We visited Havana in 2014 as a part of our World Cup Tour through Brazil. Inspired by James Bond [or the like] we went full spy mode [or as spy-like as two travelling Aussies can be] and referred to this part of our trip as our secret
As the embargo between Cuba and the United States was still in place and the rest of our trip was in and out of Miami, we needed ghost itineraries to get to Havana.
We didn’t know what to expect of Cuba. At the time there were only ever a few Canadians who would share their travels or the odd American-Celeb who was caught and fined from travelling between the two countries. So expectations were nil and information was a smidge above nil.
We only had five days in Havana so opted to stay in Cuba’s capital city rather than venture out to other towns and neighbourhoods.
Now. Let’s start with where we stayed; Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
It was, and still is in our opinion, the place to stay and to be seen. The likes of The Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill, Earnest Hemingway, Nat King Cole and many other actors, artists and writers have graced its halls. You can actually choose your room based on who of these ‘important guests’ had stayed in it also.
The hotel layout was built based on two Greek crosses so the majority of the rooms can have an ocean view. While a lot of them are fairly small in size, given suites the size of small towns weren’t really a thing they built back in the 1930’s, they still carry on the character of what the room was like when it saw all those secrets and history-making moments.
You almost don’t need to leave
Hotel Nacional to experience the culture of Cuba. At night, you can sit outside with your Cuba Libre overlooking the famous Malecón walkway which separates Havana from the ocean, and people watch.
Hotel Nacional also puts on a nightly Cabaret Parisien show called “Cubano, Cubano”. A fusion of Indoamerican, Hispanic and African cultures, that led to the Cuban culture, which is simply divine.
We were so, so blessed to catch Buena Vista Social Club playing at the hotel, with the beautiful leading female singer, Omara Portuondo, still leading the band and has continued to do so since the band at Hotel Nacional formed back in 1996. Watching an original member perform and hearing the sounds of a band which was established to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba was happiness in its purest form.
Outside the hotel though, there are so many wonderful people to meet and outside is where you truly step back in time. Take a photo in colour and then take it again in black and white. You would think the latter was pulled from your grandparents photo album. From eye-view up, candy coloured buildings amongst buildings being restored to their original form, line the streets. Below there is greenery everywhere you step, fighting for real-estate amongst the cobble streets.
We met so many genuine people here who were so excited to meet someone from another country, that they did everything they could to show us their Havana. Whether that be wonderful forests where some still practise traditional medicines, or one of the oldest bars in town which only the locals know about and go to, to dance salsa. You can almost let your ‘travelling guard’ down here because with it up, you miss what these people are truly about and how much love they have for their town, that they simply want to share with you.
Outside of the pool lazing at the hotel, we also went for a car tour around Havana which took us to all the usual sights, as well as a local authentic cafe, Buenaventura, which is quite literally a cafe setup in someones backyard –
and perhaps that’s why there are photos of celebrities like Beyonce on their walls, because when you’re not supposed to be in that country, a cafe in a residential street is the perfect spot spot for lunch.
As rum fans we of course did the Havana Club tour. A fun afternoon out with a lot of tastings … followed by an afternoon siestas ha!
We spent most of our days though wandering about to the local markets and the streets of Havana. The heat and humidity was intense. And when we say intense, we mean in-tense. From memory it was 90-something in humidity with a temperature of around 40 Degrees Celsius, so a lot of our days consisted of wandering, cool-offs at bars for refreshing Cuba Libres and then more wanderings. Coconut ice-cream served in the shell of the coconut was a daily treat which we learnt to eat very quickly because within a minute of being outside, we would be eating coconut cream.
Our recommendations for Cuba are to visit with no expectations. Even with the embargo lifted, this is such a unique country with joyful people. Limited influence from the outside world truly does do wonders to a place; knowing it’s
own identity without trying to follow others.
Buy the wonderful artwork and photographs from the locals, take in the sights with a local cocktail special and cigar and let yourself step back in time to those wonder years.
Now. All this talk about Havana has us wanting a Cuba Libre, so excuse us while we sit back and take ourselves back to our moment in Havana. If you want to join us, all you need is good rum + coke + a solid wedge of lime.