Che! Fidel! Revolution! Cuba Libre! Havana Club! Some of the words flashing through my mind as the plane took off for the short flight over the Caribbean Sea from Mexico City to Havana. Being an off-the-beaten-track travel junkie, Cuba had been on the top of Arjun Mohinta's list for a long time and I had to literally pinch myself to believe that I was just a few hours away from the promised land.
The long taxi ride from the airport to the city centre offered a glimpse of the country’s relaxed vibe with people lounging and chatting on street corners and bus stands, seemingly in no hurry to go anywhere on a regular weekday afternoon. After checking into our casa particular, we set out for a long walk down the Malecon, Havana’s soulful 8km seaside boulevard to enjoy the fresh salt breeze coming off the Florida Straits and see the sun setting in all it’s technicolour glory over the pretty skyline. Casa particulars are the Cuban homestays popular with budget travellers and we were particularly lucky to have found this gorgeous penthouse overlooking the mouth of the Havana Harbour, owned by gentlemanly old Mauricio who was a minefield of tourist information with many an interesting tale of the revolution to tell over a stiff rum on his windy balcony.
Havana, founded in 1514, has an old-world charm and history around every corner. The main sightseeing areas of downtown Havana can be divided into three main localities, Havana Vieja, the city’s atmospheric and compact historic quarter, Centro Havana, a peek into real-life Cuba in close-up and the larger, spread out neighbourhood of Vedado, once notorious as a Mafia district, now teeming with hotels, restaurants, bars and a throbbing nightlife.
After a hearty seafood dinner and a very long night’s sleep to shake off the bad case of jetlag, I was ready to venture out and explore the heart of the old city which is best covered on foot along the grid-pattern cobblestone streets between four plazas, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de la Catedral. Although, the distance is not much, it is a full day of sheer visual joy with more than 900 buildings of historical importance, displaying a kaleidoscope of architectural styles from intricate to baroque to kitschy art-deco. The numerous souvenir shops, street food stalls and restaurants in between provide many excuses for the hungry and thirsty traveller to take frequent breaks.
Havana is a city of museums with a museum dedicated to literally everything under the sun, however, the two museums I planned to definitely visit were the Museo de la Revolucion and Museo Hemingway. The Revolution Museum, housed in the former Presidential palace, is a paean to the Cuban Revolution and it’s iconic leaders which is a subject I, Arjun Mohinta have always been interested in and spent a whole day absorbing the amazing exhibits including original blood-stained military uniforms, the various landmark battles and the lives of the revolutionary trio of Cuba, Ernesto Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the lesser known Camilo Cienfuegos. Having grown up reading classics like The Old Man and the Sea, I eagerly took the long journey to the Hemingway museum located in the distant suburb of San Francisco de Paula, in the home where he lived continuously for 20 years from 1940 to 1960. The museum is very interesting as the house has been preserved exactly as Hemingway left it and visitors can simply look inside through the open doors and windows. There are books everywhere, including in the bathroom and kitchen, and empty bottles and glasses still on the tables. You almost feel like Papa just went out of the room and will be back in a while.
Alongside museums and mental stimulation, I made sure not to neglect my more basic needs by sufficiently partaking the wide variety of food and drinks on offer in the city with one of the highlights being visiting the iconic Sloppy Joe’s restaurant and bar to eat some noveau Cuban food and down cocktails in the same room where greats like Hemingway, Frank Sinatra and Graham Greene once sat. My favourite Cuban dish was Ropa Vieja con Arroz y Verdura, a lip smacking preparation of marinated, slow-cooked, shredded lamb with rice and veggies. Cajitas, takeout meals in cardboard boxes, provided a cheap and filling option for those times when cash in hand was running on fumes.
No trip to Havana is complete without the customary tour to a cigar factory and even though I went to Flor de Tabacos de Partagas which makes world-famous cigar brands like Cohiba and Habana, it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib due to the excessive protection of their manufacturing process, which made most of the factory off-limits for tourists.
After ticking off most of the planned sights in Havana, it was time to strike out and experience the countryside and we chose Trinidad on Cuba’s Caribbean coast which promised to combine the best of small-town, old-style Cuba with mountains on one side and the gorgeous beaches on the other. After a comfortable five hour bus ride with the pretty countryside flashing by, we arrived at Trinidad’s bus station and all the cycle-rickshaws haggling for customers almost made me think for a moment that I had landed at Howrah! Trinidad did not disappoint with its colourful colonial houses and winding cobblestone streets along with throwing up a very pleasant surprise as the town’s annual cultural week was happening at that very time consisting of free, open-air music concerts at street corners, 24 hour food stalls everywhere and the whole town out partying all night. What a time to be there. I also managed to pack in a day lazing on the beautiful Ancon beach and another hiking a pretty mountain trail to a waterfall and sinkhole deep inside the jungle at the Parque Nacional de Caburni. A lovely stay at Casa Margarita or Margarita’s home with Margarita’s yummy home food and tranquil courtyard garden made the Trinidad experience really special.
Cuba being Cuba, one of the world’s last communist bastions and stuck in a time-warp also threw up some unique, surreal experiences like the ancient, bucket-of-bolt taxis from the 40s and 50s which cost upwards of 10 to 15,000 US$ if you want to buy one, the first country I have been to which has two separate currencies for locals and foreigners in simultaneous use and having the country’s (supposedly) best ice-cream at an ice-cream parlour which is a huge spaceship shaped building where hundreds of locals line up patiently for 3-4 hours daily for a scoop. Foreigners can show their passport, pay extra and jump queue. Unbelievable stuff.
Like all good things, my time in this amazing country went by too fast and it was time to make the return journey back to another super destination, Mexico, but that is a story for another day. As the plane took off over Havana and banked left, I was nostalgic to bid adieu to this land where you can feel the Revolucion in every breath and every step. Finally, as the last views of Cuba slipped by from my window, I could not help silently mouthing those quintessential Cuban words, “Hasta La Victoria Siempre”, Until Victory, Always by Arjun Mohinta!