Havana is large. More ground to cover than maybe we had anticipated. Fortunately, our Airbnb was in the heart of Havana Vieja, a short walk to all sorts of interesting places. We settled in for what seemed like 5 minutes and then we were out the door, ready to explore. We grabbed lunch across from our apartment at Chacon 162. A great little restaurant with an outdoor cafe that we ended up frequenting entirely too many times because we loved the atmosphere, the outstanding people watching, the food that pleased everyone in the family, the oversized rum drinks, the staff, just an overall great place to stop. Once we finished lunch and the rain let up (it was a stroke of good fortune that it rained when it did because it cooled things down considerably and the sun was now under cloud cover) we started walking around.
Somewhere along the way we had read that it was wise to walk in the middle of the street and not under windows. We didn’t think much about this till we started walking around. Cubans tend to walk down the middle of the old narrow streets (move to the side when the occasional car passes through) rather than directly under a building. It started to make sense quickly. Water may spill over, a loose brick may fall, a tenant may lower down a hollowed out milk container to receive delivery of their evening bread or a pigeon may poop. Just a tip to keep in the back of your travel mind as you meander these very old streets.
I’m not even sure we wrote down the address of the apartment before we set out. Of course we didn’t have a guide book or a map with us, we had left our backpack with any info upstairs with our other luggage. Improvisational tourists. Let’s see where this impromptu touring takes us. We probably should have left a breadcrumb trail because we quickly lost track of where we had come from.
Many people on the Havana Trip Advisor forums had suggested printing things out ahead of time that you might want to to do or see, addresses, names, etc. Once in Havana with no access to easy internet, you would have to wing it. Mistakingly we thought our apartment would have more tourist info. What had been left behind for others to read were magazines + guidebooks in German and French, a reminder that not too many Americans make their way to these parts. Fortunately, the Airbnb host had left a little book with restaurant recommendations close by. And this proved to be invaluable resource for us during our stay!
Gabby was able to find no shortage of abandoned cats and dogs she wanted to adopt during our walks. No matter where she visits she finds every roaming critter that needs a home. She is like the pied piper, they follow her wherever she leads them. Sadly, she wan’t able to really visit with this old man trying to keep these strays alive. He had made a little refuge in a tiny little park for these castaway kittens and was doing his best to help them stay alive. Heartbreaking.
If someone would have told me that every cliche I expected would happen on our initial walk around the old part of the city I wouldn’t have believed them. The vintage cars, a pop up performance by an 8 person band including a large stand up bass (sounding like the Cuban music I love) in the middle of a busy square , a gentleman that was the perfect portrait candidate for the face of Cuba, historic squares, colonial buildings, churches, more music, bar(s) that Hemingway frequented (no shortage of these!), so much to see and this was Day 1, walk 1! We had picked the perfect spot to stay.
Of course the kids sniffed out ice cream pretty early on. There was this one little spot called Al Pirata Heladeria near a Plaza de la Catedral that sold handmade ice cream at 75CUC for a cone. The owners are not hard core capitalists and may not know the value of what they are selling at this sweet little shop. We are used to spending many dollars or euro for a cone all around the world, yet here is this delicious just made ice cream for under a $1. And that wasn’t even the state run ice cream shop The Coppelia, known for its long, long lines. We did witness this first hand but did not realize until after that they do have a CUC window with a much shorter line. The long line was definitely a great way of explaining what opportunity cost means to our older daughter, who asked why anyone would wait in such a long line. Lessons to be learned everywhere when traveling.
Dos Hermanos Bar was another stop on our walking itinerary. Well not exactly a planned stop but a well timed stop. We had heard they made really good mojitos and that Hemingway amongst many other celebrities had frequented this watering hole. It was the perfect spot to take a break from the humidity (even though they don’t have A/C, these old restaurants with the high ceilings and fans can actually be a reasonable temperature in comparison to the sweaty conditions of walking around!) and have a cold drink while listening to the next round of incredible Cuban music. The table next to us was eating and the food looked really good! The waiters were part of the act, calling out lyrics, dancing, grabbing an instrument. An enjoyable way to spend part of the afternoon.
Gabby took the above photo of this sweet little puppy that stayed close to us at breakfast one morning. She named her “Mia” and developed a whole story line for her. She was the sweetest little puppy.
Above, this shop cat was very camera aware. Cats seem to be part of every local store. Look below at this other shop with the cat lazily sleeping on the bar stool and the tiny little kitten on the counter. Gabby couldn’t contain herself with all these sweet little cats.
Just walk. Sounds crazy but just walk and walk and walk. Don’t always have a plan. Get lost in Old Havana. Take in the sites, the sounds, follow your eyes and your ears. Your eyes might want you to move in one direction and then the sounds of incredible music makes you head in another direction. No matter which direction you choose there will be something colorful in your path.
Even though we tend to be a bit improvisational when we travel, we knew that no trip to Havana would be complete without a visit to the Revolution Museum. Fortunately for us, it was just a short 5 minute walk from our apartment. Actually it was closer to us then the nearest Wi-Fi spot at the non-airconditioned lobby in the Hotel Sevilla Habana.
The heat and humidity tooks its toll on the kids as we toured the museum. They were interested for awhile but then it just became unbearable for them so they sat in the open areas while we read through the very dated displays throughout the museum. Interesting fact, the building that the museum is housed in is actually the former Presidential Palace. This is where the assassination attempt came against Batista at the very beginning of the Cuban revolution. The presidential office is still very much intact as it was that day and the highlight is seeing the back set of stairs that Batista used to escape. If it wasn’t so darn hot the kids would have enjoyed it even more. They hung in as long as they could.
Looking for a good vegetarian option one evening for dinner and wanting to visit the Hotel Nacional we ventured down a side street to the California Cafe. It wasn’t our favorite meal but we loved the enthusiasm of the sweet staff, the open air tiki hut vibe to the restaurant, some vegetarian options and of course the rainbow flag. It was a must stop.
The walk through the Hotel Nacional was interesting. Not much has changed since the revolution, you can envision mobsters, politicians and starlets sitting in these same chairs. You can still get a cocktail perched high above the sea wall and never ending views over the water. The hotel is interesting in a sort of imposing way.
Walking along the Malecon around sunset was so pleasant, enjoying the coolish summertime breeze in stark contrast to the stifling humidity earlier in the day. Families gathered, vendors sold ices and sweets, locals fished for their dinner, couples stole an embrace, cars whizzed by, kids played in the park: a snapshot of Havana.
Each night concluded with our family stopping for a drink at Chacon 162. You can actually see the door to our building in the above photo, to the right of Isabella’s hand on Gabby’s shoulder. That close. Could not be more perfect. Mom and dad could enjoy a beer, maybe a glass of wine or a mojito while the kids tempted the bartender to make some sort of non alcoholic concoction that they could sip on while we leisurely sat there recovering from the day.
When walking around Havana a map is a nice thing to have but don’t be afraid to put it away. Much better than a map is following your eyes and your ears. Some of the best things in life are random discoveries.