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Wanderlust: Havana, Cuba

By Melody Tan

An overview of Cuba.
 
Melody Tan
An overview of Cuba.

Although the concerns and conflicting theories of travelling to Cuba may be deterrents to some, this largest island in the Caribbean remains an alluring destination for many. The harsh reality of the political and economic climates that its locals live in paints a stark contrast to the pictures shared on social media of shiny vintage cars and fancy rooftop bars. 

My first impression of Havana, the capital of Cuba, was that I had time-travelled back to the ’70s or ’80s. As my mind adjusted (and confirmed that I was indeed in 2017) itself, I let my gaze take in the timeworn yet vibrant-coloured colonial buildings that line the streets, vintage Coco taxis (bright yellow, egg-shaped rickshaws) that populate the roads and the general bustle around me. Reinforcing that sense of having stepped back into another era was the realisation that internet connectivity was largely limited to Wi-Fi parks and areas populated by tourists. 

Beneath its vibrant façade, however, one discovers the “real truths” of living as a local. Frequent electricity cuts are a daily occurrence, aside from crammed living conditions and complete disconnectivity from the world outside. This is the city that, in 2017, was battered by Hurricane Irma, which left a trail of destruction that sadly added to the island’s landscape of collapsed buildings that have given way over time owing to poor infrastructure and a lack of maintenance. 

But beyond that, Cuba is indeed unlike any place in the world today and there is genuine beauty to be discovered here. Think the Malecón, an eight-kilometer-long thoroughfare that stretches along some of the historical areas of Havana; the white sand beaches of Varadero, a little over an hour-long car ride from Havana; and what seems like the endless green tobacco fields in Viñales, a small town on the Western tip of Cuba. For those who desire to visit, just bring your sense of adventure and a hunger for the new and unfamiliar. 

Just in Havana alone, every corner of the streets that stretch out before me is a melange of culture waiting to be embraced.

Melody TanLeft: The common seating area of Hotel Sevilla in Havana. Right: Roasted pork dish at restaurant La Guardia.
Left: The common seating area of Hotel Sevilla in Havana. Right: Roasted pork dish at restaurant La Guardia.

STAY

La Reserva Located in the urban neighbourhood Vedado of Havana, La Reserva offers one of the country’s best boutique hotel experiences. The property is an impeccably restored colonial mansion with interiors artfully furnished with vintage Art Deco furniture. Within the property resides an in-house art gallery that curates pieces from contemporary Cuban artists. For a true taste of Cuba, guests can order or request for a home-cooked meal. They say nothing beats a home-cooked meal and naturally, the meal at La Reserva tops my list as one of the best meals I had during my time in Havana. lareservavedado.com

EAT & DRINK 

El Del Frente El Del Frente, which literally translates to ‘the one in front’, is another establishment by the owners of O’Reilly 304, which is just across the road. El Del Frente’s eclectic décor draws one through a tiny stairway, at the end of which diners are greeted by a cosy terrace and an indoor seating area on the second floor. Alongside a mouth- watering menu of freshly grilled seafood and meats, pastas and refreshing salads, the restaurant’s mixologist concocts the city’s best gin tonics and mojitos. The restaurant also (reportedly) serves some of the best ceviche in the city. 53-7-863-0206 

La Guarida La Guarida is a Cuban icon. Located in a historic building that was once the backdrop for the ground-breaking 1994 Cuban film, “Strawberry and Chocolate”, the restaurant curates one of the city’s most lauded fine dining experiences. Its menu is described as offering international fare with a Cuban twist, and expect produce of only the best quality scoured from across the globe from France to Chile. Before heading down to the restaurant for a meal, diners can indulge in some drinks at the establishment’s rooftop bar. laguarida.com.

Melody TanLeft: La Floridita bar was frequented by Ernest Hemingway. Right: Dilapidated buildings in Havana make up much of the city's infrastructure.
Left: La Floridita bar was frequented by Ernest Hemingway. Right: Dilapidated buildings in Havana make up much of the city's infrastructure.

Doña Eutimia The appeal of Doña Eutimia lies in its simplicity. Housed within an intimate space, dining in the restaurant almost feels like an invitation to someone’s home. Doña Eutimia is helmed by a woman who goes by the name of Leticia, who conceived the restaurant’s traditional Cuban menu from memories of her mother’s cooking. Choose from hearty servings of traditional dishes such as ropa vieja (shredded beef), rice and beans and pork. While the humble dishes here might not look like much, it is food that feeds the soul. For those seeking an authentic Cuban dining experience, Doña Eutimia will not disappoint. 53-7-801-3332. 

Buena Vista Social Club Music and dance are deeply rooted in the Cuban spirit, so paying a visit to the city’s social clubs is a mandatory rite of passage. At Buena Vista Social Club, visitors get to immerse themsleves into traditional performances, and a melange of song and dance — on some nights, 80-year-old Cuban singer Teté Caturla takes to the stage to serenade the crowd. The Buena Vista Social Club is the destination for anyone looking to end the
night on a high. Performances start at 9pm. 53-7-861-7761. 

SEE 

La Fábrica del Arte (The Art Factory) Formerly a cooking oil factory, La Fábrica del Arte, this place with its multiple gallery and performance spaces beats as the heart of the city’s art and cultural scene. The art gallery and event space is the curatorial ground where contemporary Cuban creatives come together to exhibit their works in diverse fields. Having earned itself a far-reaching reputation, La Fábrica del Arte has seen renowned figures like Lady Gaga and the Obamas come through its doors. Within the premises also resides El Cocinero resturant, which has earned a reputation for putting a distinct Cuban spin on international cuisine. Diners have the option to be seated at the outdoor terrace, which would give them a visual treat of the city’s lights below.
53-7 838-2260. 

Callejon de Hamel Callejon de Hamel is a narrow alley lined
with colourful murals and eclectic art, and filled with live music performances. This once grim
and deserted stretch was the canvas for Cuban artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, who began adorning alleyways in 1990. Today, it’s the backdrop for musicians and rumba dancers who further add vibrancy to the streets. Between Calles Espada and Aramburu, Havana 10100.