The Travel 2
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Cuba’s capital is nothing short of exciting. It is bold and grand, yet sometimes bizarre. We visited Havana after an eight-day itinerary around Cuba, and spent a total of 5 days in the capital.
We arrived in Cuba after a two-day stay in Santa Clara. From our casa particular in Santa Clara, we got a bici-taxi to get us to the main Viazul bus station in town. From there, we then got a Viazul bus. We booked the Viazul trip online, about a month before we left for Cuba. In the end, we realised that this was unnecessary because we could have just gotten a taxi collectivo. We were even more bummed after realizing that our three and a half hour long journey was going to be anything but comfortable. It might have been that we happened to catch the bus with the busted air con for the day, or maybe we were just tired. The journey from Santa Clara to Havana was easily our worst transport experience in Cuba, but then again this is our personalexperience.
Upon arrival in Havana’s main Viazul bus terminus, we went outside the terminus and got a taxi collectivo – which took us to our casa particular in Havana.
All of our hosts in Cuba were welcoming, but Dayami – our host in Havana, was hands down, the best. Her apartment is in a less touristy part of Havana. Living there for 5 days was an eye opening experience, to say the least. With Dayami we discussed politics, shared left over food from the day before, danced and sang to Cuban music together at 2 in the afternoon, did our laundry, were emotional when we bid farewell, and lived with her family as Cubans ourselves.
Apart from immersing ourselves in the Cuban life, here are the top 8 things we enjoyed doing in Havana, as tourists.
1. Museo de la Revolucion
This is a big museum that depicts the revolutionary and communist wars in Cuba. Getting an audio guide is much better than roaming the halls alone, especially if you do not understand Spanish.
The museum gives proper details on the communist war, Batista’s regime, Fidel and Che’s alliance, and the embargo. Finally, there’s an outdoor showcase of weaponry, war transportation, and Granma, the famous ship that got Fidel and Che back on the island after their exile ordered by Batista’s regime.
2. The Plazas
Havana’s squares are remarkable and are a beautiful example of colonial architecture. Amongst the most famous squares there are:
Plaza de la Catedral
Plaza de Armas
3. Hotel Inglaterra
Apart from the Malecon, this is another place where you could come and pick a vintage car to cruise in for the day. You’d be spoilt for choice!
The hotel is a must-see because it is grand and magnificent. White marble replaces the common use of paint on walls, and chandeliers are in every hall, restaurant and corridor of the hotel. The roof of the hotel is converted into a lovely bar. Hotel Inglaterra is where we spent our Havana nights dancing salsa. We would go on the rooftop’s bar to drink a couple of mojitos and enjoy live Cuban music!
4. Hotel Nacional
Apart from visiting Hotel Inglaterra, we also suggest a visit to Hotel Nacional. This is the biggest hotel in all of Cuba. Its palace-like façade and front gardens are truthful to the hotel’s attire, and the hotel keeps up its grandeur on the inside.
You might ask; “Why do I need to visit a hotel?” We asked the same question, and it was a queer feeling for us because in all our travels we never set aside an hour or two to go hotel hopping. The moment we stepped foot in Hotel Nacional (which in my opinion does look and feel more expensive than Hotel Inglaterra), our question was answered. It is like no hotel we have seen before, and I guess it is only because it is government owned (or because we do not really stay in hotels when we travel! Who knows?). All celebrities, head of states and important people that visit Cuba stay in this hotel since it is renowned as the crème de la crème of hotels in Cuba.
We recommend paying the small fee (of around €5) that would get you access to the hotel’s gardens, with superb views of the Malecon, and a free cocktail from the hotel’s private bar.
Fact: In 2017, all hotels in Cuba are still government owned.
5. The beach
I have mentioned Cuban beaches quite a few times in my blogs. To my defence, coming from an island with beautiful beaches, both of us found Caribbean beaches exquisite. The white stretches of sand, the amazing snorkelling spots, and cheap coconuts and piña coladas made us want to go again and again.
Getting to the beaches is an easy task. Wait at the bus stop opposite Hotel Englaterra. Several buses pass by this point. You should ask for the bus that goes to the beaches. Buy the ticket once you’re on the bus and keep it for the return journey (you pay for 2 ways). The bus stops at different beaches, since they are all quite close to each other. We went to Playa Boca Ciega and were not disappointed!
6. La Torre
A local suggested we visit the Focsa building because of its special views, and he was not wrong. Atop the Focsa building lies La Torre restaurant, exactly at the 36th storey with 360˚ panoramic views of Vedado, an urban neighbourhood outside central Havana.
La Torre is a chic restaurant with stunning city views, but after reading some reviews about the restaurant, we realised that maybe we cannot say the same for the food there. This is why we chose to have a snack and a cerveza, instead of dining there.
We suggest that you visit La Torre after a tour at Hotel Nacional, since they are only a 5-minute walk away from each other.
7. Riding a vintage car
This might be a very touristy and kitschy activity to do; in fact, we left this for our very last day in the city. However, we wish we did this before.
A tour with a vintage car does not only take you along the famous Malecon, but you can also request the driver to stop at other places of interest you wish to see, or ask the driver to take you on his personalized Havana tour. We suggest this tour to everyone visiting the capital. It is something you’ll most probably experience only in Cuba, it is fun, and will get you to see some of the best places in the city, effortlessly.
8. Food in Havana
We felt like comida, i.e. food, deserved a mention in this list. It was definitely something we enjoyed in Havana – from the food stalls, to the cafeterias, bars and restaurants, we did it all, and here is a run-through of our dining experience.
Eating out in Havana was not a big issue since food places are not difficult to find. However, we did find some cultural differences. Some of these were:
- Restaurants do not open till late. On our first day, we were finding it difficult to find a restaurant that would serve us food at 9pm.
- Taking your left overs as take-away is common practice in Havana.
- Booking a table in a restaurant is not the norm. Instead, customers line up outside the restaurant and wait their turn.
- If you do not feel like eating out at a restaurant, you can find these ‘holes’ in the wall serving pizza and other small snacks. These places normally use Pesos as their currency (by default making the food extra cheap!)
Here are the food places we hit while in Havana…
Cervezas y Maltas
We enjoyed a burger and a craft beer at Cervezas y Maltas in Plaza Vieja. This is the only place in this square that opens until late and has its own brewery incorporated within the restaurant. We enjoyed both the food and the beer here.
We did not eat at La Torre, but we did enjoy our small snack. As mentioned before, this is a must-go because of the views, rather than the food.
We stopped at Cafe Habana for a snack. This is a great place to rest from all the walking around the city, take a bite, and find shelter from Cuba’s blistering sun. The place is in calle Mercaderes.
Churrerìas are a thing on the streets of Havana. You will see a number of them here and there, selling chocolate filled happiness (or any other flavour) along the calles.
This particular food market (photo) is 2 minutes away from Plaza Vieja. Go to buy local fresh fruit and vegetables, or simply to have a look.
Nardos was a suggestion of our host, and was again suggested by a local we met at a plaza. On our first attempt to dine there, we arrived at the place at around 20:00 and it was around a two-hour line to get in. We decided to turn up earlier the next day. Our second attempt was a success. We showed up at the restaurant at around 19:00, waited for thirty minutes, and were finally in.
The ambience of the restaurant is worth both the wait, and the walk. Live piano music beautifully fills the candle-lit restaurant, evoking warm, romantic auras.
Nardos is on the first street in front of the Capitolio. The door number is 563. In the building there are three restaurants, and Nardos is the second one, situated on the second floor.
This restaurant is mainly for tourists, and is why you will barely see any locals here. The food is American and so is the restaurant’s attire. We recommend a quick meal here, since we believe there are far better dining experiences in Havana.
Havana was our last stop in Cuba. Our host was kind enough to book a taxi for us to take us to Havana’s airport, where then boarded our plane. Do plan ahead before your flight, and keep in mind traffic, long queues, slow service and bureaucracy.
Two wonderful weeks in Cuba flew by, and we never felt so bummed to be going back home. This was a trip we will never forget for so many different reasons, yet going back is never out of question!