Havana Ooh Na Na
In the latest in his series exploring how to experience travelling as an antidote to your mood, Kyle Taylor sets out the hotspots of Havana.
Mood: Non-Consumer & Existential
We live in broadly capitalist societies where shopping, buying, consuming ascribes us value. The more we do these things, the more we’re “worth” to society. Travelling is often an expansion on this theme.
Clothes, goods and trinkets we don’t need all find their way home with us because “we’re on holiday” so “treat yourself!” There are few places left where consuming hasn’t infiltrated every aspect of existence and there’s something phenomenally eye-opening about simply experiencing and existing. It’s a whole different kind of liberty.
Havana – capital of Cuba, a tropical island in the Caribbean – might be the only place left like this and it’s a fascinating ride.
What to expect:
From the moment you touch down, things are just a little bit different. Slow. Calm. Relaxed. Like nobody has anywhere to be.
The first thing you notice is that there are no HSBC billboards along the air ramps taking you from the plane to the terminal. As a matter of fact, there are no billboards at all in the airport, which is a shock since modern airports are just glorified luxury shopping malls.
The immigration official is smoking a cigar, looking you up and down, likely just for kicks, as a visa costs a small fortune and it’s highly unlikely they aren’t going to let you in. With a quick stamp, you’re through and the adventure begins – every step of the way mirroring those first few moments.
Havana is a place where time seems to stand still. It’s 1950 and 2019 all at once. Classic cars aren’t classic – they’re practical. Food isn’t cuisine, it’s fuel. Rum is for everyone and music – incredible music – creates a soundtrack to your every move.
It’s important to get yourself orientated in Havana.
The main neighborhood is Havana Vieja and it will become your hub. The main east/west streets are O’Reilly and Obispo, with the main north/south crossroads being Habana and Cuba in the west side and Mercaderes and Ofcios in the east side.
The perfect morning starts with a coffee at Café O’Reilly, where they roast Cuban beans in-house and the milk tastes like it was in a cow a few hours before. From there, a wander of the entire neighbourhood is simply wonderful. Life happens on the streets in Havana and it bombards you, with a new stimulus around every corner. Plaza Vieja is particularly lovely – a square lined with live music, bars, cafes, restaurants and a microbrewery, the best in Havana. This makes the perfect pit-stop for lunch at said microbrewery – Factoria Plaza Vieja. The BBQ is divine and the beers are on point.
Fuel up, though, as there’s lots to do in the afternoon.
Start with a visit and tour of the Museo del Ron Havana Club. Many tastings are included and it’s the perfect way to keep the good times moving. From there, head straight to Paseo de Marti in front of the Gran Teatro where you can take your pick of a classic car for a ride through the city and along the seafront. Fares are flat and printed on a laminated card (no gouging here) so you just flag down the car you like. The routes are set and you’ll get to see – with the longest journey – the major spots on the outskirts of town, including Che Guevara’s memorial, before being dropped at Hotel Nacionale – the “fancy” hotel and the only place foreigners were historically allowed to stay.
A late afternoon cocktail and cigar in the garden is unmatched and leaves you perfectly positioned to reflect on all things Havana before the evening.
There’s no better spot to ponder all things Havana than along the seafront wall.
From the Hotel Nacionale it’s visible. Snake your way down to Copellia – the state-run ice cream store – for a scoop of your favourite flavour, then wander the front and watch as people fish for dinner, teenagers meet for an impassioned kiss and cuddle and life generally moves at a glacial place. Grab some sea wall to ponder and reflect before heading back to regroup before the evening.
The hotels in Havana are overpriced and impersonal. AirBnB has ironically been incredible for local people, allowing them to make homestays easily accessible to visitors. Casa Alfaro Plaza Vieja was particularly welcoming and could not be more highly recommended. It’s all a stone’s throw from the main square and, in Havana, location is everything.
Get on your white linen shirt and best dress for spinning then head out to hit the town.
The best cocktail bar in the city is Frente on O’Reilly street. If you’re drinking something that doesn’t have rum in it, you’re doing it wrong. You’ll need a little sharpener before facing the masses at La Floridita, home of the daiquiri and stomping ground of Ernest Hemingway. Nothing inside has changed except for the fashion choices of tourists.
Most people will tell you to eat at La Guardia as its interior and reputation are fairly famous. The food, however, is mediocre at best and Galy Café – serving up healthy portions of Cuban classics – far exceeds all expectations. Wash your meal down with a cold Cuban beer and get ready to dance the night away at Buena Vista Social Club. Yes, that one. It’s touristy, it’s gimmicky, it’s magical. Set in an enormous old state house that has had little restoration work, the energy and environment make it an experience not to be missed, bringing full-circle the broader sense that, in the absence of rampant consumption and constant internet access, people seem to enjoy the here and now – a welcome lesson for us all.