We decided to leave the Malecón and take a stroll through Centro Habana, the poorest part of central Havana. It is very run down, and people are sat outside their houses, chatting, children playing and drawing on bits of paper. We saw a few butcher’s stalls, simple openings in the wall, displaying meat with little regard to the heat and flies, save a small plastic bottle full of sand which hangs above the meat and which they push every so often to discourage the flies. I’d read that if you want to buy meat, to buy it as early in the day as possible- personally I’m not sure I’d like to buy it at all!
As we left Centro Habana, we entered Vedado, a beautiful, somewhat contrasting part of the city.
We were feeling hungry so spotted a cafe with a narrow balcony overlooking the street. It was called El Loco Loco Restaurant on Calle Neptuno.
We ordered two dishes- Ropa Vieja (Spanish for Old Rope but actually a typical dish traditionally made from shredded beef but more often from delicious Cuban pork) and a fish platter. We also ordered fresh Tamarind fruit juice and Cuban beer. The food was delicious and the total bill came to $6CUC.
As many of you know, my favourite time of day is around sunset so because Havana is on the north side of the island we needed to get up high to see it. I’d read there was a restaurant on the 25th floor of the famous Hotel Libre in Vedado.
EL HOTEL LIBRE
Info: The hotel opened in 1959 as a Hilton but 9 months later was commandeered by Fidel Castro who renamed it the Habana Libre and governed Cuba from a suite on the 24th floor. There is a 670 square metre Italian tile mural by Cuban Amelia Peláez on the outside of the hotel.
Other famous guests include Camilo Cienfuegos, a Major of the Cuban Rebel Army and one of the most outstanding revolutionaries; the Argentine doctor Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, one of the principal ideologists and commanders who led the Revolution; Valentina Tereskova, the first female cosmonaut*; and Elizabeth Taylor, by then ex-wife of Nicky Hilton, the son of the founder of Hilton Hotels.
*Russians say cosmonaut, English say astronaut- there are a few differences and both words come from Greek.
We looked around the huge reception area of the hotel, the mezzanine level had sofas and photos on the walls showing all the famous guests. We found the lift and got chatting to the lift attendant (a delightful girl). She told us the restaurant didn’t open till later – what a wasted business opportunity- but she did tell us that there was a great view from the 20th floor and she suggested we get a cocktail from the lobby bar and take it up.
We checked out the view and it was superb- a huge double aspect room which had obviously been some sort of function room.
We had 45 minutes before the sun was due to set so we continued our exploration of Vedado and went to check out the other well known hotel called Hotel Nacional. We’d pulled up for a photo opportunity on our Chevy tour and it had a magnificent location overlooking the Malecón. I’d definitely stay here when we go back to Havana.
This time there were several diplomatic cars (Mercedes and Audi mainly!) with flags though I’m ashamed to say we didn’t recognise any flags except the South African one. We walked through reception as recommended by my Compass Guidebook – this is one time it’s useful to look like a foreign tourist- to come out into the garden area overlooking the Caribbean sea. We took the Cuban Missile Crisis pathway and it led us high above the Malecón highway to a locked bunker and anti-aircraft emplacements.
We then went back to Hotel Libre, located the bar, ordered two Cuba Libres (what else?!) from the bar and nonchalantly carried them out when the barman’s back was turned.
Info: Every cocktail we had (and there was at least one a day!) was served in a Havana Club glass. Havana Club is the state owned brand of rum. The company was nationalised after the Revolution in 1959 in line with many other private enterprises. Since 1994 it has been produced in Cuba and sold globally, except in the USA, in a joint venture between Pernod Ricard and the Cuban government. There are a whole range of different aged rums. We sampled a few over the course of our trip, rather liking the 7 year old Añejo.
We went back up to the 20th floor and drank and watched the sun go down. Beautiful! Then it was time for another Cuban experience.