Jewel of the Caribbean : Havana
In Havana, the capital of Cuba, history is laid out like treasure wanting to be discovered on a palm fringed beach. For a novice traveler, this city might seem extremely confusing, but on finding the missing pieces and then putting them together, a lively culture full of rich history, that is Havana, emerges. As I left the airport, Havana seemed to me like a life-sized Hollywood film set with its crumbling colonial buildings, vintage cars, and locals chattering enthusiastically in Español. Over time I found out that salsa and rumba music is ever-present, and the pounding of congas (Cuban drums) breathes life into the city. My past few vacations have been spent discovering the vital parts of Havana that comprise its exquisite body.
La Habana Vieja
In La Habana Vieja (Havana’s old town), the swashbuckling history is still palpable. This is where the city first took root in 1519. Fastidiously preserved squares and palaces beside a living, breathing urban community shows how far the Cuban populace has come from two wars of independence, a revolution, and an ongoing US trade embargo. Old Havana is best explored on foot so as to enjoy the aesthetically pleasing nature of the aforementioned.
After meandering solo through the charming plazas of Old Havana, where Cuban baroque meets art nouveau, I find it impossible not to walk into the Museo Del Chocolat (Museum of Chocolate) and savor pure cold chocolate bliss. Truth be told, it’s more of a café than a museum, with clusters of marble tables sitting amongst various chocolate paraphernalia from different ages. One can even witness chocolate being made at the back of the shop while enjoying the delicacies of the place. Every single item on the menu, be it hot, cold, dark, rich or smooth, contains one common ingredient – chocolate! The experience is rich and decadent, quite like the chocolate they manufacture and serve.
Originally an oceanside boulevard in the 1950s, it has metamorphosed into a busy six-lane highway and an ocean view front. Walking along the Malecón to enjoy the sunset is definitely among my list of top ten things to do in Havana. The magnificent reds and oranges bleeding into bright yellows, changing with every passing moment inspired me like nowhere else I’ve been till now. After the sun sets, lights strung out like glittering jewels along the Malecón – a sight to behold.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Located along the Malecón, it is one of the most magnificent landmarks in Cuba. The hotel was built in the year 1930 and is designed in a mix of styles including Sevillian, Roman, Moorish, and Art Deco. Taking a step into the ornate lobby was very much like stepping into a time machine and being transported back in time. It took me a few minutes to snap out of my induced state of awe. The lobby opens up into the hotel’s gardens which are converted to museums dedicated to its role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Hours passed as I admired impeccably preserved artifacts from as early as the 1930s. Before the United States cut ties with Cuba, Hotel Nacional de Cuba was like a who’s who of people from “the Golden Era of Hollywood” many of whom have made short trips to Cuba for indulgences in the tropics. The likes of Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardener, Gary Cooper, Alexander Fleming, Walt Disney, and more have stayed at this lavish abode and their suites preserved as treasures. The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is now considered a symbol of history, culture and Cuban identity.
Callejón de Hamel
A small alleyway (Callejón) in central Havana, is essentially the high temple of Afro-Cuban culture and for art enthusiasts such as I, this is as about as raw and eccentric as it gets. The alley is decorated with vibrant murals and filled with art shops tucked away in their small niches. Every Sunday afternoon, frenetic rumba and salsa music ricochets off the walls causing the itch to dance to spread through the gathered throng like wildfire. Latin dances are generally faster-paced, more sensual and have more rhythmic expression making them endlessly entertaining and breathtaking to watch. Well, it definitely made me want to bust out every move I’d ever learnt, no matter how silly I would’ve seemed, which I did. Here, the values of a cultural identity are intrinsic.
After moving to Cuba in the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway bought Finca Vigia, a rather posh house ten miles east of Havana. He stayed here till the 1960s with his third wife and numerous cats. This colourful writer filled the house with letters, books, animal head mounts and even a boat he owned to make himself feel at home. I went there with the guide Marceleno, who explained each part of the one-storied house with vigour and detail. Finca Vigia is a wooded estate on a designed landscape. To the west site of the house, I was greeted with a panoramic view of the north shore and domes of Havana. During his time in the Cuban villa, Hemingway also wrote a great deal of his masterpiece For Whom The Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War, and penned the entirety of The Old Man and the Sea. After he committed suicide in 1961, the house was preserved in his memory and is now known as Museo Ernest Hemingway.
Fábrica d’Arte Cubano
My favourite place in Havana, without doubt. The brainchild of Afro-Cuban fusion musician X-Alfonso, this is one of Havana’s finest new art projects. A friend invited me here, an old oil factory, which has been converted to a thriving arts space in Vedado. The cover charge was only two dollars and I was greeted with a bar at the entrance itself, where I grabbed my piña colada, sin (without) alcohol, and made my way around the place. Imagine a nightclub, café, art gallery and performing arts theatre all under the same roof, an intellectual nexus for live music, dance, and art. It is the vortex of Havana’s contemporary art scene.
The lack of a stable internet connection and technical development in Havana has frustrated me to no end but then a drive along the Malecón or a day spent exploring Old Havana reminds me that there’s a completely different world beyond the internet. I’ve been coming here for all my university breaks and as my stay comes to an end I’ve realised, there’s no point in trying to figure out this city. Come with an open mind, let loose and be prepared to enjoy yourself.