Once a Spanish colony, then an American Satellite state and now a Communist regime. Cuba has been through a lot of harsh times. But what will amaze you is the resilience and resolve of her people, which still stand strong. Here is our journey through Havana, the vibrant capital of Cuba!
Havana is split into 3 major areas – El Vedado, Centro Habana and La Habana Vieja. We started at Vedado, crossed over to Centro Habana (or Central Havana) and ended at La Habana Vieja (or Old Havana).
Vedado is the new or modern area of Havana which serves as the Business district and the Urban neighbourhood. El Vedado means “The Forbidden Zone”, as it was once a Military area during the Spanish rule and closed to public. Post liberation from Spanish, this area became a favourite of the US Investors, leading to a posh buildings in different classical styles, which still exist today.
One of the main attraction or landmark here is the Plaza de la Revolución or the Revolution Square. This is the central Square of Havana, where key people like Fidel Castro used to address the Cuban people. Many important buildings surround the square, the most prominent one being the Memorial to José Martí – Cuban National hero who liberated Cuba from Spanish rule.
Facing the same, in the opposite end of the square, are two buildings with images of two other great heroes of Cuba. On the left is Ministry of Interior, with image of Che Guevara and his famous words – “Hasta la victoria siempre” or “Until everlasting victory always”.
On the right is the Ministry of Communications, with image of Camilo Cienfuegos, another Cuban revolutionary hero and Fidel’s friend, with his words “Vas bien, Fidel” or “You’re doing fine, Fidel”
On our way to the next destination, our guide and driver stopped briefly at a calm and quiet area of the city, full of greenery. This was the Parque Almendares, the only major green area of the city. It has a lot of history and mystery attached to it. Now certain sections are used for recreation by the people in the city, but some bear witness to strange offerings and rituals of the followers of Yoruba Religion, practiced primarily by Afro-Cubans. They are descendants of erstwhile slaves who were brought from West Africa. Their religion is now integrated with Christianity, but still retain many strange rituals, which appear like voodoo or Black magic to most.
Another famous landmark in this neighbourhood is Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This is one of the luxury hotels in Havana with a lot of History. Many world leaders have stayed here on diplomatic visits. This Hotel also played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Anti-Aircraft guns and Bunkers manned in it’s compound during that time. Fidel himself used to visit this place and observe the American fleet from the bunkers here.
This area of Vedado has many luxury Hotels. Another one is Habana Libre shown below, viewed from entrance of Hotel Nacional.
Centro Habana or Central Havana
The Central part of Havana is not a Tourist friendly place. Sandwiched between Vadado in the west, Old Havana in the East and the famous Malecón Seawall in the North, Central Havana is a crowded, run down residential district. This the place we decided to stay, as there are many economical and well maintained Air B&Bs here.
North of Central Havana lies one of the iconic landmarks of Havana – the Malecón – an 8km long seawall and road along the coast. A walk through here is a must, especially when the tide is high! Prepare to be drenched by the high waves splashing on to the seawalls. At night this area becomes alive, as it a popular place for local people to spend their evenings. They spend time chatting, playing instruments or munching on some freshly prepared snacks cooked on stalls that open up as night falls.
Habana Viejo or Old Havana
This is the most visited and touristy part of the City – primarily because of the vibrance, the architecture and history. The border between Central Havana and Old Havana is the Paseo del Prado, a promenade that starts from Malecón and runs inward. This avenue is richly decorated on both sides with classic lamp posts, marble benches and lined with trees in some sections.
As we move inward from Malecon through the promenade, we come to the Central Park, surrounded by ornate buildings.
From here the Pedestrian part of Old Havana starts.From here the Pedestrian part of Old Havana starts. You can walk through myriad narrow lanes, lined with bars, souvenir stalls, bakeries, street performers and of course, tourists like us!
Each building and alley had a story behind them and it was great to listen to them from our guide as we walked by them. The photo opportunities in this part of town are unlimited!
The best place to get a panoramic view of Old Havana is the View point at the base of the statue of Christ of Havana. This statue can be seen from most places in the city and is located on a hill overlooking the Havana bay in the Casablanca neighbourhood.
Vintage Cars of Havana
It would be a crime to move on if I don’t mention a word or two about the vintage cars of Cuba. As you may have seen in the pictures above, there are many 50s-60s era American cars in the street of Havana. After the Cuban Revolution when communists came to power under Fidel Castro, a trade embargo was placed on Cuba. With no local manufacturing facilities and heavy taxes, owning new cars became a dream for most Cubans. But there were many cars already on the streets, from the American period before the revolution. So the Cubans kept on maintaining them till date. Recently, when Cuba opened its doors to tourism, they became a sensation. The moment you step out of airport, you get a feeling of being transported back in time to the 60s, when you see all the classic cars plying the streets!
Important things to keep in mind before visiting Cuba
Bring Money in Cash as Euro or GBP – It is highly unlikely that your Debit or Credit card will work in Cuba due to the ongoing trade embargo. We tried unsuccessfully to withdraw cash using cards issued by Citibank, State Bank of India and ICICI Bank, when we ran out of cash. (We survived couple of days thanks to our guide who trusted us and agreed to accept part of payment later once we leave Cuba!) US Dollars are not favoured and has an extra surcharge for conversion. Currencies that are popular are CAD, GBP or EUR. So best is to bring cash (always budget some extra) and exchange them at the counter in the Airport before leaving – and count the bills.
Mobile Roaming most likely would not work – Cubacel is the only Network on the Island and our Vodafone SIMs didn’t latch on to the same. There are coin operated pay phones in the streets at regular intervals. Our host was kind enough to let us use his land-line or desk phone for an emergency.
Internet is slow and expensive, limited to Public places – Internet is regulated by the government and individual connections are not allowed. They are available only in Public WiFi Hot Spots, access to which is provided basis Recharge cards. If your Hostel is offering you internet, it is illegal, routed from Hot Spot areas.
There are 2 currencies – CUC and CUP – operate with care – Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and Cuban Peso (CUP) are two currencies in circulation in Cuba. As a foreigner, you are supposed to use only the former – CUC – for your transactions. This is roughly pegged at par to the US Dollar. CUP is used by locals, and is at a rate of 25 CUPs to 1 CUC. The CUC currently notes have Monuments while CUP notes have Portraits – easy way to check that you are not duped.
Where to Stay – Hotels are very expensive, and cannot be booked online on booking sites like Hotel.com or Booking.com. However, there are many affordable, clean and safe Bed & Breakfasts, which can be booked online via airbnb.com. The ones listed on Trip Advisor, may not be listed here, so you would have to reach out to the host directly to enquire for availability. You must plan in advance or the good ones get booked out!