“If you only do one thing when you’re in Havana, make sure you go to the Hotel Nacional and sit on the terrace with a cocktail,” I was told by a friend-of-a-friend at a wedding a few days before I went to Cuba. And it’s how I came to spend my final morning on the island, sipping a pina colada with the girls in the garden of this elegant hotel while looking out at the stunning views over the Bahia de la Habana. It was the perfect end to my trip following my previous day’s sightseeing around the Cuban capital.
Havana is one cool capital city and the district of Old Havana exudes a faded glamour, part beautifully preserved colonial buildings, part run-down and frayed. Head off the beaten track and you can soon find yourself in a street with enormous pot holes, the like of which I’ve never seen before, and semi-ruined buildings. But it has its own charm and is a fun place to explore on foot.
One of the most interesting parts of the city is the old book market in the Plaza de Armas, where you can buy second-hand books (some of which are in English) and posters, including those of Cuban films and propaganda for the communist government. There are also lots of fascinating shops round about selling unique paintings, as well as some of the usual tourist goods such as clothing, toys and musical instruments.
The famous La Bodeguita del Medio, which was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, is filled with photographs of its notable patrons and the walls are covered in graffiti where the bar and restaurant’s visitors have scrawled their signatures. It’s small, cramped and very busy, but I stop off for lunch in the restaurant at the back of the establishment and enjoy a good, hearty meal, along with an obligatory mojito.
In the afternoon, I head to the Memorial José Martí (above), an enormously tall star-shaped tower in the centre of Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución dedicated to the Cuban writer and political activist. The surrounding square also features massive portraits of Che Guevara and fellow guerilla Camilo Cienfuegos on the sides of two buildings. It’s anything but subtle – but a fascinating sight to come across in the middle of a capital city.
An impromptu flamenco show at a restaurant in Old Havana livens up my evening as I enjoy a spectacular dancing show right in front of my table during dinner. It’s a fun way to spend the first half of my night before heading down the street to see the iconic Buena Vista Social Club at the Café Taberna. Despite the fact that most of the performers seemed to be in their 70s or there abouts, they put on an incredible show singing, playing their instruments and dancing, and the audience was soon up on their feet dancing along. It was an incredible evening and I left the café unable to get Cuba’s unofficial national anthem, Guantanamera, out of my head.