History and modernity collide in Cuba’s endlessly fascinating capital. Frequent traveller and editor Ling Doh Kin share his must-do activities when you’re there.
1. Take a stroll down Malecon
Malecon (pronounce as Ma-le-kon), an 8km-long broad esplanade and sea wall along the coast of Havana, is quintessential Cuba. The sea drive starts in the east at the mouth of Havana Harbour in Old Havana, ending in the new town, Vedado. There are seemingly endless stretches of beautiful colonial buildings along Malecon, paled by the scorching sun and brined by the salt from the sea. It is at its charming best in the evenings, as Habaneros and tourists alike sit on the beach-wall enjoying cigars, rum or a romantic moment with loved ones. Plus, the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico is simply glorious.
2. Stay in a Casa Particulares
Think of it as an Airbnb, Cubano style. A casa particular refers to a homestay or private accommodation, and an air-conditioned room with double or twin beds costs between 15-25 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC, SGD23-38) per night if you walk in, or 25-40 CUC (SGD 38-61) if you book online. We learnt by experience that it’s best to wander around seeking friendly home owners who are willing to rent out a room for a night or two. It’s the best way to immerse yourself in local Cuban culture!
3. Write your name on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio
Located in a small street near the Plaza de Catedral, La Bodeguita del Medio is one of Cuba’s most celebrated bars. It was here that mojito was made famous by Ernest Hemingway. Thousands of tourists flock here to leave their autographs on the wall outside the bar. As it is repainted every few months, make sure you take a picture of your autograph for posterity.
4. Drink “Guarapo”
Nothing beats Guarapo, or freshly squeezed sugarcane juice with crushed ice, for those hot Cuban days. Priced at 1 Cuban Peso (CUP*, or SGD 5 cents) a glass, you can’t find a more wallet-friendly thirst-quencher. If you chance upon a “Guarapo” stall and there’s a queue, don’t hesitate to join it.
5. Dine like a Hollywood star in Paladar La Guarida
Once the set of the Oscar-nominated film Fresca y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), the restaurant offers fine-dining experiences in the heart of Centro Havana, a neighbourhood known for its decaying architecture. Here, you dine amidst photos of Hollywood stars such as Beyonce, Jay-Z, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Spacey, Steven Spielberg, and many more. In the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, the cover story featured Rihanna posed on the marble staircase leading up to the restaurant. Be sure to make your way to the rooftop where you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city.
6. Strut down Paseo del Prado like a Chanel model
In May this year, French fashion house Chanel turned Paseo del Prado, a European-style boulevard, into a runway for its Cruise 2016/17 presentation. Sandwiched between buildings of neo-Renaissance and neoclassical styles, the mile-long granite walkway is adorned by a thick canopy of trees, making it a perfect venue to practice your catwalk strut.
7. Hop into a vintage taxi
When your calves are sore from all that walking or when the heat becomes unbearable, hop into a vintage taxi to see what it feels like to travel in a car of days gone by. Be sure you mind your head when you enter one of these bulky American vintage cars in every imaginable colour, and do agree on a price before you set off on your journey.
8. Ride in the oldest electric train in Cuba
Take a short ferry ride from the harbour in Old Havana, and you’ll arrive in a small village called Casablanca. Here, you’ll be able to board the only electric train in Cuba – one of two that plies this track. The Hershey Company built the railway in 1917, and while you shouldn’t expect the journey to be as comfortable as riding on the MRT, the view of the lush countryside will more than make up for it. The whole journey takes about 6 hours, but you can shorten it by disembarking at Hershey Station and joining the returning train.
9. Visit a vintage book stall
For the most part, the Spanish-speaking Cubans are not conversant in English, but most vintage booksellers are. Vintage booksellers are licensed and must meet certain requirements to be one, including having a vast knowledge of Cuba’s history. If you’d like to find out more about the history of the country, a vintage bookseller is the person to go to. You’ll find them chatty and happy to share their knowledge! Plaza de Armas in Old Havana is a great place to browse for vintage books, objects, and posters.
10. Send your pals some postcards
You can easily spot photos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara across the country – in the state-run restaurants, banks, markets, as wall murals, and on postcards. Castro and Guevera are regarded as revolutionary heroes, and postcards with black and white photos of them are ubiquitous. To increase the chances of your card’s arrival, paste the stamp onto the postcard yourself, and tape the corner of the stamp with sellotape to prevent people from stealing it. The postal service can be unreliable, so you’ll never know when the postcard will reach its destination, if at all. If and when it does, however, it’ll be a treat for the recipient.
*Cuba has two currencies, Cuban Convertible Peso (CUP) and Cuban Peso (also known as Modena Nacional).
About the author:
Ling Doh Kin is a frequent traveller, founder and editor of Big Foot Traveller, a Chinese-language travel web-zine created to inspire and empower professional young adults to create their travel adventures. Kin’s writing and photography works have been published in various print and online publications in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, as well as National Geographic’s The Daily Dozen. He is the finalist of Singapore Blog Awards 2014’s Best Photography Blog.
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