Havana. The bustling epicenter of The Republic of Cuba. The energy is chaotic, the air is filled with the perfume of gasoline, pumped into the air from the “Yank Tanks” that chug by on cobbled streets and past colorful buildings. Havana. A city preserved through revolution, sanctions, UNESCO and an industry driven almost exclusively by tourism.
Plaza de la Revolucion
Ché and Fidel look over the Plaza de la Revolucion with words echoed on propaganda posters across the country “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” – “Until Victory Always!” says Ché, whilst Fidel offers a simple “Vas Bien Fidel” – “You’re doing Fine Fidel”.
Old Havana. Picturesque buildings, and occasionally, simply facades of buildings, stand restored to their former glory thanks to millions of dollars of investments from the government and UNESCO (Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight). Hoards of classic cars line up to take tourists for a ride along the sea front. Every turn is laden with history, spanning from colonial times to the first revolution, to the second.
It’s in old Havana where the tourists, evidently us included, can snap their pretty pictures (it’s nay impossible to take a bad picture). With these pictures we broadcast our own form of propaganda back to the rest of the world. Sharing this city, paused in time, that’s open for your business.
We were warned before we left that food, in Cuba, left a lot to be desired. Official restaurants are state run and quite basic. Over the past decade the rules have loosened, and private businesses have been allowed to emerge out of private homes. Some homes open up rooms like a bed and breakfast, and others, like the Vista del Mar in Mirimar, Havana, open up their kitchen. These are the best places to eat in Cuba – and we stuck to them the vast majority of the time – and, as a result, we rarely had a bad meal.
The house which house Vista de Mar, is resplendent with it’s own pool, facing out to the ocean, it must have been an extremely glamorous residence pre-Revolution. Now it serves as a bar and restaurant serving local dishes and specializing in seafood.
Lunch averaged out at around $13.50 not including drinks, pricey for Cuba, but worth it for the view. The delicious cocktails were around $3 each.
A hidden gem in Old Havana, this home to the traditional graphic arts is a must see. The shop was established by Cuban artist Orlando Suárez and Chilean painter José Venturelli. They use old printing stones and machinery originally designed for cigar decorations and work in lithography and woodcuts.
Downstairs you can watch the artists and students at work and upstairs prints are available for purchase. a large, full size print runs at around $300.
Old Havana: Un-Restored
Away from the bustle of the tourists, off the main drag, the streets narrow and Old Havana becomes, well, older. The tourists are less interested in these dilapidated buildings that have yet to catch the eye or the budgets of the government and UNESCO but the sights are charming nonetheless and a photographer in search of some #ruinporn can have a field day.
Habana 1791 is a relic of the Cuban perfume making past. Part apothecary, part lab. part museum, part shop. A customer can choose from one of the 12 scents, including the national flower, the mariposa. They bottle on the premises, in a bottle of your choice, and are also open to blending a custom scent for you.
Almacenes de San Jose
The Port of Havana is home to Almacenes de San Jose, a large warehouse filled with vendors it’s a one stop shop for souvenirs. For what it lacks in authenticity it makes up for in variety and sheer hustle. You can pick up authentic crafts from all over Cuba, woven and leather purses, art and linens are all available but they’re hidden amongst the “CUBA!” t-shirts and other knick-knacks which the vendors are dying to sell you.
Centro Parc is a central hub of Old Havana, home the National Theatre, the Capitol Building and, of course, a park. The park hosts music, dancing and a group of guys who stand around debating baseball.
Hotel Ambos Mundo: Hemingway’s Home Away from Home
Hemingway famously took his Mojito at Bodegita del Medio and his Daiquiri at Floridita but when he needed to sleep them off, he did so at the Hotel Ambos Mundo. The hotel boasts a beautiful rooftop view and both the Mojitos and the Daiquiris are delicious.
More on Cuba to follow, in the meantime, if you haven’t already, please read these thoughts on the trip here.