Havana Vieja – a magical old city

Our first impression of Cuba was how welcoming it was. We were ushered through customs by a man who asked our nationality, and when I answered “Australian” he smiled and said “aah, Skippy!”, and waved us through to the next stage. As it turned out, every step of our journey would be filled with people making our lives easier (and many people smiling and reminding us of Skippy the bush kangaroo).

We had heard from many people that Cuba was an amazing place to travel, and heard all about places to go outside of Havana (Habana to the locals). Well, we’re here to tell you – don’t be so desperate to leave the architecturally diverse and culturally rich capital so soon. We fell in love with Havana the moment we took our first taxi ride from the airport to our casa particular (a house owned by a Cuban in which you rent a room, where you can usually also buy breakfast and/or dinner, have your washing done, and enjoy it as more of a family environment). We had arranged to get picked up from the airport and taken to our accommodation but when we landed there was no-one there to meet us. There were endless touts there offering us “¿taxi?”, but it wasn’t until we heard someone offer us “¿información?” instead that our ears perked up. The lady at the information desk not only answered our questions about where to exchange our money, but then called our contact for us to find out the address of our casa particular, wrote it down for us, and organised a taxi for us. The contact we had seemed quite confused despite exchanging emails with us a couple of weeks ago, and asked “oh yes! Are you with Simon?”. After further explanation that we had no idea who Simon was, he understood and sent through the address we needed. Our taxi driver waited politely for us to finish exchanging our money and then drove us to the door of our casa, knocked, and waited until our hostess opened the door before shaking our hands and driving off.

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A colourful Havana streetscape

Amelia, our hostess, greeted us enthusiastically and immediately began a fast and animated conversation with me in Spanish, cheerfully telling me not to worry when I apologised for my poor Spanish, as she didn’t speak any English. Disregarding my politely delivered (if apparently too subtle) hints that she was speaking a bit fast for me, Amelia continued to tell me everything we could need to know about the casa (house), along with plenty of information about Havana. Her sausage dog, Rocky, waddled up the long, slim staircase to greet us outside our top-floor bedroom, from the balcony of which Amelia pointed down several floors to the courtyard where she would serve us our breakfast in the morning.

At this point, we were both thinking that we have never set foot in a more welcoming country, and despite all the difficulties of getting there, we were mighty glad we’d come.

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Havana’s famous Capitolio building

We headed out for our first meal, very conscious of the fact that it was already almost 10pm and most places could be closed. Not wanting to get lost at night in a new place, we stayed on the most brightly-lit street running near our casa, and eventually found our way to a bar with salsa music blaring, filled with people dancing the night away. Our stomachs grumbled almost louder than the music, and reminded us of our priorities – food first. We headed next door, to a tiny Italian restaurant that seated 14 (small) people at absolute maximum capacity. Our food came quickly and we washed it down with our first Cuban beer, a Bucanero, which was beautifully refreshing on a warm and humid evening, served in a glass straight out of the freezer. My pizza took up more than half the tiny table, and completely dwarfed Alex’s plate of lasagne. It was simple, not overwhelmingly flavoursome, but still tasty, with a perfectly thin and crispy base I had just watched the chef prepare. Alex’s lasagne was flavoursome, though it was interesting it came served completely solo. Satisfied with our first experience of Cuban food (which we had been warned several times would be plain, boring and probably overcooked), we found our way to a small and almost undetectable window opening through which we bought water for the evening, and then made our way back home.

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Our first dinner in Cuba

When we awoke on our first full day in Cuba, we headed down to breakfast in the quaint courtyard, only to find place settings for four. Not long afterwards, another young couple wandered down and introduced themselves as Saskia and Simon. The mystery was solved! As it turned out, our contact hadn’t arranged accommodation for us at all, and Amelia had only found out after we touched down in Cuba that we were on our way. Simon had been emailing the same contact for a few weeks and thus, the contact was expecting Simon and Saskia, and not Alex and I. We quickly got to chatting with the two lovely Germans, only to discover they are planning to move to Australia in January. We made plans to catch up with them for dinner that evening, and set off to explore.

Our first few days in Cuba consisted of an awful lot of walking around, checking out everything we could by foot. We saw two forts – Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta; the grand Capitolio which is unfortunately undergoing renovations at the moment and couldn’t be explored too closely; numerous beautiful Plazas with old cobblestone paving and grand buildings around every corner; various pieces of street art, some of which featured Che Guevara; many impressive monuments to renowned military or political figures of Cuba, including Jose Marti, Che Guevara, and Calixto Garcia; and endless stunning buildings and cars.

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Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana

You’ve heard about the old cars driving around Cuba. Well, there are many more than we expected, yet still every vintage car we saw the first few days was a completely magical experience, and even by the end of the trip, we still found ourselves pausing to take photos of the well-taken-care-of, photogenic automobiles; particularly in front of the well-taken-care-of, photogenic buildings everywhere we looked. As well as the cars, there are horses trotting down the streets in most Cuban towns as a main form of transport for locals; less so in Havana, though there are still horses towing carts laden with tourists around there (as everywhere in Cuba). Outside of Havana, people commonly use horse-and-cart to transport themselves, their produce, tourists, and anything else that seems like a good idea at the time. There are also always bicycle taxis around every town, similar to tuk-tuks in South-East Asia (though not usually motorised).

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Gran Teatro de la Habana – The Great Theatre of Havana

In short, it isn’t just the architecture and vintage cars that make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time when you arrive in Cuba. Pay phones abound in the middle of town (can you even remember the last time you saw a pay phone in your city?); people still call each other to talk on the phone rather than texting or using any of our many forms of social media to communicate; and many types of transport don’t have any motor to speak of. Never in any country I’ve travelled to have I seen more people with their guidebook out on their table, right next to their half-finished mojito, because you can’t simply Google things when they spring to mind here, as you can in most other countries you visit.

It’s incredible, it’s liberating, it’s a beautiful and timely reminder of how to enjoy life’s simplicities and, rather than always focusing on taking the best photo for Instagram, or texting your friend about what’s happening, stop to breath in the moment and truly absorb the magic of it before it’s too late.

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A typical view on a wander along Havana’s enchanting streets

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