While most people travel to Havana to spend their time exploring the beautiful old city, just east of all the glorious old architecture is a series of white-sand beaches, known as the Playas del Este.On a recent trip, we decided to stay in the beach area and have the best of both worlds as our resort provided a free shuttle into Old Havana.The string of beaches stretches 24 kms along the north coast. While the beaches here are a gorgeous white sand, palm tree-lined, turquoise water heaven, the accompanying resorts aren’t exactly luxurious. Many of them have a worn down appearance as most are over 50 years old, but for those wishing to spend their time in the city or enjoying the beaches, they are just fine.
Hotel Atlantico from the water
Our resort was located on Playa Santa Maria del Mar, one of the most popular beaches, where many of the international resorts are located.
Weekends can get very busy with locals heading out to relax and parking lots soon fill up with vintage cars and mopeds.
Finding schools of fish
The crystal clear turquoise waters are perfect for swimming and snorkelling to check out a variety of fish.
Sunset over the pool
Locals riding horses down the beach
But the best part was the incredible sunsets!
Getting there: The beach area is about 20 kms away from Old Havana.
You can take the Habana Bus Tour tourist bus Line 3, which runs from Old Havana to the beaches at Cojímar, Bacuranao and Santa Maria del Mar daily from9am-6pmfor 5 CUC.
A taxi will cost around 15 CUC each way. Be sure to set the price before leaving.
Wandering through Havana feels like taking a step back in time with the old colonial-style buildings and classic American cars making their way along the narrow streets. I’ve been wanting to visit Havana for awhile now, and the city certainly didn’t disappoint. The architecture here is beautiful, with many of the buildings painted in vibrant colours. While they may be in various states of crumbling, they certainly have a lot of character. It’s easy to see why Old Havana was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1982.
Some of the main buildings, like the Capital, are currently under construction as they prepare for the city’s 500th birthday in 2019. 500! And to think Canada has just celebrated its 150th!
With age comes culture, and Havana certainly has a culture of its own. Live music can be heard everywhere with people getting up to dance along. There’s a rhythm found in the city, that even when you spend half your day running from the rain, you still find yourself caught up in. The city also has a rich history and numerous museums to explore.
Old Havana has four main plazas that are all worth wandering though: Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco de Asís, and Plaza Vieja.
Catedral de San Cristóbal, located in Plaza de la Catedral, is a gorgeous Cuban Baroque facade carved from fossil-embedded stone, originally built in 1727.
Stepping through the big wooden doors, you head into the chapel with a beautiful altar at the front. You can also pay 1 CUC and climb up the bell tower for an amazing view of the city.
La Bodeguita del Medio, a short walk from the cathedral, dates back to the 1940s, when Ernest Hemingway used to stop by regularly for a mojito.
If that’s all you’re looking for, there’s a bar set up just off the street where the famous mojitos are served. Otherwise, the building hosts several stories and lots of nooks and crannies where tables are set up to serve delicious creole dishes.
Almost every square inch of the walls are covered in signatures of both famous people and those of us just passing through. We lucked out with a little top floor room with a few tables and a balcony with a view of the cathedral that now hosts our names.
Plaza de Armas is the city’s oldest plaza dating back to 1582, when it was used mainly for the military. Today, there’s a beautiful garden and statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. It’s also surrounded by buildings with huge overhangs – perfect for hiding out from the rain!
Plaza de San Francisco de Asís is located near the waterfront with an ornate Lion’s Fountain (Fuente de los Leones) as the centrepiece and the beautiful Basilica Menor y Convento de San Francisco de Asís at one end. Today, concerts featuring classic and Cuban music are held here.
Just up the street is the Havana Club Rum museum (Museo del Ron Havana Club). We made our way over and took a tour to learn about the history and process of making Havana Club rum. As we made our way through an old colonial building, our guide gave us a brief history of this Cuban rum and then showed us all the tools used in making it. At the end, we met at the bar for a sample of Havana Club 7-year-old rum before heading into the shop where you could purchase the various rums they make here. The tour costs 7 CUC.We also tried out two local craft breweries – Cerveceria Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y El Tabaco, which is located down by the waterfront, and Factoria Plaza Vieja which is found in the fourth plaza (Plaza Viejo). For more info on them, click hereNear the waterfront is the Mercado de Artesanía San José. This huge market is a great place to find all kinds of crafts and souvenirs.We made our way across Old Havana to wander a bit of the Prado, one of the prettiest promenades in the city, which marks the boundary between Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Centro Habana (Central Havana), with colourful buildings, wrought iron street lights and trees.The Capitolio Nacional building shares a remarkable resemblance to the American White House and is one of Havana’s great landmarks. The building is currently under construction in preparation for the 500th anniversary, but from what you can see from the outside, it’s an impressive building. Continuing along, you come to the Gran Teatre de la Habana, another beautiful old building across from Parque Central. With all the old cars parked out front here, you could almost imagine great theatre stars of the 40s and 50s making their way out of the theatre after a night on the stage.
No visit to Havana is complete without taking a stroll along the Malecon – the 8km waterfront boulevard which runs from Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta on Havana’s northern shore all the way to the Almendares River which separates Vedado from Miramar.
Good to Know
* When you arrive, you’ll need to exchange money to the tourist Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Locals use Cuban Pesos.
* Always set your taxi price before getting in.
* Old cars, horse carriages and bike taxi prices are based on distances and timing. It’s always good to show the driver a list of what you want to see.
* There are two Habana Bus Tour buses with two different routes:
T-1: Double decker Hop on/off – Offers a panoramic view of the city. The full ride takes 2 hours.
T-3: Beach Bus – 30 min ride to Santa Maria Beach.
T-1 costs 10 CUC and T-3 costs 5CUC. Both run from 9am-6pm every 30 minutes and leave from Central Park (Parque Central).
* WiFi cards are available for a charge at most of the bigger hotels, but the service can be spotty and very slow.
Seeking out new craft breweries in foreign cities seems to have become a normal part of my travels these days, and Havana didn’t disappoint.
On a recent trip, we found two craft breweries to check out.The first one, Factoria Plaza Vieja, is located in a bright yellow building in the corner of Plaza Vieja, one of the four major plazas in Old Havana.
Here they serve three different beers: Clara, Oscura and Negra. You have a choice between a 500ml glass or a 3L tower to enjoy your beer in. A 500ml glass of beer costs 2CUC and the tower costs 12CUC.
As it’s located in one of the major plazas, this brewery is a popular spot for tourists. They have a food menu with a variety of options to enjoy along with your beer.
The second brewery we hit was Cerveceria Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y El Tabaco. This one is located down by the water in an old tobacco factory, near the Mecardo de Artesania San José, a great market for crafts and souvenirs. This brewery is huge and has lots of seating both inside and out on the patio. Again, there were three different beers: light, medium and dark, and you had a choice of a 500ml glass or a tower. Pricing was the same.
While it wasn’t like a typical North American craft brewery, it was a nice break from Cristal and Bucanero and a great way to try a new brew!