Havana is like no other place on earth. The crumbling facades and graceful neglect of its formerly elegant buildings, the sight of 1950s American cars on its streets and the magnificent sweep of the Malecón at sunset, all feel familiar from a thousand photos and travel stories. It’s almost impossible to arrive in this city without the baggage of overblown expectation and a head full of cliché.
Havana doesn’t disappoint though and we cut short our trip elsewhere in Cuba to have two more days in this extraordinary place. Things are changing fast in Cuba and you can almost feel this once great city waking from its 50-year slumber; it’s only a matter of time before it reclaims its spot on the world stage.
Exhausted from a long flight and disoriented by the heat and humidity after leaving the northern European winter behind, we went for dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Malecón. After a short stroll along this legendary waterfront we were back in our casa particular in Havana Centro for an early night.
The thumping music woke us around midnight. Somewhere amidst the dilapidated, tightly packed streets of Havana Centro a party had just erupted. This is a city where life is lived on the streets and people have a (very) high tolerance for noise. The salsa was still filling the night air at 2am. I fell back to sleep imagining the rum infused fun we were missing.
The next day we got up early, the cool of the morning beckoning us onto the roof terrace. We watched the comings and goings in the surrounding streets and neighbouring rooftops, Havana Centro coming to life. After breakfast in the casa we headed out to see the Malecón in daylight, walking along the waterfront towards Havana’s old colonial heart, Havana Vieja.
Centrally clustered and facing the imposing Fort of San Carlos de la Cabana, Havana Vieja was one of the greatest cities in the New World, the key to Spain’s empire in the Americas. It’s one of the most atmospheric places I’ve visited. At once familiar yet utterly different to Panama City’s Casco Viejo and Colombia’s Cartagena. Both of which offer a glimpse into one possible future for Havana.
It would be easy to describe Old Havana as a living museum but there’s just too much life for that. Parts of the old town have been painstakingly renovated under the guidance of Havana’s official historian, other parts are all crumbling plaster and faded grandeur. The joy of Havana Vieja’s narrow streets and airy plazas is just wandering and absorbing the sights and sounds.
This is the most touristed part of Havana and a hotbed of jintero activity. Hustlers and con-artists – jinteros – will try to befriend you and then take advantage of you. It happens everywhere but in these narrow streets it seems magnified. It’s irritating but not as much as restaurants that overcharge or give you the wrong change – another speciality of Old Havana.
We started our ramblings through Havana Vieja in the Plaza de la Catedral, a baroque square dating from the 18th Century. This is the place to get – for a small fee – your photos of cigar-smoking ladies wearing traditional costume, and is the perfect starting point for an exploration of Havana Old Town…
Where we stayed in Havana:
Joel y Yadilis
Industria 120 altos e/ Trocadero y Colon.
Tel. (537) 863 0565 / Movil 05 2835769