Caroline on... Havana

Lauren Curd

There is so much more to Cuba than just amazing beaches and amazing daiquiris (and they are both amazing!). A lot of people don't realise that it has a total land area only a little smaller than England, being the biggest by far of all the Caribbean islands. It is a country of contradiction. The population is one of the best educated and they have virtually no unemployment, everyone either goes to University or into Military Service, yet the salaries are so low that you will quite often find that your waiter is a qualified surgeon who can earn more money with tips by waiting tables.  They have around 7 qualified doctors per 1000 people in Cuba, where the UK only has around 3, so you don’t need to worry about needing treatment whilst you are away.

Cuban old man smoking a cigar

There are things that don’t sit comfortably, like the fact that some of the locals quite often live in shacks and that they are not able to have access to the same food supplies that hotels have.  They also have different currencies, with tourists using the convertible peso which, ironically is linked to the US dollar exchange rate although they do not like US dollars, and locals using the Cuban peso which is worth a lot less than a convertible peso.  You have to tip with convertible pesos and this is ok as locals can exchange them in the bank.  They also like Sterling notes, as opposed to coins, as they can change those quite easily.  It is a communist country and there are some rules that we are not used to but generally, the locals are very proud of their country, do not want to leave and are more than happy to chat to you about what they have, what they don’t have and what they would like.

Havana Cuba downtown skyline

Havana, the capital, is an experience not to be missed. It is half built up and half falling down, with new buildings and fantastic hotels next to crumbling walls. I found the ramshackle back streets the most appealing and at no point did I feel unsafe.  The old town has the most character and some truly beautiful buildings. In the squares there are book stalls selling communist literature, history of Cuba books and Che Guevara memorabilia, plus music everywhere and people salsa dancing in the streets.  In all the hotels, not just in Havana, there are skilled musicians in the restaurants who will produce a CD to sell you from fresh air (there was one band who were very scantily dressed and I didn’t dare ask where they had stored their CD’s). The market near the Old Town is a really fun place with bright coloured Cuban art, maracas’ and ceramics as well as the mandatory Che Guevara T-shirts, bandanas and berets.

My recommendations of places not to miss and things to do in Havana are:

Malecon

Visit the 5 mile long sea wall, well worth an evening stroll just to catch the sunset.

The Plaza de la Revolution

With its masive outline of Che Guevara.

El Floridita

Reportedly the place where the daiquiri was invented and second home to Ernest Hemingway (there is a bronze statue of him leaning at the bar that tourists like to photograph).

Christopher Columbus Cemetery

This is a strangely beautiful place with some incredible tombs and so much history.

Havana Cathedral

The square here is lovely to sit in and watch the world go by. There are always musicians playing and ladies wearing traditional Cuban dress.

Palacio de Aldama

An Italian style mansion built by a Spanish Merchant.

Coco-Cabs

They are a fun and slightly precarious way to get around.

Baseball

If you are there from November through to March you may get the chance to see this national sport.

Tropicana

Cuba’s answer to the Moulin Rouge. It is the oldest cabaret in Cuba and is home to incredible headdresses and ladies with not much covering their dignities, but they are amazing dancers and you can book a table and eat.

Deep Sea Fishing

The coast off Havana is some of the best for deep sea fishing, I didn’t catch anything but saw people landing massive marlin and tuna.

Cigar Museum

Either watch traditional cigar rollers or have a go at rolling one yourself.

Classic American 50’s cars

Admire the workmanship on the old cars. Locals were unable to get parts when the cars broke down so learned how to fashion arts themselves. As a result there are a huge number of classic working cars. You can book them through your hotel as they are not allowed to pick you up in the streets.

The National Hotel

Either stay there or visit for a drink or afternoon tea. This is where Frank Sinatra is rumoured to have met his Mafioso buddies. Winston Churchill and Al Capone stayed here as well, although not at the same time. The cocktail bar is a great place to view the Malecon and see the sunset if you don’t feel energetic enough to walk.

 

**This blog post was previously published on Medway Leisure Travel, now trading as Pettitts Travel**