The Real Havana: Venturing Off-Resort in Cuba’s Capital City

Forget those all-inclusive resort vacations—the real appeal of Havana lies in its bustling city streets.

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Exploring Havana - old forts
Photo: Emiliano Joanes

Beyond the resort: Exploring the real Havana

Canadians are typically lured to Cuba by commercials for those all-inclusive package deals, offering “sun and sand” vacations that come complete with airfare and accommodations in a beachfront hotel, as well as meals and drinks for a week. And, yes, there is nothing quite like an escape to the sun and beaches of Cuba during a cold Canadian winter.

I have a natural tan, so I don’t need a lazy holiday on the beach to relax, unwind, bathe in the ocean and dry out in the sun. And I love photography. So, I opted to visit Cuba’s capital, Havana, a three-hour flight from Montreal, and stay at a place within walking distance of the city centre. Many Cubans see the benefits of providing bed-and-breakfast options to tourists, especially Canadians. Such places are very clean and the owners vie for star ratings. They are in demand and reasonably priced. (Here are the signs you’re about to fall for a bad Airbnb listing.) I took a place close to Paseo del Prado, the main walkway and thoroughfare leading to the city’s popular attractions, bars and restaurants, as well as many of Cuba’s most historical places. Don’t miss this roundup of Cuba’s top attractions.

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Havana - vintage cars
Photo: Emiliano Joanes

Havana is heaven for vintage car enthusiasts

Once you are in Havana, it’s impossible to miss the sparkling and colourful vintage cars, most dating from the 1950s, as they zigzag their way through the streets. Many of these cars serve as taxis and are a delight to take a ride in around the city. The drivers typically allow you to sit behind the steering wheel to have a photo taken, or strike another pose with the vintage car—providing lasting images to take home to Canada!

The vintage cars are all American made. When Fidel Castro embraced communism, trade with the United States stopped. I asked one driver how hard it was to keep the vintage cars maintained. “No problemo, señor,” he said, and added in English, “We make our own parts. As for the engine, we use the Russian Lada car engine.” Cubans take great pride in their vintage cars. It is said that some Americans have offered to pay more than a million dollars for vintage cars, but it is practically impossible to smuggle a car across the Straits of Florida. “Don’t even attempt it,” said one vintage car owner. “To be caught means life imprisonment, never to be heard of again.” Here are 15 vintage cars you’ll wish you could drive today.

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Dancing in Havana
Photo: Emiliano Joanes

One week in Havana is never enough

Cubans are a happy lot: Music seems to run in their blood and they love to dance. Two or three street musicians will join up, form a group and belt out dance music to the delight of pedestrians who stop and dance with one another. While I was out strolling, I heard Cuba’s famous song
“Guantanamera” emanating from a vegetable store. The local shoppers stopped what they were doing and began dancing with one another as the tune filtered out over the radio speakers. I took some pictures and when they saw my camera pointed at them, the shoppers motioned to me to come and dance with them.

The streets of Havana are crying out to be photographed. In terms of subject matter, you can just about point and shoot, and be assured of getting good photos. I did not encounter any opposition at all when taking pictures. Often, I was asked where I came from. “Canada! Good country. I go there,” said one young woman from the University of Havana.

As you might have guessed, one week in Havana was just not enough. I need to go back again, as this city in particular and Cuba in general is rich in photographic possibilities and related stories waiting to be told. Walking on the tarmac to board my flight to Montreal, I waved to the friendly aircraft engineer who insisted on carrying my camera backpack. “Adios, mi amigo. Hasta otro dia,” I waved to him as I boarded the aircraft.

Here are more enchanting islands worth adding to your bucket list.

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