A Brief Encounter with Havana: Salsa, Revolutionary History & Caribbean Heat

So, after my first visit many years ago, it was time to head back to the city of Havana, Cuba.  Going with an open mind was going to be difficult as my experience first time round, from both a business and personal point of view, had not been a good or easy one. Cuba is just such a hard sell being so very far away from South Africa, as well as it being difficult to operate on the ground. So it was with trepidation that I arrived into Cuba fresh off a trip to the US. My plan was to spend a couple of days getting to grips with the new; experiencing upgrades on the old, and generally getting a feeling for one of the world’s latest hotspots.

Colourful buildings, friendly and interesting people, delicious rum, and famous cigars. Cuba has grabbed the imaginations of adventurous travellers worldwide, and the city really does give one a feeling of time-traveling to an enchanted place. And while the future is unfolding fast, the past still penetrates the present everywhere you look: colonial buildings continue to creak and crumble, swinging 50s shop signs still hang over storefronts, latest model vehicles are few and far between and the pace of provincial life remains as unhurried as ever. All of this adds to Cuba’s charm and authenticity!

The streets of Havana

“Cuba has grabbed the imaginations of adventurous travellers worldwide, and the city really does give one a feeling of time-traveling to an enchanted place”

Havana's buildings and people

For visitors, there is so much that is new. As well as an ever-increasing list of places to eat, drink, party and sleep, there are now brand-new opportunities to interact with the locals on their terms (rather than the government’s).  You can engage with Cuban artists in their own front-room galleries, learn how to dance rumba or salsa in home-based studios, and take a city tour in a 1956 Chevrolet – guided by the owner. These small-scale, domestically run businesses allow closer impressions of the country than you might have thought possible in a short visit, and are at the heart of what makes Cuba so unforgettable.

No visit to Cuba is complete without  a visit to the world-famous Tropicana show. In the decadent jet-set heaven of 1950s Havana, the only place to be was Tropicana. A pleasure dome where the shows (and showgirls) were dazzling, the gambling was high-stakes, and the revelers included Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and J.F.K. – to name but a few.  Nowadays Tropicana is quite different, perhaps a little older and worn. But it’s still the place to catch a show, while enjoying a bottle of Havana Club rum! I have to be honest, I was literally waiting for Barry Manilow to appear on stage. And perhaps he was there with his Lola, amidst all the sequins, fishnets and feathers!

Havana city tour in a 1956 Chevrolet

“engage with Cuban artists in their own front-room galleries, learn how to dance rumba or salsa in home-based studios, and take a city tour in a 1956 Chevrolet – guided by the owner”

The famous Tropicana show in Havana, Cuba

A great evening out all round. But if you’re looking for something different and more local and interactive, The Havana Queens offer incredible shows. Here, the youth of Cuba are taking matters into their own hands under the watchful eye of Rosario, once a member of the Cuban ballet. The choreography is impeccable, daring and, at times, challenging. The dancers enjoy a combination of different dance routines which include Cuban rhythms, guajira music, pop, hip hop, disco and nueva trova. The troupe comes from different backgrounds: from contemporary and folklore dance school graduates to street performers ready to show off the acrobatics they learned in city parks – and it merges together so magnificently.  A highlight of my visit for sure!

Dining in the city has been stepped up a notch or two, and gone are the days of state-owned restaurants only.  Smaller, private venues are popping up all over the city, and bear in mind it isn’t easy for them as fresh produce isn’t easy to come by regularly. However, they “fly by the seat of their pants” quite magnificently I have to say. A stand out for me was definitely La Guarida, where our chef provided dishes including fresh goats cheese ravioli, roasted pork belly with plantain, along with a fine variety of wines from around the world. Other stand outs included El Patio, San Cristobal & El Templete – not bad for a two-day visit!Havana restaurants

“A stand out for me was definitely La Guarida, where our chef provided dishes including fresh goats cheese ravioli, roasted pork belly with plantain, along with a fine variety of wines from around the world”

Dining in Havana, CubaInternational hotel brands are on the way, with the recently opened Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski.  ‘Wow!’ is all that one can say. A magnificently renovated building now plays home to this Swiss brand, which officially holds the title of being the first European hotel to open in the country subsequent to the relaxation of trade embargoes. Rooms are large and spacious, colours are light and inviting, and the integrity of the original building has been lovingly restored. As for the location, its in the heart of old Havana, where spectacular views from the rooftop terrace invite all visitors in with open arms. A selection of restaurants, bars, and rooftop dining options await visitors, and modern amenities such as Wifi are all available as standard here.

There are also other hotels of different standards that would be perfectly suitable too. Some of them have been hosting guests for years. It’s just a case of what your budget allows!

Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski in Havana

“A magnificently renovated building now plays home to this Swiss brand, which officially holds the title of being the first European hotel to open in the country”

Rooftop views in Havana

The usual visits to cigar factories, rum distilleries and local beaches are still an essential part of any visit to Cuba. And driving through the streets in your vintage Chevrolet, you can see that there is much that needs to be worked on, upgraded and refreshed. But Cuba holds a charm as it is, and hopefully the country doesn’t transform itself too seriously in the next while, as much of the appeal and experience will be lost.

After two extremely short, busy and educational days it was, sadly, time to to leave.  It won’t be easy, it won’t always be smooth sailing, there may be tears and frustration, but I definitely look forward to returning with a group. This is a destination that offers so much more, and its people draw you back with their energy and enthusiasm. There is so much to experience and admire: Cuba is safe, its fun, its fascinating. What’s not to like!?

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Written by Katie Keane