Fascinating Havana, Cuba

What can anyone say about La Habana that has not already been said? How many more adjectives can be attached to this city?

Amazing, energetic, proud, majestic, enigmatic, fascinating, crumbling, sad, poor, rich, vibrant, classy, downtrodden.

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They all fit. La Habana is like the pretty woman in the fancy dress who was pushed into a mud puddle. She’s still gorgeous, you can’t help staring at her misfortune, but you also can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for her. The city has a rich history (as well as a sordid history compliments of dictators, gangsters and various colonial powers) with a wealth of arts, culture and architecture to keep even the most jaded visitor busy for days. You may be tempted to attach labels. Havanaland is one that came to our minds (Miguel, Juanita and Juan Blanco).

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To a visitor, the city (like many touristed cities) can feel like a theme park, since the visitors seem to come for the attractions and the oddities without being inconvenienced by daily life. You can walk the streets and see the magnificent restorations alongside the once majestic facades, now crumbling with trees growing from the walls. Just don’t stare too closely at the residents sitting aimlessly in the courtyard. But for every resident that may look at you with indifference or even contempt, there are three who greet you warmly, want to speak with you, guide you, and be your friend. You may be getting hustled, but you are usually are not being scammed. There is almost always a give and take with most encounters. Our first night, Juan and I were looking for a Havana Club nightcap and found several young men willing to steer us to a place that was open (not hard to find since it was next door to the hotel). When one guy heard we were headed to Maria la Gorda, he said, “I’ll be right back.” He returned with a straw hat, locally hand-woven with a smart black hat band and said, “It’s hot out there, you’ll need this.” He didn’t ask for money and I didn’t offer any. I said thanks and we parted as friends. I did see him on our return to La Habana seven days later and gave him CUC$5 for the hat, which he gladly accepted. He also directed us to an Italian place (“Very good, Italian man and Cuban wife), which served the worst pizza I have ever ordered (I couldn’t eat it). So be careful whose advice you take.

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During your time in Havanaland you can cruise the city in a ’57 Chevy (just like the one you wish you had never sold, although now it has a diesel engine), stop for the tour at the cigar factory or the Havana Club rum distillery, sip a daiquiri at the Floridita (Hemingway fan or not), or maybe have a mojito at the Hotel Nacional. Sit on the comfortable patio and imagine the gangsters of the 40s making their plans for this jewel in the Caribbean. Don’t be in a hurry, the waiter will come when he or she wants to and it will likely be later rather than sooner.

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At night you can catch a revue that resembles the now-famous, but long-defunct Buena Vista Social Club or take in a serious Habana/Las Vegas-style show at the Hotel Nacional or the Tropicana. Later, return to your hotel: a large colonial showpiece or a small, former sugar baron’s mansion in the heart of Havana Vieja.

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If you were to stop here and leave for the stunning white sand beaches of Varadero, you have only scratched the surface of La Habana/Havanaland. Don’t miss a visit to Hemingway’s home, the art market, a tour of Teatro Nacional, or a walk along the Malecón at sunset (the city’s living room couch).

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For our money, it is one of the most amazing cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranking with San Francisco, New York and Buenos Aires. Don’t miss it.

COSTS     (Exchange $.90 Canadian =  CUC$1)

Night in a converted mansion run by Habaguanex –  CUC$80 and up

Casa Particulare on the Malecón –  CUC$30 – $40

Buena Vista Social Club show –  CUC$30 (includes two drinks)

Taxi from Havana Vieja to Hotel Nacional – CUC$5

A bad meal in most restaurants – CUC$2 – $20 per person

A good meal in a Havana restaurant – don’t know, never had one.