Havana – in pictures

Here are some of my favourite photos from Havana. First up, the courtyard at the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales.

A statue in the courtyard of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Havana

Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís.

Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis in Havana

A statue (and a pigeon) in the Plaza de San Francisco.

A statue and a pigeon in the Plaza de San Francisco in Havana

View across the rooftops of Old Havana.

A view over the rooftops of Old Havana

Catedral de San Cristóbal.

Catedral de San Cristobal in Havana

Bells in front of the Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís.

Church bells outside the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis in Havana

Portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the Plaza de la Revolución.

Portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara on the wall of a building in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana

Another statue in the Plaza de San Francisco.

A statue in the Plaza de San Francisco in Havana

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Havana

Plaza Vieja in Havana

“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.

Plaza de la Caterdral in Havana

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.

The outdoor book market at the Plaza de Armas in Havana

One of the most interesting parts of the city is the old book market in the Plaza de Armas (above), 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.

Memorial to Jose Marti in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana

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.

Santa Clara

Memorial to Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba

Images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara abound throughout Cuba, but I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the Conjunto Escultórico Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara memorial dedicated to the revolutionary doctor at the Plaza de la Revolución in Santa Clara. It’s staggering and an impressive sight. At the heart of the giant memorial is an enormous statue of the guerilla that sits atop a tall plinth (above).

Underneath the memorial is an interesting museum dedicated to Che’s life, featuring biographical information, intimate photographs of him, as well as some of his belongings. There’s also a poignant mausoleum where Che, his mother and 38 of his comrades from Bolivia are buried. Their remains are interred in a cave with a jungle setting and each comrade has his own dedicated memorial. At the far end of the cave, an eternal flame marking their sacrifice – and lit by Fidel Castro – burns.

Tren Blindado monument in Santa Clara, Cuba

Santa Clara is also the site of one of the most decisive battles of the Cuban revolution of the 1950s. The Tren Blindado Monument (above) in the city is a series of train carriages and concrete statues of explosions that’s dedicated to the train derailment masterminded by Che Guevara in December 1958, which allowed him to conquer the city. Inside the train carriages are artefacts from the derailment. Situated next to the railway line where the battle took place, it’s a clever and effective way of commemorating the event as it imaginatively captures how it unfolded.

Sancti Spíritus

A blue and green lizard partially camoflaged against a wall in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

The old city of Sancti Spíritus was founded by the conquistador Diego Velázquez in 1514. Originally situated on the Tuinucú river, in 1522 it was re-established on the river Yayabo, where it still stands today.

It’s a pretty, relaxed city and a great place to spend a few hours mooching around, wandering into the little shops and sitting on the terrace of a bar, sipping cocktails and watching the world go by.

A bright blue church in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

A mobile fruit stand on a road side in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

Cienfuegos

Sunset by the beach in Cienfuegos, Cuba

Nicknamed the “Pearl of the South”, the city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast of Central Cuba boasts a beautiful bay and some picture-perfect architecture. The centre of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to some spectacular old colonial buildings. Some of the most notable examples are situated around the central square, Parque Marti, including the Tomás Terry Theatre, the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción and the Provincial Museum.

The Tomás Terry Theatre is named after the super-rich 19th century sugar baron, slave trader and mayor Tomás Terry. Built in the late 1880s and brilliantly preserved, when you step inside, it feels as though you’re stepping back in time. The theatre is incredibly beautiful with a fabulous painted ceiling and I was taken by how different the seats are compared to the theatres in the UK. Instead of cramped velvet seats, the circular auditorium features rows of wooden seats and its walls are lined with boxes of wooden seats. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to take in a performance at the theatre, but it was such an elegant and refined setting that I would have loved to have been able to do so.

The Provincial Museum in Cienfuegos, Cuba

The Provincial Museum (above), meanwhile, is a curious little place. The charming museum (it’s displays are all in Spanish) attempts to convey the history and culture of Cienfuegos. It has only a few small galleries but each one varies wildly – the ground floor is filled with archaeological and evolutionary artefacts, including an ancient human skeleton that was found in Cuba, while the first floor displays modern art, as well as artefacts from the 19th and 20th centuries.

How to… make the perfect mojito

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Cuba is the home of the mojito, so naturally I made sure to sample as many as possible while there. Keen to recreate this refreshing cocktail at home, I paid attention to how they were made and even had a mojito-making lesson from a barman in Havana. Many Cuban bars use a combination of sugar syrup and soda water, but a few used lemonade instead, and when I was attempting to perfect the recipe at home, I found that sprite or lemonade worked just as well – and was super convenient, too. Here’s my tried and tested cheat’s mojito recipe:

Ingredients

White rum

Sprite or lemonade

Handful of mint

Juice of half a lime

1sp caster sugar

Handful of ice cubes

Method

Tear five or six mint leaves into a mortar, add the lime juice and the sugar, then use a pestle to grind the ingredients together until the mint breaks down. Pour into a glass, add a spring of mint, a good glug of rum and the same amount of lemonade. Give it all a good stir, then add the ice. Serve and enjoy.

Trinidad

Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba

Steeped in history, the captivating old colonial city of Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with its cobbled streets – complete with cannons that stick out from between the cobbles – and its colourful, characterful buildings it’s easy to see why.

The Plaza Mayor in the city centre (above) is wonderfully preserved and is home to the lovely Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, an art gallery and a number of museums, one of which, the interesting Museo de Arqueologia Guamuhaya, once welcomed the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The curious museum is devoted to local archaeology and its exhibitions take visitors on a journey from prehistoric times to the 20th century.

The view over Trinidad and the surrounding countryside from the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco

Away from the main square, a handicrafts market snakes its way through the maze of narrow streets and it’s well-worth a browse, especially for pretty tablecloths and exquisite wooden carvings. For spectacular views over the city, climb the bell tower at the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco (above), then for a spot of revolutionary history, visit the Museo de la Lucha contra Bandidos on its ground floor. The museum is dedicated to the revolution and features a poignant gallery that includes a photograph of every revolutionary who died during the conflict.

A cup of canchanchara at the Canchanchara bar in Trinidad, Cuba

Nearby is Canchánchara, a bar famous for its namesake cocktail (above) – a blend of white rum and honey, heated with lime juice. Served in small terracotta bowls, it’s delicious and as I start to sip my drink the band strikes up and I spend an enjoyable afternoon sipping cocktails while listening to the irresistible live music.

Dinner is a fantastic affair at the Taberna el Barracon. The food is exceptional and I enjoy a tasty salad with pickled cucumber, tomato, green beans and cabbage, followed by a magnificent plate of lobster, shrimp and fish cooked in the chef’s special sauce and served with plantain chips.

As night descends, the fun continues at the Casa de la Musica. Situated on a series of stone steps beside the Plaza Mayor, the Casa de la Musica is the place where Trinidadians gather each evening to listen to live music and dance. The outdoor event takes place every night, even in bad weather – when the heavens open, the musicians will wait for the rain to stop before they start playing again. The bands are incredible, as are the dancers. One performer picked up a table using just his teeth, while four of them used their gnashers to pick up a table that had a woman from the audience sitting on it! It’s great fun and not to be missed.