| 5 min read
Although the old city center of Havana isn’t too large to be explored on your own, the city becomes much more interesting when a local guide comments on the sights around you. We explored Havana Vieja with Yaritza, a local guide for Qué Bola Havana. She introduced us to her city by taking us around and sharing her favorite spots with us.
We met up with our guide in Café El Dandy, a local bar on Plaza del Cristo known for its good (and strong) mojito’s. The place has a bohemian vibe and is decorated with retro posters and trendy design items. When our guide Yaritza arrived, we introduced ourselves over a coffee, which was a nice and personal way to start the tour. Yaritza was a young woman, fluent in English, who’s had the opportunity to travel all over the country thanks to her job.
As we left the bar, she took us to a shop on the other side of the street. Feeling skeptical about doing shops as part of a city tour, we soon understood why this one was special. In Cuba, freedom of speech is still a bit problematic and Cubans generally avoid expressing criticism towards their government or country out of fear for the consequences. In this regard, the shop Clandestina is very controversial as it puts an emphasis on societal challenges. Also noteworthy is that most of the goods are made out of recycled materials.
While we walked through the historic center, over its beautiful plazas and along its colonial buildings, Yaritza taught us about Cuban history, architecture and social life. Havana was getting ready to celebrate its 500 years’ existence (in 2019), and all the colonial mansions had been renovated. Our guide also took us to a government shop where she explained the Cuban coupon system for rationed consumables.
We learnt so much, but what I liked most were the small anecdotes spicing up historical facts. For example about Tacón Street, which is paved with wooden bricks. Passing horses and cart traffic produced too much noise while passing over the cobblestone streets and disturbed the governor’s wife during her naptime. So the original brick was repaved in sound-damping wood.
Yaritza also pointed out a statue of the Gentle Frenchman, erected in honor of a mentally ill, homeless man who happened to write a poem every now and then, and was extraordinarily friendly with people. Gotta love the randomness.
In Mercaderes Street, we passed along a giant mosaic mural that mirrors the Marqués de Arcos mansion on the opposite side of the street. Although it is quite obvious, I would probably have missed this detail if it hadn’t been pointed out. The mural features 67 people in the history and the arts of Cuba.
One of my favorite off-beat areas in Habana Vieja is the barber’s alley, aka Calle Aguiar. A formerly dodgy area, this alley lives up and stands out with its colorful facades covered with graffiti art, all inspired by the barber who helped transform the neighborhood.
A little later, we found ourselves on Plazuela del Santo Angel Custodio. This lovely, intimate plaza behind the Iglesia del Santo Ángel Custodio features a statue of the fictional heroine Cecilia Valdés, from a book by Cirilo Villaverde.
At the end of our tour, Yaritza dropped us in front of Casa de Sono, where we were about to have our first salsa class.
What I liked most about the city tour was the personal approach which allowed for real conversation. Thanks to our guide’s broad knowledge of her country, she also gave us personal advise on what to do in Havana or in the other cities on our itinerary.
- The tour takes 3 hours and costs 35 USD per person.
- You can book the tour via Qué Bola Havana
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