This is Part 5 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.
After a quick break back at our AirBNB, we are off for a walk down the Malecon. The Malecon is a 5 mile stretch along Havana’s waterfront. It’s an ideal spot to get a look at Havana daily life in action. Locals stroll, fish, and even nap along the picturesque boulevard. The walk from our AirBNB to the Hotel Nacional–our next destination–is about 2 miles. The sun is strong, but the waterfront breeze makes it enjoyable.
A stroll down the Malecon is a must when in Havana, not only for the chance to mingle with locals, but also to take in the gorgeous views across the waterfront. The Castillo del Morro is particularly spectacular from this angle. In its heyday, the fort must have been quite formidable against invaders, built directly into the rock, with solid stone walls and flanked by cannon fire.
The buildings along this stretch of the city are a mix of gorgeous restorations and crumbling piles of rubble awaiting demolition. Like much of Cuba, the sharp contrast is initially jarring. This entire area feels like it should be prime real estate! Over time in Cuba, though, oddities like this just start to feel normal.
We pass many fishermen up on the Malecon’s low wall casting off over the blackened coral below and out into the deeper waters. I keep an eye out for casting hooks, but the fishermen all seem to know what they are doing. A few have given up trying to catch something and are taking a rest on the warm rocks with their hats blocking the sun from their faces.
For the most part, though, locals and tourists alike are just out enjoying an early evening stroll. It reminds me of the evening paseos we’ve so often encountered in Europe. Strolling like this is one of my favorite things to do on a trip. We often spend so much time rushing from sight to sight that we don’t get to stop and enjoy the cities we’re visiting.
When we arrive at the Hotel Nacional, I am immediately impressed by the palm tree lined exterior. Set on a hill overlooking the harbor, it feels like a little tropical oasis in the middle of the city. The Hotel Nacional is a city landmark in its own right. The hotel was built as a copy of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, FL in 1930. The walls hold so much Cuban history. The hotel was the site of the infamous Christmas Havana Conference mob meeting orchestrated by Lucky Luciano, and its grounds even feature bunkers dug during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We aren’t able to fit it into our schedule, but the hotel does tours at 10am Mon-Sat and 3pm Mon-Fri which feature some of its colorful history.
As U.S. Citizens, we are actually banned from staying here based on a recent mandate (one of the sonic attacks was on diplomats staying here). However, nothing says we can’t have a drink on the hotel’s outdoor patio overlooking the waterfront to enjoy the sunset. First, however, we need a cigar cutter so that my husband can try one of his newly acquired Cubans. After practicing my Spanish on a few of the hotel staff, we are directed to a cigar shop in the basement where we are able to obtain what we need.
Out on the patio, we luck out and are able to snag a table that has a clear view over the waterfront. We order two piña coladas and light up the cigar to try. One small puff is enough to remind me why I do not smoke, and I decline to try it again. (I tried a Cuban in Cuba–I’ll check it off the list.)
There are people lined all the way down the Malecon taking in the view, as well. We sit back and relax after our busy day and enjoy watching the skyline change from bright-white to golden-yellow to pink-dusk. It’s magical, but all too soon, it’s time to head back to our AirBNB to shower and get ready for our dinner reservation.
After the long day we’ve had we really don’t want to walk the two miles back, so we decide to get a taxi. However, after several unsuccessful negotiations (the drivers want much more than we should be paying for this distance–I think the combination of being American and at a fairly pricey hotel has something to do with it), my husband decides to go another route. He negotiates with a nearby coco cab driver to take us back. I’m leery, having heard they are not the safest transportation option, but we’ve traveled in some fairly sketchy tuk-tuks in Asia, so I decide to just go with it.
Our ride back is thankfully uneventful, and we arrive at our AirBNB with just enough time to shower and relax for a few minutes before heading back out yet again. (There’s a reason I never want to spend an exorbitant amount of money on lodging when we travel–we’re never there!)
Our reservation tonight is at El del Frente. When we arrive, we are immediately led to our table in the main dining area. (There is a party on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace tonight, but I prefer to relax inside anyway–the mosquitos in Havana are sometimes surprisingly voracious.) The restaurant’s decor is eclectic, with everything from London-themed items to a picture of Sopranos actor James Gandolfine. The thing I care most about, though, is that it feels hygienic. Everything about the restaurant from the white walls to the bartender I observe using tongs for everything he comes into contact with (drink garnishes, straws, etc.) screams clean.
For dinner, we order the empanadas and croquettes to start, followed by a lobster entree and a tacos entree. To drink, we each get a mojito with mango. The drinks come in large mason jars with fresh fruit and mint. They’re awesome! Our appetizers arrive quickly, and they’re both quite good, as well. The lobster is succulent and comes with grilled veggies and plantain chips on the side. The tacos come three ways (crab, pork, and chicken), and we each have to taste everything. This turns out to be my favorite restaurant in Havana while we are here.
Once we’ve devoured our food, we decide to share the flan for dessert. My husband loves flan, and he declares this is one of the best he’s ever tasted. When the waitress brings the check, she also gives me a beautiful tropical flower. It’s a nice gesture that I observe the restaurant follows for all of their female patrons. However, we have plans for after dinner, so I leave it to be presented to someone who can take it home to enjoy it.
After dinner, we walk down three blocks to Roma, a hip bar that I’ve read about. It’s quite the hot spot in Havana of late. Roma is located at the top of a fairly tall apartment building. The building is high enough that it requires an elevator–which by Havana standards is a luxury. We have to ring to get the elevator, and an “attendant” brings it down to take us to the rooftop (I suspect it’s a young boy who simply lives in the building). While the elevator is quite rickety–I’m not sure if it’s been serviced since 1957–it manages to bring us shakily to the roof. The building is in desperate need of repair, but looking around as we slowly rise in the cage elevator, I can see that it was once quite luxurious.
We pop out at a hip looking alfresco bar with discotec music beating through the space. There are spectacular views over the city with the Capitol and the rest of the city lit up below. We order two Cuban beers–one Cristal and one Bucanero–and sit down to watch the DJ pump out his musical picks. Like most buildings in Cuba, I’m a tad concerned about its structural stability, but I decide the odds of it coming down specifically while we’re here are low, so I decide to just sit back and relax for once. It’s early for a place like this, but it’s still easy to identify it as a hot spot, and I can see why. The atmosphere is lively, and the vibe is hip yet unpretentious.
We would like to stay longer, but we’re both completed exhausted. We have a long day planned for tomorrow, with a full day trip to Viñales followed by a reservation for the Tropicana show in the evening. It’s definitely time to head back and get some sleep. We hop back into the elevator–I think about the wisdom of taking the stairs instead, but they look equally rickety, and we’re quite high up–and take the ride down to the bottom. Like every other night in Havana, we can hear music calling to us from every direction as we make our way back to our AirBNB. Someday, I’d like to come back to Cuba just to take in the nightlife and sleep in, but until then, it’s definitely bed time!
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins