Nadia El Ferdaoussi takes a trip to beautiful Cuba.
Havana is just like you see in the pictures, vintage cars, frozen daiquiris, and cigar-smokin’ locals. Fail to do your research, though, and you might miss out on some of the hidden gems Cuba’s capital city has to offer. The guide books fast become outdated, prices and times are unreliable. But forget everything you’ve heard about “get there now before it all changes” because the locals assured me nothing is happening in a hurry. And after spending a few weeks travelling the island, you know what? I’m willing to believe them.
First up, some house rules and dispelling myths. Is there internet in Cuba? Yes. Public places like parks have WiFi which you can access by buying a kind of scratch card with login info. Hotels have it too and even some of the casa particulares. They’re basically B&Bs, or maybe even the original Airbnb, where you’ll actually be able to book online in advance.
My recommendation is to try a couple of them out. Some are bigger buildings and therefore less personal if you don’t fancy mingling with a local family, but others are literally someone’s spare room. They’re all usually decent in size though, with air con and an en suite and will only set you back around $25 a night, which can include breakfast. at meal will be one of the best you’ll have while in Cuba. Endless fresh tropical fruits, hot strong coffee with simple eggs and bread rolls. They’re not known for their gastronomy, but stick with me and I’ll let you in on a few secrets.
There are two currencies, one for the locals (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC), your Visa debit should work in ATMs, or you’ll be able to exchange Euro notes. Just don’t even think about trying to pay with card anywhere! Step back in time in Old Havana to some beautifully restored buildings and streets, but be sure to venture a few blocks in any direction to see how the locals live. Even stay a little outside La Habana Vieja in central Havana or Vedado and wander in each day, to get a better overall feel for the city.
No trip to Havana would be complete without tasting their infamous national drink, the classic mojito. But don’t neglect Cuba Libres (rum, coke and lime) or frozen daiquiris either. The latter was made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who apparently liked to sip away while listening to the live band at Floridita bar. According to hearsay, his favourite mojito was in Bodeguita del Medio, a tiny bar serving a steady stream of the classic cocktail.
For something a bit different though, head to hipster hang out Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a converted factory and multi-use venue. It’s an art gallery-cum-nightclub, with live music, exhibitions and the biggest mojitos you’ve ever seen. You pay an entrance fee and receive a card which is stamped each time you order a drink, paying on the way out. Weird, but it works!
I promised you the best places to eat, so let me introduce you to Paladares. They’re private restaurants which have only been allowed in Cuba in recent years and the quality of food is much higher than you’ll find elsewhere.
La Guarida is one of the most popular, but put La Concordia on your list too (you’re less likely to need a reservation here). Gorgeous colonial buildings play host to these restaurants, often with rooftop bars overlooking the city. Much pricier than food on the street, but there’s no comparison when it comes to taste.
Last, but by no means least, did you know Havana actually has its own beautiful beaches? Meaning there’s no need to go to an all inclusive resort, you can get a much more Cuban feel via a quick bus ride. Playas del Este serve up a healthy dose of proper Caribbean charm, with live music, food stalls, white sand and crystalline waters. A no brainer!
Will you leave half of your heart in Havana? There’s only one way to find out – try it and like me, you might love it.
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