Cuba: Havana, Ooh Na Na, Part 1

Before visiting Cuba, Havana was the only Cuban city I knew of and, for me, it epitomised Cuban life. I was expecting 1950s cars cruising down the promenade, fantastic night life, beautiful colonial buildings and live music pouring out of every corner. And boy, Havana delivered. Of course, you can get all those things in other Cuban cities too but Havana just feels on another level. For a start, it’s huge. I spent around a week there and felt I didn’t scratch the surface. This is a city that lures you in and it really is a struggle to leave. And it’s a city where, more than anywhere else in Cuba, you can see the country’s tussle between its socialist values and the need to encourage private enterprise in order to fit in a 21st century world.

I got my Viazul bus ticket to Havana a few days early in Cienfuegos as I felt it would be a busy route. The ticket cost 20 CUC for the 4 hour journey and there were a couple of departures per day. The Viazul bus station in Havana is about as inconveniently located as it could possibly be. It’s way out of the centre, I think around 6+ km away. As a result, I thought it would be a good idea to book my remaining bus tickets upon arrival, particularly as I was next heading to Viñales to the west and this is a route that often gets full. I was able to book this without any problems, saving me a return trip to the bus station to sort that out later.

To get to the centre of Havana where most accommodation is located, a taxi is probably best, going for around 10 CUC if you haggle. You can also brave Havana’s overcrowded bus system with bus P14 heading towards the centre from a few blocks south of the Viazul terminal. I wasn’t staying in the centre so I walked the 3km to my hostel near Estadio Latinamericano which took 45 minutes.

I opted for a hostel in Havana because, firstly, it was the only Cuban city where I could find one and, secondly, though I loved the casa particulars, I thought Havana would be a fun city in which to meet other solo travellers and a hostel would be a good way to do that. It was a really good call. Enzo’s Backpackers, whilst a good hour’s walk (or 20 minute bus ride) from central Havana, was a great little hostel located in an apartment block. It was small and contained almost exclusively solo backpackers. Plus, the perks of being in a country where Wi-Fi is in short supply means you’ve got no choice but to talk to each other of an evening. Especially in Cuba, swapping travel stories is so fun. In Havana you’ll usually get travellers either starting or ending their trip so it’s great to share the different perspectives.

It was a real melting pot of countries too – I spoke to travellers from Australia, Peru, Czechia, Hong Kong, Poland, Chile, Germany, Ireland and more, all just in this tiny hostel. And if ever you find the atmosphere is a bit lacking, we found the best solution was to go out and buy a 3 CUC bottle of rum to share – that soon gets everyone talking. The location could be difficult though there was a tasty restaurant, Aqui, nearby which served super cheap, quite tasty food (I’d never pay more than 5 CUC for meal/drink). The Ropa Vieja (shredded beef in spicy sauce) was by far the best. There was also a Wi-Fi point and place to buy cards literally right outside which was handy since it was never too busy. Other than that, it just meant a lot of walking. But in a city where everything is a spectacle, that’s no bad thing.

Havana – where a dance troupe parades down the street on stilts and everyone instantly follows and bops along.

I have to confess, I can’t give much of an insight into the touristy things to do in Havana. I didn’t visit any museums or forts here, even though I did plan to when I first arrived. The simple fact was, every time I went out to visit a “tourist sight”, my head would get turned by something else or I’d just end up wandering down a vividly colourful street taking photos or perch myself in a bar listening to live music. There is so much going on here that even with just under 7 days in the city, I was constantly being led astray. So in some ways you could argue I didn’t see very much of Havana. I would argue I actually saw the best of it.

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