At first glance, Havana seems like a bit of a mess. The streets are deteriorating, the buildings crumbling and most cars are sputtering dark smoke out their tailpipes. It is the capital city of Cuba, and home to over 2 million people. Despite the fact that many of the buildings have been neglected in the last 50 years, there is still something to be appreciated in looking back at a city trapped in a time capsule. Havana has a long history and every building in the city could tell you a story.
From Cancun, it is only a 1-hour flight to Jose Marti International, so last year we decided to take a quick weekend trip to explore Havana. One thing we realized very quickly, is that Havana looks really amazing in photos – it’s easy to focus in on something beautiful, ignoring the bigger picture which is sometimes crumbling.
We stayed in the Centro district, right next to the Malecon, and it was probably the least developed of the downtown area. This part of town is very central and were able to walk to most places.
As you begin to explore the city, you begin to feel the city, and a different story emerges, despite its first impression. There is a vibe or energy that you can’t put your finger on right away. It isn’t something you can see or touch, but it is there, permeating through everything that is Cuba. The people that live here give the city its soul, and once you get over the fact that the city just needs a facelift, there is so much beauty to be found.
The city was founded by the Spanish in 1515 and was an important trading port for their conquest of the Caribbean. Much of this historical footprint has survived until today, centering around the modern day port of Havana and the narrow Canal de Entrada. Since this is where the cruise ship port is located, most of the historic squares and buildings here have been maintained and renovated to make it a bit more tourist friendly and visually appealing.
The Malecon was the place to go sit and relax. It is a popular spot for locals to come socialize in the evenings, while enjoying the sunset along the seawall that protects the city from the Caribbean. This grand boulevard is also a great place to sit and watch colourful 1950’s cars drive by. It was here that we found our favourite bar – called La Abadia – built inside of an old church selling amazing Mojitos. We sat at one of the long communal tables on re-purposed church pews.
We also traveled west of downtown, to the more bohemian artist areas. The highlight of this was the neighborhood of Fusterlandia, where a local artist has decorated the entire neighborhood, covering nearly everything in art. Using mostly tiles, this artist has made the world his canvas. It was very cool.
Our last stop of the trip was to the Cuban Art Factory (Fábrica de Arte Cubano) – which is a big art gallery / social space built inside an old factory. When we arrived it was unexpectedly closed. Apparently, this art collective regularly pushes the boundaries with what is accepted in Cuba, and can sometimes be controversial.
Fortunately, there was a restaurant built on the rooftop of this old building (called El Cocinero, or “the chef”) where we had dinner. We began the evening at the bar, which was built into the smokestack, before moving to the patio for the best meal we had in Cuba. The setting here was perfect.
Havana is a beautiful city that everyone should visit once in their lifetime. The locals are super friendly and have an amazing city to share with you. As more tourists begin to arrive, the city will get a facelift after all these years of neglect. So you have to visit Havana. And soon!
It’s going to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the years to come. Already it has become a cruise ship destination, and the old town has already received it’s face-lift. The Malecon could one day be lined with Starbucks and Burger Kings. While it’s hard to say if these changes will alter the heart and soul that makes Havana what it is today, this isn’t a chance I would recommend taking.
Street life in Havana. 2017.
El Capitolo. 2017.
Laundry Day. 2017.
Posing for a classic tourist photo with Che. 2017.
A woman sits along the Malecon. 2017.
El Capitolo. 2017.
The Havana Club Bar downtown. 2017.
Real Cuban Sandwiches. 2017.
Norma in Fusterlandia. 2017.
Narrow Streets of the old town. 2017.
Playing along the Malecon at the entrance to Havana Harbour. 2017.
The Bacardi Building. 2017.
Large Cuban Flag. 2017.
Two Mojitos in the Havana Club Bar. 2017.
Old City. 2017.
Castro Art. 2017.
Hanging Shoes. 2017.
Self Portrait in the back of a classic car. 2017.
Different styles of architecture. 2017.
Happy (and wet) Rob posing for his picture in Fusterlandia. 2017.
Cocktails on the rooftop bar at El Cocinero, built into an old factory 2017.
Classic car driving past El Capitolo. 2017.