Havana. It’s extremely difficult, for me, to write an accurate account of traveling to Havana. First, the city is exceptionally dynamic, particularly so for an isolationist culture. The old neighborhoods are formed by gorgeous Spanish Baroque buildings, but these buildings, save the ones close to the UNESCO sites and the Parque Central, are crumbling to the point of being condemned. Yet, they are not. Buildings with crumbling columns, questionable roofs, patio centrales filled with rubble, and overflowing dumpsters fermenting in the Caribbean heat house multiple families of multiple generations. To my American sensibilities, I was horrified by the public health implications and worried that one good hurricane would knock the place down. Yet, the Malecon (and the whole city) still stands.
The architecture is only half the story. The city is amazingly alive. I’m saying this as someone who has spent my childhood and teenage years running around New York and Philadelphia, two very populous, dynamic cities. In the UNESCO sites (Habana Vieja, basically), tourists are teeming in and out of buildings and around the plazas. In the residential neighborhoods, Habañeros and tourists alike socialize on the streets, eat al fresco in the lanes, and music teems from inside buildings, both from the radio and from bands playing Cuban classics (seriously, every restaurant seems to have a band playing). In Havana, you can experience the culture with no pretenses. It’s really a very fun, very alive city.
Despite the decrepitude, or because of it, Havana is really beautiful. Spanish baroque architecture can be seen throughout the Caribbean, but here it is more rugged, less touched by American capitalism and our “resort industrial complex,” or whatever you would call it. It’s a Caribbean city that feels very Caribbean, and in which you, too, can feel you are experiencing a more true Caribbean urban culture. We ate rationed, sad, expensive, food at a government cafeteria (please try to avoid), but also had fabulous food that had to have been bootlegged at a very hip rooftop paladar. We drank Havana Club mojitos like water, because they were cheaper than bottled water. Cuba, particularly Havana, is an expedition, not a vacation. Keeping this in mind, you should go.