People drinking rum, dancing the rumba and smoking cigars. Classic American cars go down the old streets that haven’t changed since the revolution, creating a scene that seems stuck in a 1950s time gap. In Havana Vieja, the old part of the city, old men play the trombone and double bass on the waterfront, and a young lady dances alone to the music in the midst of cigar smoke. Yes, Havana is just like every cliché that ever described it.
La Habana is Cuba’s capital and largest city. Not only it is the Cuban government’s center, but it is also the country’s major post and biggest commercial area. In addition, Old Havana has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982.
The cobbled Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) is the central point of Old Havana. This square is surrounded by low colonial buildings and its focal point is the embellished Cathedral of Havana that resembles melted wax on a candle due to its Cuban baroque style. Since it got spared from modifications aimed at tourism improvement, the square looks just like it did back in the 1950s when Havana was a play area for rich people and the mafia.
Another iconic place is the restaurant El Patio, established in an 18th-century mansion. This restaurant has witnessed several changes in the town and it’s the ideal place to look at the sunset and the cathedral being floodlit. If you’re lucky enough, you can even see through the open doors of the cathedral straight to the altar during a service while sitting on the square.
However, not every place in old Havana is actually old. Some parts of the town have been repaired into a cleaner, better versions of their previous selves. In fact, there are buildings in the Plaza Vieja (Old Square) and Mercaderes where you can find international outlets and dollar restaurants that are actually too expensive for the regular Cuban citizen.
Yet you’ll find the genuine atmosphere of the city on the broken-down backstreets, where everybody is always outside talking, laughing, eating and smoking, whether on a front step, a run-down balcony or in a dark patio, and all the young men will be playing basketball – one of the nation’s favorite sports.
In spite of the fact that Cuba has the lowest child mortality and the highest literacy rates in Latin America, the country is still very poor. Some credit this to the 50 years of Communism and others to the US boycott. Undoubtedly, there is little political freedom, and daily life can be tough. Even so that most Cuban people live in little, one- or two-room condos, where the entire family gathers around an old TV, watching South American telenovelas or a live baseball game. TVs are not very common around here, so don’t be surprised if you find a small crowd surrounding random windows to also enjoy the show.
There are special afternoons where it seems as if almost everyone in Havana gathers on the Malecón at dawn. This part of the waterfront, bordered by deteriorating buildings and the ocean, acts as a magnet for people of all ages. While the once-luxurious buildings are covered in bright night light, music is played and an impromptu dance breaks all of a sudden while people drink rum and watch the sun sinking into the ocean.
How can you get there?
The travel ban forced by the United States makes it complicated to travel to Cuba. The national airline, Cubana, travels from a few European and South American airports. You can also find some flights from Cancun and Mexico City. Visas are not hard to get and, even though the US State Department doesn’t allow the majority of its citizens to go there, the Cuban authorities have no problem in not stamping your passport. There are many lodgings options in Havana, however, staying in Havana Vieja is more convenient. We recommend “Ambos Mundos” since it’s been recently overhauled and it’s one of the most atmospheric hotels in town.
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