First Impressions of Cuba

Cuba is the colour of an ice cream sundae, the ones they served in diners in 1950’s America.

Havana is a a mash up of Colonial and Art Deco architecture, splashed in shades of lemon, strawberry, mint and vanilla. Even in the spruced up tourist centre, buildings are visibly crumbling. In Centro, a largely residential area, many are barely standing. And yet everywhere there is music, the whole city sings. People converse on every corner, classic cars clatter around the dusty boulevards and the scent of cigar smoke is never far away.

Cuba is a nation in a state of change. But it is this colour, the vibrancy of the city and vitality of the people, that strikes me as something Cuba has always had, and it no doubt always will.

Old Town Havana - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Havana is a real trip. Waking up in our hotel on Parque Central to observe the bullet-ridden yet grand surrounding buildings and the rainbow parade of cars from the 1950s, you’d be forgiven for believing in time travel.

Not being able to resist taking a tour of this time warp city from the back of a classic American convertible, we hired a driver of a cobalt blue Pontiac to show us around.

The driver takes us down Prado de Paseo, the French designed boulevard that divides the Old Town from Centro, and it’s our first introduction to Havana’s decay. For whilst some of the elegantly-aged Colonial structures are still standing, there are empty lots and piles of blocks in-between them. Every now and then I spot a balcony that has completely come away and wonder how people are brave enough to use the rest of them.

View from NH Parque Central - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Paseo de Prado - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Paseo de Prado - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Paseo de Prado - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

We pull out onto the Malecon, Havana’s 8 km coastal stretch where locals like to parade of an evening, and settle in to watch the sunset away from the choking inner city streets.

Our guide tells us this is the location of every Habaneros first kiss but it doesn’t look too romantic to me today. The weather and wind beaten buildings that face the sea have fared worse than their counterparts on the Prado. If there used to be cafes and trade along this strip, there is no evidence of it now. But the romance of the area lives on in the locals’ and visitors’ minds alike and the wall facing the ocean remains filled with couples every night.

Touring Havana in a Pontiac - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Cruising the Malecon - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

We drive onto Vedado, once an area of swampland that was forbidden to enter (Vedado means forbidden in Spanish) and it is an utter surprise. Suddenly, we are on a tree-lined boulevard, surrounded by large, secure houses from the 1950’s – I think I even see some cars from more recent decades.

Vedado was where the wealthy Americans built their homes during the height of Cuba’s gambling and glamour days. When Castro came into power he seized all the properties and they have since been redistributed to high-ranking government officials. It’s a glimpse at the more recent history of Cuba, which the rest of Havana had not yet afforded us.

It is also the first, and only, time we witness any form of government dissent. In Verdado the women in white gather every Sunday to discuss their oppression under the current regime. Sometimes they march down the wealthy looking boulevards and there is ‘often trouble’ our guide informs us. ‘They are very brave,’ I comment. But the driver doesn’t reply. He has said all he will on the matter.

We leave Vedado and return to the rawness of Centro. The Pontiac’s engine is spluttering and clunking even more than before and I wonder if it will make it to the end of the tour. On the side of the streets, everywhere it seems, are men with their heads under rusty bonnets. The cars on the road that are still running sound as if they are powered by tractors. We drive deep into the narrow streets of Centro and you get the feeling that most buildings are only just standing.

Every form of transport is available in Havana – cyclo taxis, horse and cart – but most people walk. And there are people everywhere. Hanging over balconies, sleeping in doorways. Queuing by scantily-lit pizza shops or windows with bars across that trade plumbing supplies.

Of an evening, the number of people on the streets seems to intensify. Here, socialising is not done online (Cubans were only permitted to own mobile phones in 1998 and access to the internet is still censored) but instead people converse in the park, on the roof, on the corner of the street.

Centro Havana - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Shopping in Centro Havana - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Havana’s Old Town may be a sanitised area spruced up for the tourists, but boy is it beautiful. Every street is an opportunity for a quintessential Havana shot – classic car, cobbled alley, candy-coloured building and Cuban flag fluttering in the breeze – but you may have to pay for it.

(Be aware that if you photograph an old car you may have to pay the owner of it. You’ll also need change to use bathrooms in restaurants and the airport, and to tip the band who seem to waltz up to every restaurant.)

In some places I’ll admit the service (or lack of) tested me and I had the worst luck in restaurants, who always seemed to run out of ingredients for the one dish I really wanted.

Old Town Havana - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

Havana Old Town Classic Car - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

One night we dined at Los Nardos, a semi-private restaurant opened by the Spanish Asturianas Society, which at the time we were told was one of the best in Cuba. We queued for a table for 1 hour and 30 minutes only to find they had no more meat for the paella I wanted. On the advice of the waiter we ordered the mix grill, and while it was the best meal we had in Cuba, I probably would have sent the dodgy cuts of meat back had they been served to me in Europe.

This lack of supply is something that can bring you back to the reality of life in Cuba before you are swept up in the glamour of classic cars and endless sunshine. The situation is the same on the touristy tip of Varadero, a picture-perfect peninsular of all-inclusive 4 and 5 star hotels; when the ice cream is all gone, it is gone, and we don’t know for how long.

A 5 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) hop-on hop-off bus ferries tourists up and down the strip. We hopped on and couldn’t help but notice that all the hotels, with prime beach locations, looked as tired as each other.

Cayo Blanco - Thoughts on my first visit to Cuba

The colour of Cayo Blanco are a sight to behold though. A popular and short (approx. 45 minute) Catamaran trip from Varadero, this white island is what I picture paradise to be like. The shallow sandy waters turn the ocean 50 different shades of turquoise.

Revolution Square Havana

Street propaganda in Havana, Cuba

Sunset in Havana, Cuba

Back home, I reflect on our trip and what I saw in Cuba. The people have roofs over their heads, but their homes may not have 4 walls. The children in the street are clothed, they appear healthy (Cuba has some of the best and largest number of doctors in the world) but they are surrounded by ruins.

There are not high levels of propaganda on the streets. I spot the odd Communist billboard or homage to Castro and Che, but the unfocused eye could easily miss this.

What I am struck by is the lack of advertising or commercial posters. I am ashamed to say that I miss Diet Coke. I’m surprised by the number of shops springing up; I’m fascinated by the women on the Prado holding pictures of homes they are looking to exchange.

I’m surprised to hear what I think are American accents.

But I am thinking, feeling and questioning things about a place in a way I have not done for a long time. I’m frustrated and enchanted by Cuba in equal measures. I am reminded what it means to really travel. And I know I will not forget the colours of Cuba for very long time.

Read next: 10 cool things to do on a holiday to Cuba

About the author

I’m Jayne, a travel blogger, content creator and mum to a 4-year-old son. I’ve been blogging since 2010, travelled to 65 countries and share travel guides and tips to help you plan stylish, stress-free trips.

43 thoughts on “First Impressions of Cuba”

  1. Nice post Jayne! Gorgeous photographs too. When I was there I didn’t get to visit Havana sadly. I will have to go back. 🙂 I wonder if all the American accents you were hearing were actually Canadian instead?

    • Thanks Cailin. Havana really made it for me, I hope you can go back. There was certainly lots of Canadians in the resorts but we did meet a few Americans in Havana – some were delegates of some sort of Gov convention but others were a tour group from Seattle!

    • Do you know we didn’t come across any salsa in Havana but that could be because I can’t dance and therefore didn’t seek it out!

  2. I’ve often dreamed of going to Cuba, mainly for the photography opportunities and the music. Thanks for a really interesting insight into the country.

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Jayne and your comments about Cuba making you think, feel and question things was true for me when I visited, too. The food was pretty awful, but they served up enormous portions to tourists even although one of the guides we used told us that local families are too poor to eat meat. The poor service is also likely to be because the restaurants and hotels are mostly state run, so there is not an incentive to go that extra mile. Yet, the communist regime means that people have education, healthcare and heaily subsidised sports and cultural activities. I believe Cuba is changing, as it relaxes some of its rules eg to make it easier for people to make income from renting rooms as ‘casa particulars’. It is certainly a fascinating place – Trinidad, Vinales, Cayo Levisa and the eco-village Las Terrazas are all worth a look as well as Havana.

    • Thanks for your insightful comments Nicola. I think with such a complex place as Cuba you can only really scratch the surface in a post of 1000 words. Similarly my trip only took in Havana and Varadero so I missed a huge part of the non-touristy side of this country which I am itching to go back and explore further. It’s certainly a place that you think about for a long time after you visit isn’t it?

  4. Cuba is certainly a country of contrasts. I loved Havana when I visited but it’s incredible to think that Cubans are still handed out food rations which don’t last the month. Only chickens and pigs are allowed to be slaughtered without government permission which goes a way to explaining the lack of meat and the fact that only the state run hotels/restaurants offer it – stopping locals from making an income via tourism. Did you notice the thread of music that constantly seeps through the city? Cubans seemed to me to be a happy people despite everything – how could they dance like they do otherwise? I still think a lot about my Cuba trip four years on…

  5. Oh my god! I love love love your photos!

    I’m hoping to visit Cuba soon! Did you visit anywhere else in South America at the time?

    Also did you find it relatively cheap to eat, drink and sleep?

    Gwennie x

    • Hi Gwen, thanks for getting in touch. I travelled to Cuba for my sister’s wedding so was on an all inclusive holiday package most of the time. Cuba is not as cheap as most south american countries though, they have 2 currencies, the pesos which locals are paid in and the convertible peso (or CUC) which is what people, including tourists, use to buy food, drinks and rooms. There are some semi-private restaurants, like Nos Nardos, which are cheaper than the gov owned ones and popular with locals. You can also opt to stay in people’s homes in a Casa Particular which is cheaper than the hotels.

      I didn’t travel to South America on this trip but I have spent a few months there previously. Where were you thinking of going?


  6. Thanks so much for your reply Jane! This was really helpful!

    I’m thinking of doing all of South America for a few months and I’m just trying to gather ideas and prices for places really!

    Any help you can give me would be fab!

    Gwennie x

    • That’s so exciting. Well I’ve been to Brazil, Argentina and Peru and loved them all. I joined an organized tour to hike the Inca Trail and explore the Amazon (with G Advenntures) but the rest me and my friends did on our own. Some overland travel, some internal flights, lots of hostels, steak, beer and good times! I have some posts on Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls on the site if you just type them in the search function. But apart from that please feel free to email me at any time for advice –

      Enjoy x

  7. Jayne this is brilliant thank you so much for your help and tips! I may take you up on the email advice when I have more of a plan. But for now ill defo check out those posts!

    I’m stupidly excited to take this travel adventure 🙂 a big break, but it will all be worth it!!

    If there’s anything I can help you with, feel free to check out 🙂

    Gwennie x

  8. It looks amazing! Cuba has long since been on my list of places to go, especially Havana. It looks colourful, vibrant and culturally fascinating. Thanks for sharing these pictures, it sounds like you had a great trip!

  9. I still don’t know what kind of Twilight Zone Cuba we went too…so many people complain about the food, but we had great meals! The selection is definitely limited, but thanks to good recommendations from friends and one amazing casa particular, we almost always found ourselves really enjoying the simple meals.

    • I spoke to my sister yesterday who was on the same trip as us and she said the same thing Emily. I think either I am extremely fussy or we made very bad dining choices – it’s most likely a combination of both to be honest. So good to hear from people who loved it!

  10. This is such a great post (and photos)! You’ve captured exactly all the feelings I have toward Cuba, but much more eloquently than I could. I love Cuba, and I agree, it gets under your skin and stays with you, even as it frustrates you. I’ve been there four times now, and never tire of the country – especially the streets of Havana. Such energy and rhythm, fascinating politics and total beauty in the decay.

  11. I am DYING to go to Cuba. Your descriptions make me want to get there even more! Do you think it’s changing from what people have said it was always like? Is it still one of those ‘get there soon’ places?

    • You do get the feeling it is on the cusp of big changes. Having seen what life was like in the special period following the revolution via the pictures in the Revolution Museum it is clear that so much has changed already. If you can get there now it would be interesting to go back again in 5, 10 years time and see what has happened.

  12. Oh! Gorgeous photos! Makes me so want to go back!! Captured it so well!

    We found the food pretty ordinary too. We almost wept when we managed to track down an Italian place, managed by a couple of foreigners, after a week there!

  13. Great post, your sincerity make me feel as if I’m personally experiencing it. I am planning on going in a couple months… Havana for New Years should be interesting.

  14. I love this post about Cuba. I have never been but I like your observation of the island and the brilliant photos. Shame that the food wasn’t up to tack.
    Thanks very much for sharing!

    • Thanks so much, I certainly look back on the trip as one of my travel highlights even if the cuisine wasn’t to my taste 🙂 Thanks for dropping by J

  15. This makes me so inspired to go Cuba! Can’t wait ’til I get to this beautiful place. What is your thoughts on traveling solo in central america? Nicaragua, Costa Rica? What do you think?


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