“I saw a strange thing today. Some rebels were being arrested. One of them pulled the pin on a grenade. He took himself and the captain of the command with him. Now, soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.”
Michael Corleone on the unrest in Cuba (The Godfather: Part II).
Cuba’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.
Not just for the cars, cigars and cocktails, but also because of the stark contrasts that dominate its history.
From Christopher Columbus to Lucky Luciano and Frank Sinatra, passing by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, it’s hard to think of a country forged by such a diverse cast of characters. A nation that managed to kick out the Americans and led by a man able to survive a reported 600+ assassination attempts.
A unique culture, infused with Spanish, African, French and Asian influences – on my first day I wandered into Havana’s Chinese district, complete with a mural depicting Confucius! Beautiful cites, pristine beaches, mountain treks… there’s something for everyone on the island that invented the Mojito.
The capital of Cuba was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and counts just over two million inhabitants. As a visitor you’re likely to divide your time between two districts: Old Havana and Vedado. The former is, as its name suggests, the historical centre. It’s the place to go to see the city squares, palaces and most museums.
I stayed in Vedado, a more suburban area and was immediately charmed by the mixture of crumbling and well-kept buildings. While some buildings look stately – the neighbourhood is home to a number of beautiful embassies – others are falling to pieces and literally have trees growing through their walls.
At night the lack of street lighting and people means Vedado is eerily quiet. You certainly don’t feel as if you’re in a capital city. I wandered the streets getting lost on my way to find a place to eat and felt as if I was in an abandoned city. It’s not quite Planet of the Apes, but it’s well worth the experience.
There are plenty of things to see in the Cuban capital and most of them are in your guidebook. However, the two below might not be and are well worth a detour.
- Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Looking for somewhere to go in the evening? This is your spot. It’s a combination of a gallery, cinema, concert hall, bar and lounge. The entrance fee was 2 CUC and once you’re inside you can enjoy the (modern) art, photographs, watch a film (they were showing Death Proof) and enjoy a concert. Everything takes place in a different area – it’s a big space – and I enjoyed everything.
It’s also where I had the ultimate Pina Colada. It was made by a large bartender who would have looked more at home on a construction site than making cocktails and it was incredible. A perfect blend of coconut and pineapple, a sprinkle of cinnamon and just a bit too much rum… Don’t miss out.
- The photographer on Parque Central. When you end up at Parque Central, look out for a man with a large box trying to attract the attention of passing tourists. His box is an old school camera and for 3 CUCs he will take a photo of you. The photos come out beautifully and it is a real pleasure to watch him work. He’s friendly and passionate about his camera, so ask him about it!
A note on safety in Havana
If you’re wondering about safety, a couple of cab drivers told me nothing would ever happen to me in Havana, gun crime is non-existent and the police claim to solve close to 100% of all other offences… Take these government stats and hearsay as you want, I certainly never felt in any danger.
In Cuba, I’d recommend you stay in casa particularas. These are private homes which open up some of their rooms to tourists, to generate some extra income. This system has been in place since 1997 and will give you a chance to enjoy a more authentic Cuban experience, at a better price than a hotel, and in many cases cleaner and much more pleasant.
I stayed in one of the My Proud Havana rooms, which aren’t the cheapest, but are clean and comfortable. Owner Henry is very knowledgeable about the city and was always on hand to help us out. He also has an adorable Golden Retriever called Cookie. Book early – good casa particulares fill up weeks in advance.
Eating (and drinking) in Cuba
For all its delights, Cuba is not culinary paradise. Old rice and dry pork are the two ingredients that stand out in my mind. About 8/10 of the restaurants I visited left a bad taste in my mouth. Some of this is of course down to the scarcity of products, but that doesn’t account for everything.
In some places next to the sea I was served fish and lobster which must have been cooked days before. The brown rice with beans dish which is so common, is often dry and tasteless and comes in congealed lumps. The bread is typically old and stale and clearly not freshly baked. I didn’t come expecting brilliance, but was very surprised by the almost universally poor food.
Having said that I did find some excellent places to eat in Havana. The best two were Otramanera (Spanish influenced Cuban food) and La Guarida (also Spanish influenced). Neither were cheap, both were worth it.
Thank god Cubans can make cocktails. Pina Coladas, Mojitos, Daiquiris… I more than cleansed the taste of the food with these heavenly potions. Again, the Pina Coladas in particular were beautiful concoctions – the sweet taste of pineapple, blended with delicate notes coconut milk, kissed with a light dusting of cinnamon and serrated with a shot of rum… I want one right now…
The beer isn’t bad either. In my first conversation with a cab driver I asked what beer I should be drinking. Without hesitation he replied ‘Bucanero’.
Brewed at the Bucanero Brewery in Holguin, Bucanero is a clear larger named after the pirates that used to terrorise the neighbouring seas. The bottle is illustrated with a swash buckling pirate and has the word ‘Fuerte’ (strong) emblazoned under the logo.
Its strong flavour makes it a better choice than the island’s other popular beer, the lighter ‘Cristal’. The latter is, according to the Cubans I spoke to: “A drink for women”. Given the rather minor difference in alcohol content – Bucanero is 5.4% and Cristal is 4.9% – it’s amusing to see the huge contrast in perception between the two.
A note on Cuban cakes
Keep your eyes open while you wander the streets and you will spot some Cubans walking around holding a cake. I asked a driver why they did this and he smiled, sighed and explained: “You see in Cuba we have pure chocolate – it is so good, not like what you have. These cakes are for sale and they are delicious – I am not young any more so I can’t eat them every day, but mmmmmm…”
Unfortunately I didn’t try one of these cakes – you have to buy the whole thing – but if you’re in a group large enough to get through one, let me know if my Cuban friend was right and I missed out. After tasting their powdery, stale chocolate I doubt it, but I might be wrong!