Havana in Cuba holds a special place in my heart. It’s a city with a soul, an upbeat, sunny disposition that captivates you from the moment you arrive and almost never let’s go. I travelled in September 2014 on my first visit this part of the world and I was instantly captivated. There are many reasons why I would urge anyone to visit Havana if they have a chance, but I managed to narrow it down to five key points below:
- Feeling like you’ve been transported to the 50’s
Cuba had always been high on my bucket-list just for the cars alone. On TV and in magazines, the overwhelmingly dominant image of the country is that of a brightly coloured American convertible from the 1950’s, cruising through the streets of Havana. I had always suspected those that these iconic cars might be few and far between in reality. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to be proven wrong – they were found on every street corner and are indeed one of the primary modes of transport. Anywhere else in the world one would be such a rarity that people would turn their heads to look at it. In Havana however, it genuinely seems unusual to see anything else. While they vary in condition, you will see Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets in every colour of the rainbow and it feels just like stepping back in time.
- The toe-tapping, hip-swinging music
If there is one thing that instantly transports me back to our time in Havana, it’s the sound of salsa music. This infectious beat permeates life in Cuba, from a live band by the pool at our hotel in the early afternoon, to salsa dancing on the streets during a heady Havana night. The Cubans seem to know how to move inherently and are happy to prove it. Music seems to seep out every window as you walk down the street and it really is enough to put you in the party spirit 24/7. If you are braver than me, there are plenty of opportunities to practice with a partner who is happy to show you the ropes.
- Rum by the bucket-load
Now, I am happy to admit I am partial to a cocktail or two, particularly if they have a tropical twist. I found myself right at home therefore with pina coladas found in every bar for just a few Cuban pesos. Not the best of options for the holidays waistline I am aware, however there was something about sipping on a cocktail made with local rum and fresh pineapple under the hot Havana sun… My best friend and travelling buddy has less of a sweet tooth, but was equally impressed by the fresh mint mojitos on offer. Don’t miss a visit to El Floridita, home of the Daiquiri and a favoured haunt of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, he’s still propped up in the bar today and ready for photos – or a bronze version of him at least.
- Indulging in Cuban cuisine
Five words summarise my gourmet experience in Havana: lobster, croquettes and fried chickpeas. Before I visited Cuba, I hadn’t heard great things about the food. In fact, what I had read had said not to be particularly excited by the variety of rice, meat and black beans. I must say though that during our time in Havana we dined in style. From my first (and rather delicious) taste of lobster and plantain chips, to my unhealthy obsession with ordering every sort of potato croquette I could find, I enjoyed it all. A particular favourite however? Head to the legendary Sloppy Joe’s bar off Parque Central for an order of their fried chickpeas. Rich and smoky, you won’t regret it!
- The warmth of the Cuban people
I’ve yet to visit another country anywhere in the world where the pace of life is so relaxed and the people so happy. Even in the face of seeming adversity at times, from the moment we arrived with the fishnet wearing immigration officials, to our fantastic tour guide Ricardo, even the people we passed on the street – everyone was eager to speak with us. We ended up not being able to walk ten steps without someone stopping us to ask where we were from and wish us ‘happy holidays’ with a huge smile on their faces. I left with a new respect and admiration for the Cuban people. If you can go, you must!