Travel | Havana like a Local
After a crazy busy summer spent working too many jobs, I really needed a vacation. I didn’t feel like planning a complicated trip, all I wanted was to relax and not have to worry about planning anything once I arrive at destination. I chose to go to Havana mainly because I love architecture and it’s one of the most architecturally diverse city in the world. The streets and the people emanate a complicated past of two independence wars and a revolution which literally make you feel like you’ve been placed in a time capsule and shipped to another time.
Another reason I chose this destination is that I wanted to disconnect completely and it’s actually really hard to find wifi in Havana unless you’re staying at one of those beautiful palace/hotels in Havana Vieja.
Last but not least, Varadero is two hours away and I desperately wanted to go spend a few days sun bathing by the ocean and sip on mojitos all day.
I split my week into two parts, beach and city and had the clever idea (budget wise) to book a 7-day trip in a all inclusive resort in Varadero, that would cover my flight, food, hotel (for only 680,00$) and then just book a few nights in a casa particular in Havana which you could compare to a small hotel or bed & breakfast. I found mine through Airbnb and it turned out to be the most charming place.
Staying with locals
Our hosts Arturo and MAGALY welcomed us into a luminous turquoise apartment in a old colonial building. We were glad to share a home with local hosts that treated us like family. They spoke only Spanish and I was pleased to find out how good my Spanish could become when placed in a situation where I can’t try to patch a conversation using English words. I realized I could hold a good 10 minute conversation about life, the government and politics and that made me feel happy. It wasn't perfect but at least we understood each other using other words than cerveza por favor.
It’s important to mention that in Havana, all buildings are incredibly beautiful, but you’ll notice they’ve been very neglected over the years by a government who owns everything but doesn’t seem to care much about preserving the beauty of the city. Most buildings are actually pretty wrecked, sometimes in ruins… Fortunately, I heard a historian named Eusebio Leal Spengler has been piecing the city back together in the past years.
I didn’t quite understand how my cuban hosts could offer accommodation though Airbnb considering it’s an American company. The ban on travel by the US government is still valid to this day and although the relationship between Cuba and the United States was progressing a few years ago, it’s now regressing (I wonder why eh?)… Magaly explained to me that when Obama was the president of the US he hired ambassadors to go speak to the cuban people and offer them the opportunity to rent out their apartment to help them make ends meet. I LOVE HIM for doing that, especially considering the fact that the average salary in cuba is 40 pesos a month and this extra income can certainly improve a way of life.
The first time I experienced Havana I was only there for a day trip. I spent most of my time in the Old part of Havana (Havana Vieja) which is absolutely STUNNING but doesn’t really represent the cuban lifestyle because it’s crawling with tourists and cubans trying to sell stuff to tourists. I would highly recommend venturing into other parts of the city that have a completely different vibe!
What I really enjoyed this year was staying in Centro Habana with the locals, where I was the only tourist and I really got to experience the cuban way of life. People chatting and smoking cigarettes on their stoop, a whole family of 10 watching tv in a one bedroom apartment (no door) right on the ground floor… A man doing some people watching on his magnificent balcony or roof top terrace…It’s quite odd but fascinating that they barely have access to basic goods, live on little to nothing but stay in these Baroque, Art Deco and Art nouveau styled apartments.
On the second day, I ventured to Vedado another interesting neighbourhood a few miles west of Old Havana which use to be a military defense zone for the Spanish colonizers hence the name : “Vedado” which means “forbidden” in Spanish. One of the best ways to spend a day in Vedado is simply to wander through the streets and contemplate the stunning mansions that represent one-of-a-kind Cuban architecture. The area is also the epicentre of a new contemporary arts & culinary scene.
I really enjoyed visiting the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a very elegant hotel located on the Malecon for a mix Sevillian, Roman, Moorish and Art Deco architecture. In it’s 80 years of existence, The National has had many important visitors such as Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kate Moss, Justin Trudeau to name a few (what an eclectic mix!). At the back of the hotel there’s a luxuriant garden by the ocean and you can even visit underground tunnels used during the cuban missile crisis.
In my opinion, Havana is a wonderful city but to be honest it’s pretty hectic and complicated to get around in it’s maze of colourful buildings. There is little to no public transportation at all, even locals have to get around in taxis. I usually love to walk everywhere but this time, because of the hurricane season heat and the cars honking continuously for no reason I didn’t enjoy it that much.
I would definitely recommend going to Havana a couple days to experience the vibrant cuban culture, music and art scene, but plan some extra time to go visit the country side of Cuba in Vinales or relax by the beautiful crystal clear beaches of Varadero.