If you are after a city of colour, then Havana sweepingly takes the crown.
From the moment you fly over the startling blue waters of the Caribbean, to the residents styled in every shade available, or the lilac cadillac’s and crumbling crimson walls and not so big yellow taxi’s – you realise it’s a country practically bursting at the seams.
I stayed in a quaint home stay in Old Havana; on the doorstep of the Malecón, which is lined with palm trees and 50’s automobiles in every shade imaginable. It was within walking distance to the main tourist and shopping district and the alleyways were filled with latticed doorways – offering a small window to sneak a look at an old man snoozing in a chair; children running through a courtyard or a couple in a heated debate. Cars squeezed down lanes and patiently waited as locals moseyed their way across the road.
There’s a lot of moseying in Cuba – time isn’t an issue. In the world of fashionably late, Cuba is haute couture; the Prada of never being prompt.
There’s certainly plenty to keep the tourists busy; from Che’s profile overlooking Revolution Square and the José Martí Memorial to taking the bus out to Hemingway’s house (Finca Vigia), catching a baseball game or of course, hitting the Buena Vista Social Club.
Having been occupied by Spain for 400 odd years, there are some beautiful buildings like Morro Castle, the Museum of the Revolution, Gran Teatro La Habana and the Havana Cathedral.
The Malecón is famous for it’s evening atmosphere and each and every night there is the firing of the 9 o’clock cannon; a tradition that began in the eighteenth century and draws hundreds of people each evening. Grab your bottle of rum and stare starry eyed up into the Christ of Havana, whom it is joked to be holding a cigar and bottle of rum.
For all the wonder that Cuban history offers up in Havana, I won’t deny I found a great deal of glee in the drinks menu… Mojito’s for 2 CUC’s (Approx $2.20 AUD), Cuba Libre’s, Daiquiri’s and more for next to nothing. Needless to say my liver was not so pro Cuba as the rest of me.
Beverages aside, I did have to take the walk down tourist must-do lane and grab a ride in one of the old cars. Rolling with the roof down, it took great restraint to refrain from belting out ‘Greased Lightning’ as we cruised about Old Havana (luckily for the locals).
As fascinating as its time capsule charm is, Havana is also tired. What gives it its touristy trademark is also what makes it’s people weary; it means bent out of shape bumpers and rubbled buildings. Even in all it’s magnificence, all the rum and reggae cannot hide the truth of a very poor communist Cuba.
Despite the fact that majority live off a pittance of a wage, the locals are welcoming and kind. They’ll sell you a thing or two if they’re cheeky enough to try – but you can’t blame them. Money is hard to come by and not just for the locals. Take all you need and more in cash, so that you can exchange it at the airport on arrival. This will save you the unpleasant experience of having wait for hours to jostle in line at the bank to exchange currency. It’s a black market, cash based economy and ATM’s are scarce. Eftpos is not an option and credit cards (especially if they are owned by American companies) are infrequently reliable not to mention hardly ever available.
In the case of CUC’s (the currency used by tourists) it’s far better to have more than not enough.
As appealing as the idea of travelling back in time is, Havana is tugging at the modern world and so the opportunity to visit a place on pause is quickly running out.
The lure of Havana shouldn’t come from it’s political notoriety nor it’s sixty’s time stamp. Of course these will add to the charm but the magic really comes from the balmy nights filled with trumpets, silhouettes turning in the twilight and of course; sugar, rum and tobacco – the tastes of Cuba. Days are spent in the leafy shade on a park bench, watching the colours of cars, people and that magnificent blue sky run together. Anything else? Well that’s history.