I had long harbored a desire to visit Cuba which grew more and more urgent as rumours of impending regime change swirled. I didn’t want to miss a chance to see Cuba as I imagined it, captured in time.
Havana was everything you imagine it to be; from the old vintage cars, the windy cobbled streets framed by pastel coloured buildings to the salsa music which drifts along the cigar smoke filled streets. It feels like you stepped into a black and white movie. Certainly nothing looks new.
Havana is best appreciated ambling around the central squares and streets. Pass one of the many old book stalls stacked with Hemingway novels and linger at leisure. Stop often for the coffee, one of Cuba’s best exports.
Once you have explored the centre, take a stroll along the Malecon, the sea wall which lines the city’s edge. The Malecon is the city’s social focal point. Its where the elder Cubans come to fish, the kids come to swim, and groups of young friends meet up. At dusk young couples stroll atop the wall arm in arm. I would highly recommend a late afternoon stroll from Old Havana along the wall to La Nacional to get you there just in time for sundown mojitos on the terrace. With its old colonial architecture and marble halls, it belongs in a James Bond movie. This makes for a much better option that either La Bodeguita del medio or El Floridita which lacked genuine charm.
The best meal in Cuba is found at La Guarida. It is the type of place you only find because you really trust the friend that recommended it. The restaurant is tucked away in a residential area of town in an ordinary looking town house. You even pass airing laundry as you ascend the large stone staircase to the entrance. Persevere, it is well worth it. Stepping through the doors it feels like you have entered a forbidden Cuba, how you imagine feeling at discovering a hidden speakeasy. You can’t help feel the infectious glow of those in the know. The room is warm, painted yellow, and busy, adorned with photos frames of all the many people who have passed through the doors. If only those walls could speak! The food is exceptional – inventive and flavorful – and has all the ingredients of an unforgettable dining experience. It is not the type of restaurant where you drop in even if you somehow stumbled across it by accident. Reservations are a necessity if you don’t want to miss out.
Outside of Havana, Cuba loses some of its romanticism and the realities and frustrations of Cuban life are all too evident. The dual system, one for tourists and one for locals is frustrating and steeped in rules. My advice is to stop the clock here in Havana, settle in and enjoy being stuck in time.
This is an excerpt of an article published in full by Vagabundo Magazine – check it out here.