Waking up in the city of Havana around nine in the morning to beautiful birds calling your name and the warm smell of dark roast coffee is a luxury that many young tourists believe is inaccessible. College students repaying thousands of dollars in loans and those just entering their careers working 40 hours a week for minimum wage cannot afford a room at the Hotel Nacional and an $8 mojito from the fancy La Guardia every night. Surviving Havana on $35 a day seems like a challenge from the outside looking in, but surprisingly it is an easy and enjoyable journey.
Central Havana in the morning is a whirlwind of grit, work and happiness. The center is one part of the heterogeneous city that does not attract much attention from travelers. It is not luxurious by any standards, but it is filled with many wonderful locals who are always willing to help a foreigner find where they need to go or just have a chat.
9:00 am: At the corner of Calle Animas and Calle Belasquine you can find three hole-in-the-wall breakfast options that serve pastries, pork, chicken and, of course, a mighty strong cup of café. Depending on the magnitude of your hunger, a meal from Don Ardoba, the best of the three walk-up morning spots, can cost anywhere between 1 to 3 CUC (or around $1 to $3). While you eat, you can watch the old 52 Chevrolet convertibles roar up and down the street leaving nothing but exhaust fumes and smiles behind them.
10:30 am: The Malecon, Havana’s picturesque seaside promenade, is best in the morning while the sun is still rising, and the water is fresh and vibrant with breathtaking blues and greens that ripple by at a relaxed pace. A stroll along this seafront stunner is a must do for anyone wanting to take pictures, and the joy of this golden find is only topped by the price, nothing.
12:00 am: As you walk east you will run into Calle Prado, one of Havana’s cultural hubs. Sauntering up Prado with the sun at your back, the faded red and white marble tiles below your feet and the sweet sound of children playing football while their mothers chat is almost transcending. Your mind will be at ease as your eyes take in the crumbling 19th century architecture decorated with red, white and blue Cuban flags, along with magnificently accurate portraits of national hero Che Guevara. On Sundays, hundreds of locals flood the street with hopes of selling paintings, drawings and hand carved statues. If you’re lucky enough they may even teach you a thing or two about their magnificent craft.
1:00 pm: Following the path up past the tall, sun-washed pink Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway stayed on his visits, you will spy the white marble Capitolio building. It’s not hard to miss, looking almost identical to the Capital building that stands in Washington D.C. With the sun all the way up and the sweat dripping from every pore it’s time for some shade. At the corner of Prado and Neptuno, off to the right, you will find Parque Central. In the middle, standing 20-plus feet high, is a beautiful white marble statue of Jose Marti, a revolutionary hero and a god-like figure for the Cuban people. Beautiful bright green shrubbery and the gray stone benches are more than enough for a good break, and sitting back, watching the world go by in a foreign country does more for the spirit than anything. Don’t be shocked by the number of Cubans that will come up and have a chat with you. Many say that the country is just one large family and they are more than happy to welcome you in. If you are willing and able, make sure to toss their way a 25-cent piece or a pen as a gift and a sign of gratitude.
2:00 pm: Heading west on Neptuno, a block away from Prado, you will find a small outdoor cafeteria and bar by the name of Fornos-Parados. It is hard to miss due to the red metal bars on the windows and the locals stopping in for a quick drink or ham sandwich. Inside you’ll be welcomed by the spry wait staff who are more than hospitable to every traveler’s need. The classic Cuban dishes, such as chicken, rice and beans are more than enough for one person and will only run you 4 CUC’s. Wash the meal down with a marvelous, thirst quenching mojito for 1 CUC and you will be ready to tackle the rest of what the day has in store for you.
3:30 pm: The Belles Artes National Art Museum, is stunning, even from the outside. Just a ten-minute walk from Fornos-Parados, by the intersection of Animas and Zulueta you will find the white slab building dressed with red brick obliques that houses thousands of pieces of old Cuban art ranging from the 17th century to the current day. You can enter for 5 CUC’s, which is well worth the price, and observe Cuban culture at its finest.
7:00 pm: Nastrovia, a Communist-themed bar and grill, located east on the Malecon, is more than just a restaurant, it is a full emersion into the 20th century Soviet Bloc. Red stars and old propaganda surround you while you sit and feast on chicken Kiev, pork kebab served over rice, and even such dishes as Ukrainian perogies and ravioli. Nastrovia has many unique takes on classic Cuban drinks such as a Russian Libre, made with vodka instead of rum and a Green Russian, a mojito frappe with vodka. The impressive part of the restaurant is the views of the beautiful sunset over the Malecon. This lovely dinner and view comes at the low price of 12 CUC’s.
9:00 pm: For those who are staying in Havana through the weekend and want to party, La Fabrica de Arte Cubano is the most happening club in the city from Thursday to Sunday. You can catch a shared cab off Neptuno for 1 CUC that will drop you off at Tunnel de Linnea, only three blocks away from the art bar. If you prefer to take a car straight there, depending on your budget, it will cost you around 10 CUC. La Fabrica de Arte Cubano, or FAC for short, is a renovated oil factory turned art museum and bar at night. Entry is 2 CUC’s and drinks range anywhere from 2.50 to 10 CUC’s. If you’re in for a good night, the bar does one-liter mojitos that will get even the heaviest drinker going. The complex is massive with multiple floors of paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and plenty of dancing. For the night owls, FAC is open until 6 a.m., so grab a few more drinks, explore the multicultural art, and dance, dance, dance.
With one day in Havana you are only beginning to break the surface of what there is to experience in this wonderful city, but on a budget like this most people should be able to enjoy anywhere from five days to a week in this seaside beauty. Though it may seem hard to start planning for many, once you do, the result will pay off tenfold in experience, memories and, of course, fun.
Calle Belasquine 101
Calle Obispo 153
Calle Agramonte 267
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 9 a.m-10 p.m., Sun 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
La Fabrica de Arte Cubano
Opening Hours: Thu-Sun 8 p.m.-6 a.m. (nightclub)