Is Havana calling to you in your dreams that way it did to me? –It’s enchanting legacy and colorful antique cars vividly mezmorizing you as you sway like a palm tree to the sounds of the Buena Vista Social club ?
The Havana that I crossed off my bucket list a few months ago was a crumbling version of the grandeur I am imagined, but enchanting all the same. If you dream of seeing the Havana of yesteryear, don’t wait. Change is quickly brewing.
Here’s my recommendation for what not to miss…
Stay at the ridiculously cheap Casa Blanca. Though you most likely will wake up with a slight back ache, the place is magically white from head to toe and the location is not to be beat. Steps from the Malecón, the Casa Blanca’s white curtains dance in its salty wind and you can see the stream of cars missing its frantic waves by millimeters.
The hosts are polite, helpful and an incredible window into true Cuba.
Do not miss making a reservation with Old Car Tours. You can pick the shiniest, most colorful car to match your former dreams. They will pick you up right in front of the Casa Blanca, and the two-hour tour winds across every famed part of the city.
Not only will you look and feel like an incredibly cool celebrity type while cruising down the promenades, but you will be astounded by the colorful diversity that every crook and nanny Havana has to offer.
We had the amazing opportunity to stumble upon a Santería ritual being carried out steps from our car. Fingers crossed that you will too.
After the tour, stop back at the Casa Blanca to recharge your camera and grab some comfortable shoes. Ask the hosts for a handy map and head out into the dusty, decrepit streets pulsating with colorful life.
First stop is Callejón de Hamel. This eclectic street pays homage to Cuba’s African roots. Sculptures and paintings of all sizes and shapes dot the street. Its tiny galleries tell the story of Santería and the whole area is awash with the sights and sounds of Afro-Cuba.
There are a lot of touts in this area and though we were aware of their agendas, one in particular won us over. We treated him to lunch and frankly it was worth every dime. Not only because the ropa vieja was the best thing I ate the entire trip, but the story of his plight was fascinating. If you are lucky to be there on a Sunday, Callejón de Hamel is famed for its Rumba bands.
Full and refreshed, step back out in the bustling sunny streets. Keep one eye on the ground for potholes and one ahead watching for cars racing around the corner.
Keep your camera out and in hand as photo opportunities linger in every crevice of the city–From the buildings of days gone by to the weathered abuelas that seem to be everywhere. Be sure to wander into open doors as you never know what you will find -from an ancient barber shop to an authentic vegetable market reminiscent of the 20’s.
Make your way to the austere Universidad de Havana for a quick photo and then on to the Hotel Nacional.
The eighty-five-year-old Hotel Nacional stands proudly upon a steep hill with magnificent views of the city and the sea. Stop here for one of the only Wi-Fi connected locales in the city as well as an icy cocktail served by a refined tuxedo sporting server.
Let the sun hit your face as you listen to the live band and take in a brief respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Don’t leave without visiting the tunnels from the Cuban Missile Crisis where you undoubtedly step back in time.
For dinner head out to Barrio Viejo where the large plaza welcomes tourist with open arms. (It is one of the only areas in the city with streetlights.) Wander aimlessly until one of the beckoning restaurants calls to you. Stroll by La Bodeguita del Mundo and take a requisite picture at this former stomping ground of Hemmingway.
Finish the night at the only brew house in town. They offer three beers-light, medium and dark. None of which are particularly cold nor tasty but the music and the people watching coupled with the wind in your hair cannot be beat. I can assure you that we laughed-a lot.
What are you waiting for?
“Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”- Mark Twain
Notes: Havana is divided into three zones Vedado, Viejo, and Centro Havana. The Casa Blanca is in Centro Havana.
I can attest that you don’t go to Cuba for its fabulous shopping, but if you are looking for some kitschy things to bring back as gifts, head to the area around the Hotel Inglaterra where there are many kiosks set up.