Havana nights! Isn't that what you often hear? Well, that reference is no joke. Havana (pronounced Ha-ba-na by Cubans) is a an energetic, diverse and sultry city. It's seemingly big, after all it is is the capital of Cuba, but once you spend time walking around it doesn't so vast.
My friends and I spend our last two nights in Cuba in Havana. When we told people in Cienfuegos that we were going to Havana they cautioned us, "it's not as safe as here so be careful". Yes, there are some dodgy areas more so at night but what other capital city isn't? You just have to use common sense.
We went from small to large in terms of scale and population. I really liked this build up actually. The flight back to Cancun was from Havana so it just made sense to go to the furthest location first and then work our way back to Havana. Although in terms of accommodation I booked Havana first. Not sure why but I figured that there'd be more people visiting Havana and gathered that was essential to get that sorted out.
The same driver we had from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, who happened to live in Cienfuegos, drove us to Havana. By then we'd developed a repoire and as I mentioned Cubans are prompt, he showed up just before 9am to pick us up. Our hosts sent us off. That morning we grabbed coffee and a meager breakfast and we bought them flowers. A friend who'd been to Cuba before me and gave me a lot of tips and advice recommended that hosts appreciate gifts. We didn't feel a deep desire to thank our host in Trinidad with a gift but in Cienfuegos, this four generation family was so kind and thoughtful that we wanted to get them something nice. Flowers are absurdly inexpensive in Cuba. You'll see men selling roses, tuberose and sunflowers here and there. I chose a mix of flowers and paid less than three dollars. The couple who were the main hosts were very surprised and touched.
Then we were off to Havana. When we had a moment of wifi that morning buying flowers I looked up how long it'd take us to drive and Apple maps calculated over three and half hours. However, our driver who'd actually only slept about 4 hours after driving someone to an eastern city on the island. Anyhow, we had a great ride and we ended up making the trip in about 2 hours and 45 minutes. He mentioned to me that if he were driving a modern car (we saw a handful of Asian models) he'd be able to make it in at least half the time. It was really pedal to the medal. Our driver stopped for a cafecito about halfway there. Here he also bought a cheap bootleg CD to add to his collection of bachata and reggaeton hits.
We arrived at our casa and after some trouble buzzing into the building we made it upstairs. Our host was a vivacious woman who went by Cari. Cari welcomed us where we had coffee and water. She then went on to explain that we'd have to stay at her friends around the corner because the woman who was staying in the room we were to have had gotten her passport stolen (watch your passport folks, I know someone else who got theirs stolen in Havana). Then again, don't bring it around with you, definitely have another form of ID with you because there are places that check ID.
She took us to where we'd stay which actually ended up being great as it was its own unit behind an apartment building with a gate. Overall, bedding and accommodations were good. Cleanliness was great and beds were comfortable. Water pressure may be the only drawback but then again it was better than that of Tulum!
We put our things down and then set off to explore at the nearby neighborhood of Vedado. I'd already heard that it was a great to be. Our casa was about a 15-20 minute walk from Vedado. We meandered the streets. On a Friday afternoon Havana was buzzing. We walked through the University of Havana. School might have been out because there weren't too many people walking about. It was pretty campus and historically very important. We kept walking and found a restaurant to have lunch at. Lunch was fairly tasty. My friend's ropa vieja (translated into English is old clothes is made of shredded beef with vegetables served with plantains and rice) was definitely the best. After we found an incredibly cute and well thought out cafe that my friend had seen in an article from NY Times. We didn't have a normal cubacito but got some lattes which were a welcomed treat, especially on a hot day.
For dinner that evening we went to El Cocinero in Vedado. It's next to the hottest club in Havana, Fabrica de Arte which we would go to the following night. Dinner at Cocinero was delicious. We shared a salad, a soup, had some wine and entrees that I can't seem to recall. After dinner we went home to get some rest for the rest of the weekend.
In the morning we went to the casa to eat breakfast. We had fruit, guava juice, coffee and eggs. The following day we took this to venture out towards Habana Vieja. We were close to Central Havana so it was about a thirty minute walk but we stopped here and there so it took a bit more time. We walked around Habana Vieja seeing sights and ended up having lunch at a cute Italian restaurant that had tasty pasta. Habana Vieja with its quaint streets and pastel façades seemed to be more well maintained than other areas of Havana. After lunch we went to buy rum and cigars before heading back to our casa.
That evening we had dinner at one of the most famous restaurants, La Guarida. I had made reservations as soon as we booked our trip. You can do it via email. Originally two friends were going to overlap with us in Havana so we were a bigger party but then they stayed a couple more days in Mexico and were coming to Cuba after us. My two friends and I planned the evening as a celebration of my one friend and my birthdays which are five days apartment. We had initially planned to be in Cuba for both of our birthday but due to our third friend's work schedule we had to move the trip up a week.
La Guarida was beautiful. Located in Central Havana in Chinatown (which gets a bit dodgy at night) in a vast house you walk up two flights of stairs to get to the restaurant. With its vintage tables and decor yet modern kitchen and bathroom, it is like many aspects of Havana, stuck in time. La Guarida has become famous for being in movie, 'Fresa Y Chocolate' as well for the many celebrity guests its had. in the restaurant you'll find pictures of these celebrities. It was raining the night we went so we couldn't enjoy the rooftop that apparently has a great view of the city but even from the third floor it was cool and almost eerie to look out and see Havana in the rain.
We ordered a couple appetizers and entrees, one which included the most delectable beef I've had. It was served with three small pieces accompanied by three different sauces. The lobster was also phenomenal! Definitely get dishes with beef and lobster if you go! Service was wonderful and I had told the server it was my friend's birthday- it was that day- and she was thoroughly surprised to get a sparkler in the dessert we ordered.
I took a peak into the kitchen when I was on my way back from the bathroom at point of the dinner and it was spotless and sleek. The person who seemed to be the executive chef gave me a wink. A reward for my curiosity? I couldn't be sure but I loved the whole experience. I would add that all guests were foreign. In comparison to NYC and other international cities Havana's nicer restaurants are inexpensive but for local Cubans it's far beyond their means.
After we had dinner we took a taxi from outside the restaurant to take us to Hotel Nacional. We ordered piña coladas and smoked cigars in the bar that's connected to one of the restaurants off the lobby. The taxi driver we had from the restaurant to the hotel had heard we were going to Fabrica de Arte Cubano referred to as Fabrica locally, he agreed to pick us up after work since he knew people that worked there. We arrived at the club and there was already a line. We waited near the entrance for a moment before going in (without waiting in line even). The concept of the club is cool as it's an art gallery, theatre, club and music space. The space used to be a cooking oil plant. This is when we finally go to see the younger, hipper Cuban crowd blending with a mix of young tourists. You're given a drink card when you arrive which you have signed eat time you get a drink then you pay for what you drank at the end. If you lose the card you have to pay the price for a full card. A friend we made in Trinidad was in Havana that night and joined us. Also I bumped into these brothers I saw at Hotel Nacional and who I overheard talking about . We all hung out, sometimes breaking off in pairs to see different areas of the space. Mojitos were great but this is where we sadly learned that Havana bartenders would not make our favorite cocktail from Trinidad. It was a fun night of imbibing, dancing and mingling that ended late.
Our flight back to Cancun was fairly early that morning and we got to the airport so ahead of time that the ticket counter to check in wasn't even open. It was a whirlwind visit of three cities and six nights but it was so worth it. So much so I even visited again a couple months later!
Have you been to Cuba? What did you eat while you were there? What was your favorite place to visit?