- Do prior research on the history of Cuba, its people and the do’s and dont’s
- Learn basic Spanish words
- Travel insurance is required
- Bring bottled water and never drink the tap water
- Bring aspirin and/or allergy meds just in case you get allergy or sick
- Don’t start talking or asking too many questions about the government or how things are
- Cuba runs its own time and its own rules; keep an open mind and do not get too frustrated if the service is slow or there is a lack of modern day conveniences
Arriving at La Habana
Havana or “La Habana” in Spanish is straight out of the 1950s or 1960s. This place is a throwback. Judging by its appearance, they haven’t really grown much since that time but I won’t delve into that. There’s plenty of topics about it on the Internet.
Getting to La Habana we arrived from Varadero and took a personal van to the city. It was about a 90-minute ride. The first thing I noticed in Habana is a dank smell from the sewage, spoiled produce and whatever else. The humidity made it more uncomfortable and the grimy old buildings, which were falling apart and look haunted was cherry on the top. Despite these seemingly sullen conditions, I felt exhilarated just setting foot in a place like no other.
We stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (more on it here). The place was ancient. It smelt and felt like something out of a museum but that’s what made it special. Staying in a place like that was a blessing in this day and age. No free WiFi, no fancy technology or incessant updates about the world. You have yourself, your traveling buddies and Habana.
Walking around Habana, it was sweltering hot. The Cubans mostly drank beer and for good reason: it was priced the same as a bottle of water. Cuban vendors lay in every corner selling hamburgers, fruit juices and touristy things. Everyone seemed chill just lazing around on a weekend as nearly everything was closed.
We toured Central Habana on our first day. Paseo del Prado is where the five-star tourist attracts lie in particular the Iberostar Parque Central hotel, which is the alternative to the HNC. This is kind of like where people congregate. Get a load of the arts, music and culture of the Cubans here but only till around mid-afternoon when they start to close shop and leave.
You’ll also find all the old-school American brand cars around here. From the Oldsmobile to Buick to Ford to plenty of Chrysler’s old Plymouth. You can ride these sweet classics as many of them are being used as taxis. Speaking of, you have to try the Cocotaxis. These auto rickshaw-type of taxis are yellow egg-shaped fiberglass bodied vehicles that are more for a novelty type of ride for tourists to try.
Not from here we found the Paseo de Marti, which makes for a wonderful photo opportunity. And just beside it we found El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building. It’s designed just like the Capital building from Washington D.C. and sticks out like it was copy and pasted from a map in America to Cuba. We also met a ton of people trying to sell cigars (don’t be fooled, many are selling cheap fake ones. To avoid getting duped, just go to legitimate establishments).
And finally to the south you will see the Malecon. This is the city’s ocean front esplanade where Havana Bay and the Gulf of Mexico meet. You’ll get a good view of the El Morro lighthouse across. Goes without saying you’ll want to take a ton of photos here. Facebook profile picture worthy.
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
The next day we took a personalized tour guide to Old Havana. Our tour guide, Johnny was well-spoken and a classy honest man. When I left my camera bag in the van he called our hotel room to return it. I’d recommend him to anyone on the Air Transat package.
Johnny took us to the La Cabana fortress on the East side of the Havana Bay. You get a nice picturesque view of the Malecon here. Get your panorama lens ready since this is where your Facebook banner photo is likely going to be.
From there we went to the Plaza Vieja (Old Square) which looks cut straight out of Europe. Here you’ll find old architecture that’s kept together unlike most of Centro Habana. This is where they used to have bullfights, fiestas and executions all witnessed by the wealthiest of Habana. Sexy. You’ll also find the Cathedral of Havana here along with plenty of other artifacts. The shops here also sell legitimate Cuban cigars and extremely cheap liquor.
Before we finished the day, we stopped by the Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) where the people congregate for speeches from the likes of the Pope and Fidel Castro himself. We also got a glimpse of the nice classical houses of the different embassies from around the world. Canada and India’s were two of the best. Lastly, we dropped by the Colon Cemetery with an estimated 500 major mausoleums, chapels and family vaults. The cemetery looked better than the majority of Habana.
One place we did not get a chance to visit but is highly recommended for everyone: Museum of the Revolution. A centerpiece for Cuba, this is where you’ll get to learn more about the revolutionary war of the 1950s that has shaped Cuba today.
Habana is quite unlike most towns or cities you’ll visit even by South American standards. It’s often said it’s like time forgot Cuba and they stayed the same since the 1950s but being around the city you get to witness a living historical piece that is unaltered by outside influences. I won’t speak much on the people are and their way of living but Habana is where you go to disconnect from the rest of the world and where you appreciate the smaller things in life even if they aren’t the most aesthetically appealing at first.