Havana, Republic of Cuba
La Habana, land of salsa dancing, sexy people and the shits. In the planning stages of my trip, I scrolled through glamorous images of pristine beaches, vibrant buildings and of course, gorgeous Cubans – all of which, lived up to my sky-high expectations. A place steeped in rich history and even richer culture, next time you’re in that pocket of the world, make sure you stop by for a mojito or four.
Food, food, food
Despite their ideal climate for growing fruit, lots of the fresh produce resembled my decolletage after a long, hard day at the beach – overripe and wrinkly. Don’t be expecting exotic, luscious fruits, vegetables or much fresh food. Occupational, health and safety standards leave a lot to be desired here, so come prepared and bring all of the snacks.
As a communist country, Cuba remains untouched by the wonderful world of Woolies and Foodland. Supermarkets are hard to come by and those that you do stumble across are pretty empty. Bring muesli bars, snacks and any medication you may or may not need – I would not recommend getting ill over there boys, it’s utter tripe.
Money, money, money
There are two types of Cuban currency, CUC for the tourists and Cuban Peso for locals. Sadly, the fresh bakeries and fruit markets you walk by only accept local currency, so unless you can get your grubbers on some Peso’s, there’s little chance of you shopping in these local haunts.
There are two banks in town that you can convert currencies when you get there, but it’s ideal to have some CUC’s in your pocket. I had no trouble converting Mexican Peso’s in town, but if one bank knocks you down, hit the other. Avoid converting USD at all costs, you’ll be taxed till you bleed.
Where to stay
I visited twice, experiencing entirely different accommodation options both times. Hotels vs. home stays, you ask? Home stays through and through, my dears. Not due to any wrong-doing on the hotels behalf might I add, but the more personal experience of a home stay was wonderful, comforting and gave you a bigger insight into what it might be to be a local.
I and by that, I mean my long suffering parents, had us bunkered down in the glorious Hotel Santa Isobel. Santa Isobel featured a glittering rooftop terrace, opulent French elevators and an open lobby, providing you with an abundance of architectural porn. The bread at breakfast could’ve been used as a weapon to stone your enemies, but the fresh fruit, juice and kind-hearted waiters who fed our leftovers to stray pups, more than made up for it.
Our home stay, found through Airbnb, was nestled in the ‘burbs’ of Havana, littered with locals, lots of little poopers playing soccer in the street and just three blocks from the water. Our hosts offered a 5 CUC per person breakfast each morning and holy smokes, it was good. Louie, our glorious housekeeper sprinkled some fairy dust into the eggs each morning, which were by far the culinary highlights of our days and even managed to dissipate my Vegemite cravings – quite the feat.
Museum of the Revolution
An interesting spot to hit if you’re after a touch of propaganda and in-depth shrine to USA’s deficiencies. Despite the rather one-sided recounts, there are some snippets of information about everyday Cuban life that might take you by surprise. The building itself is resoundingly beautiful, with cool marble floors and gold detailing so take yo’ camera people.Restaurante La Guarida
This fancy-pants ex-palace is a hot spot for the rich and famous, food lovers or just smelly tourists looking for a night of make pretend – I clearly fall into the first category, duh. Being a more upscale establishment you’ll need to shit, shower and shave (debatable) beforehand and don your finest threads. For me, this included a $15 H&M dress in dire need of a blind date with an iron and a pair of size 11 men’s thongs, held together by bread tags stolen from a Mexican supermarket. Glamour is in fact my middle name.
The food is the best I had in Cuba, with leafy greens that won’t give you salmonella, a wide variety of mains (some of which are vegetarian friendly) and an intriguing array of desserts. Ask to be sat outside, the terrace view will blow your damn mind and make sure to catch the sunset. Reservations are required, so get in early. Hotel Ambos Mundos
A popular haunt for tourists thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s love of the rooftop and their tip-top mojitos, Ambos Mundos was my go-to for a sit down, a few cold ones and a ripper view. Strolling into the lobby, head straight to the French-style lift and let the elevator operator take you to the rooftop. Take plenty of photos, tip the waiters and marvel at the spelling mistakes on the menu.
One of the highlights of my trip was taking a vintage car tour around the city. The general rule is – furthest from the square, the cheaper the deal, so hunt for the best price people. We paid 45 CUC for a one-hour tour around the city, but most quotes were for 60 CUC. Don’t be scared to put your big girl panties on and haggle a drop.
We drove through to the other side of Havana, the highly populated streets providing an impressive spectacle for our greedy eyes, before heading back past the coast. Recommend, recommend, recommend.Playa Santa Maria
A hop, skip and a half hour taxi ride from central Havana, Santa Maria’s water is as pristine as Mum’s criminal record – clear as the day is long. Make a day of it and grab some water, snacks and a camera. We chose to spend our Saturday there, competing for space with the locals – you’d be far better off on a weekday. Sadly, the beach is pretty well littered with rubbish, cans and plastic so do the good thing, clean up after yourself and pick up any other scraps you find – you’ll be granted immediate entry into enviro-heaven.
Havana, in all of it’s starkly, unique glory has left a lasting impression on me. It’s rich culture and the vibrancy of its inhabitants will have you craving more and more.
Now you have it, a painfully detailed, albeit shortened version of my travels to Havana. Remember, bring snacks and medication. Come off the plane hydrated, don’t vomit in airport sinks, get wheelchaired off planes, eat veggie sandwiches of any kind or get heatstroke – it’s the bin, I would know.