We visited Cuba in early 2016 and spent 2 days in Havana. Read below for what we got up to and where we stayed when there.
Havana, Cuba’s capital, was our first destination in Cuba and we didn’t get off to the best of starts. Our late evening flight from Toronto arrived into Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport at 10pm. Having loaded off the plane and got our passports stamped we went to the luggage conveyor belt to wait for our bags. We waited, and waited. After about 30 minutes people started to get agitated but we were soothed with the words that there was a problem with the truck moving the baggage from the plane to the conveyor belt. Unfortunately this turned out to be a lie and some 2 hours later we were still waiting for our bags. Eventually they did arrive and rumors amongst fellow travelers suggested the long delay may have been due to the impending visit of Barack Obama, who was making a historic visit to the island just days later. Having finally made our way into the airport lobby, we met our very patient taxi driver, which was pre-booked by our casa in Havana. He immediately took us outside to join the long queue of people who were waiting to exchange money. It is not possible to get Cuban Peso’s outside of Cuba so everyone had to endure the same process. Be careful, these money changing booths are a hotspot for scams by the workers behind the desk who will short change you, so have your wits about you! Unfortunately having endured a long wait in the airport and with a long day behind us we fell victim to this scam, so take your time when exchanging money and count out all your notes – double checking if necessary! Having had quite a difficult start to our time in Cuba we settled into bed at our casa and hoped that things could only improve from here, and they did!
We stayed at Aby’s Casa in Havana Centro, just a stone’s throw away from El Capitolo. We stayed in a double room with a private bathroom for 30CUC (~€25) per night. Breakfast, which consisted of a delicious fruit salad and fried eggs, topped off with a coffee and fruit smoothie, was an extra 5CUC per person. I would highly recommend staying in Aby’s Casa whilst in Havana, its location is very central and the people who run this Casa Particular are very nice and courteous.
Havana Things to do
Havana is an extremely historical city, and as such, it has many points of interest. Top of the things to do is to take a stroll around Havana Vieja, or Old Havana. This was our starting point as we begun meandering through the almost ruin like streets until we came to Plaza de Armas. This rustic square contained numerous market stalls with items varying from hats with Cuban flags embroidered on the side, to comics dating back to Cuban Revolutionary times, depicting Fidel Castro as the hero of the day!
Plaza de Armas
We continued on our Havana Vieja tour by visiting the imposing Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta on the edge of the harbour. This castle is oozing in history and played a key part in the maritime history of Havana through the ages. Its strategic location allows you to have a good view across the harbor to see La Cabaña hill and the not-so-famous Christ of Havana statue.
Canons at Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta
Following on from our castle visit we went to other famous squares in Havana; Plaza Vieja and Plaza de la Catedral. Plaza Vieja is a beautiful square which is surrounded by pastel colored colonial buildings. The beauty and colors of this square captivated us so much that we decided to have our lunch in one of the numerous cafes around the area, enjoying our first experience of Cuban cuisine and their famous mojitos. Following lunch we made our way to Plaza de la Catedral, which is named after the Catedral which dominates it; Catedral de San Cristobal. This Catedral is the reason that this plaza is the busiest of all plaza’s in Havana and its no wonder, with its impressive Cuban Baroque architecture. It gets its name from the statue of St.Christoper which adorns the inside of this impressive building.
Our next adventure in Havana took us out to the seaside, in order to walk the famous Malecón. The Malecón stretches for 8km from Havana Vieja to the Vedado neighborhood. We ventured past crumbling buildings and classic Cuban cars and enjoyed the vistas of the Havana skyline that greeted us every step of the way. We walked as far as the Hotel Nacional, a historic hotel which dominated the skyline on this part of the Malecón. Here we went to the hotel gardens and enjoyed a (another) mojito, to reward us for all we had achieved. On our way home we stopped by for pictures at El Capitolo and Hotel Inglaterra as the light turned to dusk. After another lovely meal and some Bucanero beer we rested up before our second day of adventure in Havana!
Walking along the Malecón
Our well earned Mojito from Hotel Nacional
We woke early on Day 2 in Havana, looking forward to doing more exploration of this great city. Our plans for Day 2 were to experience more of Cuba’s recent history, and in particular the one aspect of it which still dominates its life today, the Cuban Revolution. After another wonderful breakfast in Aby’s Casa we headed off on our adventure, with our first stop being the Museo de la Revolución. This fascinating museum is located in a visually striking building, which used to be the Presidential Palace up until Fulgencio Batista was dethroned. The museum contains 3 floors, and you start at the top, moving chronologically to the bottom through the many events which shaped the Cuban revolution. The museum gives a captivating, if slightly one sided, explanation of the revolution and is highly recommended.
A funny piece in the Museo de la Revolución
Our next move was one which was not planned, but was relatively successful. After being pestered by the numerous guides outside the Museo de la Revolución, we decided to hire one, not least because it meant we didn’t need to worry about transport! We were stuffed into the back of a Lada which had seen better days, and our first stop was Plaza de la Revolución. This plaza is monstrous and is the 31st largest city square in the whole world, measuring 72,000 square metres! This square is where numerous speeches/political rallies are held and it is not uncommon to see the entire square full of patriotic Cubans (1 million people crammed into this square in 1998 to witness the visit of Pope John Paul II). The architecture of this square is what I would describe as quintessential communist, ugly high-rising grey buildings, but it is interesting to visit this square none the less. To the north of the square there are two buildings, each adorned with a mural of a revolutionary hero (Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos).
View of the Plaza de la Revolución
Our next stop of note (we were brought to a really random forest park and a park containing a John Lennon statue) was on the eastern side of Havana, La Cabaña. Here we bid farewell to our tour guide and decided to explore this part of Havana for ourselves. We walked from Morro Castle, all the way along to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, enjoying some beautiful views of the Havana skyline along the way. Although you can pay to enter both of these sites of interest, we decided against it. Next we came across a Military Museum and the House of Che Guevara, both of which you can visit if you wish. The last landmark we enjoyed was the previously mentioned Christ of Havana Statue. There is a panoramic viewpoint at the site of this impressive statue. From here we got the ferry back to Havana Vieja, and ended our evening strolling along Calle Obispo, looking forward to the new adventures waiting for us in Viñales the next day!
Christ of Havana Statue
View from the the Christ of Havana statue site