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Opening yourself up to new opportunities and adventures can make Havana seem anything but impenetrable, as Gadling.com's Alex Robertson Textor discovers.
"There’s no other city like Havana in the Americas, nowhere with its juxtapositions of beautifully preserved plazas, crumbling atmospheric alleys, vintage American cars, well-stocked museums and thriving culture. The light hits you one way and you’re daydreaming of Hemingway. It hits you at another angle and you find yourself obsessing about the Cold War. It’s stately and stoical at once.With much of the tourism in Cuba focused on funnelling visitors to all-inclusive resorts, it can be a challenge to get out of the tourist mode and obtain a real sense of local life, so here are five quick and easy suggestions for how to pierce the surface during your stay in Havana."
Stay in a Casa Particular
The antidote to Cuba’s state-run hotels, casas particulares are privately run, owner-occupied houses with a spare bedroom or two. They’re quite inexpensive — many are around CUC30 (£20) for a double – and they provide visitors with a ready-made opportunity to meet actual Cubans. Our casa particular, Melba Piñeda Bermúdez at Calle 11 802 (cross street Calle 2) was lovely, with stone floors, a comfortable common space, air-conditioning, and a terrace for watching the action on the street below.
If you plan to leave the city, ask your proprietor about your intended destination. We did, and our Havana hostess reserved us an absolutely beautiful casa in the UNESCO-recognized town of Viñales, just over 100 miles to the west in Pinar del Río province.
Make Cuban Friends
The advice of our hostess was simple: strike up a conversation with anyone at all, but avoid anyone who pursues a conversation with you – specifically the persistent but usually harmless jineteros(touts).
We followed this advice, which yielded warm interactions with all sorts of people including museum guards, drag queens, taxi drivers and a particularly friendly maid. We also got into a ballet performance with reduced-price tickets after being invited by a staff member, and even got to sneak backstage during intermission to meet some of the dancers.
Absorb the Neighbourhood Atmosphere
Most neighbourhoods in Havana have their own selling point. Vedado, to the west of Havana’s Old Town, is an enticing patchwork of old mansions, embassies, green median strips of park and a piece of the Malecón esplanade. Twice at night we chanced upon the taping of a period television drama, sitting with crew members and onlookers while scenes were filmed.
Vedado is also a great place to people-watch and get a feel for the mood of young Havana. On weekend nights, teenagers play music, dance, flirt and stroll along Avenida de los Presidentes (Calle G), an intra-boulevard park running right through the neighbourhood.
Discover Havana’s Arts and Culture
Havana’s cultural life feels open and easily accessible. We poked our heads into the Teatro Nacionaland were immediately invited in for the opening of an exhibition by contemporary Cuban artists. There are some quirky places, too, like the Museo de Naipes on the south side of Plaza Vieja in the Old Town, which is solely devoted to antique and modern playing cards.
The outstanding Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) has two parts: a comprehensive collection of Cuban art in one building and a collection of foreign art in another. Galeri Habana, found at Linea 480 at Calle E in Vedado, represents a huge number of today’s Cuban artists and some of the works are available to purchase.
Find the Local Delicacies
For various reasons, dining in Cuba can often be a less than top-notch experience. So instead of searching for great meals, focus instead on local delicacies: chocolate, Cuban sandwiches and mojitos.
The Museo del Chocolate (on the corner of Amargura and Mercaderes in the Old Town) serves thick, rich hot chocolate. Just around the corner at El Jardín del Oriente, the menu includes delicious cheap Cuban sandwiches. A sandwich and a beer can be had for less than CUC5 (£3.50), and enjoyed with a mostly Cuban clientele in a sultry courtyard.
Of course cocktails can be sipped in lots of places around the city, but one great place to nurse a mojito is the Hotel Nacional’s Galería Bar (Calle 21 at Calle O, Vedado). It’s extremely popular with tourists but the sweltering atmosphere, under enormous columns on a verandah, is classic Havana.
Virgin Atlantic operate non-stop flights to Cuba from London Gatwick, or consider Virgin Holidays for a tailor-made holiday to Cuba that includes Havana and a range of other destinations on the island.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.