Cuba has always been a mysterious destination to me, an off limits locale due to the long standing US embargo. And what they say is true, you often want what you can’t have. Thus, when the travel ban was eased in 2015, Havana shot to the top of my list of places to travel, and I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to visit.
Growing up in the US, there was not much information about this large Caribbean nation other than what was very briefly covered in history books, so I didn’t know what to expect.
This turned out to be a good thing because Havana was the best surprise. I was stricken by its je ne sais quois (or no se que in Spanish…doesn’t really translate ;). I mean, it’s an incredibly culturally rich and beautiful city. It is both quaint and cosmopolitan, architecturally divine with its expansive boulevards and thoughtful city planning. But there’s more to it than that because a lot of cities have those things and they’re not quite as fascinating.
Historically speaking, from pirates to American gangsters, you’re not going to find as interesting a place in these parts. The country’s rise to immense power due to the sugar trade was astounding and its revolutionary history with its colorful figures is even more intriguing. And being closed off to American travel for so long? Maybe that adds to the allure. Whatever it is, Havana is a really wonderful destination.
As Camila Cabello says, take me back, back, back…
The easiest way to get to Cuba is via cruise. I know, I know. But hear me out. You’ve got inexpensive travel covered from Miami, there’s a safe place to stay overnight, the visas are taken care of by the cruise line, and the harbor is literally steps from Havana Vieja.
Many benefits! This is the very reason I broke my cruise ship moratorium of 18 years…to visit this island in its splendor. Visiting Cuba isn’t the easiest process if you’re an American, you do have to have a special visa $75/person and you have to attest that you are visiting for one of the approved reasons. The most common is the people to people, cultural exchange (more on this later).
Sailing into the port of Havana, I was delighted by the beautiful skyline of colonial and modern buildings lining the entire seafront. To get to the port terminal, the ship has to enter through a narrow strait, so you’re flanked on both sides by Cuban scenery, really a sight to behold. On the left is the Jesus of Havana and el Morro fortress and on the right is miles and miles of the Malecon seawall.
First thing’s first, exchange your money to CUCs, which is the foreign exchange, as opposed to the CUP, which is the domestic currency. They are basically worth the same, but I think the government differentiates to keep track of foreign money coming into the country. Tip: CUCs have monuments and CUPs have people, so check when you’re getting change if you buy something– this may be the only time you want the CUCs.
To get the most of your time, and to satisfy the people to people exchange, which is a defined as a cultural program to learn about Cuban life, you should book a tour or excursion through your ship. I’ll be honest, no one checked, but do you want to be SOL if they do?
We booked through Cuban Connections and our guide Anthony was great. He literally let us build a very busy itinerary and did his best to accommodate all of the things we wanted to see and a lot more.
First stop is St. Francis of Assisi which is where you disembark from the cruise ship. Even though Cuba is a socialist country, the cathedrals and churches built during colonial times still stand, albeit this one is a museum now. I’ve been to the real Basilica in Assisi, Italy and dare I say this one is more visually appealing to me? Don’t + me. These buildings have been around since the 1500s and are such gorgeous examples of Spanish architecture.
This is the start of Old Havana or Havana Vieja. This pedestrian area is lined with colorful buildings and even more colorful people. You’ll see ladies dressed in the traditional garb selling cigars and picture opportunities. There are so many museums lining the street (all free) that you could spend your whole trip wandering in and out of them.
The Casa de Asia, the Armory (where all of Fidel Castro’s guns are on display), the Arabian mosque are standouts in this area.
As you walk through the cobblestone streets, you really do get a sense of the Pirates of the Caribbean type of vibe.
Except everything is immaculately clean and there’s probably no syphilis or scurvy. There’s definitely no street vendors or anyone trying to hawk anything, everything is in its place. Even the post boxes are cool as hell.
There’s also lots of green areas spread throughout the neighborhoods and splashy murals and decorative features. As if that weren’t enough, the architecture is superb.
The ecclectic coral-hued Hotel Ambos Mundos is where Ernest Hemingway started the novel, From Whom the Bell Tolls whilst staying in room 511. For not being too fond of Americans, they sure do appreciate El Papa here. He lived and wrote for many years here in Havana until after the Cuban revolution. You’ll be hearing a lot about him.
Weird fact: I went through a huge Hemingway phase in college and many of my playlists created during that time (and that still remain) reference his stories/novels. Moveable Feast is my favorite playlist, Hills like White Elephants is my favorite story.
For a small fee, you can ride up the elevator (it is a still working hotel after all) and see his room. Many reproductions of famous artwork he owned as well as the original furniture are on display. There are large photos of him all over the stairwells and in the lobby.
Make sure you check out the rooftop bar, where you can bask in the sun and the 360 views of the city.
The former Municipal Palace is the cornerstone of the Plaza de Armas and is a delightful example of Moorish inspired architecture and arches. My favorite (see: Doge Palace in Venice). This is very close to the Greek neoclassical El Templete, a building that commemorates the first council and mass of Havana in 1519.
Havana really does remind me of a European city, except that most of the buildings use coral as building material. This is why many of these buildings have stood the test of time and hurricane/weather elements.
Next door, the Castillo del Real Fuerza is a maritime museum now, but in its heyday was a fort built to protect against pirates. One small problem, it was a little too deep in the harbor, so by the time the natives fought back, the pirates had already docked more distally and attacked. Someone dropped the ball on that one. What it lacks in practicality, it makes up by being star-shaped and is the oldest stone fort in the Americas.
The Cathedral de San Cristobal is the main church in Havana and it is the cutest church I’ve ever seen. Similar to a California mission, but on a much more grand scale.
An expected amazing find was the small courtyard of the Casa de Carmen Montilla on Calle de Oficios. This late Venezuelan artist’s home/museum features a spectacular mural depicting sea life forms amidst a garden oasis. It felt like being home in LA, modern, chic, artsy and sleek.
Crossing into Plaza Vieja (which was technically Plaza Nueva when it was built), you’ll see a lot of cafes, fancy hotels and technicolor buildings. This is where the wealthy citizens and officials lived before the revolution and they used to watch executions in this square. Just like the Romans!
Even though it’s not really capitalistic society, there are souvenir markets. Walking through the real neighborhoods to get to the Almacenes de San Juan artisan market, you see where some of the buildings are possibly a little more derelict.
After the shopping detour (not a whole bunch of souvenirs to buy), we headed to the other side of the bay, towards El Morro fortress. First, we stopped at the Christ of Havana, which was a gift from former President Bautista to his wife. There’s many accounts of how much corruption there was during his presidency, but at least he left one nice legacy item. This 66 foot tall Jesus is made from Carrara marble and his hands are allegedly fashioned to be holding a mojito in one hand and a cigar in the other. That’s the stuff folklore is made of, but you decide for yourself.
Che Guevara, revolutionary figure and star of every t-shirt sold in this country, owned a house just across the street that is now a museum. His biography is quite interesting: he was a physician and philosopher turned Marxist revolutionary who met up with fellow Cuban exile Fidel Castro in Mexico in the 1950s forming an anti-imperialistic partnership that would lead to the overthrow of the existing Cuban government. The rest as they say is history.
Speaking of complex historical events I don’t completely understand, just down the road is the site of what we know as the Cuban missile crisis. After the Bay of Pigs, in which CIA/US backed Cuban exiles were defeated by the Castro led Revolutionary Armed Forces, the Soviet-Cuban relationship was strengthened to the point where the Soviets were giving Cubans nuclear arms. That’s some hella tight friendship. This led to the missile crisis, a 13 day standoff between the US and USSR where negotiations were made to disarm the region. In all of my years of schooling, I don’t recall ever really learning about this period of time. I think by the time we got to the 1960s in American history class it was like June, and everyone had already checked out.
Perhaps we should have learned more about it. It really is very scary how close we were to all out nuclear WWIII. This site shows exactly where all of the Soviet missiles were located, pointing directly towards the US. Judging from the proximity and size of the weapons, mass destruction could have been unleashed.
This area is adjacent to El Morro which is THE fortress of Havana. There is a huge hole where the British attacked with cannons back in the Spanish colony days. If these walls could talk, amirite?
After a quite bite on the cruise ship (another benefit of cruising, food all the time!), we set back out on the town. Cuban nightlife is legendary, although I have to admit most of it I learned from Ricky Ricardo. Cuban Pete! Babalu! I was bummed we didn’t have two nights in Havana because then I would have gotten to see the Buena Vista Social Club (whom I loved in high school when they took the Grammys by storm in 1999), but maybe next time.
Highly recommend if you’re going to go to one show, go to the famed Tropicana. Yes, they had an entire Las Vegas hotel named after this show. It’s everything you could want, feathers, costume, dancing, bongos, puffy sleeves, colors, rum!
It was like 2 hours of nonstop visual stimulation and showmanship. Really beautifully choreographed and costumed. Tickets come with 1/4 bottle of rum and free cigars. They really know how to favor a guest in Cuba. Come, shake your body, baby do that conga!
Tropicana is located deep in the tony suburbs of Havana, on a sprawling open air estate. The drive back is wonderful, as you go through the lively neighborhood of Vedado where you will see SO many locals out and about. They’re going to movies, restaurants, this is where the real life is, and it all leads to the Malecon, which is a 50 mile stretch of “highway” along the water. It’s THE scene to be seen and you basically can see every young person there meeting up with their friends or novios/novias on the boardwalk. Join them for a stroll. It’s very safe and lively, a perfect end to the first day in Havana.
Famous Cubans: Andy Garcia, Desi Arnaz, Gloria Estefan, Camila Cabello
Listen to: Camila, Buena Vista Social Club, Celia Cruz, Miami Sound Machine
Souvenirs: el ron! Rum that is. Havana Club was the precursor to Bacardi. Cigars.