We discovered Havana in two parts – 3 days when we landed and 5 before flying back to the states.
We boarded in Miami for an hour long flight to Havana, but as Sidhika says, it felt like we sat in a time machine instead which took us back at least a 100 years. Most of the cars were from the mid 20th century – the lime green Chevys, the maroon Fords, and the purple Cadillacs.
Most buildings were at least 70-80 years old with no maintenance work done ever. The best way to experience the city is to stay in casas, or the private BnBs, which are in abundance across the city. Everyone talks only in Spanish, period. Colourful clothes hanging in the balconies, proud fat naked men smoking cigars in every nook and corner of the street and music in the air. What you are imagining now, is Cuba. Cent percent.
We stayed at one of the BnBs in central Habana, which is where the real culture resides. Old Habana, a.k.a. Habana Vieja, which has been restored significantly in the last 30 years is the area near the Capitol. A 2-3 km walk around the capitol and you will see innumerable bars, restaurants and palaces. We spent all our time absorbing the culture in these streets. Talking to the locals and sitting at bars with them at Buena Vista made us feel a part of the community. One of the best walks in Havana is the walk along the sea (the Malecon drive) where the walls are not enough to stop the gushing water from the sea to splash on the roads.
After spending three nights in Havana, we drove in a taxi collectivo (shared cab) to Trinidad, the cultural centre of Cuba. From Trinidad to Cienfuegos and then back to Havana.
The second time we were in Havana, Cuba already felt like home to us. Our Airbnb host was better than we could have imagined. He was a young Cuban guy who spoke very fluent English and helped us plan the next 5 days in Cuba the best way possible. He recommended us restaurants which were the real hidden gems. The best breakfast place. Four out of five days we had our breakfast there. He showed us around places to go for lunch, dinner and even the bars which are famous amongst the locals.
We went on a 6 hour walking tour with him and we talked about everything Cuban and everything Indian. It felt like a real exchange of culture in those 6 hours. We talked about what the Cubans feel about their government and the revolution of 1958. We got so intrigued that we bought a book on Cuban history and read through it in the next two days and then discussed more with our host.
When in Havana, there are a few things you just cannot miss. We drove around the city in a pink open air Ford 1956. The drive was more special since it was Sid’s birthday on 7th and this is something she wanted to do since she saw it in one of the Bollywood movies.
The other is the Fabrica de Arte or the Art Museum near Vedado. In a city like Havana which seems to be stuck in some ancient times, this is a museum of the future. The kind of art (paintings, sculptures, music etc.) here shows how open minded Cubans are. The best part of the museum is not just the museum, there is a theatre inside with plays in Spanish and live music performances by different artists. There are 4 bars inside the museum and 3 cafes which serve great food. The museum is open Thurs – Sun, 8 PM onwards and has an entry of 2 CUCs. These were the best 2 CUCs we spent while in Cuba.
Trinidad & Santa Clara
They say that Trinidad went to sleep in 1850s and never really woke up. So true. Horse-ridden carts, people commuting on horses (yes, that’s true) and music in the air. That’s Trinidad for you.
Trinidad was our favourite of the four cities we visited in Cuba. From the most hospitable people, to the best music in the country, Trinidad takes you back in time and makes you wish that the clock never ticks.
Playa Ancor, or the Ancor beach is the best beach on the southern coast of Cuba and just 6 kms away from Trinidad. Our Airbnb host took us around in his old white Peugeot to a few other lesser known beaches as well.
The valley of sugar mills was also close by and it takes you back close to 150 years ago when Cuba was the world’s largest exporter of sugar. The sad part though is that the sweetness of the sugar was at the cost of a million bonded labor or African slaves who were working in the sugar mills in inhospitable conditions. From what we know, the average lifespan of a slave once he started working was not more than 4 years in Cuba. It was cheaper for the masters to get new slaves than to keep them healthy, and hence, as soon as a slave got ill, he was quarantined and thrown away once dead. There is a tree here which is 600 years old and has seen everything from the discovery of Cuba in 1519 to what it is today exactly 500 years later in 2019.
Plaza Mayor is the most happening place in the city with tones of cafes and bars selling Cuba Libre, Mojitos and Daiquiris. Anything with Rum (or Ron in Cuba), in highest probability, the cocktail would have originated in Cuba.
Our Airbnb hosts’, Luis & Taimi, full time profession is to host tourists and take them around in their car as per their itinerary. They drove us from Trinidad to Santa Clara, the city with the mausoleum of Ernest ‘Che’ Guevara. It is a much bigger city than Trinidad but nothing really to see and experience other than the museum of ‘Che’.
This is the city where a lot of Cubans from nearby small towns come to shop for the month, since it has large supermarkets and probably more choice than they usually get in their small towns.
The Santa Clara Boulevard had a few nice bars and restaurants, where we grabbed a quick lunch before we moved to our next city, Cienfuegos.
Cienfuegos, also known as the Paris of Cuba, is also a big city as compared to Trinidad. We stayed here for 2 nights, but it was not even close to as beautiful as Trinidad. Cienfuegos primarily has two things to see as a tourist – Jose Marti Parque and La Punta.
La Punta is small beach cum park cum bar where you can take a swim in the ocean while sipping a glass of pina colada. In fact, this place had the best Pina Coladas we ever had.
After spending two nights here, we took a taxi collectivo (shared cab) from Cienfuegos back to Havana. (Cost: 20 CUCs per person)