I devoured every article, blog I could find, wrote notes and relished in the imagery. When Camila Cabello released her song 'My Heart is in Havana' I was excited - surely this was confirmation I had chosen the right destination.
So why apprehension the closer we got to our departure day? Cuba is a country shrouded in mystery and often misconceptions are passed on. I was told how bad the food was and how difficult it is to get internet - shamefully these things concerned me.
Whether it's the music, the quintessential photos of classic cars, salsa dancing, grandiose buildings or cheap rum and cigars that draws you to Cuba - you are in for a visual and thought provoking journey. Havana, the iconic capital of Cuba with it's 2.1 million inhabitants is true to it's images.
Striking a purple pose on the streets of Havana.
It's easy to immerse yourself in the glory of Old Havana's streets and fantasise that you are part of its glamorous and extravagant past. However, a few streets away in Centro Havana and beyond you find a different picture. On these streets you see the effects of 1959 when Fidel Castro & Che Guevara seized power and a communist revolution and dictatorship was formed. It's down these streets and along the Malecon we discovered how captivating this city and its people are and put misconceptions to rest.
Everyday life on the streets of Havana, Cuba.
Havana for tourists is broken into three areas - Old Havana (La Habana Vieja). Centro Havana & Vedado. Being a sea lover I was set on staying close to the Malecon. Little did I know all these areas are close, not surprising considering Havana's famous seawall is 8km in length. Old Havana is the historic heart of the city - a mix of restored historic buildings, museums, hotels and lively plazas and the tourist hub - rather like a facade to the real Havana. Centro Havana is where you see everyday life and where most buildings are in a total state of collapse. However the beautiful Capitolio marks the beginning of this neighbourhood and you could be forgiven for thinking you have landed in the wrong city. This breathtaking building looks similar to the Capitol in Washington DC, but actually modelled on the Pantheon in Paris. We chose to stay in a Casa Particular in the quieter, less touristy area of Vedado. Vedado is the business and residential district with a great mix of art deco and art nouveau architecture, beautiful old mansions, restaurants and the amazing Colon Cemetery. We enjoyed getting to know this area whilst still being in walking distance to explore Old Havana & Centro Havana (we recommend you download the offline maps.me before you leave home).
The beautiful Capitolio & one of the many buildings in a state of collapse
The amazing Colon Cemetery in Vedado, Havana.
A Casa Particular (Spanish for Private House) is similar to a bed and breakfast - a room and bathroom in a private home. Casas are reasonably priced and give you the opportunity to interact with Cubans, help them out financially and get an insight to how they live. Casa's are easily found throughout Cuba and can be identified by their sign. Most hosts only speak Spanish but with the offline app Google Translate - you'll be surprised how well you communicate and learn along the way.
The sign to look out for that marks a Casa Particular.
Casa Leo & Ivelis Private Rooms - One of the Casa Particulars we stayed in the Vedado area.
The Malecon with its broad esplanade and seawall is often referred as the largest sofa in Havana and became our favourite haunt. Here you find fisherman, romantic couples, school children, families, classic cars cruising by and the most beautiful sunsets. It is a popular place for Cubans to hang out with friends and socialise - often with a bottle of rum in hand. Our visits to the Malecon were made even more exciting with huge waves crashing over the seawall - closing the road on several occasions.
The Malecon - often referred as the largest sofa in Havana.
One of the many majestic pelicans flying above the Malecon.
My fears of being out of touch with family were unfounded - the internet is alive and kicking in Cuba, although not as we no it. There is no free internet - you buy a card from an ETSECA location (don't forget to take your passport) and be prepared to line up for up to 1/2 hour. 1 CUC buys 1-hour worth of internet or 5 CUC buys a 5-hour card that can be used over a period of a month. I found the experience lining up with the locals another way of discovering how life works in this country. After obtaining the cards it's easy - just find a Wi-Fi park, which are literally everywhere - everywhere you see crowds of people glued to their phones.
Cuba is changing - but what changes I observed were being embraced by the younger generation. Contradictory to what I heard, you can find decent food. In 2011 Raul Castro ended most restrictions on private restaurant (paladeres) and initiated reforms in farming and food sales, which has had a positive effect on restaurants. Havana has an abundance of quirky spaces and like other countries are following trend and opening restaurants in these spaces - El Cocinero (located in an original power station come oil factory), Sia Kara, O'Reilly 304, Cafe Arcangel, La Guarida to name just a few. The staffs are proud and hardworking, the food is fresh and tasty unlike the tired staff & food in many traditional tourist restaurants such as Floriditas. La Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an art gallery and nightclub situated at the far end of Vedado was also established inside the former cooking oil factory (next door to El Cocinero) and has since gained fame as one of Havana's premier nightclubs and art gallery.
There is a surge of new & trendy restaurants in Havana.
The art scene & some pretty hip looking Cubans are becoming prominent sights on the streets. All these are signs of changing times in Cuba and pretty good changes in my eyes.
Old cars still dominate the streets; the smell of diesel and the noise of the engines can be overwhelming in some areas. Once beautiful buildings are crumbling away, litter lines the streets and music can be heard constantly blearing from doorways or teenagers carrying small boom boxes. The people look happy, few beggars on the streets, everyone has a home, every child goes to school, everyone has free healthcare and food may be rationed but no one goes hungry. My doubts about visiting this amazing city were put to rest and I left captivated and with high hopes for Cuba's future - Viva la Cuba Libre.
Viva la Cuba Libre.
A passion for photography and a love of travel - Liz now enjoys combing the two.
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