Before Google Maps and Waze, exploration was done by wandering, noticing reference points, and assembling a map. While paper maps are becoming more obsolete, they still serve as a reliable method for getting around. No dead battery, no repetitive voice telling you it’s “rerouting,” and no updates on traffic reports. It’s just you, the sidewalk, and the sun for directional reference.
While in Cuba, my friend and I were disconnected from the internet. Our cell phones didn’t work, and our host parents told us not to use the internet park across the street because our internet credit would be robbed. They gave us a map, circled a few “must-visit places,” and off we went. We were given a few recommendations before going to Cuba, either by friends who visited previously, or by TripAdvisor’s highest ranked to-do’s. While we kept this list close, we spent a majority of the two days walking in no particular direction – our necks craned to look at the Spanish colonial structures around us and eyes glued to the colorful vintage cars driving passed.
Although there were tons of exciting day tours and trips from Havana, we were on a budget and weren’t prepared to spend half of our funds in the first few hours. After endless hours of walking up and down the streets (and sometimes in circles), we encountered some of the most incredible parts and things to do in the city. And the best part? They were free.
If you end up in Havana, here are a few recommendations. Just make sure to bring your comfortable walking shoes!
Four things we ended up doing that cost us nothing:
1. Watch the sunset on the malecón rock walls.
One of the city highlights is the few-mile-long pathway alongside the water, overlooking the west side of Havana. During the evening, this area fills up with locals and visitors alike to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. There are vendors selling food and drinks, music playing, and a happy aura throughout the streets. One evening, we sat on top of the rock wall, separating the sidewalk and the water, and watched the sun fall towards the water as it emitted an array of calming colors. The beauty was priceless.
2. Enjoy the view from Ernest Hemingway’s perspective at Ambos Mundos.
Located in the center of Old Havana is hotel Ambos Mundos, well-known for being home to one of the world’s most prolific writers, Ernest Hemingway, while he was in Havana. When you walk into the lobby, it truly feels as if you’re taking a step back in time. If you, like me, appreciate an incredible view of water and surrounding city skyline, go to the rooftop terrace and enjoy a cold beverage or two. Drinks are not free, but the view is! It’s something spectacular.
3. Walk through the Callejon de Hamel.
One morning we started walking, towards nowhere in particular, and at the intersection there was a pedestrian light telling us to stop to let the cars pass. Stopped next to us were two young Cuban women who were asking where we were from, what we thought of Cuba, and where we were heading. After admitting that we were aimlessly walking, they invited us to join them for the Sunday festival at the Callejon de Hamel – so of course we went with them. This artist’s road is open every day for people to walk through, and every Sunday there is a funded event to exhibit and share the heritage of the Afro-Cubans. The street was buzzing with live music, dancers, and exciting energy. Our new friends shared with us their rich culture and history, and they introduced us to the artists who warmly welcomed us into their galleries. The ladies helped us to understand the significance of this area. After bidding them adieu, we continued strolling through the Havana streets. And the following day, when it was less crowded, we went back to this street to take in anything that we missed.
4. Tour the Catacombs at the National Hotel.
On our last morning, after walking for miles, we needed to recharge. We stopped in Hotel National to pick up some water and take in the ocean views. As we meandered through the hotel grounds, we stumbled upon an entrance of what appeared to be a cave built into the side of the hill. We entered and were greeted by a gentleman who let us know there was a tour about to leave, and he asked if we wanted to join. We said yes, and with a couple other folks we were led through the underground catacombs. This area, he told us as we approached an opening for a cannon, was used during the Cuban Missile Crisis for protection and to fight. It was fascinating. This tour was complimentary and we gave him a few extra dollars as a tip.
If you make it to Havana, be sure to fit in the above sights. It’s a neat city, full of history and beauty. In the meantime, keep traveling and exploring the world.