Havana Vieja is a crumbling wreck of a beautiful romantic Spanish colonial city. Looking beyond the squalid conditions evident nowadays, you can see what Havana was once like - a beautiful city of palaces, merchants houses, hotels, theatres, bars, architecturally attractive colonial homes and national buildings. Now, the old palaces are derelict but still lived in by dozens of families in squalid conditions with bad sanitation, compromised water supplies and diseases long since eradicated in 1st world countries.
The US embargo, lack of materials, and government unwillingness to repair and improve (let alone restore and preserve) the architecture and infrastructure has taken its toll on the once beautiful city, and the Habaneros themselves. The shops have few products and those that do are distinctly for tourists only - with the vast majority of Cubans holding only Cuban Pesos that cannot be spent in tourist shops that take the Cuban Convertible Peso.
The streets are crumbling with potholes that even cyclists have difficulty navigating. There are signs of change though in Havana Vieja with some buildings and roads being repaired and restored, and attractive bars, cafes and restaurants opening with the advent of the legalisation of private enterprise. More Cuban's now have access to the Cuban Convertible Peso and are able to improve their homes and lives. But a lot of Habaneros have nothing better to do than to try and persuade the tourist to visit a particular bar, shop or restaurant, and take a Peso or two commission for their troubles. Many of them are quite adept and talented at peddling, as it brings in a higher income than the national standard of around $13 per MONTH.
Besides this, the people are still so friendly, open, welcoming and naturally talented, from the music, singing and dancing, to their crafts, and the ingenuity of the people to make the most of what little they have - like the 1950's American cars that the economy is now dependent on as tourist taxis. Cuban music and dancing, and the superlative musicians and dancers can be seen and heard on many a street corner at different times of the day and night, as well as countless festivities through the streets with intoxicating dance rhythms.
Some of the best places in Havana Vieja are: Calle Obispo - Bohemian galleries, shops, cafes and the central pedestrian street. Calle O'Reilly, very Bohemian with Cuban bars, music and pizza, galleries and countless colonial homes including the house of Victor Hugo. Plaza Vieja and the micro-brewery - the beer is very good, and their seafood and meat skewers are tasty, Plaza Revolution, Cathedral Square, the Artisan Market behind Castillo de la Real Fuerza - good selection of arts and crafts. I recommend El Floridita at the end of Calle Obispo, crossing Monserrate - the old haunt of Ernest Hemingway, where he helped to perfect the Daiquiri - well someone had to be the taster!
Take a map of Havana Vieja with you, as it is easy to get lost among the crisscross streets and back alleys, but it is safe city, from a crime perspective - even off the beaten track, but not so safe traversing the potholes, dug up roads and collapsing buildings. Wear footwear suitable for walking in the old town - it's not a place for high heels and Italian leathers.
Take a couple of hours to walk along the Malecón (the sea breakwater), particularly on a Friday or Saturday evening, or at sunrise. You will be surprised at the vast number of Habaneros gathering, walking, talking, sitting on the wall, singing, making music and enjoying the cool breezes. The brute concrete edifice is colloquially known as the "Great Sofa" and Habaneros gather from dusk until dawn in their hundreds, and thousands, at the weekends. It is a wondrous site, and a peaceable, magical atmosphere, very friendly and welcoming to one and all. Stay up and enjoy the sunrise over the ocean.
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