The opposing adjectives one is obligated to employ in order to successfully encapsulate the magic of the Cuban capital can’t help but impress you with the sometimes-baffling wealth of diversity found here. Sure “colorful,” “resilient,” “vibrant,” and “romantic” spring readily to mind, but then so too do “dated,” “seedy,” “worn,” and “neglected.” By now the images have become cliche: streets abuzz with meticulously restored cars first built during the Eisenhower presidency, dilapidated “downtown” buildings adorned with the heroic visage of Che Guevara, young boys playing baseball with makeshift plastic equipment while dated eyes set in sun-weathered faces look on through a haze of cigar smoke; and all of this set against the backdrop of beautifully-restored colonial architecture and the city’s picturesque Gulf Coast. You might be tempted to think that this juxtaposition borders on the unsustainable, but through the tumultuous decades Havana has somehow managed to synthesize innumerable contradictory realities into both a city and a cultural atmosphere unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
First things first; the Cuban capital is, by Latin American standards, a surprisingly safe city for travelers. This doesn’t mean you should go frolicking care-free through Arroyo Naranjo or other Centro Havana districts, mind you, but it does mean that there’s a whole bunch that can be explored. Take Havana’s robust selection of museums, for example, including galleries that range from fine arts, history and archaeology to cigars, classic cars and Napoleon Bonaparte. Or better still, take its unexpected surprises, like a statue of John Lennon seated inconspicuously on a park bench or a poor neighborhood decked out in Gaudi-esque living artwork. The country’s almost inevitable push towards capitalism can be seen in the closed down Cuatro Caminos market or the touristy amenities on Calle Obispo, but you can always romanticize about the old days within the UNESCO protected Old City or from the quintessential stroll along the seaside Malecón. And while a tour of Havana might run the gamut of potential sights, it’s the sound of the city, those notes of salsa mixed in with Afro-Caribbean jazz and hip-hop, that make the whole thing come to life.
But once you’ve had your fill of the intoxicating conundrum that constitutes life in the Cuban capital, it’s time to do a little exploring of a more adventurous nature. Havana, it’s true, may not be ground zero for outdoor excitement, but it’s certainly not devoid of it either. Anyone who tells you you’ve got to get down to the Isla de la Juventud in order to get your diving fix in likely hasn’t spent any time under water at the nearby and readily accessible Playas del Este, just like those who tell you you need to huff it out to Vinales in order to tackle some excellent climbing conditions probably haven’t heard of the slabs out near Jibacoa. Then there’s the entire Sierra del Rosario preserve just to the southwest, with countless kilometers of waterfall-strewn hiking trails to tack onto the itinerary. When all is said and done, while those who have lived here for a long enough foresee a coming tide of changes that threatens to wash away this city seemingly trapped in time, there is a beckoning appeal both in the people of Havana and in its surrounding landscape that will, we hope at least, forever remain timeless.