Havana, Cuba, city of imperfect perfection and a travel must

An old lady snoozes in the humid heat in a central Havana square. Pic: LLO

The old lady reclines against a palm tree in the shady park in old town Havana, snoozing peacefully despite the beat of the ever-present salsa band tearing it up in the bar next door for the mojito-swigging tourists.

She wears bright colours, bracelets and necklaces and in her hand, locked between her fingers, is a long, brown, Cuban cigar.

She may be old, she may be poor, she may be struggling and at odds with herself but she is a beautiful vision in the energy-sapping heat and as I take her picture, she represents the fascinating face of Cuba.

A flashing, irresistible, magnet for tourists with its fascinating olde-worlde transportation, stunning coastline, fascinating political history and inexplicably hard to access internet.

Every street corner is a photographic montage Pic: LLO

With modern hotels on its beach-fringed peninsulars with all-inclusive resorts and walk-in wardrobes for honeymooners, Cuba is a country of contrasts hard to quite understand for the visiting traveller from a democratic country.

It is Caribbean in location, yet its continuing communist principles means major enterprise is government-run including the big hotels and all import/export.


Grafitti, Havana Pic: LLO

The transportation crisis is ongoing, represented by the ageing vehicles Cuba is famous for and queues of Cubans at all the roadsides waiting for the packed buses or lifts from passing vehicles.

This may be a Cuba without a Castro at the helm for the first time for decades, but they are still there, pulling the strings. Cuba is still Cuba and Havana is its jewel.

Impossible to fully describe in words, Havana is a microcosm of humanity and to visit is to experience a slice of magic.

The roof garden at Hostal El Encinar, Havana. Pic: LLO

I arrived by private-taxi from Varadero airport like most tourists, a two-hour transfer whizzing past gloriously green tropical forests, golden beaches and the people lining the roadsides, women gloriously glamorous in their favoured tight and patterned lycra and men in perennial shorts and t-shirts.

Before hitting the multitude of glorious colour and cacophony of life that is Havana, we pass accommodation blocks, grey and utilitarian, this is the reality of communist-style living for many Cubans, housing built in the Soviet-era.


Outside Havana, there are many Soviet-style blocks of communist housing like these

Then we travel through Matanzas, a slice of Cuban real-life with its working roots and palm-fringed bay with young boys fishing with nets in the shallows.

We trundle past (there’s a lot of pot-holes) the grey Soviet-era power station, past the police with motorbikes stationed on the road side and everywhere, if you look carefully, signs and shrines to Cuba’s adulated Latin American liberators.

Then to Havana (Habana) itself, a city split into three parts – Habana Vieja (the old town), Centro Habana (residential mass of humanity not to be missed) and Vedado, once a mafia-run district now characterised by former casinos turned into huge state-run hotels.

These old cars are not for show, there are very few newer vehicles in Cuba Pic : LLO

I stayed in Habana Vieja, the masterpiece area of old city that remains a walk-through museum and multi-coloured assault on the senses that is both an architectural wonder and Instagram dream.

It is the Havana of posters and perceptions, yet a living thing and home to thousands (90,000 plus) and indescribable in its layers of fascination.

Public education, health and welfare projects sit side by side with brightly coloured houses, washing slung across balconies, next to restaurants and, behind flaking wooden doors, hidden art galleries and restaurants

Smart government buildings in central Havana contrast with reality of living conditions. Pic: LLO

Work has been constantly ongoing since the 1970s to funnel profits from tourism to resurrect and repair this vision from the past – profits are divided equally by the city historian’s office between this and the public projects.

It’s a mighty task – you only need to look up and through a door to see the skeletons of decaying historic buildings still on the restoration to-do list, you can almost touch the city’s swashbuckling colonial history through its edifices.

What has been achieved has been remarkable though, with more than 900 building of historical importance stuffed into its hot and narrow streets, plus four forts and more than 30 museums.

Workmen toil replacing cobbled streets and laying infrastructure for power and water in small streets teeming with tourists, seeking the ‘real’ Havana experience but wanting modern conveniences.

Most visitors will flit between the four main squares and the forts, its impossible to see everything even in a few days. So much is easy to miss even for the most organised, making every trip an experience.

My best advice is just to walk, feel your way, and (armed with a map) go with the flow, take in the parties, poverty and the political historys .

Havana will embrace you, she’s quite the lady.


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