What’s a must-see in Cuba? The first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the capital, Havana. However, to go and see only Havana and judge the entire island from the perspective of that city is like judging Lodz from East Street.
Yes, Havana is unique, original in its own right…. but it is also dilapidated, run-down, neglected, falling apart. And there are quite a few towns in Cuba that are prettier, more colorful, better preserved, and this should be kept in mind before saying that Cuba is ruin upon ruin.
Table of contents
First steps in Havana
Our flight took almost 10 hours before we landed in Havana (and that’s flying from Madrid, not Warsaw!). Landing, we made our way through large clouds, which did not fill us with optimism. To top it off, once we landed the storm began. Nothing, we are finally in “sunny” Cuba, in the capital, the largest city on the island. More than 2 million people live here, and in fact probably many more.
At the airport itself a wild crowd, but we managed to spot the person who drove us to our quarters. It is worth exchanging currency at the airport. Only here can you stock up on CUP or CUC. We will certainly write a separate post about currencies. What is important to emphasize right at the outset is that CUC’s are a stronger currency, which is used by, among others. tourists. We can buy more with it. The CUP is the token currency that Cubans pay – using it we buy very cheap things but their choice is very limited.
The best bed and breakfasts in Cuba are. casa particular
We arrived at our ‘apartment’, called casa particular, at night (in rain and thunderstorms), in an old Cuban car, and the only thing we saw as we flashed through the city was Revolution Square with illuminated images of the famous Che and Camillo.
As jet lag kicked in, we admired the sunrise from 4 a.m. and watched Havana wake up to life. It was getting worse by the minute, with each ray of sunshine…. to our eyes appeared more hovels, blocks of flats, dilapidated buildings with broken windows.
The apogee came when the rooster crowed at 7 am (we live in a block of flats, on the 5th floor, the center of the capital and this voice was clearly coming from behind the door, not the window ;-)). The city began to live. There were residents going to work and walking their children to school…. and, of course, old cars. At first we couldn’t get enough of the view and took a picture of everyone and only after a while did we get used to the sight.
At 8 we arranged with the owners for breakfast, which was served in our apartment. We ate omelets, vegetables, delicious fruits and freshly squeezed mango juice each. Delicious! The breakfast was very impressive, but we were also captivated by the cutlery, dishes in which we had our food served. In general, all the furnishings of the apartment resemble things from the homes of our grandmothers and grandfathers :) In general, we recommend you to eat breakfast in the places where you will sleep (as long as they are casa particular). Lots, delicious and local :)
>>> Information on accommodation in Cuba can be found in this post.
Sightseeing in Havana
Returning to Havana: it rained a little in the morning, but it cleared up. There wasn’t the heat we expected, but that’s also a good thing because otherwise exploring Havana would have been a torment.
We decided to walk to the center (about 30 minutes) and see what the streets look like away from the tourist section. Old, dilapidated houses, old but running cars, lots of people on the streets, door-to-door trading and stores with empty shelves – this is how the capital appeared to our eyes. Some of the houses we passed were nicer, more well-kept, but they were generally just another casa particular for rent to foreign tourists.
At the very beginning we went looking for a rental car. We were directed to the very center to look for something in the large hotels, which also operated rental shops. It turned out that renting a car borders on a miracle, and when you do manage to do it, there is no choice of options, size, etc – you take what is there.
So, after checking with 5 hotels, we managed to rent a Chinese fake, which performed the most important function for which it was created, that is, it drove from point A to B :) Not much else… The pickup car will be waiting for us the next day as we planned, success! However, we recommend you to book a car online (it is possible) before arrival (2 weeks before the date, however, it is no longer possible).
Once we managed to book a car (even with a credit card!), we took a quiet look around. We were right in the center, at theHavana Capitol (National Capitol Building), modeled after the famous Washington, D.C. building.
On one side, typical colorful facades straight from guidebook photos, and on the other, crumbling buildings. This city has an atmosphere…. The authorities are supposedly renovating buildings, but by the time they finish one, the two next to it will have collapsed.
The Capitol itself is also being renovated, and if you look closely from another angle, it appears to be an abandoned hovel with broken windows.
Cuban ice cream for 13 cents….
We walked a bit, and on the way we managed to make our first “window” purchase ;) Opposite the Capitol there was a window where a lady was selling curly ice cream for $1. Since these were our beginnings we didn’t know if they were CUPs or CUCs (much more about them later) so we tried paying in local currency and it worked! ;) The ice cream cost us 13gr, Viva Cuba!
Old Havana – Habana Vieja
Nourished, we continued on towards the old city – Habana Vieja. We plotted our route to see the most important buildings, but in fact the road itself was the biggest attraction.
The first main point of our trip is, of course, the Old Market, or Plaza Vieja. This piece of Havana made a hugely positive impression on us. Unlike the earlier views, here it was simply beautiful. And then there’s that Lacosta store…. after all, it fits in perfectly with the whole Cuban society…. ;)
Still a little break for a meal…. fruit, of course! Natural, unsprayed, Cuban, Caribbean! :)
Right next door is also a point of interest, Plaza de San Francisco. We also recommend you to bounce a little to the right towards the port, where you can meet the distinctive image of a certain Lord, which can often be found on the covers of guidebooks.
Also worth a look is the back of the Convento de San Francisco de Asís Church, where the gardens (and statue) of Mother Teresa of Calcutta are located.
Heading further north, you can also reach the Castillo de la Real Fuerza through interesting streets.
The Castillo itself looks a bit like a castle. In truth, it’s a fort that was originally intended for defense against pirates (this is the Caribbean, after all!). The other side of the bay is also worth a look.
In addition to the obvious spots like the Plaza Vieja (Old Market), the Cathedral and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, it’s also worth looking into open houses that are either art galleries or museums. Entrance is usually free, and inside sit bored employees who are just waiting for an opportunity to introduce someone to the history of a particular building (too bad it’s only in Spanish…).
We then directed our steps toward Havana Cathedral, eating in the next window while listening to Cuban music on the street.
Under the aforementioned Havana Cathedral (Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Inmaculada), where we went next, we met someone we expected – a colleague of Martyna Wojciechowska! He accosted us right away, and when he found out that we were from Poland he pulled out a Polish newspaper from his coat :) Of course, it was not without a photo ;)
You can read about the other places in Havana in part two >>>
We also invite you to visit the gallery with more photos: