Intro to Havana

What’s there to do in Havana, Cuba? Well, a lot. Enough to keep you occupied for months, if not years. The city boasts musicians shaking maracas and belting out classic Cuban tunes all day long, beautifully laid-out plazas providing places for relaxation and people-watching in almost every corner of the city, as well as an architect’s heaven (or hell) with the stark contrast of well-maintained colonial-era buildings and crumbling, war-zone like homes in Centro Habana. Regardless of where you go, there’s no doubt that you will be experiencing a world you’ve never experienced before. Whether it’s your cup of tea depends on your own personal taste.

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A vintage taxi in Havana, Cuba known as a "colectivo"
A vintage taxi in Havana, Cuba known as a “colectivo”

Things you have to see in Havana

Museo de la Revolución – Even if you’re not someone who’s enthralled by history (i.e. if you skipped the section above), you can appreciate the Museo de la Revolución. It boasts many rooms dedicated to the rise of communism, the fall of capitalism, and (biasedly) explains how Cuba became the country that it is today. My highlights were learning about the “Fathers of the Revolution,” discovering unknown architects of significant revolutionary missions e.g. Frank Pais (who was leading complex and integral missions at 22), seeing how women played a critical role in it all, as well as all of the significant dates and events e.g. 26 Julio, 30 Noviembre. History is written by the victors, so you shouldn’t be surprised to see a room solely dedicated to how the United States has worked to thwart Cuba. What’s also a bit cheeky is that the building  used to be the Presidential Palace, which Fidel, after successfully winning the revolution, turned into a museum. Be forewarned that there is A LOT of information in there. So much so that it can get overwhelming.

Price: $8 to enter

Address: 1 Refugio y Avenida Bélgica, Habana Vieja

Hours of operation: 9:30am-4pm daily

Time required: 2 hours

Museo de la Revolución in Havana getting a facelift
Museo de la Revolución in Havana getting a facelift

Plaza de la Catedral – If you plan to go to any of the plazas (which you must), Plaza de la Catedral is the plaza to visit. It’s not only a lively place to feel the spirit of Havana, but it’s also exceedingly beautiful. You’ll find regal buildings all containing balconies bearing doors with light blue and white shutters with stained-glass windows above each of them. Women, dressed in flamboyant dresses and red lipstick are eager to pucker up and kiss both male and female tourists. For a price, of course. However, the main draw of the plaza is the cathedral, La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana, which is one of eleven Roman Catholic cathedrals on Cuba. It’s a great place to sit, meditate or pray and marvel at the 18th-century house of worship. But, the best part, by far, is the bell tower, which you can climb up for 1CUC ($1) for amazing views of Old Havana and the plaza. Just don’t ring the bells!

Price: Free to enter

Address: Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja

Hours of operation: 9am-4:30pm Monday – Friday, 9am-noon Saturday and Sunday

Time required: 45 minutes

This guy was loving all the kisses in Plaza de la Catedral...I don't blame him ;)
This guy was loving all the kisses in Plaza de la Catedral…I don’t blame him 😉

Fábrica de Arte Cubano – Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) is NOT TO BE MISSED! I’ve personally traveled to 25+ countries and have never experienced anything like it. It’s hard to pinpoint whether FAC is a restaurant, club, theater or live art show, because it’s all of those in one. The hip venue is located in the upscale neighborhood of Vedado, and occupies an old olive oil factory (yes, very Williamsburg, New York City). Upon entering ( the line can be long, get there early), you have to pay 2CUC ($2) and are handed a ration card, which is stamped with all of the drinks and food you buy throughout the night. In order to leave, you’ll have to give back the ration card and pay whatever the amount you purchased comes out to. Note: If you lose the ration card, you have to pay a flat fee of 30CUC ($30), which could be a good thing depending on how much of a glutton and alcoholic you are. It’s also fairly cheap. I paid 10.50CUC for 2 beers, 1 juice (gotta stay hydrated!) and 1 sandwich. The crowd is attractive and no two rooms are alike. It’s like an artistic orgasm and playground for adults at the same time. I passed through one room, which featured modern art with electronic music playing in the background (DJ and all), to a room which had a full on play happening, to a room with a huge screen playing a movie (sound turned off) with jazz music in the background. I’d go back to Cuba just for FAC.

Price: $2 to enter

Address: Calle 26 y esquina 11, Vedado

Hours of operation: 8pm – 3am Thursday – Sunday

Time required: The whole night

I don't understand the cowboy hats, but luxury vintage is abundant in Havana...for a price
I don’t understand the cowboy hats, but luxury vintage is abundant in Havana…for a price

Playas del Este – If you’ve done some research on beaches in Cuba, you’ve probably heard people saying to go to Varadero. “Varadero this, Varadero that, etc.” I went to Varadero, it’s about 2.5 hours outside of Havana and a nice place to go. But, nothing mindblowing. Especially given the fact that the beautiful, crystalline beaches of Playas del Este are only 30 minutes outside of Havana and just as nice, if not nicer. There are also more Cubans and less tourists, which is always a plus in my book. Now, I went to Playas del Este before Varadero, which may have made me biased, but when I saw the deep blue waters (I had never seen water that blue before, and I’ve been to the Caribbean many times), I was taken aback by how arresting it all was. You can rent a lounge chair for 1-2CUC, and they have drinks for order from one of the men walking around (you’ll see them at the entrance). There’s also a sandbar a few meters out from the shore – I had never experienced standing in the middle of the ocean before, so it was pretty cool. In terms of getting there, I paid one of those vintage taxies 10CUC ($10) to go there, and 15CUC to go back since it was a bit late. If you find a good driver, they’ll wait for you, but don’t hold your breath if they say they’ll be back by a certain time! My driver, Jorge, whom I thought was a good and honest man, never showed back up! But, he was fairly old, so it’s plausible he had a heart attack on the drive back. I really hope not.

Price: Free

Address: Playas del Este

Hours of operation: Sunrise – sunset

Time required: As much as you want, it’s a beach

The beautiful and blue Playas del Este. Only 30 mins from Havana
The beautiful and blue Playas del Este. Only 30 mins from Havana

Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo – I was fortunate to hear about this gym from two photographers I met in Viñales who showed me a photo they took of an Cuban olympic boxer who trains there (supposedly many olympians train there). It’s tucked away on the side street of Cuba (nice name for a street) and has a brown sign with white lettering on a pole, so you can’t miss it. If you make it here early enough, you’ll get to see the guys training, who are the least bit camera shy. Aside from being huge and jacked monsters, they’re some of the nicest people I encountered in Cuba. One, Makiel, is a rapper and I’d bet $50 that he’ll try to sell you his CD (be warned, it’s actually quite good). Many of them met Kanye (sort of cool, no?) because he wanted them in a music video he was supposedly shooting in Cuba. Again, nicest guys out there and a great photo opportunity for photography lovers. The gym itself is pretty worn down, as is the ring, which gives it this gritty feel that amplifies the experience.

Price: Free to enter

Address: Calle 815 Cuba, Habana Vieja

Hours of operation: Anytime

Time required: 20 minutes

Olympic boxers at the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym in Havana. Some of the nicest people I met
Olympic boxers at the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym in Havana. Some of the nicest people I met

Necropolis de Cristóbal Colón – I stumbled upon this place (very hard to miss) after getting lost on a solo excursion throughout Vedado. The necropolis is one of the most beautiful cemeteries (if you can call it that) I’ve ever visited. It’s HUGE! You’ll know it’s the necropolis when you see meters and meters of yellow walls with white plus signs carved on them. The 140-acre necropolis, found in 1876, features over 800,000 graves and 500+ family vaults and chapels. The main allure of the necropolis, aside from its size, is the elaborate artwork featured on many of the graves and mausoleums. But, don’t be surprised if you see broken bottles and windows in some of the mausoleums. They rubbish may be from ghosts, or just disrespectful people. In which case, I hope the ghosts get them.

Price: 1CUC ($1) to enter

Address: Calle Zapata y esquina 12, Vedado

Hours of operation: 9am – 5pm daily

Time required: 1 hour

University of Havana – The main draw of the University of Havana (Fidel’s alma mater), aside from its beautiful architecture featuring large columns and a really nice cloister where students hang out, is just how “normal” it is. In a country where communism is still strong – the state runs most industries and businesses – the University of Havana is a great place to take a break and realize that Cuban people are no different than you or myself. Students hang outside in groups cramming for tests, exchange flirtatious glances and laugh with one another. They experience all of the feelings any college student experiences. Now, that’s not to say they don’t have difficulties specific to Cuba (I spoke with one student in Viñales who was switching majors due to internet issues and old textbooks), but a visit to the university is a great way to feel the humanity of the youth.

Price: Free

Address: Calles L and 27, Vedado

Hours of operation: Anytime

Time required: 30 minutes

College students at the University of Havana doing what college students do
College students at the University of Havana doing what college students do

Summary of Havana

There’s an endless amount to do in Havana. No, an exhausting amount. From museums to restaurants to salsa clubs, there’s no shortage of activities to do regardless of what you’re into. It’s a city with rich history, but what’s even more exciting is that history is still happening right now. With the death of the country’s six decade leader, Fidel Castro, Cuba is changing. People are becoming more informed and the air is electric. And, truth be told, the time to go was yesterday. But, now is as good of a time as any. ¡Viva Cuba!

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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at SwagPapi.com

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