The Havana Hustle
Arriving in Havana is shocking. Everyone is outside at all times unless it's raining. The streets are bustling with locals, bicycle tuk tuks full of onions, wheel barrel fruit stands full of mangos, bananas, avocados, papaya, pineapple and more! The colorful four to six story houses line the sidewalks with women dropping down baskets on a rope out of their balconies to retrieve items from the street below as the laundry hangs overhead.
As I walked through the narrow streets trying to find my hostel in the humid heat, I noticed the Spanish and French influence in architecture and the old fifties cars ranging from Cadillacs to Pontiacs to Chevrolets and beyond. I came across a street all dug up and was informed they were having water irrigation problems which I heard is normal for Havana and because of the poor infrastructure many go without water/showers for days on end. There were a few decapitated pig heads at the end of my street and I almost tripped over a dead chicken, both truly horrifying experiences! I was located near the Malecon, between Virtudes & Animas on Escobar in Centro Havana. It is less expensive than Old Havana and you get the true local Cuban feel.
The locals were very vocal about how they felt about me while I walked down the street. Men constantly riding by making kissy noises and the others hollering "LADY!" It's a confidence boost, and I appreciate their culture and their love for amor & the woman's body, but it does get old after a day of being hollered at by the majority of males asking if they can be your boyfriend or why I don't have one. Cuba is very safe, as long as you are smart and keep an eye on your belongings you should be fine as a solo female traveler!
I met some Israelis as soon as I checked into the hostel and we all decided to venture out together! The blistering humid heat in June is no joke, I have never sweat so much in my whole life. I didn't realize it was the rainy season when I went, but it only rained once a day for about an hour or so and was a nice break from the 60% humidity and high daily temperatures pushing over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). We only reached the capital before finding a 1953 Chevy convertible to drive us around for an hour for 10 CUC. It was an experience to say the least. Our driver's name was Rafael and he grew up in Havana. He showed us the Statue of the Revolution, all of the universities and parks, the malecon, Old Havana, and taught us about the history of Cuba all in Spanish.
After our cruise, we walked down Obispo street, the main pedestrian walking street in Old Havana and enjoyed live music and the local flavor of Havana in Plaza Vieja. We found Camara Oscura, an 8 story high building in the corner of Plaza Vieja. The rooftop terrace offers 360 degree views of the beautifully colored city of Havana. Inside they have a large telescope built into the roof where you can zoom in and view on a circular screen the city of Havana Vieja in real time. It was definitely worth the 2 CUC to buy a ticket. Somehow I managed to get us in for free, but I think it's because I was very loving to the security guard's pup, Nina.
I took a full day to walk around Old Havana, Havana Vieja, again at the end of my trip. If you would rather get dropped off a taxi should be relatively expensive paying no more than 3 CUC for a 15 minute drive. Many of the buildings are covered with beautiful paintings and I explored many galleries full of exquisitely unique pieces throughout the small narrow streets. Many of the galleries use recycled materials such as the Ojo de Ciclon gallery in Old Havana where artists used old suitcases to display some of their paintings. Locals continuously spoke to me as I walked through the streets, asking where I was from or where your friends are if you are walking alone. Men with ice chests (eske, cooler, chilly bin) full of ice cream on the back of their bicycles hollering HELADO in the streets.
During the evening you can make your way to Fabrica Del Arte Cubano, an art gallery that turns into a bar/club at night. Doors open at 8PM with 2 CUC entry and the party starts to filter in around 11PM until late night. It is truly a unique experience.
I decided to head out on the town and found Calle 23, a main street full of young locals and bars that line the street. You can buy your beers & drinks for less than 2 CUC before heading into any nightclub. La Gruta is where I ended up. It was 3 CUC entry and full of locals dancing salsa. The locals will most likely come ask you to dance and will teach you if you are patient enough. I have never seen a human dance like I did that night at La Gruta!
You don't need more than 2 or 3 nights in Havana. Its a great city, but the other places in Cuba are much more enticing!
What to do:
- Fabrica Del Arte Cubano - a gallery from 8-10PM and later turns into a party.
- Old car tour of Havana - No more than 30 CUC per hour.
- Visit Camara Oscura - A wonderful view of Old Havana on the terrace of the eight story high building. Visit the dark chamber where you can view Havana Vieja in real time from a parascope. 2 CUC entry.
- La Torre - Highest building in Havana with a beautiful 360 view from a bar and restaurant on the 33 floor.
- Callejon de Hamel - Beautiful alley way designed by artist Salvador. Walk through the history of Afro-Cubano & Antiguan in Cuba. Have a local tell you all about the designs & sculptures.. there are many waiting around to teach you about Cuba's history!
- Learn to salsa at La Gruta - 3 CUC entry & lots of dancing. Ask the front door what type of music before you enter. Some nights they stray from traditional Cuban music and showcase Regatone.
- Walk the Malecon during sunset - You'll find all the locals doing the same!
- Head to the beach - Santa Maria del Mar is only twenty minutes from Havana and is absolutely stunning! 5 CUC each way for a local bus!
- Museo de Telecommunications - A building near the start of Chinatown in Havana is where you can purchase a WIFI card. 7.50 CUC for 5 hours. They also have stands throughout Havana, but be sure to purchase it from a stand and not someone off the street!
Where to eat:
- Order breakfast at your casa if available! Will be the best breakfast you can find in Havana.
- El Biky - Looks upscale but the price is right! Has an expansive menu & delicious food!
- El Toke - Big salads, sandwiches, pizza, typical cubano dishes for cheap!
- Dona Eutimia - a restaurant in Havana Vieja. Big portions!
- El Helado - delicious gelato
- Jukebox - Restaurant, bar & live music
- Cafe Bohemia - Tapas bar
- The Factoria de Plaza Vieja is a brewery for expensive beers and malts, but they are all made on the property so its nice to check it out!
Where to stay:
- Airbnb or booking.com is one of the best ways to book accommodations in advance in Cuba. I recommend staying near Old Havana or near El Vedado.
- Hostelworld is also good if you are on a budget. I recommend staying in DRoblas Hostal. It was 6 CUC per night & there was no curfew like there was at Hamel Hostal.