GETTING TO KNOW HAVANA

Havana is Cuba's capital and its spiritual heart. It's big and noisy with a real energy and we were pleased we had a week to get to know it. Of all the places we visited Havana gave us the best insight into Cuba and we discovered that it's a place of many contradictions. Wages are low but a taxi driver can earn a month's pay in a day. Supermarket shelves are empty but you can eat lobster every night. Classic cars are everywhere but not owned by collectors - they are just a standard mode of transport. Life is hard but full of music and dance. Rum is easier to find than bottled water...

The centre of the city is made up of three areas; Havana Vieja (the old town), Centro and Vedado (the new town). Havana Vieja is a UNESCO world heritage site and the narrow streets and atmospheric squares are scattered with architectural wonders. Most of the historic European-style buildings that have been restored are in this area, making it easy to imagine how beautiful the city was back in its heyday.

However you never have to walk far to see crumbling buildings still waiting for a bit of TLC. Most buildings have barely been maintained since 1960 and looking up you can see that it's only a matter of time before the next chunk will fall and the rubble on the street confirms this.

Our Casa Particulares (B&B) was on a quiet street in Centro which is the poorest and most densely populated area. We enjoyed the walk to Havana Vieja, passing boys playing football, street vendors calling out their wares and ladies chatting on the front steps. On one occasion a Santeria altar had been set up on our street and we came across the odd headless chicken offering as well.

From Havana Vieja you can walk on the Malecon along the seafront all the way past Centro to Vedado. You know you have arrived when you see the landmark Hotel Nacional on a hill overlooking the sea. Vedado was mostly built in the 1920-50s as the gambling and entertainment district. It has wider streets, is greener than the older parts of the centre and it's still a great spot for restaurants, salsa venues and of course the Cabaret at Hotel Nacional.

You soon realize that queuing is part of life in Cuba, with locals standing in line for food staples, wifi credit and other necessities due to constant shortages. For a more merry queuing experience we went to Coppelia, a huge ice cream parlour in Vedado set up by Fidel Castro as a socialist alternative to the imported ice cream he enjoyed before the revolution. We waited for about 30 minutes - in the local queue for the full experience and local prices, although had we gone to the foreigners' section where a scoop costs 25 times as much we might have had a choice of flavours! In a way we weren't really there for the ice cream, but to be part of the local scene.

When you think about Havana one of the first things that comes to mind is old cars. Nick in particular, although not a serious car enthusiast, was amazed by the fleet of Buicks, Chevies, Plymouths etc, known locally as "Americanos". They are impressive, especially those restored and painted in bright colours but most look a little tired (well they are 60+ years old!) and leave a trail of black smoke behind as they cruise by. We did a quick 5 minute count and estimate that the old Americanos make up 50% of all cars, Ladas and other old Russian cars 30% and the rest are more current models.

For the owners these cars must be their pride, their livelihood and a never ending headache! Fixing cars is a national pastime and part of social bonding - it's not unusual to see 5 guys in the street with their heads under a bonnet - and a fair bit of creativity is needed to keep them going without a proper supply of spares.

One big improvement recently is the quality and choice of restaurants. In 2011 certain restrictions on private enterprise were lifted and Paladares (privately owned restaurants) are now allowed to have 50 seats (up from 12), a change that started a culinary revolution. There are now up to 1000 privately owned restaurants in Havana, offering innovative Cuban and international cooking. We particularly enjoyed the lobster risotto at El Del Frente where the crowd in the roof top bar wouldn't have looked out of place in South Beach, Miami and the bohemian Sia Kara Cafe would be a great neighbourhood hangout in any city. Even if there is more choice when going out, not everything lives up to expectations and you will still find plenty of rice and frijoles (beans).

Similarly Casa Particulares (B&Bs) were allowed to expand from 1-2 rooms into small hotels. Cubans are generally social and friendly and staying in their house allows more interaction and a chance to ask a few delicate questions about the challenges of daily life. Getting your head around the communist system and the dual currencies which strongly favour those working with tourism - to the point that doctors moonlight as taxi drivers - is near impossible but over time we did at least develop at bit of an understanding.


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