There’s much to be said about Havana, from its volatile political history and being a haven for the US Mafia, the juxtaposition of food supply shortages whilst being known as the leading destination and supplier of quality rum and fine cigars. But don’t get me wrong. The city—frozen in time due to an eschewed operation to keep the outsiders outside in hope that everything else will naturally fall into place—still has its wits about it. For all of the hubbub and Wiki deep-diving, depictions in film and television and propaganda-tinged news reports, I found Havana to be quite possibly one of the most charming places on earth.
I stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which sort of typified Havana for me. The hotel, though falling immeasurably behind some of the new resorts in the city, is steeped in so much history, and retains so much of its original magic, that you sort of don’t mind the barely-functioning air conditioning and random black outs during the morning breakfast service. The design—from colour to column—screams 1950s chic, and I half-expected a Mafia boss to swan down the stairs looking ominous-yet-rakish. Alas, that never happened, so I pretended I was one instead.
I was most excited to visit Old Havana, given that 90% of what I pictured when the word Havana popped up were shots from this part of town. The colours, though still moderately vibrant (especially compared to London), were clearly past their prime after years and years of little-to-no upkeep. The same goes for the cars. You could tell which ones were owned by locals and which by the tourist trades. The latter were significantly polished and maintained, as if they came off the production line last week. The local cars, on the other hand, were more akin to tractors than sports cars, and pretty much every single one had at least one window missing. Don't ask, I've no idea.
Sticking on foot for the time being, walking around Old Havana really reminded me of Mumbai. The locals setting up shop by the roadside, the busyness of the markets, the older gents working on keeping hand-me-down electronics going. There's someone to fix absolutely anything you can think of here. Being able to people watch in Havana is something else. We decided to soak in the morning sun after ordering coffee at a local, and relatively quiet, establishment. It was here where we ended up having quite possibly the worst espresso known to man.
It was quite hard to describe, but let’s say you were washing dishes in the backroom kitchen at a rundown restaurant from morning service right up to close. If the water from those rags were squeezed into an espresso cup and topped up with a bit of leftover stale coffee... that’s what it tasted like. Don't get me wrong, we've had our fair share of bad coffee in our time, but after one sip we promptly paid the bill and went to rectify the sour taste in our mouths. Partagàs it was that eventually came to the rescue. It was a good omen that the first cigar shop we wanted to visit also served some of the nicest coffee on the island. Granted, the bar wasn't exactly set high, it did give us the satisfactory fix we were after. The house blend custom Behike 52 cigar offered to us to accompany the nectar was a touch, and we were finally ready to take on all that Cuba had to offer.
As the days went by, I found myself lucky that we knew the locals. It’s definitely a place where, if you don’t know anyone, you might find it relatively hard knowing all the best places to go. There was one place, however, that I stumbled across by absolute chance when I had an evening to myself. I was walking down the Malecón just as the sun was beginning to set and found myself admiring an unusual rooftop facade. It was made of glass, housed in an otherwise typical stone building. There were hanging lights and elegant looking tables made from a light pine-coloured wood (it may have actually been pine...) It clearly looked like a bar or private venue of sorts but I wasn’t exactly sure how one managed to get up there. That was, until my eyes wandered down to street level and I noticed a well-dressed man around my age, who waved and ushered me through the larger-than-usual double doors, up the stairs and into a haven-like watering hole known to locals as El Bleco. The bar was adorned by beautiful decor, beautiful people, ice cold drinks and delectable food. Safe to say, it ended up becoming a regular visit during my time there, and certainly the first place I’ll be returning to when I’m back.
Speaking of counting my lucky stars, I was part of a small selection of individuals that got a chance to see the holy grail of cigar making, El Laguito, in real life. Home of Cohiba, the factory is in fact a mansion—built by British citizen, Alberto Casimiro Fowler Jimenez—which was converted to make all Cohiba vitolas to date. It was something from a by-gone era in Miramar, where to live here is to truly live. To see how these iconic cigars are made, and the smell that permeated from every direction… for a cigar aficionado, we were well and truly in Heaven.
It was, incredibly surprising then, that the cigar I had smoked here following the tour, was probably the one I least enjoyed. Whether it was because mine wasn’t particularly easy to draw, or that the cigars I had elsewhere were just so spectacular, it’s quite hard to say. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad cigar by any stretch, but this does lead me to mention the best cigar I had on this trip, bar none. The house robusto rolled that morning by Reinaldo at Meliá cigar lounge. Genuinely the best cigar I have ever smoked in my life. I was honestly sad to have finished it. The flavour, the draw, the construction, the pleasant mouthfeel, the smoke—paired with their espresso to begin with—magic.
We couldn’t stay long, but luckily for me, being in Havana meant you could pretty much carry on smoking anywhere. We set off in the 4x4—our trusty steed—windows rolled down, smoking the rest of the cigar whilst trying to navigate the potholes once we were out of the much better-maintained Miramar.
There are many beautiful places to enjoy the culinary side of things, but once again, all from recommendations of the locals and not always situated around the corner—this is one of the ways London has spoiled me. That and the clothing. I really struggle to dress for hot climates, and found myself pretty much exclusively wearing plain t-shirts and linen trousers all throughout the week-long stay. It paid off however. With electricity blackouts being a sure thing, one of our afternoon dining experiences at Amalfi (guess the cuisine) resulted in us sitting in 30-degree heat without any fans to keep us cool. That job instead, fell to the ice cold bottles of Birra Moretti.
Amalfi is one of a fair few incredible Italian spots dotted around the city. Unassuming and small in terms of its looks, but mighty in flavourful dishes. Corte El Principe is another such example. And yet, the one meal—while not at all extravagant, or even particularly exciting—was the chicken and rice at El Aljibe. It was one of those situations when a meal satisfies every single thing you were craving at that point in time: the chicken was cooked perfectly, the rice and beans were plentiful, the plantain chips added the crunch and texture, and the pickles provided the sharpness. Washed down with a cold cerveza (although, it was Canadian, so, beer) and honestly I didn’t think I uttered a word in that entire duration. I did partly regret it mind, as not a lot was accomplished following that lunch. Alas, there’s always next time.
And when you visit Havana, make sure you factor in the ‘next time’, as it’s impossible to see everything the place has to offer in one week, let alone the rest of the actual country. The people are some of the nicest, most energetic I’ve met, especially considering most weren’t dealt the easiest of hands. There’s a tenacity to them, and that energy can be felt in the air, perfectly balancing the sweet smell of the tobacco that wafts from every corner. It, simply put, is a photographer’s dream, and by far and away on top of my list of ‘places to brag about’ that I’ve visited.