Forget passports and plane journeys, here’s a trip to Havana you can take in under an hour. Let your senses – and your sense of adventure – guide you, around a city that always surprises.
Havana. A lively, magnetic city of tropical heat, sweat, ramshackle beauty, and its very own rhythm. A cadence. A tempo.
At first, this unique place can seem like a confusing jigsaw puzzle; but work out how to put the pieces together, and something beautiful will emerge.
Picture this; you’re wandering the backstreets of Belén, one of Old Havana’s most well-preserved boroughs, so strikingly beautiful. Strolling along the winding alleyways, the cracked uneven concrete of the ground is cool underfoot – despite the afternoon sun still resting high – from tall shadows, cast by pale honey-coloured, crumbling buildings that line these streets.
And the place is alive.
Vendors, shopkeepers, tourists, taxi drivers, rickshaws and waiters. There are faces everywhere. Hunched in low-slung doorways, smoking on corners. Small groups here and there; a smattering of people, moving seemingly with no order at all, yet each marching to a steady, unspoken beat.
Pockets of Havana’s jineteros (that’s hustlers, to you and me) lure you in with the promise of the best Mojito in the city. A cunning smile, affording you a glimpse of gold tooth; the man’s Machiavellian but can anyone really resist?
He charms you into taking a seat and you find yourself smelling fresh mint, clapped between weathered hands. You’re then sipping cheap, sweet rum from a plastic cup. It might as well be moonshine…
But somehow it tastes so good.
The jingle of coins as you thank your gracious host, a handful of pesos falls to the floor. You follow the smell of rich ropa vieja, warm and oily on the air, emerging at Plaza Vieja, Havana’s famous Old Square.
Here, you find Havana as it’s seen from a postcard.
An oil painting of kaleidoscopic colonial buildings, just like you saw in the travel guides. Here, pastel-coloured Cuban baroque nestles seamlessly next to Gaudí-inspired art nouveau. Bright sunlight bounces some of Havana’s finest vitrales; stained-glass windows that glitter like spun sugar in every shade of the rainbow.
For at Plaza Vieja, grandeur is in no short supply. Granted, the architecture is dilapidated and falling down, but it only adds to such breathtaking ethereal beauty.
People describe Havana as a place lost in time – and it’s true. It’s been six decades since the Revolution, where working people inherited a city they simply could not afford to keep, and now? Cuba wears these years on its sleeve.
From your spot on the Square, you hear the clinking of glasses, shouts and yips and yells of locals, and tourists alike, filling out the packed paladares, loading their plates with flavours free of state-run restrictions.
Serving up African, South American and Spanish fare, these privately owned restaurants peddle meat, fish, and seafood. Freshly made paella, steam rising high, served hot from huge cast iron pans; cloying golden orange and amber rice, jewelled with inky black olives and ripe cherry tomatoes, vermillion in colour and ready to burst.
And of course, as is custom, all food served is accompanied by a thick cigar and a few throat-warming shots of the hard stuff.
Good rum, this time. Thankfully.
Crowds surround street performers and laughter erupts, carried by the wind on top of musical notes from the house band. Dry wailing from a creaky old accordion, coarse and discordant, softened by pleasing, golden twangs plucked gently from a guitar. It’s enough to create a pleasant tune, and cause a slow, lazy smile to spread across your face.
It could be the rum talking. Possibly.
But don’t get too comfortable – no languorous afternoon in Havana is complete without a sunset stroll on the famous Malecón.
Here, people wander hand-in-hand, side-by-side with vintage candy-coloured Cadillacs that roll along the concrete promenade. The image creates a surreal time-warp, reminding us of the struggle, no, the tenacity of Cuban people. It creates a genuine connection with the welcoming past; in this unique, dreamlike place, where history is piled up like wrecked treasure on a palm-fringed beach.
Faraway car horns sound over chugging, coughing engines that wheeze into life. Waves crash loudly against stone breakwaters. Leafy palms sway in the breeze, peppered by the shouts and laughs of young Cubans lighting fires on the sand. The salty sea air stings your skin.
You walk under dusky skies, still blue but now in bloom, streaked rose pink with cloud blossom. You pass locals. Fishing, lazing, smoking on the sea wall. Waving an arm from a 1950s Ford Crestline, crudely painted flamingo pink in a valiant attempt to hide the rust.
And so, with the crumbling city skyline in the distance, the sun starts to dip. Melting into the horizon, sinking over the edge of the world, it transports you. You stare straight ahead and feel calm, despite the chaos around you. Lean in on someone close, and remain in that far off, peaceful land for as long as you possibly can.
Because a sunset seen from the Malecón is a sunset that steals your heart. It takes you to a different place, sweeps you off your feet. Makes every hair on your neck stand up.
Days feel like months as you try to absorb every detail of the spellbinding scene unfolding around you, but in Havana? You’ll only ever scratch the surface of this infatuating, captivating country.
In Havana, making sense of your surroundings is no mean feat. It makes you think. It makes you question. Around every corner, in every direction you send your eyes, you’ll be hungry for answers. But this city has been evading these for years.
No one could invent Havana – and you should never go with a long list of questions. Just arrive with an open mind and steel yourself for a long, slow seduction.
Be prepared to disconnect from the life you know as routine. Be prepared to just be.