I had my fortune read to me by a voodoo card-wielding priestess. She sang and waved a fan at me several times as she spoke of love, two terrible exes and my future children… or at least, that’s what I think she said – it was all in Spanish. She’d caught my eye as I entered Ernest Hemingway’s favourite mojito bar La Bodeguita del Medio, and I later watched her work her magic under a white lace umbrella. She was friendly, wise and approved by the Cuban government. This is possibly the best metaphor for the rundown paradise that is Havana: colourful, otherworldly, welcoming, gritty and officially state-sanctioned.
Cuba conjures up images of rum-fringed sunny beaches, palm trees and billowing communist flags, and the reality may not be too far off. Everything you eat and drink has been influenced by the communist state, and the only rum you’re likely to find is the state-owned Havana Club and the occasional sipping rum Legendario. The selection may be limited, but there are cocktails aplenty, from mojitos and rum daiquiris to more specialised offerings.
For excellent vistas of the harbour and the city, head to Hotel Nacional de Cuba, central Havana’s famous 1830s Art Deco hotel. It’s also known for its impressive outdoor cocktail lounge, Bay View Bar, with a view over the Malecón esplanade, a hot spot that runs along the ocean’s edge. Now a national monument, the establishment boasts its fair share of palm trees, delicious Cuban sandwiches (like those in the movie Chef) and a nuclear fallout shelter, just in case.
Yes, there are vintage cars everywhere and no, they never get old. For a hefty fee, you can catch a ride in your choice of Cadillac, Buick or old Russian classics from the 1940s to the 1960s, because most of them operate as taxis. You’ll find the slickest, most pimped-out cars in front of the touristy Che Guevara and Fidel Castro facade sculptures at the Ministry of Interior building in Plaza de la Revolución, or outside the Gran Teatro de La Habana in Paseo del Prado.
But the big petrol guzzlers of the 1950sʼ American dream (known locally as cacharros or ‘pieces of junk’) are not the only way to get around the city. The Coco taxi is a small, yellow, hollowed-out shell powered by a buzz bike and a Lothario-type character, and is a key part of tourist transportation. Locals opt for decorated bicycle taxis or a taxi collettivo – a banged-up vintage car that takes several passengers to their desired destinations.
Thanks to embargoes put in place by the USA in 1958 and 1960, the people of Cuba had to make do with what they had, so pawn shops and vintage stores are jam-packed with immaculate trinkets, nostalgic mementoes and hungry coleccionistas.
There’s also a thriving vintage-book culture, with stores on almost every corner. If you’re lucky, you can pick up an anniversary edition of Castro’s manifesto as an original souvenir. A handy hidden gem is Seriosha’s Record Shop at the back of a makeshift shopping arcade in Neptuno, with masses of crates of vinyl (diskis to the locals) in excellent condition. It’s every music geek and salsa lover’s dream, selling stacks of records by well-loved Spanish crooners and American 1950s classics.
All the white, sandy, picture-perfect beaches, such as Playa Bacuranao, can be found a mere 20 minutes by car from the city. You can get there by bus from the Gran Teatro de La Habana plaza or by taxi. If you take the latter, drive via the lighthouse to see the most famous view of Havana from Morro Castle at the entrance of the bay.
If you’re a bit more adventurous, turn to the left of the city and take a trip to the less touristy beaches. A little more rock than fine sand, what they lack in pristine coastline they make up for in packets of fried dough, ice-cream lollies, treehouse lifeguard huts and rum and juice carts.