You could spend weeks in Havana and still not find the time to see or experience half of it. It’s easy to understand why people come to Cuba just to visit the city. It’s a place that imposes a lazy pace of life on you whether you like it or not. Best to embrace the rhythm of the city, have that 10am glass of rum with your casa owner and see where the day takes you.
We had three days in Havana when we first arrived and quickly realised that we’d want to have more time in Cuba’s greatest city. Coming back for another couple of days at the end of our trip a different Havana greeted us. Thanks to its economic isolation, most of Cuba is very sleepy and Havana suddenly felt like a big, bustling city.
Most of our time in Havana was spent wandering the streets, popping into cafes and bars to cool down and listen to music, trying to get a feel for the city. We were staying in a casa particular just behind the Malecon, Havana’s iconic waterfront, in the Havana Centro area of the city. A perfect location for exploration.
Havana Centro is yet to feel much benefit from the tourist boom or government investment. It’s a dilapidated area of crumbling buildings, piles of rubbish grace street corners and the smell of broken sewers fills the air. Yet it’s the most fascinating area of Havana we visited. The busy compact streets are full of life, day and night. It’s a more authentic, less glamorous version of Havana Vieja.
Built in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries to accommodate the city’s growing population, Havana Centro is separated from Havana Vieja by the glorious Prado, or the Paseo de Marti to give it its official name. This was one of our favourite streets, home to ever-changing scenes of daily life overshadowed by beautiful buildings.
You can walk from the waterfront all the way up the Prado to the Capitolio Nacional. Styled on Washington DC’s Capitol, it was built slightly larger just to make a point. It sits next to the meringue-like Gran Teatro de Havana, and is close to Parque Central where a clutch of high-end hotels offer wifi, good drinks and live music. The terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra was the obvious choice for a piña colada and people-watching.
Behind the Capitol is a part of Havana Centro mostly ignored by foreigners. We strolled for hours, finally giving in to the heat and taking a bicycle taxi to the weirdly sterile Plaza de la Revolución. After the cramped streets of Havana Centro this vast open space feels like you’ve entered a different universe, almost like it doesn’t belong to Havana.
This is the seat of the Cuban Government and home to the Communist Party. It’s also where Fidel Castro addressed up to a million people on important dates associated with the Revolution. There isn’t a scrap of shade and Castro would bore the pants off people for hours on end. My idea of hell. More recently, Pope Francis addressed a huge crowd here. Also my idea of hell, but a sign of changing times.
The Plaza de la Revolución is instantly recognisable by the large steel memorials to Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos, The Hero of Yaguajay, is less well-known than Che Guevara (have you ever seen a t-shirt with Cienfuegos on it?), but he played a key role in defeating Batista’s government. He died in 1959 shortly after the triumph of the Revolution.
The plaza is a sort of No Man’s Land dislocated from the rest of the city. As we pondered our options a Coco Taxi pulled up, the urge to take a ride in Havana’s most absurd form of transport was irresistable. Coco Taxis have a less than enviable safety record, but they are a lot of fun. We whizzed down to the Malecon and then walked all the way back to Havana Centro as the sun set. It was a fabulous ‘goodbye’ to Cuba.