Cuba is unlike any of the countries I have been lucky enough to visit in my life so far. It really is, as they say, stuck in a time warp since the revolution in the 1960s.
Classic American cars from the 1950s rumble along narrow streets lined with faded, old Spanish-colonial style buildings. Couples in bright outfits walk hand in hand along the Malecon watching furious waves hit the sea walls. Ladies with hair in curlers hang washing on clothes lines on elegant but faded balconies. Young boys play baseball or handball in the narrow streets. Old men sit on folding chairs on the street, playing cards on card tables and smoking cigars.
Cuba is on the cusp of change which is a great thing for its wonderful people. But Cuba’s charm as an off-the-beaten-track destination for a traveller may slowly disappear over the next few decades. So if you can, travel there now to see it before it changes too much.
Scroll down for my recommendations on 12 things to see, 2 places to eat, 2 places to stay, 3 things to drink and a note on Wifi.
12 PLACES TO SEE:
On our very first day, we did a Classic Car History Trip Tour with locals Radek and Rafael. We were lucky to be driven around in two different cars (a Lincoln and a Ford Thunderbird) all day and night. They showed us the main sites and the price included coffee breaks, lunch and dinner. The guys were knowledgeable, personable and fun. It was a great way to literally get a lay of the land before figuring out where we wanted to go on our own for the next six days.
2. Climb on board the El Coche Mambi Museum, the luxurious old presidential carriage left in pristine condition.
3. Marvel at the pretty architecture of the Camara de Representatives (the Republic House of Representatives).
4. See a live picture of the city in the Camera Obscura (dark chamber). Here, Leonardo Da Vinci’s optical device reflects the city outside onto a circular table inside. It’s rather amazing!
5. Drink a cup of Cuban coffee at Café Escorial, the best café in the city (in Radek’s opinion) and see how Cuban coffee is made.
6. Wander around the Havana-Club Museum and purchase some goodies (but check the requirements on what you can take back, especially if you are returning via the States).
7. See the Christ of Havana up close, where you also get an amazing view of the city.
8. Stop and take photos of the Plaza de la Revolucion and see giant artworks of the three people who changed the country in the 1960s.
10. Learn some history at the Museum of the Revolution Cuba.
11. Drive a little out of Havana to Ernest Hemmingway’s home, crystallized in time from the 1960s. It was a little eerie but interesting.
12. Walk along the Malecon where you can see locals and tourists watching furious waves crash against the wall.
WHAT AND WHERE TO EAT:
Expect delicious home-style cooking that is value for money with great service (in English). The prices are similar to an average Australian dinner at $20 to $30 per main dish. But the portions are larger and the service is (in my opinion) much better.
The private restaurants (paladares) are much better than the government restaurants and you can use your Lonely Planet guide for recommendations. The cuisines vary and you can find Western, International, Caribbean and even Indian restaurants.
My two restaurant recommendations are:
1. La Guarida, featured in the movie ‘Fresa y Chocolat’. The food was tasty, service was awesome and the location really is rustic. The paladre is inside a run-down building where the owner was born, the interios are dim and the décor is elegant.
2. El Idilio in Vedado, a swanky Havana suburb for some delicious food and great service.
Dishes to try include ropa vieja (slow cooked red meat stewed with peppers, tomatoes, spices and herbs); arroz moro (Cuban black beans with rice) and deep fried plantains.
WHERE TO STAY: The B&Bs are the best options because hotels haven’t been renovated in a very long time so are a little run down.
1. We spent our first few nights at Casavana Cuba in the upper market suburb Vedado. Step out of a rickety old lift on level 5 into a beautiful, light, open and airy apartment with colonial-style bedrooms. Casa owner Anna, her sister and team are lovely and the enormous breakfast for an extra US$25 will fill you up for the entire day. This casa is about a 10 minute cab ride from the sights.
2. We spent the next few nights at Casa Deysi y Adiel in the heart of Havana. The apartment is on the third floor of an apartment block with no elevator and is run by Deysi and her son Adiel. The bedrooms and bathroom were clean and Adiel and his family were really helpful and sweet. The location was walking distance to all the main sights and right across the road from the famous La Guarida, featured in the movie ‘Fresa y Chocolat’.
DRINK: Mojitos, Cuban coffee and bottled water. Tea is hard to find (sadly, very sadly – for me!).
INTERNET AND WIFI were difficult to find and phone connections to Australia were minimal. But I have to admit, no Pinterest, Facebook, E-mail or Google reminded me of a slower, uncomplicated life. It was great to unplug for a little while.
See the first leg of our journey to Panama here.