Havana: A City of Contradictions

I wanted to fill this post with all the great reasons you should visit Havana. But, I found myself unable to write because it wouldn’t be completely honest to give you only one perspective of my experience. Instead, I’d like to present you with a realistic picture of this city, so here is the good, the bad and everything in-between.

Let me start off by saying that Havana is a city of contradictions. Heck, all of Cuba is a country of contradictions! There are beautifully kept colonial buildings and fancy hotels, then there are the realities of everyday life in the city. I found myself unable to ignore the stark contrast between the “touristy” Havana and the “real” Havana.

My boyfriend and I rented an AirBnb in the non-touristy part of Old Havana which accentuated the contrasts even more. Our street represented the “real Havana”: it was crowded, it was hot, there was garbage on the street, a hundred different smells all at once, and crumbling buildings on the verge of falling down. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

Yet, a ten minute walk away was a completely different world of exquisite hotels, roof-top restaurants, freshly painted buildings in all the colors of the rainbow and musicians playing traditional songs on the streets.

The thing about Havana is that you can’t truly appreciate it if you don’t experience the bad along with the good, just as it’s inhabitants do.

Past visitors often say that their favourite thing about Havana, and Cuba as a whole, are the warn-hearted people. It’s true, they’re my favourite thing about the island too. But you have to understand why Cubans are the way they are.

Simply put, life on the island is hard. Everyday things that we take for granted are often difficult to come by. Things like toothpaste, gas, notebooks, clothes, flour, you name it. Cubans are constantly faced with obstacles and hardships, it is for this very reason that they also know how to appreciate the little things in life. That is the reason Cubans are my favourite thing about the island.

Journalist Brin-Jonathan Butler describes Cubans perfectly in this quote:
“Cuban eyes often look close to tears. Tears never seem far away because both their pain and their joy are always so close to the surface.”

Havana is much the same, the only way to appreciate it’s beauty is to experience it’s hardships as well.

With that in mind, here are 4 things about Havana that left an impression on me why you should visit this contradictory city:

Incredible architecture

Havana is nicknamed Cuidad de las Columnas, which means the City of Columns. Walking around, it is easy to see why. The city is full of incredible architecture, ranging from Spanish colonial and French Baroque to Art Deco and Socialist Classicism. There is even a replica of the White House in the city centre. What do all of these styles have in common? Columns. The city is filled with all sorts of columns framing it’s many doors, windows, and facades. You may imagine these combinations to be a hot mess, but somehow in Havana, they work.

Even the crumbling building where my boyfriend and I rented our AirBnb was impressive – the stairs were made out of marble, the windows decorated with beautiful shutters, and the walls lined with exquisitely carved crown mounding. It’s obvious this building once housed wealthy families and it’s heartwarming that today it belongs to regular Cubans.

TIP: Looking for the best view in Havana? Go to the top of the Gran Hotel Manna Kempinski in Old Havana – there is a rooftop bar with exquisite views of the city and you don’t have to be staying at the Kempinski to enter. Be sure to order their Piña Colada – a great view deserves to be complemented by a delicious drink!

Vintage cars

You can’t talk about Havana without mentioning the cars! Havana is basically a gallery of vintage cars and it’s anybody’s guess how these relics are still on the road today.

It is estimated the Cuba is home to over 60,000 vintage American cars, the last of which were imported some 60 years ago. Since then, the same cars have been driven by Cubans over numerous generations. Over time, these cars have endured countless paint jobs, accidents and pot holes. And yet, somehow the streets of Havana continue to be filled with them. Without the ability to import new parts to properly repair the vintage cars, Cubans have had to rely on pure creativity to keep them running.

The drivers of these cars appear to have a natural gift for parking them in the most beautiful array of colours. The many public squares and streets of Havana are filled with such displays of colour. If you’re a lover of vintage cars, that alone is reason enough to come to this city.

TIP: I wouldn’t say this for any other city, but the best way to see Havana is by car – not just any car of course, a vintage car. It’s pricey but worth every penny as most drivers are also very good tour guides and will take you to the most picturesque spots in the city while telling you about their history. It’s definitely a ride you’ll remember!

Safety

The Caribbean is known to have some of the most dangerous islands in the world where anything from petty crime to drug trafficking is a real issue. However, Cuba is considered to be one the safest islands in the region and Havana is no exception.

From the city’s Old Town to the Miramar neighbourhood, my boyfriend and I never felt as though we were in danger. Interestingly enough, quite the oppose – we felt welcomed no matter who we talked to or where we went. We caught rides with local Cubans (way cheaper than taking taxis!) and stayed in a residential building. In all circumstances, we were only greeted with smiles and kindness.

Don’t hesitate to visit the island if you’re concerned about your safely, you shouldn’t be.

The soul of the city

They say every city has a soul. If this is true, there is something to be said about Havana’s soul that has attracted countless influential poets, intellectuals, photographers, and revolutionaries to its streets over the years. Having spend a little time there, I’m starting to understand why.

Havana’s appeal lies in the resilience of its people. They give the city this incredible energy fuelled by an anticipation for a better tomorrow, a will to succeed despite all the limitations, and a readiness to open their arms to the world. All the hardships that come with living in Havana cannot overshadow this energy.

Perhaps it is this contradiction that gives Havana its charm. The city will humble you and then break your heart. And that is why you will come back, again and again.

I encourage you to visit this contradictory city and experience the joys and the sorrows of it for yourself. I guarantee that it will leave a lasting impression on you as it did on me.

Tanja

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