Cuba is a fascinating place. There are few other countries so able to allure and induce curiosity in the minds of travellers. It most likely stems from its relationship with the USA and an image of it being forbidden fruit. Whatever the case, people want to get to know this small Carribean country. While I may have only gotten a glimpse into what this country has to offer, I think Havana is a great first step in building up an idea of life in Cuba.
To start with, there are three main neighbourhoods in the heart of Havana:
- Havana Vieja, the old town home to most touristy parts spreading from the Capitol building to the harbour entrance;
- Vedado, the vast and well-worn barrio where you’ll see the reality of life in Havana; and
- Miramar, tucked up against the waterfront with a much more open and suburban feel to it.
I was staying down the western end of Havana Vieja only a few blocks from Paseo di Marti, the main thoroughfare past the Capitol building and core of the city. Staying on the outer edges of the old town was useful when arriving as the the deeper you get into Vieja the trickier it is to make your way by car, with seemingly spontaneous roadworks popping up all over. Walking the short distance out towards Paseo di Marti I could soon spy El Capitolio, the Capitol Building which was once the seat of government. Were it not for the scaffolding and surrounds, I could picture it fitting in with another national capital like Washington DC with ease.
Once on Paseo di Marti you witness the bustle of the city, the traffic full of the vintage cars for which it’s well known. Passing crowded bus stops and heading further up the road you come to the beautifully ornate Great Theatre; hard to miss with its giant winged angel statues. Over the road you’ll find Parque Central, home to tourist buses, vintage taxi and surrounded with high-end hotels. The park is basically a useful tourist hub if you need to find internet or arrange transport.
As you pass further and further along Paseo di Marti, you’ll get more and more glimpses into the barrio neighbourhood of Vedado. You’ll also come across some really fascinating architecture, even glimpses of Moorish design which looks great in context surprisingly. Paseo di Marti will eventually take you to the waterfront and to the fortress of San Salvador de la Punta. Hear you’ll find fisherman by the water and great views along the Malecon waterfront towards Miramar. Across the harbour entrance is another fortress, Morro Castle, which is far more impressive with its high walls, lighthouse and spectacular views.
Heading out another day back in Havana Vieja, it doesn’t take long to get lost in its huge grid of wide avenues. Here and there, you come across churches and small plazas, always crowded with locals. Every block is covered in apartment buildings, usually 3 or 4 stories high and more often than not suffering a little disrepair – paint chipped away or tiles missing. Interestingly, the state of the buildings has an unlikely endearing quality to it. It’s as if the city isn’t afraid to show off its true character.
Scattered here and there are very simple bodegas often with shelves empty depending on the state of the food supply that day or week. Along the bigger avenues, you’ll find souvenir shops selling trinkets and countless men trying to sell you cigars. You’re likely to encounter the occasional charismatic beggar. They’ll try to lure you in with talk of a special festival or concert that in fact occurs weekly. The closer you get to the harbour entrance the better state the buildings are in and the more touristy the old town feels. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you’ll find beautifully restored buildings, wide open plazas and countless restaurants, cafes and bars.
During the time I was visiting Cuba, Havana was playing host to the United Buddy Bears, a travelling international art exhibit promoting tolerance. The exhibit incorporates large bears painted by artists from over 100 countries with styles and motifs reflecting their individual countries. I thought it was a really positive and fun way of promoting such a noble cause.
If you’re after spectacular views of Havana then you must go to the Camera Obscura. The Camera Obscura is effectively an old fashioned device that projects an image on to a screen, in this case live views of Havana. The projection is fascinating, with exceptional image quality considering how low-tech the concept is. After the presentation of the Camera Obscura, you’re free to head out onto the rooftop where the views of the city are spectacular.
So I hope I’ve given you a glimpse into what Havana is like and that you can better appreciate what a remarkable place it, and the whole of Cuba, is.
For more of my advice on Cuba please see this article.
Have you been to Havana? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments.
This post is part of Fly Away Friday over at Life in Wanderlust. Please head on over for more great posts.