Cuba Photo Trip Review – Part One: Old Havana
My favourite images from the trip have now been collected and published in my new book “Cuba: Town & Country” which is now available in various print formats and also as an e-book for iPad or iPhone.
Havana – Delightful, decadent, damaged
When so much of the world is becoming increasingly homogenised, it’s nice to know that unique cities like Havana still exist. Spending time there can be frustrating on occasion and almost always contradictory but it delivers an experience unlike any other. How can I put this…
Havana is like a crazy movie studio backlot. In one part they are filming a new version of Evita and have constructed streets where the buildings have beautiful facades in a mix of late 19th century Spanish and early 20th century art deco styles. Just walking along them transports you back to Havana’s glory days in the 1920s and makes you feel a little bit like Cary Grant or David Niven, you just slipped back into a more refined and genteel age.
On other streets they are filming Mad Max 4. Buildings are ravaged, chunks of masonry lie in rubbish-strewn streets and smoke billows from random doorways. Grizzled amputees and blind beggars compete for your attention and a peso or two. Vultures cruise overhead thriving amongst easy pickings in the detritus below.
Throw in a selection of 1950s American Fords and Oldsmobiles cruising the streets (themselves in a variety of states from pristine to utterly ramshackle) and you can see why Havana is a heady mix of vibrancy, decay, fun and the occasional undercurrent of something a little more menacing.
That “edge” to the city doesn’t mean people should be fearful of Havana, it just keeps things interesting! I had no bad experiences and it’s much, much safer than other cities in the Caribbean (Kingston springs to mind as one that is not). Yes, you will be hassled by a variety of street vendors, touts and beggars, especially in the middle of the day, but not aggressively. This is a game the locals play every day and they know its not in their interests to draw the attention of the police who maintain a visible presence in tourist areas.
Five things you should do in Havana
For me, Havana is at its best at dawn and dusk. At these times the coach parties of aging European tourists are absent, the jineteros (local touts) are not lying in wait in large numbers and the city can be savoured as people start or finish going about their day.
- Vist the Museo del Chocolate early while the day is still cool and the place isn’t packed with tourists. This small cafe / chocolate shop / museum serves the richest hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted!
- During the middle of the day escape to the 6th floor roof bar of the Ambos Mundos Hotel on Mercaderes Street. Here you can relax with a mojito while enjoying spectacular views of the old quarter (and drinks prices are thankfully no worse than anywhere else!)
- Browse the book market in the Plaza de Armas. This is something of a fixture, happening 6 days a week and containing a vast amount of unusual texts about the history of Cuba and the Revolution that you won’t find anywhere else. The vendors are pretty friendly and not too pushy if you just want to browse for a while.
- Enjoy dinner at La Imprenta. My favourite restaurant in Havana, based in a building that formerly housed a printing press and retains the theme with seats carved in the shape of letters. Lovely staff, good food and a very pretty setting partially open to the warm Caribbean night. A German chap sat near me remarked to friends “This could be Verona”. Enough said!
- Just walk and talk! A lot of Havana’s museums and “cultural attractions” are a little underwhelming, for me the joy was just rambling and exploring. From chatting to a sculptor in his tiny shop (also his front room) to finding leafy little plazas tucked away in corners of the city, take advantage of the fact that Old Havana is compact and friendly to pedestrians.