Stylist’s junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitcher gets the Havana she was hoping for, and so much more.
My expectations of Havana have always been based on two pivotal cultural references: the Cuban revival band Buena Vista Social Club, and the 2004 film Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.
I prepare myself for trombones and guitars on every street corner, impromptu dancing in squares, and girls in Bardot-style tops riding in convertible saloon cars. When I arrive, I quickly discover that the reality isn’t far from the fantasy.
Yes, everywhere in Havana looks like a postcard and sounds like a soundtrack. The city’s crumbling rainbow buildings, crooked cobbled streets and retro candy-hued cars are evidence of its crystallisation in time, and seven years into an economic boom means gradual restoration and revival of modern Cuban culture.
During my week’s stay at the Iberostar Grand Packard hotel, itself an impressive modern glacier of a building among the city’s faded exteriors, it becomes clearer every day that this is a place in the midst of great change.
Halfway through my trip, I decide that Cuba is officially my favourite destination that I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit. Picture-perfection aside (although admittedly, the aesthetics are the foundation of my love), there’s something so enchanting about a nation that’s managed to escape the negative by-products of tourism and keep its identity.
In Havana, tourists stick out – we haven’t elbowed our way into the culture quite just yet. What’s more, Cuba is a haven for black and mixed visitors. When holidaying anywhere, how I’m going to be treated always lurks in the back of my mind, but the island’s true racial-economic equality across the board soothes and inspires me in ways that other Caribbean islands (and multicultural London) haven’t.
The country’s diversity dates back to the slave trade and there are probably strained racial issues I’m not privy to – but our brilliant Cubatur tour guide, Lazaro, tells me that as a black man, he’s never experienced racism in his home country, a place where “money divides people more than skin colour”. I believe him; seeing blended groups of children playing together, couples in every combination of ethnicity strolling, and a mix of clientele front of house in fancy hotels are sights I never tire of.
Walking into the air-conditioned, glass interior of the Grand Packard after a sweaty, bustling day in the city shows how Havana is enveloping the new in with the old – as is the bar terrace and corner infinity pool, where you can watch local life unfold while sipping one of their excellent cuba libres. The sleek white rooms have soundproofed balcony doors to block out the constant vintage car honks (I throw them open every morning), and the hotel’s four restaurants, from modernised Creole cuisine to Spanish tapas, give you a taste of the world.
Old Havana, or Habana Vieja, completely surrounds the oasis that is the hotel, and after a quiet night in my huge pillowy bed, I’m eager to dive in. It’s here you’ll find everything on a tour guide checklist, best explored on foot in a two-hour loop. There’s no planned route – everything seems to pop up just when you’re searching for it, ideal in a country that’s notorious for its lack of wifi and data services. Google Maps has no place here.
Still, I find that a bit of direction does help. Starting at one of the district’s four squares (Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza de Armas) will lead you to any of the must-see hotspots. Take either Calle Obispo, full of cafes and the odd street procession, up to vibrant Parque Centrale by the grand Capitol building, previously the site of Cuba’s congress. A stroll along Paseo di Marti’s tree-lined walkway takes me to the Malecon, an ocean promenade where locals and tourists alike come to stroll, play, and take in the sea air.
Visitors also flock to Ernest Hemingway’s favourite watering holes (the writer was in love with the city), including El Floridita, birthplace of the daiquiri. The sweet rum cocktails are good, but perhaps not worth braving the hordes for. It’s the same story for La Bodeguita del Medio (home of the mojito). True Hemingway fans can make the pilgrimage to tour Finca Vigia (cubature.cu), the farm he lived on for over two decades, which is now a museum with the immaculately preserved inside off-limits (although staff inside will happily take photos on your phone in exchange for a tip).
And that leads me to all things currency. While Havanans pay for everything in pesos, or MN$ (moneda nacional), tourists have their own CUC$ (cuban convertibles), which work out to just over 1CUC per GBP. Expect to tip for everything, from using a public bathroom to being directed towards a free taxi. You will be chased down (very kindly) if you forget.
As beautiful as Habana Vieja is, I fully fall for the city once I break away from the hotspots and venture into its suburbs. A car tour (oldcarshavana.com, £46 for two hours) whisks me through Vedado (or New Havana), full of magnificent yet humble mansions on broad leafy avenues, and where most Havanans live. The old town is largely kept for tourists, but Vedado is the hub for contemporary Cuban culture – namely nightlife. I queue for an hour and a half and pay 2 CUC (£1.50) to get into Fábrica de Arte Cubano (fac.cu), a huge converted factory where exhibitions, theatre, live music and club nights collide. The night after that, our taxi takes us to a quiet suburban street a couple of blocks over where we dance to live salsa.
We tend to our hangovers the next day at Casa Miglis (casamiglis.com), a Swedish Cuban paladar restaurant that serves spiced souvlaki and citrusy ceviche. Paladares are the best way to eat around the city; family-run and in the bottom floor of homes, they dish up authentic Creole dishes like ropa vieja (“old clothes”, shredded stewed lamb) and mountains of rice and plantain for the price of a Leon falafel box at home.
As I tuck in, I realise that although its better-known sights are a beautiful must, the real jewels of Havana are found in the people and overlooked places most true to its soul.
Rooms at the Iberostar Grand Packard start from £184 per night for a deluxe room and £214 for a star prestige deluxe room; iberostar.com