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Havana, the Caribbean’s most captivating city and Cuba’s beating heart

February 27, 2020 | by James Corporal

Havana oh na na! Having inspired countless songs from contemporary times to yesteryear classics like Chuck Berry’s Havana Moon and the Ramones’ Havana Affair, it’s little wonder so many travellers are fascinated by this wondrous destination; full of music, dancing, colour and a generous dash of mystique for added allure. To learn more about what makes this city the most riveting destination in the Caribbean, worth the time it takes to fully get to know it, keep reading. This is all about discovering Havana’s riches.

Havana is, without a doubt, the Caribbean’s most unique city, the most storied, dazzling, mind-boggling and kaleidoscopic; for countless reasons. Bursting with culture, rare singularities and a powerful mix of traditions and contradictions, there is a lot to discover, from the varying architecture to the vibrant neighbourhoods and the general livelihood present pretty much everywhere (except perhaps Miramar, the most subdued municipality). Simply put, Havana is the most peculiar place in the Caribbean and one of the most special and fascinating destinations in all of Latin America. It leaves no one indifferent.

There are several historical and cultural facts that make Havana a unique melting pot of cultures, races and customs. It’s a place where many nationalities have converged over the centuries (African and Spanish ancestry make up the DNA of the majority of the population but there’s also a considerable amount of habaneros with Chinese descent (Havana once had one of the largest population of Chinese immigrants in the Americas) and other minorities with mixed European and Central European descent (French, Polish, Irish, English, Scottish, German and Italians). No wonder then, that Cuban culture is so intricately complex and rich, as it stems from the blend of so many different cultures and influences over the years.

For a Caribbean holiday drenched in culture, history and exciting discoveries no other destination tops Havana, Cuba.

Vibrant, loud, dynamic – Cuba’s beating heart

Havana moves to the sound of salsa, timba, reggaeton and rumba but also mambo, son, jazz and cha cha cha. A land that gave birth to so many popular Latin rhythms, many of which still live on today and can be heard everywhere in Cuba (in Havana, especially, where music is omnipresent) is a great place for melomaniacs where impromptu dancing on the streets can be witnessed. Even in the way Cubans walk, there’s a certain sway that makes them look like they’re dancing.

Music emanates from Havana’s streets as its most natural soundtrack, whether it’s the distant drumming of bongos, the clickety clack of claves or the base beat of reggaeton. Wherever you are in Havana you’ll hear music spilling out from somewhere, near or far; a cafe, a bar or a neighbour playing his stereo for the entire neighbourhood to enjoy. As a city that loves music, there are frequent concerts, music festivals and jamming sessions. You won’t be short of options if you want to spend the night dancing or listening to music (and yes, that includes non-autochthonous rhythms too, Cuba has a quite the nascent electronic music scene and a well-known underground rap scene). Trendy established nightclubs like Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) and cool intimate joints like El Chanchullero will show Cuba’s most authentic modern and alternative music scene.

Refined, cultured and elegant

Discerning travellers with refined tastes can find in Havana a wealth of options for a fine evening out. The Gran Teatro de la Habana frequently hosts performances by Cuba’s prestigious national ballet company and there are many other contemporary dance companies with seasonal programmes of performances taking place somewhere in the city throughout the year. Whenever you go to Havana, it’s not hard to catch a fine dance performance. The same goes for music, those with refined tastes will find that classical music concerts are often held in Havana at either of the following venues: San Francisco de Asis concert hall, Oratorio San Felipe Nori and Teatro Marti, although FAC has started to host the national orchestra

On the elegant side of things, let’s not forget that back in its heyday Havana was a place oozing glamour and exclusivity, back when the American mafia ruled its streets building casinos as well as glitzy hotels and nightclubs galore. Celebrities from Hollywood’s golden era were frequent visitors (Hotel Nacional de Cuba, anyone?). Living proof of it are Havana hotels like the Capri and Riviera, as well as the immaculately kept 50s cars, many of which are exquisitely looked after, freshly painted and polished to gleam just like they used to.

Havana in four days – the best way to experience it

Havana is definitely a destination to linger in. A short half-day or full-day trip simply isn’t enough to fully absorb its essence. But you don’t need to spend a full week touring Havana either. Four days is about right and enough to get a good grasp of the culture, the history, the people, the sights and the vibrancy. To truly experience Havana, an itinerary like the one below is not only sufficient but ultimately ideal.

Learning to make your own mojito

After landing in Havana there’s nothing better than relaxing with a refreshing tropical cocktail. This is why Cubania’s Experience Havana tour starts things off with a cocktail-making lesson, so you learn how to make the best mojitos in town. After being taught the secrets of a Cuban libation by a local expert at one of the city’s most happening paladares you’ll proceed to enjoy a mouth-watering spread of fusion tapas with an Asian twist (newsflash, Cuban food is anything but boring these days!).

Exploring Old Havana

Why does the beauty of Havana’s historic centre surpass that of other Spanish colonial cities in the Americas? Because it’s the best preserved and the most authentic. Several historical and political factors have contributed to it having been left untouched and largely unchanged through the passage of time. Massive restoration efforts have brought it back to its days of glory and it hasn’t stopped fascinating visitors ever since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Discovering it is a must and you need at least a full day to do it. But don’t stop there, with the Cubania tour, after inspecting the architecture in the morning and tucking into a tasty meal at an Old Havana paladar, you have the afternoon to spend at your leisure, followed by a salsa lesson in the evening and a night of swinging and dancing at one of the city’s hippest nightlife venues.

Immersing in Afro-Cuban culture

Ferrying your way across the city to discover the neighbourhood of Regla is an eye-opening experience that will put you in direct contact with Cuban culture’s African roots. After crossing Havana Bay on a boat to reach Regla and experiencing the brief sailing journey like a Cuban, you will be taken to visit the church of Our Lady of Regla and learn about Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion brought to the island by African slaves and still practised by a large proportion of the Cuban population. Then it’s on the local museum to learn more about the African rituals, the symbolism and the Santeria artefacts, followed by a hearty lunch consisting of Cuban creole cuisine and the rest of the afternoon to spend exploring as you wish.

Remnants of the Revolution

On the third day after your Afro-Cuban immersion you have option of visiting the Museum of the Revolution and learn about the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and his rebels. Alternatively, you can tour the historic Morro-Cabaña fortress and soak in the magnificent views across the bay. Whatever you decide to do you will be rewarded with the ultimate Havana experience in the evening with a scenic classic car ride, rediscovering the city and exploring new neighbourhoods onboard a vintage roofless car. Highlights you’ll be taking in include Plaza de la Revolucion and the romantic Malecon seawall before being dropped off for dinner at one of the city’s finest paladares.

Havana good time

The last day is to enjoy Havana your way. After all that you have seen and done in the previous days you will still have a few more hours to tick off any pending items on your bucket list. Before boarding your onward flight (back home or to your next Cuban destination perhaps?) you’ll have time to create more memories of Havana.

Let Havana works its magic

Now that you’ve seen some of what makes Havana the most exciting destination in the Caribbean and you’ve found out about the best ways to experience its many facets; it’s time to start planning your own Havana adventure. With Cubania you have quite a few options, and rest assured that all our tours include meals, authentic accommodation at the finest casas particulares and local, knowledgeable guides with a lot of insight and insider tips to make your visit all the more unforgettable and bespoke. Just let Havana do its magic!

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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