When it comes to Havana, Cuba, there are no clones. There are no “it reminds me of” epilogues or over-simplified comparisons, no white collars or corporate characters. But what Havana lacks in the Western World’s (often short-sighted) definition of prosperity and wealth, it more than compensates for in character and colour, its rainbow tones unapologetically lathered across every facade of the city’s corners.
With its eclectic patchwork tapestry of architectural styles, bustling neighbourhoods and street-side entertainers, I felt a little stifled trying to encapsulate this city’s energy into the tiny, black and white contours of the WordPress font.
That was when it dawned on me that I was trying too hard to be a writer rather than the travel bug that I am; that if I wanted to express my Cuban moments in the most authentic way possible, then I ought to do so in the same way that the city had expressed itself to me – plainly and simply through its fearless palette of colours.
South Africa may be the official Rainbow Nation but Cuba’s vibrant landscape could quite easily put it in the running.
The Colours of Havana
The Vintage Cars
Rustic vintage cars in bold, summer hues are a hallmark of Cuba and are prominently featured in almost every Havana article I have come across.
Whether you’re a fully-fledged automotive geek or simply drawn to the more vivid sights around you, it is almost impossible not to be enamoured by the quaint charm of these cars, emblematic of an era gone by.
Nab yourself a taxi ride in one, strike a cheesy pose beside one, stuff your camera roll with photos of them or do as we did and combine your car-glaring with your sightseeing on a vintage car tour of Havana.
The Cuban Cocktails
In Havana, unlike anywhere else I have been in the world, there were
some many bars, restaurants and minibars, where rum was cheaper than mineral water.
This is perhaps not the ideal scenario for a non-drinker like myself but for all you cocktail-lovers out there (and I know there are a few of you lurking about), Havana brings you frozen Daiquiris on scorching summer days, minty Mojitos just the way Hemingway liked them and Pina Coladas served inside the sweetest coconuts ever to have graced the earth.
For more Havana food and drink insights, have a peek at my Havana food and drink guide.
The Cuban Cigars
Another must-try utterly wasted on a square like me were the world-renowned Cuban cigars. With no shortage of touts, black market suppliers and street vendors, be sure you are getting the real deal before you start flashing your wallet around cigar sellers.
Many hotels and tour operators can give you information on legitimate, above-board cigar factories, which offer guided factory tours and stock the finest Cuban cigar offerings. The colour may be a muted, humble brown but if you are in the market for authentic, local souvenirs, you don’t get much more Cuban than the earthy scent of a Cuban cigar.
The easy-going nature of the Cubans meant that Havana was one of those special, uncharacteristic capital cities, where I felt entirely at ease strolling into a restaurant at dinner time wearing a pair of flip flops but even if I wasn’t making much of an effort with my wardrobe, there were many local Cuban ladies who were.
Sporting patterned cotton ensembles comprising long dresses and matching hats, these women wander around Havana’s Old Town with flowers in their hair and wicker baskets in hand, earning an income by charging tourists for photos.
Just make sure you negotiate your price before you get your camera out – I learned the long-winded way!
The Street Parades
Havana is a city best enjoyed outdoors. Its chaotic, inviting ambience isn’t found inside restaurants, shops or museums but rather in the meandering slow walks through the Old Town, where live bands play percussion, stray kittens snooze in park corners and occasionally, a troupe of street dancers on stilts burst into synchronised dance.
Part of the charm of Havana for us was pausing at al fresco bars to cool down before strolling down pedestrianised cobblestone pathways, never fully knowing what kind of intriguing surprise may be awaiting us.
The Street Food
Whilst we clocked up the miles on our pedometer exploring Havana, our stomachs started to pay the price and it didn’t take long before these golden spirals of churros called out to us.
As I made my Cuban street food debut with a packet of funnel-shaped, sugar-coated crispy bites, Pumpkin set his sights on the coconut-shell encased ice cream portions selling like hot cakes on the roadside.
The Che & Castro
Some aspects of Cuba’s legacy transcend all colours and locations and the respect paid to their revolutionaries, primarily Che Guevara and Castro – is one of them.
We saw their faces plastered across T-shirts, handbags, street art murals, museums and most impressive of all, within the towering walls of Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) in Havana.
The Coco Taxis
If you wouldn’t leave London without riding a red double-decker bus and you wouldn’t leave San Francisco without hopping on board a city tram, then you most definitely won’t be leaving Cuba without hailing a yellow Coco Taxi.
With a beyond adorable title, these semi-lunar pods are Cuba’s answer to the Thai tuk tuk and their squeaky clean, canary yellow exteriors tick every box as far as fun-factor is concerned, not to mention the fact that their prices prove a lot more competitive than standard taxis and especially vintage car taxis.
For architecture buffs, Havana is an oasis of endless intrigue (and make no mistake, I exclude myself assertively from that category, since being a “buff” involves more than ambling around, pausing every two minutes to state “ooooh how pretty.”)
With modern high-rises parked in one plane whilst Art Deco monuments stand proudly in another, Havana is a mosaic of architectural diversity, boasting glimmers of Baroque and Neo-classical styles as well, which shine through in between the fascinating crumbling and dilapidated walls.
Whether you’re a walking encyclopaedia of architectural lingo or you simply revel in appreciating the talents of the designers and stone masons of yesteryear, Havana is best enjoyed with a leisurely wander through the old town.
The Sunsets on the Malecon
By day, the Malecon in Havana appears to be nothing but a seaside promenade with a wide berth adjacent to a busy main road. I was a little underwhelmed when we first arrived, having made a conscious decision to walk there after learning that this was one of the recommended to-do activities in the city.
But nature took its course over the next half an hour and soon silenced us with conviction as the humble crowds started to gather, the photographers set up their tripods, the sweltering heat started to lift and the Malecon suddenly took on a new life.
As dusk arrives, the Malecon becomes a place of fiery, golden enchantment with the collective melodic hum of a handful of voices competing for the much-needed ocean breeze, as groups of locals drink and gossip in the simplest yet most glorious of settings.
If you want to visit Cuba whilst it still retains some of the character that has distinguished it over the last few decades, now and I mean NOW might be your last chance. With the Cuban-US relations now formally thawing, Cuba’s future is likely to be turning into entirely unchartered corners.
I am far from a political journalist and I honestly don’t know what this may imply for the Cuban people but I can’t help but wonder whether cartoons like this that we spotted at the Museum of the Revolution will disappear or whether they remain proudly and indignantly.
Further afield….the Caribbean Coast
This is my little “PS” on this post since strictly speaking, this final soundbite belongs further afield than Havana, taken from the second part of our trip to Varadero but how could I complete a post about captivating colours in Cuba without making reference to the virginal white sands and beaming turquoise waters of Cuba’s coastline.
This stretch of beach pays homage to the decade-old reputation that the Caribbean beaches have acquired for themselves and Cuba is no exception.
Have you visited Cuba? What stood out most for you?