Havana is a city full of life where everything is recycled. Everywhere you turn there is a classic car waiting at a stop light, and instead of people with heads buried in their cell phones, everyone is interacting with each other!
The first stop to make is at Hotel National, the hotel that was run by gangsters before the government repossessed it after the revolution. It has beautiful, classic architecture with hand carved statues and old fixtures everywhere. The cars that pull up to the front are old taxis that have been immaculately maintained throughout the decades
If you walk out of the back of the hotel, you are greeted with an incredible view of the Malecon, one of the more famous aspects of Havana. The Malecon wraps around what seems like the entire beachfront, and is a great place to hang around during sunset for photography. If you are there after sunset, do not be surprised by the changing crowd around you. At dark, the area attracts a younger crowd who gathers to smoke, drink, and socialize.
Mercado de Artesis
If you are looking for gifts to bring home, I would head to Mercado de Artesis. It is a market place of artists that have endless paintings, trinkets, leather goods, and wooden carvings that can suit anyone's needs and tastes.
A couple things to keep in mind here:
Watch out for pick pockets, this place is an incredibly easy place to target tourists.
All prices are negotiable! Make sure you start the offer low, though not so low that the vendors are insulted.
If you buy art, you will need an artist receipt to get it through customs. Without the receipt, the Cuban government will claim the work from you before you leave!
Museo de la Revolucion
Venturing deeper into the middle of the city you will find Museo de la Revolucion which depicts how the entire revolution started. Learning more about the history from a Cuban's perspective was actually quite interesting.
In 1940, the first president was elected in Cuba: Fulgencio Batista. In 1952, he became president again after seizing power in a military coup and canceling the 1952 elections. During his first term he was a relatively progressive president, but after seizing power, he transformed into a dictator who grew indifferent to popular concerns.
Batista formed lucrative bonds with organized crime while letting American companies dominate the Cuban economy. This, combined with Cuba being plagued by high unemployment and a limited water structure, resulted in the spark that lit the fire of revolution.
The courts threw out a young Fidel Castro's petition claiming that Batista was corrupt and a tyrant, spurring Castro's realization that his cause could not be fulfilled through legal means. He began rallying allies in the community to join his cause, and recruited people from the disgruntled working class.
These recruits--led by Fidel and his brother Raul--planned and executed a multi-pronged attack against several military installations, but were highly unsuccessful. The attack cost them half of their 123 fighters, and led to the arrests of both Castro brothers.
Due to broad political pressure, Fidel and Raul served only one year of their respective 15 and 13 year sentences. Upon release, they were exiled to Mexico where Fidel met Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
The Castros coordinated another attack in 1956, but were again unsuccessful, losing three quarters of their 83 rebels and eventually escaping to the mountains.
After another unsuccessful attack by the anti-communist student revolutionary directorate, the US pulled its support of the incumbent Cuban government, imposed an economic embargo, and recalled its ambassador, all of which weakened the government's mandate even further. This gave strength to Fidel and Che’s cause, and through many other battles, deteriorated the Batista government eventually leading to its downfall.
After the collapse of the Barista government, there were an array of progressive social reforms put into place that focused on improving education, communications, health, and housing. Laws were enacted to provide equality for black Cubans and greater rights for women.
Cuba continued to grow and develop with the support of the Soviet Empire. The country even experienced a golden period during the 60’s and 70’s, but when the Soviet Empire crumbled, so did Cuba. During the 90’s and early 00’s, Cuba entered into “the Special Period” featuring a financial crash of its economy and the welfare of the state.
The original rights implemented by the Castro government during its initial years also began to deteriorate as time went on. Fidel started his presidency as the hero and eventually became a paranoid dictator who would crush any possible resistance against his dictatorship. This trickled down into individual neighborhoods as well, where community members were tasked with reporting any individuals who spoke out against the government.
Now that the US has started to formalize and repair relations with the country, there is the hope in Cuba that the financial gains from tourism will help bring this failed state out of its poverty stricken status.
Plaza de la Revolucion
There are a number of monuments that recall much of Cuba's history, including the Plaza de la Revolucion which I highly recommend visiting. The plaza's main feature is a monument dedicated to Che and Castro. This location brings new meaning once you learn more about the entire story of what transpired in Cuba.
Food and Drinks
The food and drink of Cuba could be half the reason that you end up going. We were fortunate to have gotten lucky with most of the recommendations that we received.
For lunch a lot of the time we ended up eating where we were drinking which was El Floridita and La Bodeguta Del Medio. The food at both was great, but the food at Bodeguta was exceptional. You would never think that a place with such amazing drinks would have a semi-hidden restaurant in the back with such amazing food. It had a very authentic Cuban vibe and taste. I ended up with the beef, rice, and beans plate and it was hands down one of the better meals I have had while traveling.
Another lunch place that our local Cuban guide turned us onto was Los Chanchelleros, it was more in the middle of El Capitolio and was also a spectacular meal. A lot of food and had a great authentic feel of Cuba.
For a full night out what you can do is head over to El Cocinero for dinner and then head next door to Fabrice de Arte Cubano for drinks and entertainment.
El Cocinero was a more upscale restaurant that had great food and wine but what I found interesting was that all of their place settings were classic upscale 1940’s and 1950’s. It is one of the places that reminds you of how isolated Cuba is, or was now that the US is letting people into it.
After a nice relaxing dinner head next door to Fabrice De Arte Cubano for signature Cuban entertainment. They do not have TV or access to the reliable internet, so one of their main escapes is art, it also can provide extra income in a destitute country. Fabrice De Arte Cubano is the showcase of a lot of this art, but it is also a nightclub which is an incredibly fascinating combination of genres.
They have a section in the back that showcases new bands and returning favorites while in the front they feature artists. When you move upstairs, they have more art as well as a movie playing that you can flow in and out of.
Truly a unique place and worth a visit to get a great feel of Cuba
The place that is a must go for dinner is a place we ended up going to twice, Café Laurent. It was started by a French chef that has a spectacular palate. The food was just out of this world, and the view from above the Malecon wasn't too shabby either!
“My Daiquiri is at La Floridita, and my mojito is at La Bodeguta Del Medio.”—Hemingway
When you walk into El Capitolio, the first stop should be to get a Daquiri at La Floridita. The atmosphere is spectacular, the drinks are strong, and it is a cultural landmark of Havana. Sitting at the iconic red bar taking in sight and just having that authentic feeling of Cuba is what makes this place unique.
If you haven’t had too many drinks head over to La Bodeguta Del Medio. This place is a hole in the wall, compared to La Floridita, with only enough room to stand at the bar but the drinks are worth it.
One of the main ways to tell of a good mojito is if they muddle the mint correctly. The way to muddle properly is to start with mint and lime in the glass and slowly crush the mint into the bottom of the glass. You can have a cube of ice in there if you need more texture to release the flavoring from the mint, but many people make the mistake of adding liquid in first and then trying to muddle which makes a good idea turn into a bad solution.
Both La Floridita and La Bodeguta Del Medio have entertainment inside. La Floridita has a more classic ensemble while La Bodeguta has more of a street band feel.
The last large Hemingway landmark is his house! It is about a 30-45 minute drive from town, and you can arrange to have a cab take you out there and wait for you while you visit his home. The home is an extreme contrast to what the rest of Cuba is. He had money, and they certainly did not.
The house inside has all of the original books and furniture and gives a peek into the mind of Hemingway. The garden that surrounds the house is lush and abundant with flowers, trees, palms, and these beautiful purple plants. Finally, inside of the tower, you will find the iconic typewriter where Hemingway wrote all of his books
- If you have any friends in Europe that can help you book the trip, do so with their assistance. It costs 90% less to book travel to Cuba from Europe when compared to traveling from the US (as of 2014)
- GO NOW-- As the US has started to normalize relations with Cuba, the magic and allure of Cuba will start to fade as American cash flows into the country. I fear that the country will eventually transform into another Cabo San Lucas, but for the time being, it is a historical treasure that will take you back in time.
- Photojournalism is your friend in this city. Many of the people are happy to have their photo taken and you will take some of the best photographs of your career here.
- Canon 6D
- Canon 24-70mm ƒ2.8 L II
- Canon 70-200mm ƒ2.8 IS II
- Canon 24mm ƒ1.4 I
Instead of highlighting a particular group or organization here, I wanted to call attention to the aid and support you (and all individual tourists) can bring to the country. You are the nonprofit highlight.
If you venture to Cuba, you can help its citizens drastically by bringing feminine hygiene products, candy for the kids, and other disposable essentials of everyday life. The more you bring the better.
The resources in Cuba are extremely scarce, and the people there are thankful for anything you can provide. Donating any of these items can also lead to learning more about the city, and about the real Cuba