“Excuse me. Do you know where I would find this address?” I asked the closest pedestrian I could find, in passable Spanish. I understood precisely none of the response, and the friendly local escorted us to the meeting point for our guide. Although there was rain in the air, the beauty of Havana shined through the clouds, and our too-short visit started off right.
Strolling through any city early in the morning is a treat, and Havana is no exception. The regular start time is 10 AM, but beginning earlier, we enjoyed the stillness in the air and the gradual awakening of the city. Strolling through the main squares of Old Havana, our guide shared the history of the city and a small glimpse into life in Cuba.
We made our way through the old Sarra pharmacy, formerly a bustling pharmacy, and now, after the rise of communism, and the original owners being chased out of town, it is a museum. The building underwent renovations after a staircase collapsed several years ago. As this is now a museum and tourist attraction, there was an incentive for the government to fix it up.
Another glimpse into life in Havana came at the “ration shops.” Rumored to being phased out by Raul, these shops provide necessary supplies like rice, sugar, and soap to residents.
Our tour continued through gorgeous buildings, enjoying drinks at a rooftop bar, and through the narrow streets. We meandered along the Paseo del Prado, where Chanel staged a fashion show two years ago. We entered the church where the pope visited a few years ago, and we saw El Floridita, the home of the daiquiri. Alas, we were a little too early to enjoy the concoction.
After wandering for about four hours, we headed to a nearby paladar for lunch. As someone often on the side of the conversation begging the other party to speak slowly (“mas despacio, por favor!“) our waiter had lived in the US for a while, and spoke perfect English. I was amused when our guide, who speaks near-flawless English, had to ask him to speak slower.
A note about dining in Cuba:
Many government-run restaurants offer a less-than-stellar dining experience. Instead head for a paladar, a privately-owned restaurant. Many paladares started in local homes, as a way for owners to earn a living, and now offer fantastic food and ambiance.
But when you only have one day, lunch can’t last forever, and it was time to meet our driver for the afternoon. Our mint condition, cherry red, 1956 Chevy Bel Air convertible proved a stylish touring vehicle. Our driver told a few stories of his time spent driving Madonna while she was in Havana.
Havana is a big city and spreads across 280 square miles. A car and driver enabled us to see the famous cemetery, pass the many embassies in the Miramar area of Havana, and a can’t-miss stop at Fusterlandia. First stop: Plaza de la Revolución, the famous square where many political rallies have taken place, along with Papal Masses.
The artist Jose Fuster transformed a poor neighborhood in Havana into a thriving attraction. Starting with his own house, Fuster turned it into a mosaic wonderland. But the artistic experience extends well beyond his own home, and into the neighborhood. The phrase “¡Viva Cuba!” permanently tiled on chimneys next door, and walls of mosaic can be seen for blocks. Small souvenir shops have even cropped up near the house.
There is no entrance fee, but you can certainly donate while you are there. Fusterlandia is well worth a visit for the beauty, ingenuity, and wonderfully gritty street art experience.
No jaunt to Havana would be complete without a visit to the Hotel Nacional, and a cocktail in the gorgeous bar overlooking the water. The hotel may be best known for hosting the 1946 mob summit, that would ultimately bring mob presence in full force to post-war Las Vegas. As for me? I enjoyed my mojito with a gorgeous view.
After a drive along the Malecón, the world-famous seawall/promenade, we had time for a quick stop at Almacenes San Jose, a gigantic indoor flea market.
Pro-tip: Buy some locally made souvenirs here. They are mostly inexpensive, and it is close to the cruise port.
Alas, it was time to say adios to beautiful Havana, but I am looking forward to a return visit and a daiquiri at El Floridita.