An overwhelming feeling of beauty awakens all the senses as the plane descends to land in the Cuban capital of Havana. The breathtaking experience of seeing the island view from the sky is a grand spectacle; from thousands of feet in the air, you watch the green landscape open up. Palm trees cover the valleys and mountains like a blanket. Royal palms create shade, the shadows moving as if they were dancing to the rhythm of a Cuban drum.
Exploring La Habana.
The trip from La Habana José Martí International Airport to the city center is a short 20-minute ride. The sensation of calmness and balance exuded by the vehicles and people walking on the streets, rather than a rushed, competitive atmosphere, is a breath of fresh air. A diverse variety of American vintage cars from the ’50s, a few Soviet autos and contemporary vehicles harmoniously move through the city to the sound of music.
Havana, which has recently celebrated its 500th Anniversary, impresses you with its vibrant colors, the eclecticism of architectural styles, and the contrast between maintained and in-ruins structures. Like a kid in Wonderland, you can’t stay away from observing everything you possibly can. All that – in combination with the warmth of the sun, the exotic vegetation, and the ocean kissing the seawalls of the Malecon with its waves. This broad esplanade that stretches for five miles (eight km) from the mouth of Havana Harbor in Old Havana through Center Havana – leaves you with a feeling of amazement.
If you want to have a traditional Cuban experience, rather than staying in one of Cuba’s many hotels, rent a ‘Casa Particular’ (private home in Spanish) in the neighborhood of Vedado. Developed in the first half of the 20th century during the Republic period, you can take a walk through the streets surrounded by Colonial-style homes that showcase beautiful patios decorated with flowers and green plants. In the midst of the peaceful and quiet neighborhood, it’s the place where the locals come to have fun and relax in their leisure time. Vedado is full of restaurants, bars and hotels that have amazing rooftops with astounding views of the city.
Traveling to other sights from here is easy. A short, pleasurable taxi ride in a 1950’s vintage American convertible will take visitors to Paseo del Prado – a promenade that divides Centro Havana and Old Havana, starting at the Parque Central until Malecon. No wonder the late fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld presented his Chanel collection there in 2016 by converting the shaded tree-lined promenade into an Haute Couture runway.
During a highly recommended exploration walk through the city streets, you will discover pieces of art exhibited on the sidewalks, bronze lion statues (the symbol of protection for the people and the city), marble benches (which keep you cool in the hot climate), and some of the city’s central buildings. Among the key buildings, you can find are the beautiful Gran Teatro, home to the Cuban National Ballet Alicia Alonso, and the Capitolio, which was recently renovated to its original state hosting again the Cuban Parliament.
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana in Spanish) has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1982. It has been restored to showcase the unmistakable history of the Cuban Capital’s centuries-old architectural gems of the old city, such as museums, unique shops, charming plazas full of bars and coffee shops, street art, and restaurants. Live music bands at every corner will entice you and you will naturally start dancing and singing along to the invigorating Cuban music.
Alongside the many restaurants and bars are privately-owned businesses known as ‘paladares.’ It’s not surprising that so many young chefs are emerging, presenting a new twist to Cuban dishes.
From old factories to private houses and patios that were converted into unique restaurants and clubs, you can enjoy cozy ambiances, great service, and creative and delicious dishes with an undeniable Cuban flair.
A Day Trip To Varadero.
Exploring other cities outside of Havana requires a day-long excursion, which can easily be booked from your home country through an official travel agency.
A two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Havana will bring you to the beaches of Varadero, a popular beach resort town that covers the narrow Hicacos Peninsula. On your trip to Varadero, you will experience live music, dancing and the most delicious Piña Colada you have ever tasted. Varadero is famous for its beaches, which are considered one of the most beautiful natural environments in the world. The water is crystal clear, the sand is soft and white and the pelicans fly freely around you as you enjoy the laid-back beach vibes in this luxurious paradise.
Another beautiful adventure is to the lush green valleys and mountains of Viñales. A world-renowned oasis of natural beauty with the best soil on earth for tobacco plantations, it is unforgettable. Just the breathtaking view of the valley will be forever ingrained in your memory. Stop by and enjoy a delicious lunch at an organic farm that will leave you in awe of the flavors of traditional Cuban cuisine.
By visiting a private house of a Cuban tobacco farmer, you can learn how cigars are made manually. And, of course, you can’t leave before you tried to smoke a freshly rolled cigar the proper way. Visiting the natural caves of Las Cuevas del Indio will be the perfect finale to the day.
The Cuban People.
Music and dancing are the vital sparks of La Havana. You can’t walk or ride in a car without hearing people sing, dance and laugh. Live bands can be found in almost every bar and the culture of traditional Cuban music lives beyond a mere sense of pride for the Cuban people.
Cuba is special in many ways, but ultimately the main impressions you will take home with you are of the warmth of the Cuban people you have met during your visit.
Photography by Dean Zulich