A land frozen in time is what Cuba is. Actually, that isn’ entirely correct. It is more that time has passed much of Cuba by. This may not be a good thing if you are used to travelling with all the creature comforts of home, but it is an amazing opportunity to be in a country that is much the same as it was over 60 years ago. Exploring Old Havana is at the top of my list of things to do on my first day in the country. A city that is over 400 years old with architecture that stretches back to the 1800’s and beyond. Plus in the heart of Old Havana is a tiny bar where Ernest Hemmingway first discovered the Mojito. Amazing architecture, mojitos and more classic cars driving on the streets than at a classic car convention. This is Old Havana and I can’t wait to explore it for myself.
You can certainly explore the streets of Old Havana on your own as it is very safe for tourists and locals alike but I highly recommend you book a tour guide. In most cities and countries I prefer to explore on my own but here in Cuba, I think the best way to get the most out of exploring Old Havana is with a local guide that knows the history and the best-hidden spots to visit. Cuba Tour is a tour company located in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (and many other places). It is easy to walk up to the counter, pick a tour and begin your adventure. I have been lucky enough to have one of the best as my guide and her name is Betsy.
We start the day with a visit to the Havana Club Rum Museum which I will share in another post about the food and drink of Havana. Right afterwards we start out on foot and start exploring Old Havana. The first thing that strikes me is the beauty of the architecture and how some of it is so well preserved while some of it has been allowed to fall to ruin.
Unlike the cities of Vancouver and Toronto, nothing is new here. Even the buildings that have collapsed into ruin and are being renovated have been and are being rebuilt to their former glory. There is no demolishing and replacing with towers of glass and steel. I love it. There is a sense of history everywhere you turn.
Speaking of history… you can’t go more than a minute without seeing a classic car from the 1950’s drive by. The US imposed trade embargo stopped the flow of new goods into Cuba, with the exception of Russian goods. Which means that aside from the Russian Lada the predominate cars were those already in the country. These American classic cars are so well preserved and looked after, many could be in a museum. I don’t know how they keep them running so well but many of these are now available as taxis. Here are just a couple that caught my eye as I was exploring Old Havana. I saw much more but wasn’t able to capture them quick enough with my camera.
As Besty was guiding us through Old Havana we came across many public squares. Gathering places, places to meet, talk, and commune with your neighbours. One such square was home to Cafe el Escorial, a very popular cafe. We stopped here for an amazing espresso and a little people watching. Don’t be in a rush as nothing here is done quickly. Sit back, relax and smell the roasted coffee…
You don’t have to stop at a cafe to find nourishment or a snack. Street vendors are everywhere in Old Havana. Whether you want to buy some local onions and garlic, eat a Churro, drink some fresh Coconut Water or have your Tarot Cards read, you can do it in Old Havana.
It goes without saying that one of the featured stops in Old Havana is the site of the founding of Havana 420+ years ago for the 3rd time. I’m not sure who founded Havana the first and second time but I do know that the Spanish colonised Cuba in the 16th Century and their influence is easy to spot. Across from this Church is the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. A Spanish fort built to protect the city from Pirates and the English.
Exploring Old Havana is hot work so Betsy suggests we make our way to La Bodeguita del Medio. A tiny bar made famous by Ernest Hemmingway as the place where he discovered the classic Cuban cocktail the Mojito.
If you are not sure how to make a Mojito watch this short video where the Mojito masters show you how. They made one for me, but they never make just one. Watch and learn.
AH! Talk about refreshing. That music you heard in the background was live music performed in the bar by local musicians. Amazing.
Amazing is a word that often came to my mind. Everywhere I turned I was amazed by what I saw. The Cathedral de Havana is an absolute stunner and worth a visit.
Architectural details like this mailbox on the side of a building.
Or some of the public art that has started to appear. This one by a famous French artist Etienne and titled La Conversacion.
Exploring Old Havana is a gift to your senses. I swear there is something to see everywhere you look. Even look down because you may discover a patch of road made up entirely of “wooden bricks”. I swear these are made of wood.
Explore Old Havana – check. This is just the first day of what I hope will be many exploring Old Havana. I have fallen in love with the city, its energy, people and of course the Cuban Espresso!
Remember I said that you won’t find a single modern building in Old Havana. I was wrong. I found one and it is a ministry building.