“Due to fog in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, your flight will be delayed by 6 hours”. Just what you want to hear while trying to depart from Dublin Airport on a trip of a lifetime! I was due to fly to Cuba on Friday morning at 5.30am but as a result of our transfer flight being so delayed, we had to stay overnight in an airport hotel in Amsterdam and wait until the next available flight to Havana the next day. KLM Airlines really take care of their customers and much to our delight, we were treated to a luxurious hotel with all meals included. We were scheduled to fly to Havana the following morning which thankfully went to plan and we arrived at our final destination on Saturday…the start of the adventure was finally beginning!
My first 48 hours in Havana was spent with my Dad and sister and we instantly fell in love with the vibrant and colourful city with equally vibrant people despite the undeniable poverty that is clearly present. The devastation that Hurricane Irma left in Cuba can still be seen especially along the rubble-lined Malecón Boardwalk where cafes and restaurants that once thrived are now left empty and abandoned. Residents of huge apartment blocks that were completely destroyed sit outside on the pavement shadowed by their washed-out homes with no electricity or running water, yet they still had smiles on their faces and greeted us with a friendly “Ola!” The positivity radiating from the locals in Havana is palpable and contagious. I asked myself many times how are these people still so happy and friendly towards tourists despite their hardships? It was eye-opening and really made me appreciate the luxuries I have back home.
Prior to arriving in Havana, we decided that in order to experience Cuba properly, the best choice of accommodation was a casa particular which is a homestay B&B in which the owners of the house still live in. We stayed in a beautiful casa belonging to a Cuban couple in their 60’s on Plaza de Revolucion in the quiet neighbourhood of Vedado. They were extremely kind to us and didn’t hesitate in helping us planning our itinerary in Havana. For our first day, they organised a guided tour with a friend of theirs, Pepe, who was a taxi driver, a beacon of knowledge and spoke perfect English. He drove us around the entire city in his vintage American car and brought us to the most poignant sights such as Che Guevara’s home (the famous Cuban freedom fighter), El Cristo de La Habana, Central Park and El Floridita Bar where Ernest Hemingway wrote some his most famous works and helped invent the daiquiri cocktail.
That night, we went to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a magnificent building oozing with grandeur which was perched on top of a hill overlooking Havana surrounded by pretty gardens and charming water fountains. The sheer size of the hotel with its neo-classical and neo-colonial architecture took my breath away as did the mojitos, live salsa music and dancing. Our casa hosts, Tony and Marie told us about the history of Hotel Nacionale the next day and how it was once used as a venue for major Mafia gatherings in the 1940’s, which was later depicted in The Godfather Part II. Famous figures such as Nat King Cole, Winston Churchill, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Sinatra have also stayed in the hotel in more recent years.
The day tour was a fascinating whirlwind guide to Havana that gave us a good idea of where we wanted to explore on our own the next day. We wandered the streets around Old Havana and Central Park and visited the Museo de la Revolución which was once the Presidential Palace for a string of Cuban presidents with the last being the overthrown Fulgencio Batista. To finish off our Havana experience, we topped up our tans on Santa Maria Beach and re-visited El Floridita Bar to taste Hemingway’s famous daiquiri which was sublime!
During our time in Havana, we talked to many locals and soaked up the history, culture and stories that many were happy to share with us. Although not many speak English in Cuba (Spanish is the main language spoken), we managed to communicate with a mixture of both languages and charades. Our next move will take us to the cobbled streets and small city of Trinidad, a World Heritage Site that is steeped in history whose colonial appearance hasn’t changed since the War of Independence. Find out more about Little Miss Sunray’s adventures in Trinidad here!