Havana has to be one of the most interesting places I’ve been. A unique mixture of old Spanish Colonial buildings, desperately in need of maintenance, and with every room lived in by a Cuban family, mixed with a care-free Caribbean culture, and a 1950s American legacy. Havana’s unique culture draws people in from all over the world. I was in Havana for 5 days and determine to understand the customs and history of this famous and infamous city.
This was the first socialist country I have visited, and as an ex-politics student I was fascinated to see what it would be like. Driving out of Havana airport (desperately in need of an upgrade) you couldn’t miss the painted muriels of Castro, and the occasional ‘Patria, socialismo o muerte’ (National socialism or death) spray painted onto the side of buildings. This was a new kind of country, and I couldn’t wait to explore it more.
Hotels in Havana are notoriously expensive so I opted for an Airbnb which was right in the heart of the Old Town. For £5 per person, our housekeep would prepare breakfast at a time of our choice. The manager of the property was happy to help with directions and organising taxis and trips.
Almost every front door is open onto the street, perhaps a sign of a shared socialist ethos which strays away from the concept of private property, the people of Cuba would wander in and out of each others houses, chatting, watching TV and playing games. Many people would stand on the street and just watch passers-by for hours.
Music & Dancing. Music is at the heart of Cuban culture. During the day and well into the evening, there is no street in Havana where you can’t hear the sound of music. Local small music groups and bands wander the streets playing to tourists and locals alike, and many bars and restaurants have an in-house band. Dancing is completely acceptable and almost expected whenever a band starts to play. You can’t help but smile when an elderly American couple start to dance in front of a band, or when the lead singer starts swaying his hips to the beat.
The Food. Before going to Havana many people had warned me that the food wouldn’t be that good, and was mainly just rice and beans. Contrary to this advice, I found there were plenty of good restaurants, mainly serving Italian or fish. Rice and beans was always on the menu and usually the cheapest option, but there was plenty of other things to satisfy a Western appetite.
The Cars. After the 1959 revolution which overthrew the American sponsored regime, imports and exports alike were few and far between. As a result, about half the cars in Cuba are from the 1950s, and have been fixed and repaired ever since. For £20-£30 you can hire a driver and be driven around the city in one of these beautifully maintained, brightly coloured cars. Don’t expect seatbelts, or side mirrors, but do absolutely expect an experience you’ll remember. Maybe we should bring these cars back, there aren’t enough stripy seat covers in cars these days if you ask me!
Cabaret. Havana is known for it’s bright and lively Cabaret Clubs, the most famous of all, the Tropicana, is out of central Havana, and tickets are £70, so we opted for a cheaper option; the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional De Cuba. The show was absolutely fantastic, especially as we arrived early and so managed to get front row seats! The dancers danced non stop for two hours, although the signing was in Spanish, and so tricky to follow, the colours of the costumes and the flexibility of the dancers meant you were mesmerised throughout.
Revolution. The Museum De La Revolucion on the edge of the Old Town is a must visit if you are looking to understand the history of Havana and Cuba in the 20th century. It was the first museum I’ve visited which was obviously controlled by the government, and where the descriptions of the objects on display and the story they told, was intertwined with propaganda. Needless to say, the museum did not paint America in a positive light. Torture instruments, and pictures of dead bodies were shown above signed referring to the American-sponsored resistance.
Money. Tourists in CUB use the C.U.C currency which is different to the local currency, it is pegged against the U.S. Dollar. As a result Cuba isn’t mega cheap, though I think is still cheaper than the U.K.. A beer will cost you $3 and a meal anywhere from $2-$12. The Western hotels are significantly more expensive than local restaurants and bars. Half of which are state-owned and half are private – locals recommended visiting the private over the state-owned ones.
Visiting Havana has given me memories that will last a lifetime and exposure to a very different culture to my own. I loved every minute of it and can’t recommend it enough.
Some shots capturing the people of Havana:
The buildings of Havana: