic lime and mint concoction is offered EVERYWHERE and are a cheap and cheerful way to start or finish many a hot Havana night! The other most popular Hemingway haunts for a tipple are: El Floridita – A large, classy and moody bar famous for its iced daiquiris and scarlet art deco interior; Bar Monserrat – understated, never overcrowded and has great live music perfect for a sassy salsa session and fabulous paella; Dos Hermanos – a slick, oak wood panelled corner bar situated (conveniently) next to the Havana Club Rum Museum and opposite the cruise terminal! It also has a daily live salsa band and a famous Cuban cartoonist who does sketches of you for a price!

El Floridita Bar
Famous sign in La Bodeguita del Medio

El Cocinero: A converted oil factory in the hipster area of Vedado, this very cool, stylishly fitted out restaurant is cut in half. The first level is an elegant, open air à la carte dining space complete with original art deco stemware and plates, and the rooftop, which is romanesque style, serves tapas and has two bars. It was so damn good in every respect that we went twice and tried them both! FYI: Order the duck and admire the retro glass ashtrays!

Paladar Los Mercaderes: Enjoy an exotic meal and people watch whilst seated high on an ornate balcony inside a traditional Cuban terrace house! This lovely restaurant is in Calle (street) Mercaderes, in the upmarket area of old Havana town. Beautifully decorated with classic old world charm, this paladar specialises in traditional Cuban food with an innovative Spanish/Creole twist. Yet again we went twice as it was another fab find and an eclectic music trio performs every night which is an added bonus. FYI: Request the pumpkin crème brûlée for dessert or the smoked gin & tonic for aperitive!

Us on the balcony

Elegant Paladar los Mercaderes

Ivan Chef Justo: Having hosted celebrities such as Sting and Will Smith, we thought this unassuming, bright yellow little house was just good enough for us! Having found it by accident (as usual) this wonderful place is on the corner of the old town opposite the Revolution Museum. With wholesome, modern dishes, great service and an old fashioned terraced dining room crammed with B&W photos and antiques, it is a very welcoming space and the food is fantastic! FYI: The lamb shoulder and pork ribs are the bomb, but the servings are enormous and it is $$$!

Interior of Ivan Justo
The Lamb!

Restaurant Antojos: Situated down a lively side street strung with twinkling lights, this fabulous tapas bar is a must! Busy, loud and with footpath dining, we just had to try it and the staff are unbelievable! Relaxed, helpful and efficient, I think they would even build you a table if one wasn’t available! There are a handful of tapas style dishes on the menu and are larger sized. Everything was delicious, the presentation contemporary, and the atmosphere electric! We even received complimentary cigars and a nip of 12 year old rum with the bill! FYI: I recommend eating Ropa Vieja, the most popular dish in Cuba. (We tried many versions of this dish during our stay and all were fantastic.)

Ropa Vieja

Van – Van: This squashy, boisterous, turquoise coloured bistro and bar, around the corner from La Bodeguita, is an institution in Havana. Packed to the rafters with diners and drinkers, and offering simple, homestyle Cuban fare it is worth a visit! With a great atmosphere and casual attitude, this no fuss, quirkily decorated place is a fun way to meet locals over a mojito and a cigar! FYI: It has the HUGEST ladies bathroom I’ve ever encountered!

Doña Blanquita Paladar: MB and I found this little gem on a cold, dreary day, whilst whizzing past on the scooter! They say ‘blue and green should never be seen’ but if it wasn’t for this striking colour combo, we would never have noticed it! On the opposite side to Ivan Justo, this restaurant is decked out like a child’s crayon box and is bright, happy and cosy all at once! Slightly old fashioned and dusty with tinny music (but that’s part of the charm), it had a lovey waiter, tasty food, good wine and a view! What more could you want on a rainy day in Havana? FYI: Have the slow cooked beef in red wine and vinegar! Melt in the mouth magic!

Doña Blanquita

El Dandy: This is a very small, funky little bar that is open all day and night, and just happened to be down the street from both the apartments that we rented AND right across from WIFI park! High five! With a blackboard menu offering everything from big breakfasts to tantalising tapas and a large selection of cocktails, it is a real local find. The hip staff are as cool and laid back as the fresh juices they squeeze to order and it is the best spot for a night cap and to meet other like minded Havana groupies!

El Dandy

We sampled MANY different restaurants and bistro’s in Havana, and the food ranged from just ok to superb. Some Cuban food is quite plain and repetitive (red cuban rice, plantain and banana chips are offered with everything) and lobster is another very popular dish here as well. But you have to try them all to find the best and the journey was always fun. Expect the unexpected and you won’t be disappointed!

THINGS TO DO AND SEE: With Havana’s tumultuous communist background, iconic characters and legendary symbolic items, sightseeing has to be high on your agenda whether you are a history buff, hopeless romantic or a nostalgia novice. This town is overrun with museums, cultural sights and has interesting information leaping out at you from all angles. Some of the most popular places we chose to see are as follows:

Hemingway Museum: Known as Finca Vigia, visiting the magnificent home of Ernest Hemingway was an ultimate ‘tick the box’ moment for me as I am a huge fan of this somewhat enigmatic author and, being a rookie writer myself, I felt compelled to get up close and personal to this genius, brute of a man. His estate is about 20 minutes out of Havana, and is set in tranquil leafy surrounds, just perfect for penning Nobel prize winning novels. Costing 5CUC per entry, you cannot go inside the house itself but can peer voyeuristically through the doors and windows into a home that has remained relatively untouched for over 50 years. It’s wonderful and to be near the famous typewriter where some of these influential works were tapped out gave me goosebumps. To wander the grounds of this beautiful colonial abode, to feel the energy and gain a glimpse into Hemingway’s, at times, turbulent life, was a highlight of my visit to Havana.

Me outside Hemingway's House
The famous typewriter where magic was made

Cigar Factory: Now, regardless if you are a lover or hater of these tightly bound, expertly hand rolled bunches of tobacco leaves, a stop in at the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagàs is an educational way to spend a morning. Being the oldest working cigar factory in Havana, (of which there are 7 and 47 total in Cuba), it is a short walk from the main area of the old town, and is hard to miss as it is coloured bright blue. Gorgeous inside and still producing the world famous Habanos cigars such as: Cohiba, Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta, your guide will take you to visit the main factory floor where the magic is created, chat to the workers and get a first hand lesson in cigar making! You can even take photos and buy some just rolled Romeo y Julieta cigars directly from the artisan finisher in an ‘under the table’ type of agreement for half the price they would cost in the boutique! Love this style of transaction! Costing 10CUC per person it was slightly overpriced but we had a 15min private tour, was ultra informative, extremely interesting AND we bought contraband! A great way to pass the day I must say! FYI: There is a boutique next door which sells all kinds of rum, cigars and various smoking paraphernalia. You are encouraged to puff away and sample some rum at your leisure and just soak up the essence of Cuba!

Cigar Factory

Havana Club Rum Museum: What is Havana without rum? This honey coloured spirit curses through the veins of Cuba and its people and there is not a minute in Havana where you are not reminded of this. The familiar red and yellow motif is plastered everywhere and bottles of this liquid gold are for sale on literally every street corner, shop and boutique and, at times, it’s even easier to buy than water! The factory is located along the main street just across from the cruise terminal and set in a magnificent colonial stye building. Tours are run in different languages every 30 minutes and takes around 1hr from start to finish. Whether or not you are a rum aficionado, it is wonderfully informative and gave us a new insight into the humble beginnings and cultural importance of this famous distilled alcohol. The ‘lecture’ was delivered in a hilarious upbeat fashion where you are shown a succinct short film, followed by a brief run down of production techniques and history and then (the best part) actual rum tastings in the cellar amongst the oak barrels! I urge you to do it, it was a fun afternoon! FYI: The best thing I took away from this was the meaning behind the superstition of the ‘throwing some rum on the floor’ when each new bottle is opened. It is to please and feed the spirits. And guess what? At every bar in Havana, this ritual is still performed today.

Interior of Rum Museum

Museum of the Revolution: With Cuba being renowned for its hard communist exterior, dictatorships and violent history, The Museum of the Revolution, housed in the old Presidential Palace, factually explains the tragic in-depth story of the Cuban Revolution and its involvement in the Cold War. Actual documentation and excerpts (Fidel Castro’s famed hat is even on display) are thoughtfully arranged throughout and the trials and triumphs of this violent time in Cuba’s history is respectfully represented. Once outside, you can marvel at Che Guevara’s boat and the large display of war torn cars, planes and machinery. It was a sobering walk through for both of us and a reminder of the more sombre side to the warm Cuban smile. FYI: The displays are surrounded and guarded by military personnel, so touching them is prohibited.

The House of Che: Across from the old town and accessible by ferry is Casablanca. A full blown military zone, this large residential area is yet another interesting part of Havana. With distinctly Moroccan style architecture, ancient fort, a ginormous statue of Jesus and the stark, former military home of Che Guevara, it is a fun packed day out and about! With so much to see you need to spend some time to fully appreciate all Casablanca has to offer. Another large display of missiles, guns and army related vehicles are stationed here, so it’s a bit of a ‘boys toys’ playground! FYI: When you are ‘history-ed’ out, take a breath and recover at La Divina Pastora, an excellent restaurant which overlooks the sea and has the best views of Havana.

Casablanca

BEACHES: With all this history and education, drinking rum and eating, a day at the beach is well deserved and Havana has one right on her doorstep! Playas del Este and in particular Playa Santa Maria del Mar is a short 30 minute ride/drive out of town. Set on the Atlantic Ocean, her turquoise warm water and golden sand is like something from a tropical island pamphlet! Inundated on Sundays with locals and tourists, I recommend going mid week if you in search of a calmer vibe. Beach chairs and umbrellas can be rented for the day at 3CUC pp and a few restaurants are nearby on the street if you wish to partake in a leisurely lunch when the munchies hit. Beach vendors parading the sand sell everything from bags of crisps to cuban straw hats (a steal at 5CUC each), rum filled coconuts (Coco-Loco) guava filled pastries and hot fresh tamales! If you’re lucky, one of the restaurant waiters might even shake you up a potent, creamy Piña Colada to sip on whilst basking in the Cuban sun! Heaven!

Veradero is a popular resort area on the Hicacos Peninsula approximately 2.5 hrs drive from Havana. Known for its pristine beaches and all-inclusive resorts it is crowded with tourists all hankering after that perfect holiday haven. The small one street town in Veradero is lovely and quaint and accommodation here is available everywhere from rooms by the sea to small family run boutique hotels. There are many different restaurants and bars to choose from and it comes to life at night! Scooters are also available to rent here which gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace. It is a worth the drive for a lovely lounge by the sparkling, azure waters edge or to stay for a couple of days to escape the city stress.

Me on the Piaggio scooter in Veradero
Restaurant in Veradero

ACCOMMODATION: I encourage you to forgo the hotels if you come to Havana. Holidaying in this lovely part of the world wouldn’t have been the same if we hadn’t rented an apartment. Being able to have our own area in a beautiful house in the heart of old Havana town made the entire trip worthwhile. Our one bedroom space at Casa Placeres & Gomez (Airbandb) was basic but perfect! From the original Spanish – tile inlayed floors in every room to the long wrought iron private balcony and tiny kitchen, we felt totally at home, welcome and safe at all times. For a truely authentic experience, stay in one of the many Casa Particulars or Casa Colonials. Many of these establishments are run by the family, the homes being passed down through generations. Most offer breakfast at a cost if you desire and the hosts actually reside on the premises. We rented a room for a week during our trip and it was professional, clean and utterly gorgeous. Our hostess was lovely as nothing was ever too much trouble, and the location was ideal!

Inside our house
View from our balcony

So when you eventually visit this wonderful city, allow the warmth, passion, enthusiasm and generosity of the Cuban people, inviting you into their homes and lives, engulf you and ignite the flame of this new found latino love affair. I think I have left a piece of my ❤ in the Heart of Havana…

“In order to write about life, first you must live it”…Ernest Hemingway

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