Havana Stories and Tips

Cuban Crumble; Havana's Faded Charms

Faded Grandeur could almost be trademarked by Havana, so consistently is the concept reflected throughout the city. In the well-worn Old Town and the peeling facades of the centre, this is an attraction in itself; a colonial heritage left to decay that has taken on a greater, charming life of its own, infused with daily bustle and vigour. The appeal isn't universal, though.

There are classic cars, and there are plain old ones. Whilst Havana certainly has its fair share of the iconic variety, every taxi we found ourselves in was a decaying 1970s Lada, far removed from the glamour of their pin-up cousins. Two of the four doors worked, none of the windows did, the seats were sprung like old chicken carcasses and the tyres were as bald as I feared I'd be the next time the driver attempted to drift round a corner. This relationship between the polished minority and the crumbling majority is multiplied exponentially throughout Cuba's capital.

Crap transport has its place. Specifically, a cheap one - but not in Havana. Like just about everything else in the city, it's stunningly expensive for what it is (but only for outsiders, mind). For Cuba, thanks to its peculiar double-currency, is certainly a land of riches; although most of these are those assumed to be in every tourist's pocket.

By the standards of any traveller on a budget, Havana is expensive. A combination of the aforementioned two-tier currency (one for Cubans, one for foreigners) and a pervasive perception of visitors as cash-cows to be milked at every opportunity combine to make travel here a frustrating experience. Although there is a stream of Cuban life that is accessible to those without considerable resources - and indeed, a desire to spend less tends to open this up somewhat - it can be hard to find, and in the capital, this is doubly true.


~ Orientation ~


Havana is a sprawling city unlike anywhere else in Cuba for scale and intensity. Getting one's head around this mass can be trying, but there are really only a few areas of significant interest to visitors.

Havana Vieja is the side of the city most often broadcast to prospective tourists, and contains the most appealing aesthetics; narrow, balcony-lined streets opening up into countless little squares with their crumbling edifices. Whether this is charming decay or a reflection of what is a very poor area is a matter of perception, I suppose. Vieja is bordered by the Bay of Havana to the east and the Straits of Florida to the north, while Central Habana sweeps around from the west.

Centro is substantially less attractive than Vieja; a noisy, heaving grid of streets whose main attractions can be found on its outskirts. Towards its western extremities, the Plaza de la Revolution, vast Necropolis and City Zoo occupy an approximate border with Vedado ("Be-dow"), a leafier suburb that offers something of a retreat from the chaotic atmosphere and close heat of the central districts. North-west of here, and beyond the western extremity of the Malécon - the mile-long seawall (a lively, suprisingly safe place for a night-time wander) - Miramir is a similarly more agreeably-paced area.

Transportation between these areas is best done by taxi or Coco-Cab - the tuk-tuk-style yellow pods that hang around the Capitol Building. It's a pricey way of getting around, but it's probably the best option. Officially, it should be around 2.50 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos; roughly £1.50 to a CUC) for a ten-minute journey, but unless you're especially charming or good at negotiating, expect to pay around twice that. If you're especially uncharming, or bad at negotiating, take a roomy wallet. Public transport exists - for the brave - and walking reasonable distances is uncomfortable in the hot, dusty city.


~ Chocolate, Rum and Imperialist Pigs ~


Mostly located on or near El Prado (or Paseo de Marti), the thoroughfare dividing Old and Central Habana, one can visit a host a museums - those of art, chocolate, rum and music. The most impressive, however, has to be - what else? - the Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former Presidential Palace. Visually striking - especially the tribute to Versaille's Hall of Mirrors - and overflowing with information and memorabilia, the constant 'look at the wonders of socialism' rhetoric becomes a little tedious, but it's a fascinating visit.

Look out the south windows of the museum to see Fidel's yacht, La Granma, housed in a glass fortress and under the watchful eye of a host of guards. Out of the north windows, you'll see Fidel's tank, on which he rode victoriously into the capital. Fidel's hoover isn't currently on display.


~ Filling Mouths and Resting Heads ~


Cuban food has a pretty bad reputation, and it's only partly deserved. Granted, the diet of meat, rice and beans quickly becomes a little bland and repetitive, but such is the reality of a society which severely limits the goods its citizens can buy.

Better food is available, mostly in the prime spots around the most picturesque squares or in the higher-end hotels. La Dominica, on Calle O'Reilly, near the Plaza del Armas, is a good Italian restaurant worth trying when Cuban fare loses its charm. They do, though have a tendency to "run out" of all the cheaper items on the menu, and will try to steer tourists towards the most expensive dishes, which can be irritating, and is a practice not uncommon in the city. A good bakery is nearby on Calle Obispo if you fancy a cheaper lunch, while various stalls and shopfronts around Vieja sell cheap, if basic sandwiches and slices of pizza.

Hotels, as with everything else in Havana, are pricey. If you've got the money and the inclination, there are plenty of options in the city with all the usual offerings.

More appealing, though, in terms of budget and experience, are the Casas Particulares. These Guesthouses are dotted around throughout the city and the rest of Cuba, and offer decent rooms for around 15-25 CUC, with meals available for another 4-10 CUC. Identified by a blue double-headed arrow symbol, these residences are an appealing option not only for the rest they'll give your poor wallet but also for the chance you get to meet Cubans in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. The Casa owners are inevitably welcoming, chatty and exceptionally generous, and you'll find some surprisingly luxurious accommodation hiding behind unexceptional exteriors.


~ The Waggle of the Cuban Tongue ~


Cubans speak Spanish. Kind of.

However, Cuban Spanish is to Castilian Spanish what Geordie is to the Queen's English. Heavily accented, speckled with all manner of influences and dialectal expressions and rattled off like the speaker fears losing the ability to do so, having come from slow-and-easy Mexico, I felt like I was hearing another language. You get used to it to an extent, but it's still pretty tricky to comprehend.

Also, probably best not to ask for Papaya Juice in a restaurant. Fruta Bomba is the alternative name, and the one that doesn't refer to female genitalia.

~

Havana is certainly a fascinating place, but I'm not sure I found it an especially pleasant one. Noisy, polluted and expensive, it's in no way a relaxing stay, at least not if you're on a budget. However, the rest of Cuba is pleasingly a different story; much more laid-back and accessible to foreigners.

For me, there are two ways to enjoy the capital; either find a nice, conveniently-located Casa to stay in, and take your time exploring the different areas of the city on foot, exploring the museums, open spaces and countless cafes and bars - or simply have a fair bit of money, and stay somewhere high-end.

In truth, though, the latter is effectively blocking out much of Cuba, making the effort of getting there somewhat questionable. The same goes for staying at the mega-resort that is Varadero, away to the east of Havana. Cuba is often characterised as a land in a time-warp, and this is to a great extent true. Just try to get internet access, or buy anything but the most basic toiletries. It's easy to romanticise this 1950s-throwback image, but the reality is less idyllic. Nonetheless, as an experience the country is well worth the trouble, although in my eyes at least, the capital isn't the best exposition of Cuba's very individual charms.

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