We landed and crossed the immigration with an excitement pulsing through. As we waited outside for our friends to land from US, we realised our phones were not going to work. We were not going to find a way, at least not easily, to get a local sim. People didn’t necessarily speak English and we didn’t speak Spanish. So the excitement was soon starting to resemble anxiety. But our friends landed and soon as we started driving to the centre of Havana were our Air BnB was the sense of excitement peaked. Any doubts I may have harboured an hour ago seemed to vanish into the salty air of this charming costal city.
Cuba was on our bucket list for at least a decade and we made it happen. We were going to be spending 8 days in Cuba. We were going to be spending most of the time in Havana and do a road trip to Trinidad and Vinales. Beach resorts didn’t hold too much appeal and we thought we might do that if we don’t like the feel of the cuban capital. But boy, did we like Havana or what. The city has many things going for it.
These are my reasons why Havana is a must do for anyone who loves exploring city and culture as a part of their travels. The cliches that spring to mind when one mentions Havana can’t be helped. But these cliches also don’t do justice to why Havana is a must visit
So my top reasons to pack your bags and go to Havana
The vibe of the city is unlike any you would experience anywhere in the world. Like other cities Havana has a few different parts that can be contrasting but one thing they all have in buckets is character. The music pouring in from the transistors of old men, smoking their cigars, having a glass of rum, smiling cheekily at you.
The music blaring from speakers of the younger boys, flirting cheekily with girls. Young men, old men, young women, old women, boys and girls showing of their moves (and boy everyone can move!) anywhere and everywhere. You see them swaying, practising their rumba or jiving in the streets, in the bars, in the flee markets or along the Malecon. The vibe is infectious to a great degree and if you don’t sway a little yourself by the end of the road, you need to get your eyes and ears checked.
And yet, it is the safest city in the world. No kidding. You could walk out, drunk and roam around the city at any hour of the night and you would be safe. Especially for a tourist, Havana is safer than most cities in the world. Reason is simple (even if a little sad!) people don’t want to get into trouble. The fear factor from the dictatorial government plays a huge part in this.
2) Walking the old town
The old town of Havana is filled with interesting colonial buildings in different stages of their lives. Some look long forgotten, some are bursting with life even if the plaster is falling to pieces. Some have broken doors whilst others have old men hanging out having cigars. Kids are playing football on the streets and they would cheekily aim the ball right at you. A peddler even tried selling some stuff to my friend (despite his many protestations, he does look the type) in one of those streets. As you wander through these roads by foot, you could spend hours just staring at these buildings, imagining the stories they hold in them. Your hands might be more sore than your feet, especially if you are an over enthusiastic trigger happy person. I am not and yet I came back with more pictures than I did in many of my other holidays.
3) Rum and Rum
The innumerable bars, from small dingy shady ones selling you a fruit forest in your drink to some really fun eclectic ones to some really classy ones. You do want to go to some of the famous ones, all of them staking claim to some or other to do with Hemingway. Granted they are tourist traps and over priced and you get better Daiquiris in some of the less cliched bars. But its still worth a stop I’d say, even if you skip the expensive drinks just to hang out and taken in the atmosphere of these famous bars.
4) National Buildings and Museum
Visiting some of the old hotels and marvelling at the architecture. Whilst at the National Hotel playing the image of the era gone by not so long ago, of the mafia bosses conferencing there and the famous people looking of their rooms over to the famous Malecon.
I am not a hardcore museum person but I do visit them to get a general idea about the culture of the place. The Museum of Revolution was an interesting stop, giving a brief overview of Cuban Revolution. Whatever your politics maybe, whether you consider Che Guevara a hero or a terrorist, whether are pro or anti capitalism and how ever much you might hate dictatorial government, this museum helps you get a brief sense of the times of revolution which you can take to the bar for a discussion later that evening.
5) Cars. Cars. Cars.
Need I say more? Even for a non-automobile person like me, the charm of driving around in those brightly coloured 50s and 60s Russian and American cars was a fun experience unlike any other. We drove around in open roofed and closed mustangs and we did almost all coloured cars – pink, yellow, red, white and Blue, Black. The drive along the Malecon on one of these babies around sunset is something I would love to do again and again. They are not comfortable for long distance travel as we found out the hard way but hey, its not everyday you are travelling in a 60s Russian Volga(?).
6) Art & Music
Art, Music and Culture scene in Havana is magical in its own right. There are such fantastic clubs playing such fantastic music, cheap alcohol that you can dance your heart out into the night and into the morning and into the afternoon and never stop. There is party everywhere. I put a picture up on Instagram and I was immediately invited to a secret roof top terrace pre new year eve’s party (on the 30th!) nearby.
And its not about the party to, art, music and culture are completely intrinsically linked in this city and its a part of the fabric of their daily life. You won’t find better proof for that than walking on one of the centre most streets Obispo or in the wildly popular and wildly wild Fabrica De Arte – a cuban art factory that gets converted into a night club.
And if you are really really into art, try not missing the beautiful Callejon De Hamel. You see art in so many forms, experience rumba and might get to see the man who brought this street to life himself. A guided walking tour of the history of the city or the art in the city is well worth in Havana.
Havana is reason enough in my mind to fly to Cuba. But when there, especially if you are not sure you are likely to visit again, I would add a few more days to my itinerary.
The drive to the country side of Vinales gave us a different flavour of Cuba. When in Vinales, we chatted with the locals, sat on the open roof terrace of our hosts house drinking into the night chatting with friends. That is at the end of a hard day (!) at a local farm/factory where the cuban cigars are rolled. Dip your cigar in the rum and take deep and slow drags as you sit and play a game of chess. You might feel like you know Che Guevara deeply and personally or like me you might end up feeling like you are him as your ride on your horse into the sunset. Well not quite, but you get the picture and it gets as close to that picture as possible.
A visit to Trinidad is interesting in its own right. Arriving in Trinidad, you get the vibe that you have wandered into a painting. A town where time literally seems to have stopped at least 7 decades ago. You walk the town and at every nook and corner you enjoy the sights of beautiful colonial houses. Sitting on the stairs of the Plaza Mayor at sunset watching the horse carts drive by, music playing in the background, you really wonder if time is slowly freezing. Yes the plaza comes to life with absolute energy at night with crowds trying their moves to Rumba. Its an atmosphere you don’t want to miss.
Here’s hoping you get to experience Havana and Cuba soon. There’s so much more to say about this place but I will leave it with a message from Cuba, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.” – Oscar Wilde