Havana, Cuba: Part 1

What can you say about Cuba's capital that hasn't already been so poetically uttered before?  The largest city in the Caribbean is all at once intoxicating, annoying, captivating, overwhelming, and charming.  It's a place where antique American cars run on recycled Russian parts, and a majority of the population runs on rum.  Here, you can visit ration shops and peso stores nestled in grand colonial mansions.  Here, signs of Fidel's propaganda and patriotism take the place of any inkling of consumer advertising.  Here, the rhythms of rumba, salsa, and son mix on the streets with the scents of cigar smoke and exhaust.

What you won't find here, thanks to the 52 year old embargo, is anything made in America after 1960.  Except, of course, for us.

As one of the last frontiers of travel--a place where you can truly step back in time and be completely cut off from the rest of the world (especially that dominating world which lies only 90 miles away to the north)--we knew we had to visit Cuba before it changes.  And you can definitely sense that change is on the horizon with the aging Castro brothers clinging to power and the gradual change of American sentiment.

We had a week for this trip and, with bookended days in Mexico City, we were left with five actual days in Cuba--nothing more than a sampler.  As much as we wanted to cram a few cities into our itinerary, we felt five days was just enough time for us to start to get to know the old dame of Havana, along with a day of escape from her at the beach.

If you head to Cuba yourself, without a doubt, you should definitely book yourself a room in a casa particular, or private home stay.  The Castro government allows (although with heavy restrictions) certain families to rent up to two rooms in their homes to travelers, and it is not only cheaper than a hotel, but the best way to get to know a Cuban family.

We stayed in the Vedado district of the city, an area filled with magnificent 20th century homes and Art Deco-ed buildings from the 1930s-50s when it was the playground of the American rich.

Of course, one of the best places to get your bearings (and your first sips of mojitos and cigars) is at the grand old 1930s Hotel Nacional.  As one of the biggest hosts to the American affluence that once saturated this island, the Hotel Nacional saw the likes of singers, actors, royalty, mobsters, diplomats, and even Fidel and Che as they used it as Revolution headquarters and strategic defense during the time of the Missile Crisis.  It's impossible not to feel a little like Frank Sinatra or Ava Gardner out in the gardens surrounding the place.

One of the highlights of Havana is the walking.  Seriously.  Especially through the lively barrios surrounding the main plazas.

Strolling down to the Callejon de Hamel (Hamel's Alley) is especially a treat for some Cuban art at its best.  Artist Salvador Gonzales has completely transformed the space with sculptures and murals (many based on the Afro-Cuban mysticism of Santeria) with the intention of interacting the community with art.  On Sundays, he hosts live Rhumba parties, which we were fortunate enough to enjoy for a bit until a couple of British tourist buses totally harshed on our mellow (whoa, did I just go back to the 90s?).  The art, though, is fantastic and fascinating

The cars which hang out around the Washington, D.C.-esque Capitolio are enough to turn anyone into a vintage auto buff.  Some of these are the cream of the crop and, thanks to relatives sending money from Miami, have really been cosmetically spruced up.  I'm sure Jay Leno's got his eye on this place for as soon as he's replaced by Jimmy Fallon.  Yes, I went there.  Anyway,  the fact that these cars have been kept running for 50 years (or more) is solid evidence to the resourcefulness of the Cuban people--and a blatant reminder of the consumer waste that has been normalized for us back home.

In such a picturesque place, you know it cannot all be contained in one post. Jump to part II of our adventure in Havana here.