CUBA: Havana, Day 1

After a long, nightly drive from the airport of Varadero, we arrived at the first stay of our journey; Casa Bélen in Havana.

In Cuba, it’s quite common to stay in ‘casa particulares’, which basically means you’re staying with the Cubans themselves. It’s definitely the most authentic option, as I just can’t imagine staying in a hotel in a country like this. The Cuban people are really friendly and open to help, so I can only recommend staying in casas.

Our first casa was right in the historical center of Havana. The perfect operating base to explore the city. The first night was a bit awkward as communication was difficult with someone who didn’t speak English and us who only spoke a little bit of Spanish, but in the end we managed. The rooms were a bit small, but with this location we couldn’t expect a lot, so it didn’t bother us a bit. The breakfast of fruits, eggs, juice and bread was amazing. We would only learn that it is the standard breakfast in Cuba later on our trip, but still, we were delighted with what we got. Also the view from the balcony of the main room was just wonderful.

At noon, we had a meeting scheduled with a local partner of our travel agency, so to kill time before that, we quickly headed to the Havana Club Rhum Museum, which was really close to our casa anyway.

In this museum, you can learn all about Cuba’s most famous Rhum; Havana Club. The museum is quite small, but the guide will tell you all about the process of making the rhum so it’s definitely worth it. Entrance is 7 CUC and you get a little tasting of the 7 year old Havana Club.

Since we still had a bit of time left before the meeting, we went over to Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja to feel the atmosphere. On these squares, everything is renovated but once you go into a few sidestreets, you’ll find the real Havana, which is rundown to the point that buildings now and then collapse (according to one of our guides). It’s nice to just walk around these places and check out the amazing architecture and imagine what it must have been like so many years ago when they were still new.

While at first we only saw the meeting with the local partner as a must and nothing really worth our time, it ended up being a really interesting. He told us what we should be looking out for (like guys trying to take you to a salsa festival which wasn’t happening at all), explained us all about the Cuban money (which I explained in my first post), and had interesting discounts for many sights and restaurants. Through him we got our reservations in La Bodeguita del Medio for later that day.So definitely no waste of time.

About an hour later, we were heading to Parque Central to take the Hop-on Hop-off bus to Plaza de la Revolución. A day ticket for this bus costs 10 CUC and it takes about two hours to make the entire loop. Since we had some time and a nice place on the bus, we decided to first make the entire loop all the way past the cemetery Cristobal Colon and through the lovely streets of Havana. This way you can see much more of the city.

On the way back with the bus we did get off at Plaza de la Revolución. This square is 72000 m² and hence one of the biggest in the world. It’s not the most beautiful square, but it’s definitely impressive. It’s also the place where Fidel Castro used to give his speeches every year. And of course, the steel image of Che Guevara is a must see as well. Aside from him you can also find Camilo Cienfuegos, and the big tower is a monument for another Cuban icon: José Marti.

Then we headed back with the bus to Parque Central to go take a closer look at El Capitolio. This building was one of the things I was looking forward to seeing the most. It’s just such an impressive building and one of the postcard images of Havana. Sadly they were still renovating it so we couldn’t visit it. Next to the Capitolio there is another beautiful building which houses the Gran Teatro, the national theatre of Havana.

Next we walked via Avenida Bélgica towards the Malecón. This is a 8km long esplanada along the coast of Havana where the Cubans like to hang out. The atmosphere is really nice but sadly it started to rain right as we arrived there so we cut our visit there short.

Since we still had some time left before our reservation at La Bodeguita del Medio, we decided to hang out around the Plaza de la Catedral and the Plaza de Armas. Both are really lovely squares, but I especially loved the lightning and atmosphere at Plaza de la Catedral.

And then it was time for one of the most famous restaurants in Havana: La Bodeguita del Medio. Many famous people have already visited this restaurant (Nat King Cole even had it’s own table) and it is supposedly the birth place of the Mojito. So of course we couldn’t visit Cuba without having a Mojito at this place. And it was a really good one. We had chosen the simple menu consisting of (what we would soon learn was typical for Cuba:) chicken with rice and black beans. I very much enjoyed it. Just like many other people before us, we also left our mark on the walls before leaving.

We ended our first day in Havana with another cocktail in Café de Paris on Calle Obispo before heading back to our hotel for some much needed rest.

Until next time,

With love, Ellen

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