Exploring Havana, Cuba
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT:
Drive around town in a classic 1950's car
Visit the famous John Lennon statue
Stroll around the city's charming town squares
Sip Mojito's and dance the rhumba
When talk turns to visiting Cuba, people who’ve been always say “You must go before everything changes”. And it’s true that the country’s capital, Havana, feels like it’s stuck in a beautiful, yet decaying, 1950's time-warp.
And, it’s not just because of the iconic vintage cars. There are no adverts, no chain stores and no supermarkets with rows of stacked shelves, as most items are rationed in this socialist country and bought over the counter. It’s a world away from the commercial, homogenised streets you find in nearly every other big city around the globe.
Things will change eventually though. Earlier this year, Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) stepped down as Cuba's president, ending decades of Castro family rule (Fidel was in charge from 1959 to 2008). Some predict this could lead to a big shake-up and Cuba’s old charm may soon disappear.
I was invited, along with group of journalists from the UK, on a tour of the city before everything changes. Here are some of the highlights:
Vintage Car Tour:
Top of everyone’s list, when visiting Havana, should be a classic car tour. It’s the best way to see the city in style! As there were quite a few of us, we had a convoy of six cars and, even in a city that is used to seeing these spectacular vehicles every day, we turned heads as we cruised down the wide open roads, past the colourful yet crumbling buildings.
These magnificent cars have been owned by families for decades, passed down the generations. The block on imports from the US means the country doesn’t have access to modern American cars, though you will spot some from other countries, including Russia, China and Germany on the roads. They’ve kept these vintage classics going since the 1950's, with many motors patched up with spare parts from other cars and even boat engines.
John Lennon Park:
Our first destination was the John Lennon Park, to see a bronze statue of the famous musician. This striking artwork of him sat cross-legged on a bench was installed in 2000, during a ceremony to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his murder.
But The Beatles haven’t always been popular here. In fact, they were barely known in Cuba during their 1960's heyday. Fidel imposed a nationwide ban on all music created by The Fab Four, believing them to be vulgar, a bad influence to the young and a threat to the revolution.
He changed his tune completely years later however, overturning the ban in the 1900s. During the statue's unveiling he even told the crowd: "What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas… I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality."
Of course, John Lennon wouldn’t be John Lennon without those famous round glasses. For some reason, it was decided those on the statue would be detachable, rather than moulded on. Since he arrived in the park, his specs have been stolen FIVE times. So, he now has his own 'Keeper of the Glasses' (not an official title). A lovely lady, Aleida Rodriguez, stands by him between 10am and 2pm, keeping a watchful eye on visitors just in case they’re tempted to take them home.
Next up, we headed to Revolution Square, the political centre of the city. This is the place where freedom fighter Fidel Castro delivered his fiery and famously long speeches during mass rallies; the longest of which lasted SEVEN hours.
A sculpture dedicated to the nation's former Prime Minister looms over the square, along with the words ‘Vas bien Fiel’ or, ‘You are doing well Fidel’. His brother in arms, Chu Guevara hangs on a nearby building, with a slightly more dramatic rallying cry of ‘Hasta la victoria, siempre!’ or, ‘Ever onward to victory’, scribbled beside his iconic image.
Opposite stands a 109-metre star-shaped obelisk and statue of José Martí, a Cuban national hero, journalist and poet, who fought for independence from the Spanish in the 19th century. We didn’t get the chance to go inside, but there is a viewing platform on the top deck offering great views of the city. Even if you don’t plan to head to the top, this is still a great place to stop for a while on your tour. Many of the drivers park up together, so you can stretch your legs, and view the sites alongside dozens of colourful cars, all lined up together.
A historic walking tour:
Then it was time to head to the centre of the city, to see the narrow streets of Havana on foot. We made our way to the old town via the Malecon, a five-mile broadway that stretches along the coastline. Nicknamed ‘The City’s Sofa’, this is where the locals meet on sunny afternoons to socialise after work, beer in-hand as the sun sets. This is a great place to people watch and you’ll find all walks of Cuban life along this famous road.
As we left the cars, our tour guide told us that plenty of people want to work in tourism. As a communist country, wages are strictly controlled in Cuba, but obviously, those in the tourist industry can pick up extra funds thanks to tips. Our guide used to teach history in a university but left her career in education in the 1900s to work in the tourism trade. I also spotted young students, who were taking a break from their ‘waiter classes’, all keen to make money in a similar way.
The centre of Havana is full of old streets and town squares, including the grand Plaza de la Catedral. Here, we found a group of women in traditional, colourful Cuban dresses, carrying baskets of flowers and theatrically sucking on giant cigars, like pantomime dames. For a small fee, they’ll happily pose for photographs. Don’t think you’ll get away with taking a cheeky one on the sly, or you’ll be hounded (and rightly so)! They also promise to tell your fortune for a similar fee, although it might not make much sense, as one lady in my group discovered.
Soon after we stopped for beers in the Old Square. Music and dancing run though the city and you’re never far away from a set of bongos, some maracas and a guitar. We sat and watched a brilliant band outside Café Bohemia. Goodness knows how old the singer was, but he sounded incredible and so full of life, it belied the wrinkles in his face. During lunch, we were treated to another speculator performance at the nearby Meson de la Flota, a classic Cuban tavern with regular flamingo shows throughout the day.
The Floridita bar is also popular with many visitors and a favourite hangout of the writer Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for 20 years from the 1940's. Apparently he famously drank 16 daiquiris with double rum during a visit to this bar. Although tempting, we didn’t try to top that record!
A bit about our hotel….
We stayed at the Hotel Iberostar Riviera, formerly the Havana Riverian. Overlooking the Malecon, this iconic building is the closest hotel to the seafront and opened in 1957. Back then, it was the largest casino-hotel in Cuba, and briefly, the largest in the world outside of Las Vegas.
For many it’s a symbol of Cuba’s corrupt past; a glamorous meeting point for mafia bosses and crooked politicians, along with the Hollywood elite. Past guests at the hotel include Ginger Rodgers, Nat King Cole, Ava Gardener and many more.
Although the bedrooms could do with an upgrade, the foyer, pool and restaurant are impressive. You’ll find interesting and eye-caching Cuban artworks by sculptor Florencio Gelabert and muralist Rolando Lopez Dirube in the elaborate entrance.
I loved the pool and headed down first thing every morning to swim off the Margaritas. Looking up to the 1950's architecture and the old-school diving board felt like going back in time. I really felt like I was letting the whole scene down by not wearing a flower-covered swim cap and mid-century bathing suit. Next time…
Dotty Dishes was a guest of the Cuba Tourist Board - but as ever, all reviews are our honest opinion!