Havana is the Grand Old Dame of the Caribbean. She comes across all regal with her baroque and neoclassical architecture, but when you get to know her a little, you’ll notice she’s colourful like her history, dances a mean Salsa, can hold her liquor and smokes cigars like nobody’s business.
The old part of town, La Habana Vieja, is still full of life. There are buskers at every corner (although you may want to request something that is neither “La Guantanamera” nor “Hasta siempre, comandante,” as they seem to be the “go-to songs” everyone knows), artisan markets and (salsa) bars. But it also has wide open parks and narrow streets to get lost in.
It’s an inspiring place, actually. Despite, or maybe because of Cuba’s communist regime, the locals had to become creative and inventive. Havana’s streets are teeming with American oldtimers – cars they have not been able to get many spare parts for since the US trade embargo was put in place in the 1960s. And yet, those cars are in surprisingly good nick most of the time and – most importantly – they’re still going strong.
When you think of Cuba, you probably imagine Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The rebels took Havana on January 1, 1959 so it might surprise you to learn that American writer Ernest Hemingway did not only continue to have his winter residence in Havana – he lived in Cuba’s capital on and off from 1939 to 1960 – but he even competed with Castro and Guevara in what came to be known as the Hemingway Fishing Contest.
While pictures and slogans of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries can be found everywhere on the island, you might have to look a bit harder to find traces of Ernest Hemingway. His farm Finca Vigia lies about 11km outside of Havana, but for die-hard fans it is worth the trek as it has been preserved as a museum. This is where For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea were written.
In Habana Vieja itself, the Hotel Ambos Mundos is a good place to start a Hemingway tour. He lived there for seven years, it’s located near the harbour and it still operates as a hotel you can stay in. But maybe the way to really feel like Hemingway is to visit his favourite hangouts.
Starting with Restaurante Dos Hermanos, allegedly Havana’s oldest bar. While not too many tourists find their way there, which is great for people-watching, it seems to have had a make-over since Hemingway’s days.
One of the must-see sights in Havana is El Capitolio, which is almost identical to the US capitol. But once you’ve had enough of looking at grand architecture, head towards the top end of Calle Obispo and the bar El Floridita, This was one of Hemingway’s favourite bars, and it’s a great place to try a daiquiri. They may go a bit overboard on the Havana Club rum, but then again, Hemingway still holds their record of consuming 16 daiquiris without sugar but with double the rum.
Though arguably the place that changed least since Hemingway ordered his last drink there is La Bodeguita del Medio. It’s small, crammed, the air is stiff but they do make a mean mojito. If you only ever have one mojito, try to get it there. A sentiment the great writer obviously shared as the framed scribble of “My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita” suggests.
The Bodeguita is right next to the Catedral de La Habana, which brings you back to the more popular spots. There is music everywhere, and it’s fascinating to watch an old, cigar-smoking couple (he’s wearing whites and yellows and a panama hat, while she’s in a long, red skirt and pristine white, billowy blouse) get up and dance to Buena Vista Social Club and show the young whippersnappers how it’s done.
And speaking of “how it’s done”: if you are interested in these things, you can even visit cigar factories, panama hat makers and rum destilleries. And chocolate lovers should check out the Museo del Chocolate in the old town.
Don’t be fooled though. Despite a fantastic education system and one of the best health care systems in the world (so good, they trade treatment of patients for barrels of oil with Venezuela), Cubans don’t have a lot to live on, thanks to the Marxist-Leninist nature of their politics. And while the tourist hot spots tend to be well-kept and tidy, there are also slums which can be real eye-openers.
For example, you’ll pass through newer working class neighbourhoods, on the way to the elaborate cemetery Necrópolis de Colón, which is almost equal in size to Habana Vieja, or to something else the higher-ups want you to see. The Plaza de la Revolución. It is a massive concrete square with the José Martí memorial in the centre, but what it’s really famous for is the building on the far side. You may know it as the “Che Guevara building”, but it is actually the Ministry of the Interior. Propaganda is everywhere in Cuba and this ministry building has a mural of Che’s face and his immortal line “Hasta la victoria siempre” on the side of it.
Progress is slow, but it is there. Who, for example, would have thought that a country whose regime banned music by The Beatles in the 1960s and 70s would name a park after John Lennon and even commission a statue of him?
The grand ballrooms of the 1940s and 1950s often do not serve their original purpose anymore. Palaces were converted into museums. Old fishermen going about their business and children diving into the water of the Bahia de La Habana are just as much part of the life along Havana’s Malecón as the tourists from the Hotel Nacional, salsa dancers in bars and punters trying their luck.
Havana really is a lived in city, a grand old dame, still full of life.