Havana, Cuba – Immediate Impressions (08.01.16)
Havana, Cuba – Immediate Impressions
I am typing this blog in the heart of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), in the midst of the traditional and enormously endearing Cuban capital. Music wafting from all corners creates a vibrant atmosphere you can almost touch with an outstretched Cuban cigar-clasping hand. Collapsing colonial buildings, revolution murals, churches and busy plazas are complemented by an electric street energy.
It is easy to understand why Havana, and Cuba generally, are presently one of the ‘go to’ global destinations. Considering the city has suffered from neglect over the best part of three centuries, it is remarkable that it retains such a magnetic draw. The fusion of influences in a city enriched by history, mixed cultures, music, tropical sunshine, Caribbean colour, evocative heat and even more music, produces an ever-present energy, at whatever hour of the day or night. In short, the pulse of Havana is radiant, real and resolutely raw.
So much so that it is difficult to identify and grasp quite what actually hits you when you first arrive in the city. Whether you are there for the first time, or as a seasoned visitor, you feel as if you are stepping into another world. A city like no other, its vibrancy urgently demands that you too get with the passionate street beat.
In trying to put a finger on why my family and I have been so enamoured with Havana over the past few weeks, we have compiled a list what we believe are Havana’s ‘Top 10 Immediate Impressions’.
The ‘spirit of Havana’. Seeping from not only every street scene, bar and building – but also from almost everyone you come across, whether young, old, funky, traditional, on their uppers or well-heeled. The spirit of Havana’s energy washes through, among and around its old buildings and more often than not, poverty-dominated streets.
- Live Music
Havana’s variety of music is as impressive as it is ubiquitous. As if competing, Son (revived by the Buena Vista Social Club film and album), classical, jazz, danzon, salsa, changüi, guaguanco, rumba, timba and even rap, abound.
- 1950s Classic Cars
A constant reminder that time appears to have stood still over many decades in Havana. With one in five Cuban motors dating back to before the revolution (1958), American classics in all shapes, sizes and state of repair, coast elegantly around.
- The Revolution
Political posters, colourful street art, Che Guevara T-shirts and a lack in capital investment creates an abiding flavour of the revolution and of how it still looms over life today. Arriving from the developed world, one the visitor’s immediate impressions is of the lack of night-time street lighting and advertising hoarding.
- Past Grandeur
The buildings, street set-up and city’s ambiance – whether travelling through Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Prado or Valado and Plaza – offer scenes of faded grandeur. Colonial Spanish buildings, American monuments, Soviet grandstanding tower blocks and washed-out Revolutionary murals.
- The People
Quite simply – the people of Havana walk, dress, engage and embrace life with a swagger, smile and sense of self not matched anywhere else in the world.
Get ready to party, you’ll need every ounce of energy you have to keep up. The most endearing aspect is that it matters not what age, colour, race, creed, persuasion or country you are from. Everyone is welcome and everyone is expected to enjoy themselves.
Impossible to miss, and hard to ignore. Under-investment, coupled with a lack of materialism becomes more and more obvious the further you explore and the wider afield you look. There is no doubt living in Havana is hard, with a degree of dilapidation not matched in many other such historically wealthy cities.
- Majesty of Old Havana
Declared in 1982 by UNESCO a ‘cultural heritage of humanity’ location, La Habana Vieja is crammed with Hispanic-Andalusian architecture. Even as the old city’s restoration programme chugs along at its own gentle pace, there is no doubt the grandeur of the old town is one of Havana’s most charming aspects, with a different appeal at night and during the day.
Forget any ‘no-smoking’ policy from home – the waft of a good Cuban cigar is never far away. Indeed the essence of street life is linked to the hand-picked, -rolled and globally-craved masterpieces. Even the most fervent of anti-smokers will adjust to, and perhaps soon enjoy, the distant smell of one of Cuban Indians’ most famous legacies.