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Cuba Part 2: Havana, Day 1

This is Part 2 of a multi-part series on Cuba. Havana... I don't even know where to begin--the sights, the sounds, the people, the food... It is a daunting task just to organize all of my thoughts. So, I'm simply going to go in chronological order through our time in this enigmatic city. You can Click Here To Read Part 1.

After a day that started with a 3:45am wakeup call in New Jersey, a 7am flight out of Newark, a layover in Florida, an afternoon arrival at Havana’s airport, nearly 2 hours of waiting at a luggage carousel, a 30 min drive into the city, and a meeting with our tour guide, most people would be ready for a nap. Not me. I am raring to go, not wanting to waste a second of my precious time in Havana. I live for days like this. So, with my trusty cameraman (my husband) in tow, we hop into our amenable tour guide, Tony’s, vehicle and off we go.

Tony has agreed to take us to see the forts located across the harbor from Habana Vieja since I don’t think we will be able to fit them into our jam-packed itinerary tomorrow. The Parque Histórico Militar Moro-Cabaña is a historic park encompassing battlements, barracks, and two forts: Castillo del Morro and La Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (la Cabaña for short). La Cabaña, the farther away of the two, is our first stop. Built between 1763 and 1774 after a British invasion, its sheer size and impregnable walls mark it as the largest Spanish colonial fortress in the Americas. The fort houses an armament museum, a museum on Che Guevara (a major figure of the Cuban revolution), restaurants, bars, and shops.

The most interesting thing we find at la Cabaña, though, are relics of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Parts of a downed U.S. Air Force U2 reconnaissance plane (the image featured at the top of this article) and several decommissioned missiles are prominently displayed. It is a weird feeling to stand next to the plane knowing it carried the only person killed by enemy fire during the Missile Crisis, U.S. Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson. The plane’s remnants serves as a sudden, stark reminder of our very complicated history with this island nation.

Next, Tony takes us to the Cristo de La Habana, a 66 ft. high Carrara marble statue of Christ overlooking the harbor. It is quite immense from up close, towering over us. The best part about this stop, though, is the sweeping views of Old Havana provided by the park surrounding the statue. I could stand here for hours watching the late-afternoon sunlight subtly change the colors of the city before me.

Finally, we visit Castillo del Morro. Built between 1589 and 1630 to protect Havana’s harbor, the cannon-flanked fort is quite picturesque, particularly from Old Havana. An emblematic lighthouse decorates its tip, and impressive grey stone walls appear to grow straight out of the rock below. We enjoy strolling the grounds surrounding the fort taking in the views. After, Tony takes us back to our AirBNB to relax a little. We set our meet-up time for the next morning for 9am and say our goodbyes so he can get on the road home to get some sleep.

Before dinner, we stroll down to El Floradita for a cocktail. As we walk, a few stray dogs and even a chicken amble by us. Chickens and stray dogs are a staple in most Cuban cities and towns, even Havana. They tend not to bother you if you don’t bother them. I laugh to think what people would do if they saw a chicken wandering down the center of Fifth Avenue in New York City. Within a few minutes, there would probably be feathers everywhere… all of the animals in Cuban cities, however, seem to have an inherent street sense and automatically move over for oncoming traffic. In fact, I don’t see any animals hit in the road during my entire stay in Cuba despite their prevalence.

El Floradita is an old Hemingway haunt and some say a bit of a tourist trap. I actually really enjoy our experience there, though. We hit the bar at the right time, and it’s uncrowded. We pull up two stools and look over the daiquiri menu. There are a lot of options! Live music is playing–a quartet is singing along with their instruments to an upbeat tempo; they are excellent.

The bartender, who looks like he was taken out of a 1950s Havana movie, takes our order. We choose one of the signature daiquiris, which comes with Havana Club rum, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, sugar, and crushed ice. Watching the bartender make a batch of the drinks in his blender, I observe his heavy pour and decide I’d better stick to one. It is one of the best daiquiris I have ever had–neither cloyingly sweet nor bitter. My husband decides to try the mojito after he finishes his daiquiri. I taste it and find the mojito strong but quite good. Being from the United States, I have never had the privilege of tasting Havana Club rum before, and I find that it goes down quite smoothly.

After we finish our cocktails–and take the obligatory picture with the statue of Hemingway positioned at the bar–we walk down to the popular O’Reilly street for our dinner reservation. The name of our destination is aptly 304 O’Reilly (its address). Our table is not yet ready, so we pull up a stool at the restaurant’s small bar and order another cocktail while we wait. We catch sight of the delicious looking drinks the couple sitting next to us have and tell the bartender we will have the same. My husband’s is a mango mojito served in a mason jar, and mine is a mango daiquiri sporting several elaborate garnishes. The house warm, crispy plantain chips drizzled with garlic oil and topped with fresh cilantro is a perfect complement.

Our table is soon ready, and we are led upstairs to take our seats at a corner table. We settle on the empanadillas (mini meat-stuffed pies), langostina (lobster tail) and tacos O’Reilly (3 soft tacos – one crab, pork, and chicken) to share. Over dinner, we discuss our itinerary for the next day, and my excitement begins to build. I have dreamt of exploring Havana for months, and all of my research is about to become a reality.

After dinner, we head across the street to El del Frente, another popular restaurant and rooftop bar. I want to make a reservation for tomorrow night. I decide to try to use my very rusty Spanish with the hostess, and shockingly, I have no issues. Before walking back to our apartment, we head up to the rooftop terrace to check it out. The breeze up here is so nice that we decide to order a local beer, a Cristal, to share at the bar. It reminds me of a Rolling Rock. It’s not my favorite (neither is Rolling Rock), but it’s definitely not bad, either.

On the walk back, we come across a small ice cream shop and decide to share a cone for dessert. The streets of Havana are just coming to life. A musical cacophony blends together coming from seemingly every corner of the city. Music is a way of life in Havana. Most bars and restaurants host live entertainment, jazz lounges are prevalent, techno music oozes out of clubs, and locals hold impromptu salsa sessions in their living rooms. As enticing as the sounds all around us are, it has been a long, exhausting day. We decide to call it an early night so that we are ready for our jam-packed itinerary tomorrow.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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