It is only a matter of weeks now till I venture to the Caribbean to embark (mind the pun) upon my first ever cruise. I may detest the cruise experience. I may find myself a convert. Right now, my main concern is how to avoid the weight gain that invariably seems to accompany a cruise experience (a first world problem if ever there was one!)
What perturbs me though is the way I find myself referring to it as a first trip to the Caribbean. Because it isn’t. I went to the Caribbean only last year. I kayaked (with assistance) in shallow turquoise sea water and hydrated from straw-perforated coconuts on dove-white, emulsifying sand. Why then do I keep having to remind myself I have travelled to that region?
I think it is because my perception of the Caribbean was (wrongly) conceived as a product of brochures and magazines, television adverts and honeymoon promotions. The broad term, Caribbean which encompasses so many nations and sub-cultures, had in my mind conjured up illusions of luxurious resorts, high-end hotels, yachts and celebrities and naively, rarely had I thought about it in any other capacity.
And then, I landed in Havana, the chaotic capital of Cuba to be faced with a Caribbean I had never anticipated and one that satiated every crevice of my travel curiosity.
First impressions of Havana
My sandals yielded minimal shelter from the blistering sun, as they met with the dusty, uneven surfaces underfoot on our first day in Havana. The crumbling, eclectic architecture exhibited a concertina of colours, mirroring whilst simultaneously contrasting with the vivid array of rainbow vintage cars meandering between coco taxis on the floor.
And if you are unfamiliar with the term coco taxi, you can find out in this guide full of essential tips for your first trip to Cuba.
The Vintage Cars of Havana
The congested roads were a painter’s palate of colourful vehicles, relics of an era and political regime unknown to me. I have never been one to lust over cars. I usually see them as a mode of transport from A to B and little else but something in me longed to sit inside a vintage car in a destination so renowned for them.
The cars ranged in colour from magenta to canary yellow to shamrock and makes encompassed Chevrolets and Studebakers (pre Cuba, I can’t say I had heard either of these terms!)
In any case, all of them, with their varying hues, shapes and sizes made my little silver hatchback at home seem decidedly boring, although I am not sure what the neighbours would think if they saw a giant turquoise Corvette in my driveway and I know for a fact, I would never be able to park it.
A Vintage Car City Tour
And so, we were welcomed by both our tour guide and driver to commence our city tour of Havana and as the open top car gathered momentum, I felt the force of the much needed breeze entangling my hair before we stopped by some beautiful gardens near a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
As a secular nation with no official national religion, the Cubans have a tolerant approach to world religions and often celebrate the good work of inspirational figures from around the world.
And of course, like most nations, they also celebrate the lives of those who have been most influential in shaping their political environment and we had a chance to stroll around Plaza Revolucion to see more of these famous faces boldly towering above us.
In many ways, Havana is quite cluttered as a city but has a busy energy, which contrasts strangely with the elongated mellow pace of life assumed by most of the locals. With crowds on most streets, certainly in the old town, it can feel difficult to find a spot to escape for a moment of peace but the Malecon, a wide stretch of highway with a waterfront promenade, is the place to find it (and the most glorious sunsets in the city.)
During our tour, we cruised down the Malecon as we were shown the Hotel Nacional, an iconic hotel where Castro used to hold many of his meetings.
And of course, no visit to Havana would be complete without a visit to a cigar and rum shop or factory. As our tour was just a half day tour both on foot and in the vintage car, there was not time on this tour to go behind-the-scenes.
However, if this is something that interests you, there are plenty of cigar factory tours in Havana but I would suggest booking them through official and reliable agents, as you will find countless people on the streets of Havana offering similar tours or offering cigars to tourists on the black market
It’s funny, if I recommended a London bus city tour to someone, I wouldn’t expect them to spend the entire time staring out of the bus window at other buses and yet, on the vintage car tour, I am not sure what I found more compelling, the unmissable Havana attractions and sights we were passing or the multiple colourful vintage cars of yesteryear.
Our tour ended in Havana Vieja, the old town area of Havana and despite it being quite touristy, it had a charm I felt drawn to. It may have been the cobblestone, pedestrianised streets with the intriguing architecture surrounding them.
It may have been the Cuban street foods that tempted me just a few moments before I realised we were having lunch but after the nice introduction to the area we received on this tour, we returned back several times to Havana Viejo at our own pace and to absorb, like sponges, the sights, smells and colours of this sensory goldmine of a city.
Have you ever visited Cuba?