Arriving in a new country or city with preconceptions about its atmosphere and vibe is never a good idea. Admittedly in Havana’s case, my notions were skewed by having read Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s ‘Dirty Havana Trilogy’ a matter of weeks before I arrived – a sordid tale of sex addiction and prostitution in the filthy, crumbling yet vibrant Havana of the 1980s, that had me cringing and making sure nobody was reading over my shoulder. It wasn’t that I was hoping for this dark and seedy city depicted in the semi-autobiographical novel, but I was expecting Havana to have a little more… well, spunk.
We were based in Habana Vieja and spent our days roaming the streets, exploring the museums and trying the many different peso pizzas (Cuba has two different currencies, confusing at first until you realise that as a tourist you are expected to pay for everything using the peso convertibile, or CUC. The moneda nacional, or CUP is what the Cubans use day to day in the ration stores or for street food, the latter being the only way to spend your moneda nacional pesos as a foreigner). Away from pedestrianised and bustling Calle Obispo however, the crowds disappeared, resurfacing only near the Capitolo and the Plaza Vieja. While it made for very easy strolling, it did give Habana Vieja a feeling of abandonment. Nonetheless, amongst the crumbling facades and potholed roads is a city of great beauty. A small book market set around the Plaza d’Armas was a highlight, a quirky collection of second-hand books, prints and military badges.
Some of the Cuban vivacity returned in the evening, where Cubans and tourists alike come out en masse to eat and drink. Two of Havana’s bars have marketed themselves extremely well and are tourist attractions in their own right. La Bodeguita del Media is known as the place where the mojito was born. It is a small, tightly crammed bar, every inch of space covered in scrawling, handwritten messages. My favourite part of the scene was not the bar however, but the elderly gentleman who had stuck a jazz record on his gramophone and started to dance. This small remnant of a vibrant city past, full of music, life and colour, made my day.
La Floridita has not marketed itself as a well-trodden, casual street bar but as an upscale literary experience. It is the bar in which Ernest Hemingway used to drink his daiquiris and perhaps pen a few words. I was determined to have a daiquiri in La Floridita, but with our mutterings about the expensive $6 cocktails and our happy-snappy picture taking, we stood out.
I was greeted by the English bartender with a rather sarcastic ‘Your Highness’ and a knowing smile. When he brought over our one mango daiquiri (which we planned to share – budget backpacking doesn ‘t allow for $6 Hemingway cocktails), he had placed two straws in the glass. I wondered how many other tourists a day passed through at lightening speed, just to say they’ve had a drink in Ernest Hemingway’s bar. Given the bronze statue of him propped against the bar, I would guess quite a few. Unfortunately I didn’t quite feel it appropriate to whip out the glasses, pen and notepad…
Perhaps I missed a trick with Havana, and although I had a lovely few days there, I definitely feel like it’s a leisurely lunch and day trip kind of city – different to the buzz that I had grown to expect from Cuba. While there are some lovely sights and interesting museums, on our budget we were struggling to fill our days. We spent many hours reading in the park or stopping for a drink in a café, relaxing and observing the city around us. Though how often can you sit in a park, watching the quaint 1950s cars whizz by, and think ‘I’m in Havana!’? I can’t complain.