Bianca: Where to start. Cuba was the second shortest stay during our 3-week honeymoon but probably the stop we were most excited about. The country is mostly uncharted waters with beautiful discoveries to be made around every corner. We both had the fear of god about our Aeromexico flights from Cancun to Havana but never to fear, we arrived safe and sound.
Take Euro’s with you to exchange at the airport, during our visit we found the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC – Tourist currency) virtually 1 for 1 with the Euro and you don’t get slapped with the 10% commission fee for $USD. Cash is king, so your credit card won’t be getting much of a workout (hotels are probably the exception). As a guide, a taxi should cost about $22-26 from the airport > Havana and vice versa. But we had Jules and his El Spanole to make sure we weren’t getting ripped off, we were quoted anywhere from $25 to $35.
I stumbled along Paseo 206 during my internet wanderings, touted as Havana’s first luxury boutique hotel. Housing eight rooms within the recently refurbed colonial mansion. It’s the top quality finishes that elevate what could be a simple, basic room. We found this particularly obvious in the modern bathroom. Our Junior room ordinarily goes for $349 USD but we paid $279 USD, this included wi-fi and breakfast. Don’t get too attached to the wi-fi, I really had to make like Elsa and ‘Let it go’ – even in the hotel it was very patchy, slow and kept dropping out. Really, you should be out exploring anyways. We royally stuffed up by not having dinner at the hotel restaurant Eclectico, as it’s included in several top restaurant lists in Havana.
Breakfast both days was in the restaurant Eclectico. Consisting of a Cappucino, seasonal fruit, a homemade Italian Croissant (amazing), scrambled eggs, avocado, homemade marmalade and bread. After our ‘All inclusive feeding and bingeing’ this was a lovely alternative to all the excessive food. But seriously, those croissants were amazing!
Our first stop after checking into Paseo 206, was a quick walk down to the Malecon. An esplanade spanning 8km. We walked the entire length, drove along it several times and at all hours and its common to see the strip LINED with people. You’ll find restaurants and bars dotted along the Malecon, as well as buildings in various states of ruin (a common feature on almost every Cuban street).
El Capitolio is one of the most prominent landmarks in Havana, formerly the National Capital Building but now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
There will be two camps that will judge our first ‘Cuban meal’. With some citing that perhaps it isn’t quite authentic, all I’ll say is that you really should try for yourself before making any judgements.
Dinner was at the newly opened Grand Hotel Manzana Kempinksi. Perched on the rooftop overlooking Old Havana, San Cristobal Restaurant really shouldn’t be missed. The hotel is stunning!!! Had we not booked our accommodation prior to their opening I would have splurged. On the ground level, there are some high-end designer stores if you’re in need of some retail therapy (the conversion really wasn’t that worthwhile for us so we (I) steered well clear!
The view alone is one of the biggest selling points but don’t despair, the food was fantastic. With a focus on Carribean seafood, there was no doubt we were going to include some ‘fruits of the sea’. The Lobster Ceviche $12. Delightfully soft and melted in the mouth, with strong citrus notes. I’ve never had lobster in the form of a ceviche before and it worked wonderfully. And the Marinated Octopus $14.50 was an interesting mix of flavours, particularly the tapenade with the fresh basil, the octopus was cooked perfectly.
Kicking things up a notch with mains. Grilled Lobster $30, buttery soft. The sweetness from the caramelised onions worked wonderfully alongside the thick sauce. But the standout was the Crispy Pork with Sweet and Sour Sauce $24. I think we were both in agreeance that this was the some of the best pork we’ve ever eaten. Seasoned beautifully, soft but with the holy grail of crispy crackling.
And to finish. The Lemon Cream, basil and wasabi white chocolate brownie -w/ raspberry sauce & Italian meringue $12. A textural feast for the senses. Hot and cold, crispy and gooey soft elements creating excitement with each and every bite. Coconut Rice Pudding, white chocolate, curry light cream, mango, nut sponge & coconut ice-cream $12. Another well-composed dessert with varying textures. I really enjoyed the biscuit crumbs! The view and the food make The Grand Hotel Manzana a really attractive spot to stop in for.
Our night didn’t end there. We stopped in at El Floridita. Home to not only the creation of the frozen daiquiri but one of Ernest Hemingways favourite Cuban watering holes. It gets pretty crowded but we scored two front row seats and it’s worth the wait.
El Del Frente also came highly recommended. Excellent food and drinks we can vouch for. The real selling point is the spacious rooftop bar, where you can really drink in the sights and sounds of Habana Vieja.
Another drink pit stop at Hotel Inglaterra. One of Havana’s oldest hotels. It is set to join the Marriot hotel ‘fold’ in 2019. So expect some construction to take place over the next year.
Jumping into one of Havana’s many classic cars for a quick trip over to Fabrica de Arte. A nightclub/ art gallery/ restaurant/ bar. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before! A must visit! And a fairly cruisy 20-minute walk back through the streets of Havana to Paseo 206.
An early start the next day and we began our Havana walking trip. With a visit to the Plaza de la Revolucion. A notable piece of Cuban political history.
Continuing our ‘ self-guided’ walking tour of Havana, we had hoped to visit Modern Partagas Cigar factory but tours need to be booked directly via hotels so we missed out. Not to fear, just around the corner is Romeo Y Julieta Cigar Factory where we picked up some goodies. Marvelling along the way at crumpled buildings and roads in near ruins.
Lunch was a quick affair at Sia-Kara. A small restaurant/ bar serving drinks and food. We both had a Taco, Dacquiri for Jules and a soda for me, I believe the bill worked out to be about $23.
Museo de la Revolución was the former presidential palace to all former Cuban presidents. The bullet holes in one of the downstairs outside foyers was fairly intense. The outside lawns house famous vehicles, a yacht, planes and tanker all used by Fidel and co.
30,000 steps later and we were famished. My research told me Habana 61 was one of the better restaurants in Havana. Bread & Butter $2.50 was a necessity after all the walking, big tick for the flavoured butter! The Vegetable salad $3.50 ticked all the fibre buckets (something we were probably severely lacking).
We were happy to see some traditional Cuban dishes on the menu. The Pollo Barbacoa $8.50 akin to a honey soy glaze, sweet with a charred BBQ flavouring. I may have lucked out with my Masas de cerdo fritas – Fried Pork Chunks $8.50. Tender, juicy pieces of pork with a delicious caramelised outer layer. Bulking out the meal with Fried Ripe Plantain $2. We also didn’t realise the mains came with a side of rice and beans (both very tasty).
And our last Cuban stop, the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana. Across two buildings, artworks and sculptures by Cuban and International artists are showcased. Worth a stop.
Our time was short in Havana but it most certainly left a lasting impression on us both, I’d recommend at least 7 days to make your way around Cuba in its entirety.