We flew in to Havana at night with lightning illuminating the clouds around us, letting us know we had officially entered the tropics. Usually I’m not a fan of arriving in a new place at night because it’s a time you might see it’s dirtier dodgier side but driving through Havana at night was a great introduction to the city. There was such an energy about it and these beautiful buildings were lit up on the corners of palm tree-lined cobbled streets – amazing!
We were staying at Casa Pedro-Maria in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) which was absolutely stunning. It was one of the most expensive places we stayed but we had decided we wanted to land somewhere comfortable that wouldn’t overwhelm us – it was $80 per room per night. There was a spiral staircase in the courtyard where we had our breakfasts that brought you to the rooftop of the Casa. Here you could sip on your breakfast smoothie with a view of the Revolution Museum and the surrounding terracotta roofs- not a bad start to the day!
On our first day we took a bus tour through the city although we didn’t get much use out of the guide – the speakers weren’t working so we couldn’t hear a thing from upstairs. It was only $2 for the tour though and it was a great way to find our bearings and get our first taste of the Caribbean sun. Think we drank about 2L of water on the bus tour alone because it was so hot!
We went straight to the San José markets after to purchase the obligatory Cuban military cap for Andrew to protect his head. This is a good place to pick up some souvenirs for home but I found it to be the most commercial part of Cuba. I preferred picking up little things across the whole trip like cigars from the tobacco fields (although I didn’t buy enough!).
We were coaxed in to the La Familia restaurant on our first night which was a very lovely paladar on a terrace. It was a bit on the pricey side for Cuba – I think the whole meal cost about $20 but the live music was fantastic and the portions were massive. With full bellies we strolled to O’Reilly 304 – how typical of the Irish to be drawn to a bar with an Irish name. This bar was very very cool, it felt like we were in a major metropolitan city and they served the most delicious cocktails. It was a great place to meet people too and get tips on where to find great places to carry on the night.
The following day it was raining which was a nice relief from the scorching sun and allowed for us to escape inside to the Revolution Museum. The building used to be the Presidential Palace and you can view the original office and the escape route Batista took when he fled the rebels in 1957. The scars from the bullets can be seen dotted around the Museum as a physical reminder of the the building’s past.
The dilapidated museum was impressive although we should’ve taken an English tour because some of the notices weren’t translated. It’s definitely a worthwhile visit and to have the opportunity to be in the rooms where Cuba was reformed by Castro and Guevara was pretty special.
After the museum we took a walking tour of Habana Vieja courtesy of the Lonely Planet guide we borrowed from the Casa and explored the many many plazas. The buildings are so beautiful and look completely battered by the salty sea air and years of neglect. Everyone seems to live on the streets, sitting on their doorsteps and balconies shouting out to one another and buying food from the mobile vendors. The buzz is incredible and welcoming although sometimes too welcoming. Another little tip: you will be harangued by jineteros trying to sell tickets to a “big festival” – it’s a massive con and you will hear it every day you’re in Havana.
On our way back to the Casa we stumbled upon the Havana Club museum. Andrew’s staple booze at home is Havana Club rum with coke and lime so he was beyond excited about visiting this place. While we waited for the tour to start, we sat in the bar and had a few Cuba Libres and mojitos. There was a full salsa band playing and I felt I was very much in Cuba. I got pulled up by the band and learned how to salsa in dungarees, extremely embarrassing but very entertaining for Andrew. It was a fantastic tour although after all the cocktails my memory gets a bit hazy!
That night we ate pizza in a little place close to our Casa (unfortunately I forget the name!). The tables were out on the cobbles and we ate the most delicious bruschetta. After the food and avoiding a few overly friendly cats at the table, we headed for La Floridita – the supposed birthplace of the Daiquiri. Hemingway is boasted as being a frequent customer to the bar and it seems insistent on clinging on to that era. The air is thick with cigar smoke when you enter and the band are crammed in to a tiny corner by the door. The whole bar looks like a set from a movie and it could be viewed as slightly cheesy but we loved it.
After our last night in Havana we were destined for Viñales. We arrived back for one more night before our flight home and stayed with Casa Isel e Ilena. Isel was such a lovely woman and the private room had it’s own bathroom and balcony. It was a great chance to experience the loud streets of Habana Vieja one last time and we had the biggest breakfast with her at 4am before our flight home. We would definitely recommend staying with her however our limited Spanish meant we couldn’t understand most of what she said BUT she told the greatest stories with actions that made us laugh so much. She was the best host to give us a farewell from Cuba and it made it that bit harder to leave.