Flying over the Gulf of Mexico towards Cuba, I couldn’t help but marvel at how blue the water was. When there weren’t islands intermittently dotting the water it was difficult to tell just where on the horizon the earth ended and the sky began. I was excited to get out of the sky and down onto this tropical island I had been waiting so long to visit! My sister and I had booked an 8 day small group tour with a company called Cuban adventures which specialises in Cuban tours, and only uses local guides and casa particulares (home stays) on their tours. We were set to visit the capital Havana; the home of cigar production, Vinales; and the beachside town of Trinidad.
Eating out in Cuba is divided into two categories: government run restaurants – very cheap, simple and usually fairly bland; and privately owned paladars, which can vary in price and quality. When we arrived on a balmy evening, our first stop was in the latter category, a small restaurant called El de Frente in the middle of old Havana. You wouldn’t know it was there if you weren’t looking for it – it was just a small doorway with a set of stairs leading up to a bright and airy dining room. I had discovered it thanks to a list of recommendations by a chef living in Havana that was published on Airbnb. I had some chicken tacos, and I was generally pleased to find tasty food with a lot of variety that left me optimistic for eating well over the next 8 days.
On our first morning there we set out on a walk from Old Havana to Hotel Nacional, in 35 degree heat with stifling humidity. We’re Australian, we’re used to hot weather right – we could handle it? Apparently not! Thanks to the limited wifi situation in Cuba, we didn’t realise it was actually about 4km away until we arrived there. We also didn’t quite realise how different the heat is! We just kept walking and sweating and walking, and although it seemed never ending at times we saw a lot of cool buildings along the way and were rewarded with an ice cold mojito (and later a pina colada) in the lush surroundings at the hotel.
That afternoon I took an open top bus tour around Havana. I am normally a bit sceptical of these, preferring to wander around on foot, but some of the sights in Havana are quite spread out, and did I mention the heat? It was quite enjoyable – a nice way to orient myself and see some of those more far flung sites such as revolution square and the cemetery, as well as just sit back, savour the breeze and gawk at the old crumbling buildings for a while.
The next day we met up with our tour group for a walking tour around old Havana. Once again, it only took about 5 minutes outside of our air conditioned room to become a sweaty mess. Havana has lots of picturesque squares though so the walk was pleasant, and I got the chance to buy some street snacks that were like deep fried pastry covered in icing sugar – yum!
Skipping forward a bit, after we arrived back in Havana after the tour we went on a city tour in a vintage car. Incredibly touristy, but so much fun. We took a drive though Chinatown and visited Revolution Square for some pictures before returning back to the city centre.
On our last night in Havana after the end of the tour, we visited the rooftop bar at La Guardia, a famous paladar that was featured in a Cuban film called Fresa y Chcolate. The restaurant is strictly reservation only, and we hadn’t been organised enough to make one. This is very uncharacteristic of me, but there is just something about the Cuban heat that saps everything out of you! That, and the copious amounts of rum. But we were able to get a seat on the rooftop bar and order off the bar menu, which was really lovely.
I could go on and on but I’ll stop there as those were really the highlights of our Havana experience. To sum it up I would call it a beautiful, crumbling , chaotic, magical mess and would recommend it to anyone (although maybe in the cooler months around Christmas). Stay tuned for more on Trinidad and Vinales soon – adios amigos!