‘Crumbling colonial charm’ just doesn’t cover it. Arriving in Havana is like landing in a time warp mash-up of 1800s Spain and 1950s Americana. Old Havana’s rambling streets are lined with candy-coloured vintage cars, locals lingering in doorways, and strains of salsa music drifting from open windows. Atmosphere, intrigue and colour are what make Cuba one of the world’s hottest new travel spots.
Another first impression is the lack of advertising in the streets, with none of the big hoardings we’re used to. Certainly there are some big billboards featuring Che Guevara but hardly ever Fidel Castro. Apparently he did not want himself portrayed as a cult of personality — rare for a dictator!
Staying in Old Town Havana offered easy access to shopping, and the famous bar where the daiquiri was invented. La Floridita was the favoured watering hole of Ernest Hemingway, whose bronze statue now has a permanent position leaning against the bar.
I was really surprised at the number of pre-revolutionary American cars on the road. Far from being purely for tourists, they are actually still in common use. Hiring a beautiful old Buick convertible is the best way to see the city!
A visit to a cigar factory is a must, as is the Havana Club Rum Factory, if only for a tot of rum before a walking tour of the Old Town. Much of this area is now pedestrianised, and great to wander around soaking up the atmosphere. A lot of restoration is going on, which is encouraging, and dining locally revealed a vast improvment on the culinary front since my last visit. It’s also really worthwhile taking in a salsa show in Havana, or you could venture out and enjoy Havana’s vibrant nightlife, with salsa and jazz clubs open until the wee hours. Be prepared to dance!
History surrounds you in Havana, from the colonial architecture to the Spanish forts. You can visit Che Guevara’s house, and a display of missiles that were at the centre of the 1962 Missile Crisis when the world came to the brink of nuclear war.
En route to Trinidad, we passed through rural countryside of sugar cane and horse and carts. Stopping at a country school, our gift of exercise books from New Zealand was received with great glee by the kids, who responded in song — one of those spontaneous moments that stay with you forever.
Trinidad itself offers a much more low-key experience, with an interesting museum, small market and a quaint square perfect for people-watching. Close by is the very pleasant town of Santa Clara, with its memorial to Che Guevara. An interesting little museum revealed that Che was in fact a very keen rugby player when at university in Buenos Aires.
So there it is, I thoroughly recommend Cuba! OK so the roads are a little less than perfect and things don’t always run to clockwork, but this is more than made up for by the people, the amazing atmosphere and the absolute gem that is Havana. I’d return in a heartbeat.
Words: Chris Lyons, director, World Journeys