I love old places. I love hearing the stories about days gone by. I love imagining them in their glory. Havana is a great city for this. We spent twenty-four hours in this beautiful city while on our recent trip to Varadero. The resort was fun, but we needed to experience some real culture. We needed to see some new sights and sounds, and of course, we needed to visit some great old bars. Living with a bartender means that sometimes my travel priorities shift. But after visiting the magical La Capilla in Tequila, Mexico in April, I started to understand just how special these little bars are.
There are many buses and tours to Havana but we opted to do our own thing. Josh had a list of bars that he wanted to visit and we wanted to maximize our time so we decided to hire our own taxi to take us to the big city. We booked the taxi through the front desk at our hotel and I am thankful that we did (more about that later). The cost was $160 USD and the taxi would come the following day at 9am and would pick us up to bring us back at 12pm the day after that. We ended up getting the best taxi driver ever. He was super friendly and personable, he played great tunes (and sang along) and he was like a local celebrity as he seemed to know everyone that we encountered on our two hour journey. He took us to two stops on the way to Havana. About an hour into the car ride, we stopped at the highest bridge in Cuba where there also happens to be the best piña coladas in Cuba. I know that this is a standard tourist spot to stop but we didn’t care. It was the morning and we were drinking piña coladas out of pineapples.
After the quick drink, we got back into the taxi and our driver asked if we were interested in buying any cigars while in Havana. While neither of us really smoke, we knew that we should buy some for our friends who do (hi friends!). He told us that he would take us to the best place in Havana to buy them. The place was called La Triada and it also houses the world’s longest hand-rolled cigar (36′ 2″)! La Triada is located inside a fort that you normally pay money to get into but since our driver was all celebrity-like, he was able to talk the guard out of charging us and we were free to shop.La Triada is located just outside of Havana and it has a great view of the city.
Before we went to Cuba, I booked a night in a hotel in Old Havana. I did this because I am a virgo and I like to be reasonably organised. I also did this because I knew that we would only have twenty-four hours to spend in the city and I did not want to waste a minute of them looking for a hotel. When I began looking, I found that most hotels in Old Havana were already booked up. We were there in mid-November so it did not seem like high season to me but apparently it was. Since it’s Cuba and everything is government-controlled, the hotels operate on the same network. I had emailed a couple to see about availability and they wrote back with names of other hotels that had rooms available. When my Visa was later charged for the room, the transaction was a general charge and not specifically named as the hotel.
The hotel that we ended up staying at was Hotel Tejadillo. I chose it because it was located in a great spot in Old Havana plus it seemed pretty authentic. When I visit old cities, I want to stay in old hotels. I don’t need this modern stuff. I want the real thing. (Like when we stayed at that amazing hotel in el centro en Querétaro, Mexico!). We later found out that Hotel Tejadillo used to be an elementary school not that that long ago… but still, it was cool. We were apparently given the best room in the place (at $175/night). It was huge and a bit awkward because of the size but it was clean, had nice old furniture and big shuttered windows that we could hang out in.
In the morning when we woke up, we heard singing and realised that there was a school across the street. When we looked out, we saw all of these school kids singing the national anthem on the rooftop. How cool is that?!
Old Havana is a very small, walkable area. We stuck here for the majority of our time in Havana. We walked those streets and we really got to know them. A few of the streets close to the hotel were under construction and by “under construction”, I mean that they were torn up and there was barely anywhere to walk on them (see below!) so this made it all more of an adventure. Our Hotel was located near Plaza de la Catedral – which you can guess is a square with a huge cathedral at one end. At the end of the night, we met up here with friends from Toronto who were also in Havana at the same time (hi Gaudets!) and drank Cristals well into the wee hours of the night.
One of our first stops after finding out hotel was the Rum Museum (Museo del Ron) which is actually the Havana Club museum. There we learned about Havana Club and all of the rums that they make (most of which are not available for purchase in Ontario). We also learned that they have a $1700 rum that is aged for about eighty years. It comes in a handblown glass bottle. Josh says that when he wins the lottery, his first move is to hop on a plane to Havana to pick up a bottle. We will see about that.
The bar inside the Mueso del Ron was a beautiful, dark one. There was also this photo of some of the oldest and best bars in Havana so I took a photos with plans to go to them. I’m happy to say that we hit the majority of them.
One of the bars that we had to visit while here was La Bodeguita del Medio. La Bodeguita claims to be the birthplace of the mojito. Ernest Hemingway was also quoted as saying “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita”. This is a super touristy bar but if you time it right, it’s a great place to sit and have a mojito or two (if you want to order any other drink, please don’t bother going, seriously.) We actually went to La Bodeguita twice in the twenty-four hours that we were in Havana. When we arrived at the hotel, our room was not ready. We realised how close we were to this bar so we headed straight there and got seats at the bar. We were there for maybe twenty minutes before a tourist group showed up. The next day we went again around midday and found a band playing and two empty seats at the bar. Maybe we got lucky or maybe they just heard that we were in town.
I loved La Bodeguita. I loved the interiors with the signatures of past patrons, I loved the glasses set up ready for mojito making and I loved watching the bartenders work. Josh also loved this bar as you can tell by his overly joyous face below. (Sorry/NotSorry for posting that one. :P)
After La Bodeguita, we were in need of some food and found Bar Monserrate, that also happened to be on the photo at the Rum Museum. There we ate delicious sandwiches and had another drink.
Next on the list of bars to visit was Sloppy Joe’s. It was still early in the afternoon when we arrived and the place was pretty quiet as a large touristy group was settling up their bill. We sat at the bar and I ordered a Cuba Libre (Cuban terms for a rum & coke) while Josh ordered a fancy rum that he has never had the opportunity to taste before.
After Sloppy Joe’s, we decided that our room should be ready and that maybe a short nap would be a good idea. It was only about 3pm by this time and we had already visited four bars. When we got going again, we headed to La Floridita: Hemingway’s Daiquiri bar. We had a couple here, along with some fried food and quietly made fun of a rowdy tourist group (who we would later see in the square drinking beers as well).
One of my awesome clients had told me that when in Havana, we had to visit the rooftop bar at Hotel Ambos Mundos. We went there only to find out that the rooftop was closed due to construction. We decided to sit in the lobby bar anyways and had a couple of mojitos (which were only about $2 each. Hello!). From there, we kept wandering. Earlier in the day we had tried to meet our friends at their hotel but our paths didn’t meet up.. that was until we headed back to our hotel only to find them sitting in the square. Friends. Beers. Historic city. So much love.
The next morning we got up early and took a taxi to Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Hotel Nacional opened in 1930 as a luxury hotel for Mafia leaders and Hollywood stars. In the 30’s and 40’s this hotel was booming with fancy people. There are also tunnels on the property that were built for the Cuba Missile Crisis that you can have a tour through . I loved how much history was here.
I also loved that there were peacocks roaming around (remember the ones that I saw in Byron’s Bay a few years ago?). If we didn’t have to leave at 1pm that day, I would have loved to have sat here all afternoon.
In Old Havana, there are a lot of decrepit buildings that are often empty. We saw this grand one while walking around. You could see the outlines of where staircases used to be – I can only imagine how beautiful it was when it was initially built. Often in front of these buildings there would be signs of how they will look when they are finally restored. There is no indication of how they will be used but it’s still nice to think that one day they will be functional again.
Obispo is a pedestrian-only street in Old Havana. It was bustling with people (and with restauranteurs wanting you to eat at their establishments!).
As I said earlier, we had booked our taxi to come to the hotel and bring us back to our resort at noon. We got back to the hotel earlier just in case the driver happened to be early (I know, I know…). By 12:30pm there was no sign of him and I immediately began to worry, thinking that we had been ripped off and how we would have to find someone else to take us on the two hour drive back to Varadero. We called our resort (this is when it comes in handy that you booked said taxi through said resort). After a few minutes on hold, we were told to “Sit down at the bar, just relax, have a beer, your driver will be there at 1pm.” This gave use the opportunity to check out the hotel bar which was super cute. The driver arrived. He was nothing to write about but got us back to the resort safe and sound.
My favourite moment in Havana may have been at the end of the night when we sat in the window sill with the sounds of Old Havana floating in while we drank beers and smoked a cigar. Little moments to be remembered forever. This is why I love discovering new places.
In 1991 Cuba hosted the Pan American games and we drove by one of the stadiums that was built for it. I thought it was great since Toronto will be hosting them in 2015.
Tips for Havana
• This is a typical developing country city. People there are always hustling to make a buck which can be overwhelming at times. I did not experience anyone panhandling like you see in Toronto but every few steps we were asked if we wanted a taxi ride or wanted to buy cigars.
• Bring items to give away. We were stocked with school supplies that we handed out to kids that we saw with their parents. Everyone was kind and thankful. One Mom thanked us a lot and then asked if we had any soap. Since we had only brought a change of clothes for our one night’s stay, we didn’t have any on us. I felt terrible knowing that we had left unused items in the hotel room. Next time, I will bring them with me to give away.
• Old Havana is small and walkable but bring sensible shoes since the sidewalks and streets are unpredictable.