Cuba, when you arrive to the airport, the hot weather embrace you in the row till the passport control. You are already exited to see how it is in the reality, if all the stories people tell you to about the magic of this place are true or not. It is magic or it is only a decadent place stopped in the ’60?
You looked many pictures at home trying to imagine how it is the legendary place you want to visit from all your life. When you are there, it seems all strange at the beginning. No advertising, no malls, long row out of the shops to buy food and alcohol, nothing that remember you the west world from where you came. For the time I passed on the island I forgave every truth or certainty, I had at home. Leave every prejudice you have and start to think and live different as it is always the last happy moment of your life!
It is poetry, happiness, passion. It is the fire that moves you around the island and the capital, one of the most beautiful places I was. Difficult to express through words, easy emotions to live when you are there.
After a while, you understand that it is not the time that stops but is the life itself. Locals have different opinion about that, “it is a good thing, we won’t change!” or “we want the progress”.
Cuba is salsa, is pina colada on a beach. Cuba is a child without his toys, is a smile that invites you to dance. Cuba is a broken bus , a train that never stops, the smell of cigars, the taste of rum, the rhythm of a vibrant music.
I decided to write now this article, aware that things are changing and I don’t know where Cuba will be in 5 years from now. It will be the island still a paradise? A place where you can live easily? Where the passion moves everything and not the consumption? I have many questions inside me on Cuba, and nothing more the time will give me answers.
The people are unique and you need to speak with them to understand their story and what they passed to become what they are, the convictions and the dreams they have, the way they live their life and more….
Each part of the island is a world, a different one, but dancing, smiling with a passion that comes from inside their hearts is part of each Cuban I met.
The best way to start discover this world is walking around, talking with people and drinking with them good Rum, maybe dancing gin small tiny place with live music that bring you in the dream of Cuba.
Remember that at that time the currency where two…… one for tourist and one for local. You had to be sly to know it!
So let’s talk about Havana, the capital city…
One of the first thing I did and the most romantic in Havana is going to see the Malecón at Sunset.
The Malecón is a long, historical road that separates the city of Havana from the blue ocean. For decades, Cubans have been there searching for a beautiful girl to fall in love with! I have to say not only couples but also families and group of friends go to the Malecón to talk and drink!
Many locals go there during the night to drink and socialize because it’s cheap and of course it is not an expensive club. At the sunset it is a majestic sight to go. The colors are incredible, yellow turn in red and pink before the sun disappears under the buildings, a truly spectacular show!
Close to the Malecon you can also walk through the Cuban Missile Crisis Tunnels. Standing at the edge of Hotel Nacional — you see people starting to line up and the Cuban Missile Crisis tunnels are under their feet!
After you’re done enjoying your mojito in the garden of Hotel Nacional, take a little stroll to the far right corner and look for the signs, and tunnels where the Cuban Missile Crisis missiles were once set up and aimed directly at the U.S. It’s crazy to think that an island in the Carribean almost went up against the U.S. in what would have been a World War III!
Please if you can, ride a 1950’s Convertible car! One of the biggest trademarks of Cuba is its amazing collection of antique cars from the 1950’s. Many people still use them for everyday use, but most of them are used as taxis or private cars that you can ride. They will try to overcharge you at the airport and all around the city, so please bargain all the time you want to take one! It will be cheaper (around 10 CUC) and they will likely be willing to wait for you places, and will come get you whenever you call them!
You need to walk around Havana Vieja, the most touristic part of the city. The old Havana is today a renovated areas. It’s a “touristy area” with a lot of new hotels, restaurants, landmarks, etc. You can see the famous capitol building, walk around the cobblestone streets, and check out one of the many restaurants or little souvenir shops that are on every block. Close to here there is also a nice fresh fruit market. You’ll see tons of little fruit markets around the city, so if you want a fresh piece of mango or watermelon, be sure to stop in these open market not in a touristic bar. At the time I visited Cuba, they accepted only Cuban pesos, not the Cuban Convertibles (CUCs) a tourist was used to using — 25 pesos = 1 CUC. So I had to search a change money and I enjoyed it!
If you continue walking, you find also the craft markets with all of the little souvenirs you see in the tourist shops, but all in one place. Here you can also bargain for a deal.
Deeper into the city there is Centro Havana, an area that is most densely populated with locals. Like most things in Cuba, the buildings are the originals from the 1950’s and earlier, however, there was no money to keep them maintained or restored. Currently they started to renew also this part of the city. But still, the buildings are crumbling and decrepit looking, as I loved. This is part of Havana charm.
Another nice neighborhood is Vedado. It is full of “casa particular”, so you can see mansion after mansion along the street. There your mind can start to dream about who lived there before the revolution.
People told me it was where mafia and mob leaders from the U.S., plantation owners, and even the Bacardi family lived there when Batista was in power and Havana was the “Las Vegas of the Carribean”. Now, multiple families live in these old mansions. No one pays rent. The government decides to assign the families to homes depending on the family size and where they are originally from.
Another must in Havana is Dancing, Dancing and still dancing! Cubans love to dance not only during the night but also during all the day. Therefore, there is always a live band and everyone dancing salsa!
If you want real, authentic Cuban nightlife, head over to Casa de la Musica in Miramar — just west of Vedado and close by the Tropicana. The young locals go to dance here live salsa or reggae music, but it is also the place where the tourists go to dance so it is a bit expensive if oyu want to drink.
Live another Havana
If you want to see also the normal Havana you can start discovering the Young Artists’ Movement at Fabrica de Arte. The place is awesome. Fabrica de Arte is essentially an art gallery that is built inside of an old olive oil factory.
It has two floors plus an additional back area made from cargo containers. On the first floor there is a bar, artwork and a live band playing, and upstairs is more art. Out back is a patio where most people lounge and hang out, then back downstairs out back is a little “food truck” type thing made from one of the cargo containers with modern Cuban cuisine.
Another good thing to do to discover Havana is to practice Spanish & English with locals. Many Cubans want to learn English. Spanish in Cuba is important to talk with people, hardly anyone speaks English. A few people, especially younger ones can speak a little. We talk fast for them to be able to understand!
To live the history of the city , you need to visit the Four Plazas of the Revolucion. The giant Che tribute is one of the first Revolucion memorials you’ll see when you arrive in Havana. There are four different plazas with statues dedicated to memorials of the Revolucion leaders, but they’re spread out all over Havana, so you either have to take a taxi to go to each one.
Out of the city!
If you are tired of walking, the day after you can pass a perfect day at Santa Maria beach to relax! You can go there with a simple bus as Cubans do, paying 1 CUC. When you arrive in front of you there is a beautiful white-sandy beach and clear-blue waters about 20 minutes from Havana Vieja. I spent a day there exploring and lounging in the sun! There you can also have an Authentic Cuban Meal (you won’t have a choice). I hope you like Cuban food because otherwise you might starve in Cuba. Your typical Cuban meal will consist of a meat (usually chicken, beef, fish, or shrimp) with a heaping side of rice and beans, plantains, and a salad of cucumbers and cabbage. If you stay in a casa particular, you’ll likely have the option to pay the people who own it a little extra to cook for you as well. Try also food from the local vendors and food stands like empanadas and croquettas!