HAVANA — Cuba has been described as an old woman with bright eyes, and as I walked along the tattered streets of Havana – Cuba’s capital city – it was easy to see why.
Havana, or La Habana as the Spanish call it, is set among the sparkling waters of the Caribbean Sea. Steeped in rich history, culture and traditions, its narrow streets are filled with rumbling old American automobiles, lively characters, pulsating rumba beats and remnants of the city’s glorious past. Havana has a fiery energy that will lure you at every turn.
We began our tour of Havana by visiting a cigar shop located in a beautifully-maintained blue Spanish colonial building that also houses the cigar factory where they are expertly hand-rolled. Havana is the birthplace of premium cigars and here you will find the world’s best, along with a superb selection of rum.
As our bus continued on past rundown buildings with flailing laundry and Che Guevara iconography along the Malecón seawall, we stopped and stepped out onto the hot, cobblestoned streets of Old Havana where our charismatic guide, Luis Leicea Yins, made his way to El Templete Shrine to walk three times around the ‘God Tree’. Cubans believe this silk cotton tree will protect and bring you luck. Let’s hope it’s true!
Havana is a shell of its former glory with most of its grand Spanish Colonial and Beaux Arts buildings in ruins, though I would argue that this is part of her charm. However, a stroll down Habana Vieja (Avenida de los Misiones, Monserrate and Ejido) where most buildings have been restored will provide you with a glimpse of why Havana was once the Western hemisphere’s most beautiful city.
A visit to Havana is not complete without visiting El Floridita, home of the daiquiri cocktail and favourite bar of Ernest Hemingway. El Floridita is filled with foreigners eager to experience a piece of Hemingway’s beloved Havana. Take a picture next to the life-size bronze statue of the literary legend leaning over a discreet corner of the bar on his favourite stool. Afterwards, sit down and enjoy his favourite drink – a delicious double daiquiri – poured by the dozens, as you sway to the rumba beats of a live band.
In the Plaza de la Catedral is the city’s oldest cathedral, Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana, where colorfully dressed, cigar-chomping women fill the square and will happily pose for a picture for a tip. As I sat there taking in this beauty, I knew that in its prime Havana could have given the greatest of European cities a run for their money.
After a day of sightseeing we relaxed with a delicious meal at Café del Oriente in Plaza San Francisco de Asis. One of the finest restaurants in Old Havana, Café del Oriente is decorated with antique mirrors and paintings throughout and offers great food and impeccable service as the piano is played in the background.
Havana is filled with relics from its 1950s heyday, when it served as the jet-set capital for America’s rich, famous and most notorious figures who flew in to enjoy Tropicana cabaret shows, live bands, high stakes gambling, premium cigars and cocktails. If you lose yourself to the vibrant energy that pulsates through Havana, you might find yourself transported back to that era, and understand why Havana continues to lure visitors time and time again.