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Havana great time: Four ladies crazy about Cuba's capital

It has a reputation for fun and a vibrant dance and music scene, even as it retains its status as the capital of one of the world's last remaining socialist states. The past is still very much present in its streets – icons from the revolution sit beside beautiful old buildings awash with colour and the faded glamour of 1950s cars and inimitable cigars mixes with warm sunshine and the Caribbean sea breeze. The Cuban city has long been enticing to adventurous travellers, but it is changing fast and attracting more tourists by the year. Here four ladies who have fallen in love with the city tell us what it is about Havana that makes it so appealing to them.

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MJ Lopes – The world wanderer

Intrepid traveller with a love for getting under the skin of the world's most colourful cities.

Can you tell us about when you first visited the city?

I originally travelled to Havana in March 2011, as the very first stop on a trip around the world that would take nearly two-and-a-half years. I couldn't have asked for a better start! I had been meaning to visit Cuba since moving to Canada in 2000, and after I had cancelled the trip the year before, I finally paid the island a 3-week-long visit. My first five days were spent in Havana, followed by a few weeks visiting other parts of Cuba, then I returned for another four nights before moving on to Iran.

Was it love at first sight?

Catedral de San Cristobal de la Havana in Havana Vieja

Old Havana, Catedral de San Cristobal - Cuba

Absolutely! I knew – and I'd been told by friends and family that had been there – that I would fall in love with Cuba, and especially with Old Havana. Having read so much about the island, its people and history for so many years, I already admired Cuba, and although it was my first visit, I immediately felt a sense of familiarity as though I had been there before.

Why do you think Havana is special?

The atmosphere in Old Havana is just incredible. It's my favourite part of the city and it was a very humbling experience to see the local expressions of unconditional joy and happiness through hardship.

Havana breathes jazz, old school salsa and rumba, amongst many other rhythms and musical genres old and new - it's live music heaven.

Live music on the streets of Havana - Cuba

For jazz and live music enthusiasts like myself, it is just altogether incredible. There are live music venues all around the city, as well as street music acts in major squares and impromptu jams in the backstreets of residential areas. Havana breathes jazz, old school salsa and rumba, amongst many other rhythms and musical genres old and new – it's live music heaven!

History is stamped all around the city from the Capitolio building to the Malecon. Havana's museums are phenomenal and with all the old cars still up and running everywhere, you can feel like you are strolling around a city that has stopped in time, although it seems to be going through a very rapid change. People are warm and friendly, always prompt to engage in conversation and help visitors. Special doesn't quite describe Havana – I lack words to properly express my love for that city!

What's your favourite aspect of the city?

The people, the architecture, the music, the history, the struggle – there's so much, it's impossible to pinpoint just one thing.

What does it feel like to be there?

It feels incredible. Once again, it is extremely humbling. It made me feel like many of the things I took for granted in life, and thought of as necessary commodities for happiness, were overrated. Surely, some conveniences related to technology and access to information – internet access for instance – can make life easier, but they don't guarantee happiness and the joy that can be found in the little things in life.

There's a really strong sense of community in Cuba. People might not have much, but whatever they have is shared. Although the system governing the country for decades might have taken away some western-style privileges from its citizens, such as buying a house and a car, it has motivated Cubans to preserve an enormous capability for sharing with and caring for others, whether that's sharing rides on long journeys or simply sharing acquired goods with anyone who didn't get the same opportunity. I felt like I wasn't seen as a foreigner, I was just seen as another person. I wasn't treated like a "walking cash machine" to be targeted, like some travellers in regions that have experienced economic sanctions and hardship. I felt that I belonged and that I was welcome at all times.

What's your advice for first-time visitors who want to get to know Havana better?

Learn as much Spanish as you can. Although English speakers can be found easily, it will never replace the interaction with locals in their own language.

Casas Particulares are the best places to stay in Havana Cuba. They are private homes where you can rent a room.

Casa Particular, local homestay, Havana - Cuba

Stay at a "Casa Particular". These local homestays are not only an affordable way to travel, but they support the local economy directly through the resident's bottom line. They also create an opportunity for cultural exchange, not only for the travellers, but for the families hosting the guests, who might not have had much of an opportunity to travel abroad and be exposed to the outside world themselves. It's a first-hand insight into what life in Havana is all about.

Get real local currency - as in Moneda Nacional or Cuban Pesos (CUP). Some places will only accept Convertible Pesos (CUC).

Cuban pesos, use of dual currency - Cuba

Get real local currency – as in Moneda Nacional or Cuban Pesos (CUP). Some places will only accept Convertible Pesos (CUC) from tourists, but most of the small restaurants, buses and street markets will accept local currency from tourists as they would from Cubans. Not only will it make the trip much cheaper, but you can eat in places locals do, shop where they shop and experience a bit of what their life is really like outside of the tourism bubble. Line up with the locals at shops and banks. Start by asking "Who's the last one in line?" like Cubans do for nearly everything in Havana, and enjoy the interaction. Peso pizzas are amazing, as is the coffee and ice cream that can be purchased from the windows and front doors of residents' homes all around Old Havana.

Do you have any secret spots that you are willing to share with other travellers?

Many travellers will likely have read about it and eventually make their way there, so it isn't really much of a secret, but as touristy as it might be, La Bodeguita del Medio, home of the original mojito and one of the author Hemingway's favourite local bars, does indeed have amazing live music every night, as well as incredible but expensive mojitos.

Casa de la Musica in Havana can be a very authentic Cuban experience

Casa de la Musica, Havana - Cuba

On a good night, the Casa de La Musica can also be a very authentic Cuban experience. Much to my good fortune, the traditional Cuban band "Los Van Vans" were playing there during my visit – something my host family told me I absolutely could not miss. It has its share of locals looking to meet foreigners and vice versa, which takes away from the experience a little, but it is a great live music venue nevertheless.

A real treat for lovers of authentic Cuban jazz is the Jazz Cafe in Vedado, not too far from Old Havana. It's a place for music enthusiasts, locals or travellers, and jazz and Cuban music fans from all over the world make their way there. Vedado, in fact, is a nice neighbourhood for nightlife, with venues slightly less frequented by travellers than in Old Havana. Secrets aside, no matter where you go, as long as there is music and Cubans involved, fun is guaranteed. The key is to relax, embrace their "Joie de vivre", and have fun!

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Claire Boobbyer – The Cuba convert

Cultural explorer who calls Havana her second home.

Can you tell us about when you first visited the city?

I first landed in Havana on December 1998. My mum had made a Christmas cake for me. Cuban customs insisted the cake – wrapped in silver foil – go through the x-ray machine. They wanted to know exactly what was in it, what was its purpose and fired a dozen questions at me. They could not believe how heavy it was – stuffed with so much dried fruit. I think I even ended up telling them about how the Brits pour liquor over Christmas puddings and set it alight.

Calle Linea is one of the most important streets in Havana and was the first one in Vedado.

Calle Linea, Vedado, Havana - Cuba

My friend and I stayed in a Cuban BandB on Linea street. I remember the owners had a bright red telephone and an ancient phone directory. They sent us to the Focsa building supermarket in Vedado to buy our Christmas lunch. The shelves were practically empty. There were some packets of pasta and dozens of tinned tomato and nothing else. That was our Christmas Day lunch – plus the cake of course! I remember we shared the Christmas cake down at the crafts market next to the cathedral with a ceramicist and his wife. They had never tasted anything quite so good. They had made cute, tiny nativity scene ensembles with farmyard animals much smaller than a fingernail. I also bought from them the only ceramic effigy I've ever seen of Fidel Castro.

Was it love at first sight?

It was more intense curiosity at first sight. I couldn't understand why there were no street lights, no Christmas trees or fairy lights and why there were more images of Che Guevara than Jesus Christ. And, I couldn't fathom why nearly every woman was wearing those vertically striped cat suit outfits. It was totally mystifying.

Why do you think Havana is special?

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible, Havana, Cuba

Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible, Havana - Cuba

Havana has a seductive allure – the baroque, classical, art deco architecture shining in the Caribbean sun, the hypnotising rhythm of the clave, the thrill of twirling around the dance floor to a live salsa band, the gleam of chrome on a handsome Chevy, the pungent smell of diesel, the warm, vivacious locals, the cool, contemporary art, the splendid seafront facade and road, the thought of pirates and shipwrecks, the new restaurants and funky bars, and the muddle of 24-hour life in her broken streets…

What's your favourite aspect of the city?

I love all of Havana. I could simply walk the city streets for years. I also love riding the "almendrones" (Cuban classic car taxis on set routes) especially when there's an incident and everyone chips in with their opinions. There's often salsa, reggaeton or boleros on the radio and the salty air whips through the windows. I also love the melodic tones of the Habanero accent and the Cuban sense of humour.

What does it feel like to be there?

Havana is my second home. It's uplifting, exciting, interesting. I just love the possibilities – on several occasions a passing gentleman, waiter or jinetero has asked me to dance salsa on the spot and then been thrilled that I can actually dance! Where else in the world would this happen?

What's your advice for first-time visitors who want to get to know Havana better?

I'd say explore Old Havana first and stay in Old Havana. Then, I would suggest moving to hotels or BandBs in Vedado. Vedado is the hip, hot and happening barrio of Havana. Havana's nooks and crannies are best explored on foot. Most guidebooks are super out of date now that new restaurants and bars are opening every week post-Raul Castro's late 2010 reforms. The best way to get up-to-date listings is by downloading the monthly "What's On" pdf from: Cuba Absolutely. Print it out before you come as internet access is difficult and costly in Havana.

Do you have any secret spots that you are willing to share with other travellers?

Fabrica De Arte Cubano is housed in a converted peanut oil factory, complete with theatre, bars, music salons, DJs, art gallery, patios and terraces.

Fabrica De Arte Cubano, Havana - Cuba

This isn't a complete secret, but it's not yet widely known to visitors. Anyone wanting to get a glimpse of what's really going on in Havana in late 2014 should get down to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano late on a Friday and Saturday night. This multimedia, multipurpose funky venue is housed in a converted peanut oil factory, complete with theatre, bars, music salons, DJs, art gallery, patios and terraces. Collect your ration card at the entrance (your drinks are marked on the card) and pay before exiting at the end of the night. Grab your mojito or Cristal beer and sit on the giant coloured metallic dog bone benches created by artist Jeff. Viva La Habana!

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Susana Corona – The insider

Former Habanera and all-round Cuba travel expert.

Can you tell us about your early memories of the city?

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana - Cuba

My first memories of Havana are of long crowds of baseball fans rushing to the stadium right next door to my house, neighbours gathering in front of my local bodega to play dominos and discuss sports, and an old man who used to sit al fresco next door to my house and who would always engage in lively conversation and gift me some grapes when me and my mum passed by. As I grew older I remember visiting the Plaza de la Revolucion near my home on countless occasions. There were many political gatherings and other events arranged there throughout my childhood and I would often join in with my school. Of course my experiences also included glorious summers at paradisiacal beaches whose beauty I took for granted until I compared it with European ones.

I left my city for Europe when I was 11. My family moved for work reasons – first to Barcelona, then London – but I always went back to spend my summer holidays in Havana. It's a city I never really left in a way and I continued to grow alongside it despite the long absences. Even if I have no more family or friends left to see there, I know I'll always go back.

Have you always loved Havana?

Like most people, I both love and loathe the place where I was born and grew up. There were many things I didn't like about my city or country as a whole, and many others I absolutely adored and felt I could never do without. As time passed and I moved away from Havana, I grew to love it more. It's partly due to the nostalgia and sweet memories of my upbringing there and missing my family and friends, but I even miss the perfect strangers that add so much life to the city.

It's not perfect, in fact it's packed with imperfections. It has more flaws than most cities on earth and it's the capital of a 'third world' developing country. Yet, despite all its pitfalls and contradictions, it helped shape me into the person I am today and I'm forever grateful for that, for being able to look at the world with a certain sense of humility and love, candidly, with no cynicism at all. So, whether it was love at first sight or not, Havana has certainly become one of my greatest loves and passions.

Havana has changed little but it has changed. I've witnessed these very slow changes – largely unnoticeable to most – throughout the years, after going back again and again. Now it's really changing at a faster pace than ever before, although it would still be perceived as tremendously slow by most standards. But this is simply the way things are done in Cuba and have been for over half a century now. Yet to me, changes, good or bad, never detract from my unconditional, undying love for Havana. Maybe I didn't really love it at first, but I'm sure I'll love it last.

Why do you think Havana is special?

It would be quicker to just say there's nothing that's not special about it, or very little indeed. But I'll try to outline the main things that in my eyes make Havana stand out from the rest. For one thing you'll be hard-pushed to find such peculiar people as Habaneros or a place with as many contrasts. Havana is puzzling in more ways than one. You have its lively people, its intoxicating music and sensual, almost hypnotic dances, its majestically restored colonial mansions and palaces and some seriously dilapidated buildings that were once grand, as well as amazingly well-preserved cars that are still running after more than 50 years.

You also have a unique idiosyncrasy that will test your pre-conceived ideas of society as a whole. This is the birthplace of all famous and loved Latin rhythms, from salsa and son to cha cha cha and mambo, but it boasts an amazing jazz culture too. All in all, you have the sea, the captivating culture, the history and the political contradictions, and the uniqueness of a land stuck in time for over half a century.

What's your favourite aspect of the city?

Art Deco Bacardi building, Havana, Cuba

Art Deco Bacardi building, Havana - Cuba

There's such a long list of things I love about my city. Its resilience, the ability of its people to laugh in the face of adversity and the varied cityscapes you can admire in one single place. You've got all sorts – magnificent colonial gems, including some of the most stunning and best preserved in the Americas, outstanding eclectic architecture from baroque to neoclassical, awe-inspiring Art Deco buildings and more sober block-like constructions built during the communist years. This is an architecture lover's fantasy but also a cultural observer's delight – from the rare religious fusion between Christianity and African Yoruba faith to food ration cards and communist austerity contrasted with sleek modern hotels, new private restaurants and deluxe beach resorts.

You might be pleasantly surprised by the lack of public advertisements in Cuba where instead of showcasing some commercial product or service, all billboards display an encouraging phrase from iconic revolutionary figure Che Guevara, or from former president Fidel Castro. I particularly enjoy the complete lack of globalisation and the authenticity of every private business or guest house there. In short, if I really had to put it down to one single aspect, my favourite thing about Havana would be its rather eccentric mix of elements, many of which I've already mentioned, that make it a city like no other in the Caribbean, or in the world for that matter.

What does it feel like to be there?

Havana is just home to me, it's an overpowering sense of belonging that strikes me every time I set foot in it. Despite the many years I've spent living in a completely different part of the world, home is where the heart is, as they say, and my heart never left Havana.

What's your advice for first-time visitors who want to get to know Havana better?

See it with an open heart and an open mind. Forget about any prejudices you may have whether it may be about its political regime, its somewhat neglected facilities, its haphazard attitude to problems, its unpredictable service and any other preconceptions or misconceptions you may have. Leave them all behind and don't let them cloud your experience.

Also, don't let first impressions ruin your trip. Yes the airport isn't the most modern or pleasant in the world, yes they are slow at virtually everything they do, and the food isn't all that great either – the scarcity of some food items plays a big role – but this is just the way things are done in Cuba. Remember you're in a different time zone and a completely different culture to what you are used to, so go with the flow and you will have the most wonderful time. Oh, and don't forget to engage with the locals as much as possible, you won't regret it. In fact it could be and should be a major part of your trip.

Do you have any secret spots that you are willing to share with other travellers?

Secret spots? Hmmm, you're really making me think there. I don't think any spot I particularly like in Havana is a secret. But I'll let you in on something most tourists don't know, or at least I think they're not too aware of.

The long avenue in the heart of Vedado, officially known as Avenida de Los Presidentes but mostly referred to by the locals as Calle G, becomes a rather peculiar and lively hotspot at night as it fills up with youngsters of all ages that come here to chat, play music and do impromptu performances. It's quite the Bohemian spot of Havana's youth and you'll find groups favouring all types of music genres, from dye-hard heavy metal fans and rockers to Beatlemaniacs, salsa-lovers and troubadours. You'll be treated to a glimpse of daily Cuban city life you otherwise wouldn't see.

It's a refreshing place to stroll around, especially with the evening breeze, and one of the most raw and authentic sights you might get to witness in the city. In fact I sometimes feel a little jealous of my sister, who now lives back in Havana, and who often hears about the latest festivals, underground performances, social gatherings, last-minute events, concerts and festivities that I am now missing.

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Jana Crowne – The creative eye

Second-time traveller to Cuba with a keen eye for the camera.

Can you tell us about your first visit to Havana and any subsequent visits?

My first visit to Cuba was in February 2010 when I took my parents along as a present for their wedding anniversary. We only spent two days in Havana, but even in such a short visit I experienced enough to know I wanted to go back. And to my delight, a few months ago I had the opportunity to visit Havana again on a familiarisation trip organised by the Holiday Place.

This is no ordinary city – I was immediately struck by its warm energy and exuberant atmosphere. While it is obviously developing fast, with new places opening up and signs of change all around, there is also a sense of stepping back in time. There are beautiful historic buildings everywhere and remnants of the 1950s still haunt the city in the form of chrome classic cars and other Americana.

Was it love at first sight?

Yes of course, what's not to love! You get pulled right in, with each step you take or corner you turn, it becomes ever more intriguing. Anyone with a love for photography, art and architecture can't help but be captivated by such a colourful and photogenic city. Visiting Old Havana, its streets and squares lined with Spanish colonial mansions, museums and art deco buildings, I was like a kid in a candy shop, with inspiration for a great camera shot at every turn. This isn't the type of lifeless open-air museum old town that you find in a lot of cities, people actually live here and breathe life into its streets.

Why do you think Havana is special?

It has a unique charm and history, and its past is fully on display. Images of revolutionary leader Che Guevara stare down from billboards and the facade of every building seems to tell a story – whether it be a baroque remnant of Spanish colonial rule, an art deco reminder of Cuba's era as the playground of rich Americans, or a crumbling communist tenement block. That said, I think it is really the wonderful Habaneros that make Havana special. They seem to embrace the creative side of life and welcome visitors into their world with open arms.

What's your favourite aspect of the city?

Its expressive people, its delightful jumbled melee of locals hanging out playing music, dancing, chatting and selling local produce and curios. Add to that a backdrop of brightly-coloured buildings – some restored, some crumbling at the seams – and you have a photographer's dream. I barely put my camera away the whole time I was there!

What does it feel like to be there?

Havana is warm and vibrant in every way – the climate, the cityscape, the people and the culture. It boosts your energy and enlivens your senses, sweeping you up into its fun and relaxed ways. Despite its difficult history, there's an air of positivity to the city, which seems to be infectious.

What's your advice for first-time visitors who want to get to Havana better?

I feel I barely scratched the surface of Havana in my short time there but I did cram in a few tours and shows. I'd recommend taking the Havana Hemingway tour, which takes you around the famous author's favourite hangouts in the city. Havana was Hemingway's second home and the tour includes a stop at El Floridita, one of his favourite watering holes where he was particularly fond of the house daiquiris. It also takes you to visit his former house, La Finca Vigia, now a museum dedicated to Hemingway, in the small town of San Francisco de Paula.

My best advice to other visitors would be to explore outside of Old Havana and away from the main tourist areas to get a sense of what life in the city is really like. Try eating at one of the many atmospheric paladares, which are private restaurants often run inside people's homes. I visited a few while I was in Havana but the most famous for its past international celebrity diners is La Guarida.

Do you have any secret spots that you are willing to share with other travellers?

I don't think it's a secret among locals as there was a bit of a queue outside, but I visited a great paladar called Dona Eutimia by the Cathedral Square that could qualify as a hidden gem. It's run by a charming elderly lady who serves up lovingly-cooked traditional Cuban food that's a world apart from the state-run restaurants. My tasty shredded beef and tomato dish was more than worth joining a queue for and I got a chance to chat with some of my fellow diners while we were waiting to be seated – one even claimed that Dona Eutemia serves the best Cuban food in town. As an unexpected bonus, on the weekend I visited, music carrying on the breeze from a quartet playing in the square added to the whole experience.

Last chance to see?

I've been curious about Havana and Cuba for a long time. At my left-wing university, we had a lively Cuba Solidarity Society and it wasn't uncommon to see images of Che Guevara decorating the walls or to hear the famous Cuban band Buena Vista Social Club leaking from the halls. I'm also a fan of journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, who was famously peripatetic and yet made Havana her home for more than four years. She lived with Ernest Hemingway in 'the Finca', now a museum dedicated to him, which Jana visited on the Hemingway Havana Tour.

But I've never had the chance to experience Havana for myself, so I've enjoyed travelling vicariously and hearing the engaging recounts of these four intrepid ladies. It's unusual to be moved by a city, but Havana seems to have that affect on people. A combination of unique factors makes it like no other place on earth and countless people have told me to go now before capitalism creeps back in and it changes forever.

That said, I take heart from Susana that change happens slowly in Havana and I'm confident that the wonderful Habaneros will keep the spirit of the city intact. I'm not going to leave it much longer though – this time-worn, culture-rich, advert-free, quirky and friendly tropical city by the sea has now jumped right to the top of my world-cities-to-see wish-list and I hope to make it there sometime in 2015.

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Sasha Wood

Sasha Wood

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An assorted adventurer, nature lover, wildlife enthusiast, culture vulture, and beach buff - my...

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