Havana in two days, my visit to the Cuban capital

Havana em dois dias, a minha visita à capital cubana

Havana was the last stop of my trip in Cuba. It is something I always do whenever I travel, I always leave the city from where I will depart for last, even if that’s the same place of arrival. My feelings towards Havana are a bit mixed. Between a clear feeling that I enjoyed the city, and a relieve for deciding to explore the rest of the country first. Even though, two days were not enough to visit properly the Cuban capital, but it was enough to get its vibe.

From Varadero to Havana

Most people think about Varadero and Havana whenever they think about Cuba. And like I mentioned before, my trip ended in Havana, but my previous stop was in Varadero. After two days of bad weather, the sun only showed up when I was up to leave.

I woke up early, I went to the beach for a few photos with its blue sky, and pretend I spent some amazing days in paradise, and I was ready to leave. I checked ou, and I headed towards the bus terminal.

Booking.com

The transportation between Varadero peninsula and Havana is direct, being such a popular destination it is normal to have better connections between these two places. It was a trip of about 2 hours, and I was already arriving in Havana. The problem is that they might try to fit too many people inside the bus, which was the case. Two people had to be sitting on the floor during the whole trip.

My recommendation is to travel light, so that you don’t waste time trying to fit your luggage at the back of the bus, and then you risk not having a seated place. I only saw this happening in this trip, but generally I always prefer to travel light.

My first impressions of Havana

Cuba is a poor country, mostly due to communism. But it is also a country with a huge duality, to the point they even have two different currencies. One for tourists and another one for locals, and the differences between these two currencies can turn a meal of a few cents into one of a few euros. Depending on the currency being used, and the place, the difference can be massive.

This huge difference and the fact that the government tries to control almost everything, this leads people to try to find other ways to make money. One of these “techniques” is having local friends. I didn’t get scammed, but I met someone in Cuba who experienced this, someone really nice starts a chat with you and invites you to a taberna. Everything normal, but the difference is at the moment the bills comes up, which is way more expensive than you would expect. And the local friend gets a commission for each person they can take to that taberna.

Street at Havana Vieja
Street at Havana Vieja

Then there are the constant begging. When we arrive in Cuba we have that pre-set mindset that people are really poor, so we feel obliged to help. But once you travel through the country, and you talk with the locals, you start noticing a different reality. Since I left Havana for last, my experience was much more negative than if I would have had visited first. Beggars really pushing for everything, and not just asking, but at times even demanding and being rude.

With a camera strapped around my neck and a backpack, all I had missing was a huge plate saying TOURIST. And that attracted a lot of beggars, some quite upfront while others way more creative and less rude. One of the ways they approached me was with a group of musicians getting in front of my camera for then ask for “some help”. That same group pushed me into making a video with them, so that I could show it on instagram. Of course at a price. Their persistence was constant, which made me feel very uncomfortable and disappointed with so much harassment.

But there is more in Havana than this.

Exploring a bit of the Cuban capital

Since I only arrived in Havana during the afternoon I didn’t have much time left to explore the city. I dropped my luggage at the casa particular where I was staying, and then I decided to let myself get lost inside Havana Vieja.

With my tourist guide book with me, I followed some of the suggestions. But the food is a priority for me, and one of the recommendations of the Lonely Planet guide is the tapas restaurant Lamparilla Tapas y Cervezas. Really good! They gave me a taste of a soup that I loved, but I have no clue about what I ate, but really good! To eat I chose aubergine with cheese and red onion, and I drunk a really good mango juice.

Old cars in Havana
Old cars in Havana

Contrary to popular belief, in Cuba there is internet. It isn’t cheap, but we can have internet. We buy some cars and we can access to the internet in some specific areas, usually parks and squares. But since the tourists’ world is so small, and we are all sheep that follow the same steps, I was seated on a sidewalk connected to the internet when I noticed the couple that was literally by my side. A german couple I met in Playa Girón! My experience in Havana was up to chance!

I wandered through Havana Vieja, and we ended the night at a restaurant at the Vieja Square, called Don Eduardo Allegre, eating tuna croquetes and drinking several mojitos.

Getting lost in the streets of Havana Vieja

Havana Vieja was the area where I walked the most. I loved those streets, every corner is a photo opportunity. And it was also in this area where I visited more galleries and other points of interest.

After eating a nice breakfast at the casa particular, I walked again towards Havana Vieja. I decided to visit a few museums and galleries, to learn a bit about that place beyond the streets.

Visiting the City Museum

It is one of the places you should not miss in Havana, the City Museum, also known as the Governors Museum, which in times was the house of the Governos of Cuba during the colonial period. It was home to 65 general captains and it was the colonial headquarters of Spain, later becoming the administration center for the American army. After this it also became the official residence of the Cuban president, and even as a City Hall. Basically, a build with a lot of stories.

Throne Room at the City Museum
Throne Room at the City Museum

One of the things I found more interesting was the throne room, which according to what they explained to me, it was never used by any king. During my visit I showed a lot of interest in knowing the details of everything, so unintentionally I ended up having a private guide, whom followed me explaining to me several details about the history of that building.

The Suit Museum

If I reckon correctly, this museum doesn’t have entrance fee. It is right at the center of Havana Vieja, in a square, but can easily be overlooked. The name caught my attention, and since I was already with a mindset for galleries and museums I decided to enter it. It is a really small museum, and basically all about playing cards and collections of playing cards. They have playing cards in several sizes, unique illustrations and some even quite rare. It is a quite interesting stop and different for those who are visiting the city, and since it is right there ate the center it ends up being a different experience in the historical quarter.

Visit the Pharmacy Museum of Havana

Another quite interesting site to visit, and also free of charge. This has the singularity of being a pharmacy still in operation, with a really old style and some areas of display of old tools that were use in pharmacy in other times. Not just on the sale side, but also chemistry tools to produce those drugs.

Small Gallery at the Pharmacy Museum of Havana
Small Gallery at the Pharmacy Museum of Havana

It was one of the museums I enjoyed the most, and also in the old quarter, and mostly because it is so small and so interesting at the same time.

On the way to this museum I had a not so pleasant experience, I was literally chased by someone for several streets. He never approached me, but he was constantly staring at me, and each time I changed street he would follow me. I started to panic a bit once I suddenly changed direction, and he did the same! That’s when I got inside the Pharmacy Museum, and I stop seeing him.

Visit the Ojo del Ciclón, a gallery of alternative art

The German couple suggested visiting this art gallery. Something quite different and alternative, where we see the artist working on other structures. A detail about this gallery, there is an entrance fee, but works as donations. I didn’t have any money with me, but they still let me get in and explore the several sections of the gallery. If you like alternative art, then I highly recommend this gallery. In my opinion it is really interesting, and what I enjoyed the most was that it wasn’t just a gallery but also a workshop. It was a great recommendation, but I understand that it isn’t for everyone.

Visit the Museum of the Cuban Revolution

Those who visit these museums should keep in mind that this is just one side of the history. We are talking about a communist Cuba, which still uses a lot of political propaganda.

Havana in two days, my visit to the Cuban capital
Havana in two days, my visit to the Cuban capital

The museum is in fact really interesting, and mentions the history of Cuba, about the battles during the revolution, with focus on some important individuals of the Cuban history. But using a quite intense propaganda style, to the point of having childish-like comments regarding the Americans. It is still quite interesting to visit, I did like it. But keep an open mind and be ready to see a very romanticized side of the history with focus on Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

It was also in this museum that I finally realized how young they were back then. It is still quite impressive how young people in their 20s managed to throw down a dictatorship (to establish another one…) with several warlike strategies and how they managed to recruit so many soldiers for their cause.

The last night in Cuba before returning to Europe

I started to feel hungry after the gallery Ojo del Ciclón. So I decided to follow another of Lonely Planet’s recommendations and I went to the tapas restaurant Chacón 162. I ordered a pineapple juice, a bruschetta and a cheese cream. While eating I am also reading the travel guide to plan what to do afterwards, while doing this the couple of Germans and a couple of Swiss-Italians I met in Trinidad sit right next to me! Yes, two couples I met in different occasions, and whom also ended up meeting. The tourists world is really small…

We arranged to meet at night, though sadly only with the German couple, but we decided to spend my last night in Cuba drinking and eating!

Old car and bicitaxi in Havana Vieja
Old car and bicitaxi in Havana Vieja

After those tapas I went for another walk around the historic quarter before our meeting to go to a rooftop bar, and drink a lot! At that bar we met a couple of Greeks, as soon as I heard Greek I started chatting with them, alcohol in fact helps to meet people… From there we went to another restaurant, at a balcony at one of the central squares of Havana Vieja, to eat more patatas bravas! It was a really nice evening, we laughed a lot and without any doubt a great way to end my trip in Cuba.

Going back to the casa particular by myself at night was also an adventure. I was in Centro Havana, and I thought it would be a good strategy to be closer to several interesting spots. The problem is that it is a district with a not-so-nice vibe, I didn’t feel unsafe, but the way home, while drunk, was interesting to say the least. On the way I was approached by some hookers trying to start a chat with me, but I was half drunk half scared, I kept walking fast. But according to what I was told, Cuba is quite safe, so I didn’t even feel unsafe in that situation. Uncomfortable yes, unsafe not really. I arrived at the casa particular a bit more sober, and ready for the following day!

A farewell to Cuba…

We met again on the following day, just for a small walk. We went to a flea market, and we had lunch together. We said goodbye, and then i still went for another walk to say a last farewell to the city before heading to the airport.

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Taxi booked, all ready, and on my way to the airport. The taxis to anf from the airport are really expensive. If I reckon correctly I paid 30 CUC (~30€). Way more than trips between cities, mostly because those are often in shared taxis. There is the option to go by bus, but for that we need the local currency, CUP, and the buses are really old, often packed and they go through longer routes. To get to the airport I never take chances…

Cuba airport is really small, it only has about 10 stores and nothing to do. Even though I managed to spend the few CUC I had left to buy a few last minute souvenir. Then, boarding towards home…

By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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