Our first impression of Cuba was the airport when we arrived in Havana - and oh my goodness what chaos!! From our bags taking an hour to come through, to walking the length of the airport to try and find some customs forms and then finally getting through to find we needed to queue up another hour and a half to use the ATM! I guess this was to prepare us for Cuba’s chaos and super relaxed organization (or barely none at all!).
We quickly learnt that this is just the way of life in Cuba, and if you let it bother you then you will spend the majority of your trip extremely frustrated! Luckily, we discovered that simply sitting down for a mojito somewhere during these frustrating times was the best remedy of all!
We had a total of 12 days in Cuba, so we decided to break our time down into 4 days in 3 places. We chose Havana, Viñales and Trinidad.
This city has an element of mysterious-ness to it. On the surface is a grand display of colorful buildings, well manicured streets and beautiful old style cars, however once you turn a corner it’s like you start to unpeel the layers to discover the ‘real Havana’.
Parts of the old town are well kept for the tourists. The Plaza Vieja (the old square) is surrounded by grandeur buildings and restaurant workers prying the crowds to coax their next cruise ship victim to eat at their establishment. While this part of the town was beautiful, it was an area we mainly avoided. I didn’t travel to Cuba to see the tourist side, I wanted to find the un-filtered version; something that was seeming harder to find. From people I have talked to that have traveled to Cuba years ago, it seems that the change on the country is quite dramatic already. However if you really search deep you can still find some of Cuba’s old style charm. It’s really interesting just to wander the old town and get lost. As we had no internet (a rare luxury here!), we couldn’t rely on Google maps so it made a nice change just to follow our noses. One tip though, definitely make sure you bring a Cuba guide book with you. We were definitely regretting not pre-purchasing one!
Havana definitely has a unique vibe - well this was all of Cuba really! Everyone seems so happy, as if they are celebrating something. Everywhere you turn you hear a different band playing Cuban music, and witness people dancing in the streets. I was amazed about the amount of talent the Cuban people possess. Almost everyone we saw has rythm, can play an instrument and can dance - REALLY well!! I later learnt from our visit to the Revolutionary Museum, that when Fidel Castro came into power he put a lot of emphasis in the importance of the arts in the country. This has definitely paid off as even just walking around you can see the enormous strength of the Cuban arts culture.
Lets just say that you don’t visit Cuba for the food. As my Fiancé is a chef, this is usually something of high importance to him, however I had pre-warned him that we would unlikely find any Michelin Star meals. In the rare case when we did find good food it was like gold-dust, and we appreciated it so much more! After hours of walking around the Old Town we came across a little restaurant called El Dandy. We sipped some delicious mojitos, enjoyed some tacos and admired all the funky art that covered the walls.
In the evening, we drank mojitos on the street and chatted with other travelers in one of Hemingway’s favorite bars La Bodeguita Del Medio. Although touristy, the vibe was pretty lively and the mojitos were delicious.
Our second day in Havana we had booked a tour of the city in an old red 1957 Chrysler - a definite must do when in Havana! We cruised the Malécon (the seaside street), with the roof down listening to Cuban salsa music. One of the most interesting places we saw was a suburb to the west of Havana called Fustertown. I can‘t begin to explain this mesmerizing place, so photos will just have to do.
It was started in one house by an artist called José Roderiguez Fuster. He based his work on a mixture of Picasso and Gaudi. Once he had completed his house, his neighbors started complaining that they would never be able to afford to make their houses look as nice as his, so he used his own money to decorate theirs. This continued until the whole street and other parts of the neighborhood had been completed. What started as a Cuban design project eventually transformed a community. This has a lot to say about the Cuban people and their way of thinking. Even if they have nothing, they will find something to give. We were treated with nothing but the warmest of welcomes. We stayed in Casa Particulares which are like homestays. We were literally taken into strangers homes and treated like royalty. They cooked for us, washed our clothes and were there to offer any advice we needed.
You know how I mentioned the food was terrible in Cuba? Well there were a couple of exceptions on our trip. When we had a good food experience I made sure to note it down so I could share our joy with other travelers. We found this restaurant in a nice part of the old town called Antojos. It has a very hipster vibe with amazing cocktails (you just try the Cubanito!), and I enjoyed a delicious SALAD! This is a rarity in Cuba! While we were sitting in the cobblestone street enjoying our meal, we got handed an invitation for a ‘secret bar’. Our curiosity got the better of us and we HAD to check it out! The invitation gave us no name, just an adress.
When we arrived at the said location we very warily handed over our invitation to some guy standing on the street and he escorted us up some red lit stairs.
We entered into a dark bar lined with benches where other like minded tourists were sitting watching some local Cubans pull out the most amazing salsa dance moves I’ve ever seen! (We later found out they were actually professional dancers hired by the bar to encourage people to stay - tourist trap it may be, but it turned out to be one of the funnest nights of our trip!) We drank mojitos and salsa danced with both the professional dancers and other tourists into the early hours of the morning!
The next day we nursed our hangovers with a day at one of Havana’s closest beaches, El Mégano. A stunning beach lined with Palm trees and the bluest of waters. Unfortunately the shoreline was covered with Blue Bottle Jellyfish which severely discouraged us from swimming in the beautiful sea. It was also sad to see the beach covered with plastic straws!! It seems that Cuba hasn’t quite grasped the concept of reducing plastic consumption. I started picking them up, only to be heartbroken that there were literally thousands along the sand! I guess we can’t solely blame Cuba; I find it quite shocking that some tourists are still ok with leaving their rubbish on the beach!
After 4 days of discovering Havana’s unsuspecting charm, we were excited to see what the rest of Cuba had to offer. Our next stop, the valley of Viñales!