Havana – A post card from the past

Havana captivates in so many ways. It’s like time stood still for the last seven decades. The sunbleached facades, the absence of internet, and of course, the anachronistic Cadillacs rolling in the streets. It’s one of those places you only go to once, but will remember for the rest of your life.

Primavera monument on El Malecón, Havana, Cuba.

Have you ever wondered where all the old cars driving around the city come from? In the 1950s, Cuba was one of the largest buyer of American cars in the world. However, the import stopped during the Cuban revolution when Fidel Castro imposed trade restrictions. Since then, the country has had a hard time replacing them. The solution? You keep the cars as they are and make it the symbol of the city.

Men looking after their cars, Havana, Cuba.
Green Chevrolet parked in a back street, Havana, Cuba.
Car passing a public building, Havana, Cuba.
Taxi driver negotiating the price, Havana, Cuba.

Havana is not the place you go to for honeymoon. For me, it’s all about the people. If you’re into street photography, you’ll love it. It’s so much…street. So much character. But there’s something else too. A sadness. You can see it in their eyes. As they are trapped in their own lives and just want to embrace the outside world.

People of Havana just are. Standing in the streets. Window-watch you. They play and dance. And the night brings a fusion of daiquiri drinks, cigar smoke, and salsa dancing.

In Cuba, you either stay at a hotel or, which is much more interesting, in a family owned “Casa”. They are as common as hotels and can be pre-booked before your arrival. You get a better insight in the daily Cuban life and they will serve you freshly-baked bread for breakfast (a small luxury in Cuba).

Mother and son in a barber shop, Havana, Cuba.
Boy playing outside his apartment, Havana, Cuba.
Woman smoking a cigar, Havana, Cuba.
School girl eating an ice cream, Havana, Cuba.
Woman standing on her balcony, Havana, Cuba.
Man sits in his kitchen with the window open, Havana, Cuba.

I asked my host family if they had wifi. “Si, si. No problem senior. But only wifi, no Internet. Internet too expensive.” And expensive it was. You have to buy a government issued “internet card” to get online. It’s a dollar an hour. And maximum two cards per person. So don’t get surprised if people rather than surf the web stand in their windows or graffiti some street pop art on the wall next door.

I soon noticed that just about everything in Cuba is strictly regulated. Taxi from the airport? “Twenty five pesos, por favor”. End of story. You wanna rent a car? It’s minimum five days. Book three months in advance.

After all, it’s one of few true communist countries in the world alongside China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. It’s a strange feeling when you visit the local supermarket. Empty shelves. People queuing up. The store filled to the top with three things. Canned-food, bananas, and…rhum. Lot’s of rhum.

Police officers taking a rest in a park, Havana, Cuba.
Two men making phone calls at the central train station, Havana, Cuba.
Street art, Michel Jackson, Havana, Cuba.

So you’ve walked around the narrow streets of Habana Vieja all day and want some nice places to go for the night? Head to the rooftop bar at Gran Hotel Mazana (Kempinski La Habana) and catch the sunset. It’s the first hotel to open after the revolution and the view is astonishing.

El Frente is literally a whole in the wall and hard to spot if don’t know it. It’s an organic restaurant and we ended up going there for dinner almost every night. They also serve great drinks and have a rooftop bar with DJ.

Paladar La Guarida is situated somewhat outside the old city, but is definitely worth a detour. The atmosphere is an experience in itself. Finally, La Badeguita del Medio, one of the Hemingsway spots. Go for the traditional “lechón asado”, roasted pork, or a keep-’em-coming-mojito-session in the bar. Immortalize your visit and write your name on the interior wall.

Skyline seen from the Mazana hotel rooftop, Havana, Cuba.
Concierge service at the Mazana hotel, Havana, Cuba.
La Pina de Plata, Havana, Cuba.
Paladar La Guarida, Havana, Cuba.
Paladar La Guarida, Havana, Cuba.
La Badeguita Del Medio, Havana, Cuba.

All images © 2019 Erik Ekberger.

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