On our recent trip to Cuba, we spent five days in Varadero and were greeted with anything but the serene water and sunny sojourn so many people had told us to expect. We’ve had great luck travelling, and now it was our turn to gut through the bad weather blues. During our short stay the sun didn’t come out to play; the water was too rough and cold to swim in; and every morning the tides washed in bright blue jellyfish onto the shore. Although beautiful, they were lifeless yet still possessed their sting, which is how I felt about our resort while the gloomy skies hung low overhead.
On our last day, the clouds finally parted and shed light on what we already knew: Our hotel was sleepy and besides the beach, there wasn’t much to do. Even though she didn’t know what was waiting for her at our next stop, our six-year old was anxious to check out.
“When are we going to Havana?” she asked.
“Tomorrow,” I said, while I patiently waited for the sun to set so I could start packing.
After a two-hour drive through sleepy fishing villages, valleys and coastal terrain, we reached the city. Our first stop was the traffic light on the city’s outskirts, where we got into a car accident. After checking a dented door and our shaken nerves, our driver swiftly negotiated his mistake with a handshake, a smile and an apology to the other driver. And that’s how we were jolted into the happy chaos of Havana.
What did we do on our family vacation in Havana?
We didn’t stay at a hotel. Instead, we checked into La Rosa de Ortega, a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of the city. I decided it’s glowing reviews and props from Vogue outweighed the need to stay in the centre of old Havana. Plus, unlike so many other B&B’s, or what’s more commonly known in Cuba as a casa particular, it had a pool that cooled us off after long walks in the city. We paid roughly $80US/night including a homemade breakfast (coconut pie, pineapple juice, fresh bread, eggs, cheese and meats served up with loads of love); an extra cot in our room to accommodate our family of three; Cuban rhythms drifting through our window late into the night; the neighbour’s rooster crowing once the sun rose, and a working duo singing “guava”, sometimes high and sometimes low, as they strolled the streets with their fruit wagon outside our window every morning.
We chilled out on the hop-on/hop-off bus. On our first day in Havana, my husband wanted to walk the length of the Malecón, the famous seaside promenade where locals fish, kiss and gossip. This is a grand idea but not on the heels of our two-hour trek from the resort. I regrettably gave into his fevered pitch. While he was busy snapping Nikon memories (all featured on this post), I dragged a tired six-year old along the 8km stretch and watched the tour buses whizz by us in the opposite direction. Shortly after an ice cream stop at buzzy Coppelia, I gladly paid approximately $5US per person (kids six and under are free), clamoured onto a double decker bus and found the relaxing rooftop view of the city that the babe and I were aching for.
We tapped into local cuisine. I prepped the kid that the usual kids’ menu and crayons were not available in Cuban restaurants. I saw this trip as a way to challenge her taste buds and thankfully, she ate without complaining. She switched gears and ate fresh pineapple, toast and slices of ham for breakfast. For lunch and dinner, we brought her to paladars or family-run restos where she tasted ropa vieja (a shredded beef stew), chilindron de cordero (stewed lamb), vaca frita (crispy, shredded and fried beef) and her fave, homemade fried chicken, all served with local root veggies, rice and beans. To fill up her tummy on the go, we ordered pizza at state-run snack stops. With a sweet sauce and a doughy crust, they cost about a dollar and revved her up for more sightseeing.
We gave into the rush of culture shock. Havana gave us the high of travelling across the world—without the jet lag. After many vacays in gorgeous and gentrified locales, our daughter witnessed a way of life that she couldn’t even imagine. People, cars, bikes, horses and buses crowded the streets in a chaotic hum. The scent of heat and exhaust against the backdrop of decaying architecture laid out the distressed and clichéd façade of the city. We found a barbershop where a crew of Cuban millenials (decked out in bright skinny jeans and matching Converse) got buzzed and coiffed to perfection. We sidestepped macho dads while they scuffled at a dockside restaurant over the next available table for Sunday lunch. And we rode in a fifties Lada with a rusty interior and the driver’s girlfriend sitting in the front seat. What was she doing in our ride? We didn’t ask but we got an answer when the driver voluntarily turned around and said to my husband, “Es Cuba, señor.” And we wouldn’t want to change a thing about it.
Where to stay: La Rosa de Ortega, a spic and span B&B with a snack bar, pool and homemade breakfast including to-die-for coconut pie. A large property, it feels more like an inn with plenty of spots to hide away and read a book or play cards. You’ll need to take a taxi into town but it’s worth it for the scenic hilltop view of the city.
Where to eat: Choose to eat at a paladar, privately owned restaurants that are redefining Cuban cuisine. For family style food, visit Paladar Dona Blanquita on Paseo de Marti. Nao Bar Paladar on Obispo serves upmarket traditional local flavours and go to Restaurante Santy Pescador for fresh sushi and seafood.
Where to go: To get a chilled-out tour of the city, take the hop-on/hop-off bus on your first day. You’ll visit all the key landmarks in a city that’s way bigger than you think (it’s home to over 2 million people). Go art shopping at the Havana Craft and Souvenir Center next to the port then explore nearby Old Havana by foot. Cellular reception is spotty, so don’t rely on Google maps; kick it old school with a paper map marked up with your notes and destinations.
“36 Hours in Havana“, The New York Times.
“17 Fun Things to do in Havana with Kids“, family-travel-scoop.com
“Best Family Trip: Havana“, travel.nationalgeographic.com