The first time I went to Havana I was broken hearted. One evening, in my final year of high school nearing March break, my high school sweetheart broke up with me. At the time we had plans to go on grad trip together to Cuba and I had been anticipating our trip for MONTHS. Devastated - at the breakup not the change in trip plans, although I wouldn’t put it past me - I went crying to my best friend. Little did I know that in doing so I would actually come to also make a new bestie. When I arrived I was stunned to learn that I was not the only one visiting my friend with a bag of ‘broken heart woes’. Another girl, an acquaintance I had only met once or twice previously, had also been dumped by her boyfriend and both of us went crying to our dearest friend. Fast forward to a week later, I proposed to my new friend that she come to Cuba with me. The plan was to go down to Cuba with my dad and stay on his boat in Havana for a couple days before ditching the parental unit and spending 4 glorious solo days on the beaches of Varadero. Finding it hard to say no to such an enticing plan, she agreed to join me. In the end, although broken hearted when we arrived, our trip to Havana revived us and helped us shake off our heartache. Between the sun, the parties, the new eye candy and each others' company we both came home feeling stronger and better about our ‘single life’ situation.
I told Adam (my now boyfriend) this story many years later after he asked how my girlfriend and I had met. It was during this recounting that he also confessed his love for Cuba. Unlike my story of heartbreak Adam’s visit to Havana a decade ago was for New Years with his family. At the time there wasn’t that many streets lights in Havana but as his cousins and family roamed through old Havana after dinner they heard cheers coming from a nearby street. When they reached the top of the street they saw people sprinting down the street, ducking under balconies trying to avoid buckets of water being thrown upon them from the apartments above. People on either end of the street would cheer the runners on while the people armed with buckets of water on the balconies would erupt into laughter and cheer every time they hit their moving targets. At the time his cousins were all between 18-24 and they decided to test their luck. The first cousin, a girl, made it to the end of the street unscathed. The four boys that followed (Adam included) did not. Adam’s recount of this story, the 100 yard dash he had left and the wall of water he saw come down on him at the last second, gave me instant FOMO! To this day I can’t think of another New Years Eve travel experience that I have heard of that can beat that story! SERIOUSLY!
So when it came to picking what destinations we wanted to travel to in 2019, Havana was at the top of the list. It had been a decade since our last visits and we figured it was about time we go back. We knew Havana would make for a great short-haul trip that we could easily do over an extended long weekend and so this past April over the easter long weekend we ventured back to Havana determined to make some great Cuba memories together.
Although a lot has changed since our last visits, there was so much that we experienced this time around that we wanted to highlight. For example, 3 weeks prior to our arrival mobile data became available making it easier to stay connected. In addition, two new luxury hotels had also opened in Havana in the last year, now providing a level of hospitality that was not available previously. Lastly, government’s stronghold on independent businesses had seemed to have lessened since we were both there last, giving way to many new restaurants (referred to as ‘Paladars’ in Cuba) being opened by young Cuban entrepreneurs. Cuba was on the rise and we were experiencing the destination at the beginning of its economic revival.
While in Havana, Adam and I had the chance to preview both of the new luxury hotel properties.The first three nights were spent at the Iberostar Grand Packard and the last two nights were at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski. Both hotels have great rooftop pools, are equipped with gorgeous spas, fitness facilities, and lobby cigar lounges, but if I have to recommend one I would definitely lean towards the Iberostar Grand Packard. My experience with service at the Iberostar was top notch. One day my feet had started to bleed from the 3-4 blisters I had got wearing new sandals and the hotel’s medical centre disinfected my wounds, patched me up and sent me on my way, at no cost, within 10 minutes. Also the table service at brunch was great!. The staff were so attentive and observant, remembering my coffee preferences from the morning before. Not to say the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski was not good - they have a brilliant view overlooking the city from the rooftop view and the location is smack dab in the centre of old Havana, but it’s the little touches from Iberostar, when it came to service, that pushed the needle in their favour.
Iberostar Grand Packard
Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
While in Havana Adam and I discovered a few new restaurants that we loved including Mas Habana and Cafe El Dandy. Mas Habana we had stumbled upon while walking around Old Havana and recognized it from a list of recommendations we received from a local expat blogger. We had originally planned to grab dinner there but once we heard the lunch special was a seafood paella with clams, crab, lobster, and shrimp, we could not help ourselves.
Our lunch at Mas Habana was definitely my favourite meal of the trip where as Cafe El Dandy was Adam’s. Another recommendation from our friendly local expat friend, Cafe El Dandy was first recommended to us as a cheap breakfast option. Since Iberostar had an amazing breakfast buffet that was complimentary with our stay we never quite made it to Cafe El Dandy for breakfast but we did go there for lunch. Adam had the pork tacos while I enjoyed a traditional Cuban sandwich. Although my sandwich was great, it was Adam’s tacos that made Cafe El Dandy his favourite restaurant of our trip and the best part - IT’S SO DELICIOUS AND CHEAP!
Besides exploring Old Havana, which we did for the first two days, there were also two activities that I would definitely recommend you do on your next visit to Havana. One, wake up early and go check out Fusterlandia, a mosaic garden made by a local Cuban artist by the name of Jose Fuster. Fusterlandia is located about a 20 minute drive from downtown Havana so you will need to take a car to get there, which I understand sounds like a lot of effort but when you see how cool this place looks on Instagram you will want to go. Surrounding the garden are a few different stores belonging to local artists selling their work and it was so cool to just spend a couple hours there exploring and taking in some local flavours and culture. There is no entrance free into Fusterlandia so the crowd does get big by midday which is why I recommend getting up early and doing it first thing in the morning.
The second activity that you must do while in Havana is check out Fábrica de Arte Cubano for a party night out. Fabrica is an interesting place and it wasn’t until our second attempt at going that Adam and I finally got in. Located about a 10 minute drive from Old Havana, you want to get to Fabrica early (around 8PM), otherwise the line will be around the block and you will be waiting all night to get in. Essentially, Fabrica is an old factory that has been turned into a mixed-use gallery and art space. Each room in ‘the club’ offers different music genres with its own vibe - whether it’s a DJ mixing, old school music videos on a projector, or a live band. As you move from room to room you also notice lots of different art on the walls with each room feeling quite unique compared to the last and deserving of 10-15 minutes of your attention. Another cool thing about Fabrica is that there are no cash bars! Instead, when you walk in, you pay a small amount (2-4 pesos) for a small card which the bartenders inside will stamp with each of your drink orders. At the end of the night you return your card to the attendant on the way out and only then have to pay. I think our bill came out to the equivalent of $10 CAD which I felt was pretty ridiculously cheap considering how much we drank and how much fun we had. Lines to get drinks were never very long and I feel like this card/payment system had a lot to do with it. Walking away from our Fabrica experience Adam and I were both amazed that a place this cool existed in Havana. It felt so underground and perhaps even sort of ‘counter-culture' to our previous perceptions of what life in Cuba was like that it kind of blew our nightlife expectations out of the water. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!
Needless to say Adam and I came back from Havana with many amazing new memories but I can’t help but feel a cringe of worry that with its revived economy, Havana will start to lose some of the characteristics that charmed us in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, development is good and change is inevitable but now that the gateway to America has been opened the crowds of tourists in Havana are noticeably bigger than before, not to mention the prices for both hotels and food has gone up. Havana is still a great place to visit and I would 100% recommend going, but I implore you to do it sooner than later as I worry it will no longer be a cheap destination to travel to in a couple years. Also take note to avoid peek periods so as not feel overwhelmed by the growing crowds and get out and explore the neighbourhoods surrounding Old Havana to get more even of an authentic feel. You’re gonna love it, I just know it!