Our trip to Cuba started and ended in its capital of Havana, a bustling city crumbling at the edges. As we wandered from our casa in the more modern neighbourhood of Vedado, through Centro Habana into Habana Vieja, the beauty of the layers of peeling architecture was all to see and I loved to imagine the city back in its so called hey-day, when these building were gleaming and new. The lives of the Cuban people are played out on the streets… old women chatting, children playing, stall holders selling their wares, whilst on the busier routes the brightly coloured American cars, or almendrones, roll along.
A highlight of our trip was staying with Aymeé and her family at Casa Mirador La Colina. As soon as we stepped into the beautiful apartment, we felt at home. With a fantastic roof terrace views into the centre and delicious breakfasts each morning where we chatted with fellow travellers sharing travel tips; the casa was a great base in Havana.
For culture and tourism we visited the Museum of the Revolution situated in the former Presidential Palace, to understand the revolution and life in Cuba from the Cuban (or Cuban government's) perspective. Another highlight for me was the Museum of Fine Arts which is full to the brim of incredible works of art by Cuban artists from as far back as the 16th Century. Some experiences of real contrast to the everyday life in Havana were visiting the Hotel Nacional, frequented over the years by Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, where we relaxed with a piña colada looking out on the Malecón, and seeing a ballet at El Gran Teatro. The latter was recommended by Dee and Miguel, a lovely couple we met in our casa, and was in fact a performance by the company of Carlos Acosta, who we had seen before in London!
For a glimpse of modern Cuba, a must visit is FAC (Fabrica de Arte Cubano) an arts venue in a former factory that combines design, architecture, music, film and dance. We explored the labyrinth of spaces and chilled out listening to an young jazz band into the early hours. Whilst we were in Havana there was also a great exhibition called Fuerza y Sangre (Strength and Blood) on at the Pabellón Cuba showcasing the work of young designers on the iconography of the Cuban flag, an image you see everywhere throughout the country.
Some of the best food we ate was in Havana, and at the top of the list was La Paila, a recommendation from Aymeé. A BBQ restaurant frequented by both tourists and Cubans, the food was so amazing we went back on our final night, and very reasonably priced. We had incredible pork loin, and the ropa vieja, or old clothes, a traditional meat stew, was so flavoursome. Another lunch spot we tried was El Chanchullero, and here I had pollo con piña, or chicken with pineapple, well needed sustenance on a scorching spring day, and again super cheap! Other places we would recommend trying are Cafe Laurent, on the roof terrace of an apartment building, and for a rather more posh evening, El Cocinero next to FAC. Give Cibo Cafe and Waoo! a go too if you're looking for a quick bite to eat in Vedado.
…and of course no trip to Havana would be complete without a city tour in an American car with a Pitbull look-a-like driving you around! Trying to fit in everything Havana has to offer in less than a week is impossible, but we gave it a good go. Next stop: Viñales!