JOIN ME IN AN INTERVIEW WITH TALEK NANTES FROM HAVANA,CUBA !
Talek Nantes is a digital content creator and founder of the blog www.travelswithtalek.com. She is also an author of two books; “110 Best Travel Tips” and “Don’t Just Travel to Cuba, Experience Cuba: The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide.” At heart she is a passionate traveler and has traveled to 110 countries. On her site, Talek shares information on unique destinations, and provides actionable travel tips and advice to help travelers make the most of their time away from home. Her work has also appeared in several publications including Matador Network and Readers Digest.com.
Which is the best month to visit Havana and why?
Havana, the colonial capital of Cuba is a colorful, vibrant, tropical city where music drifts through every cobblestone street and lush garden patio. Founded in 1514 by Spanish explorers seeking gold, Havana is a vibrant mixture of mostly European, African, Native American and Chinese cultures. It is a safe city with friendly people that welcome anyone who wants to explore Cuban culture.
Havana is hot! In summer, June to September. temperatures average 81F (27c). Winter months average 70f (21) and is the best time to go. It is warm enough to still enjoy the warm water in the beautiful beaches and cool enough to explore the city and enjoy the light breezes from the ocean.
Which is the most convenient and favoured transport of Havana?
Transportation around Havana can be challenging if you don’t know your way around. Here are a few options to help you get around the city –
A “colectivo” is a vehicle that transports several people going to the same place. The advantage to a colectivo is that the cost is shared. If a private taxi costs 60 CUC, – a CUC is worth about a US$ – a colectivo with 4 people all going to the same place will cost each person about 15 CUC. The disadvantage of this is that it may take some time for the driver to gather the 4 people. This is an excellent alternative around tourist areas with plenty of people looking to share rides. Colectivos are used by Cubans and tourists alike. They can usually be found and engaged around bus stations.
YELLOW TAXIS AND COCOTAXIS
Prices for Cuban transportation vary greatly. You see yellow taxis at airports, upscale hotels and in the streets of big cities. They are government operated and generally cater to tourists.
Cocotaxis are little “tuk-tuk” like vehicles with a domed yellow top in the shape of a coconut, hence the name. These are almost exclusively used by tourists, are for inter-city transport and are only slightly less expensive than the yellow taxis.
CLASSIC AMERICAN CARS
These are hold-overs from the 50s before the Cuban Revolution. These cars are cherished and passed down to generations. The fact that so many of them are still running is a testament to Cuban mechanical ingenuity. Today the prettiest are used to taxi tourists around Havana at a rate of 30 to 35 CUC per hour. A CUC is worth about US$1.
Bicitaxis are what they sound like; a cross between a bicycle and a taxi. These are found all over Cuba and used to travel within the city limits. Prices are just a couple of CUCs and are negotiable.
HORSE AND CARRIAGE
These horse-drawn “collective taxis” travel routes up and down main avenues. The price is just a few cents per trip. You get on and off wherever you want but make sure to alert the driver where to stop.
There are also buses crossing the major avenues.
What are the top 3 must visit places in Havana?
Havana has a wealth of wonderful places to visit but if I had to choose the top three I’d have to say:
The major plazas; Plaza de la Catedral. This is where you find the cathedral of Havana with its baroque architecture sitting on a wide plaza dating form the 1600s.
Plaza Vieja, or Old Square where you can sit in cozy cafes, people watch and listen to music.
Plaza de San Francisco, site of a colonial church transformed into a museum surrounded by art galleries and restaurants converted from old convents and monasteries.
Plaza de Armas with its well-curated museums and leafy squares and monuments to Cuba’s patriots.
Old Havana is the original portion of the city where much of the architecture is still the colonial structures built by the colonizing Spaniards.
The malecon or Havana seawall. This is Havana’s living room. It is the corniche surrounding the northern part of the city where the locals go to mingle, share a glass of rum and listen to music.
Which is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Havana?
Cubans love their holidays. The classic holiday is Christmas. Cubans celebrate it on the evening of December 24 with a large meal call “Noche Buena” or Good Night. The meal consists of roast pork which is almost the national dish. It is accompanied by rice and black beans, fried plantains and “yuca” a starchy tuber seasoned with garlic and oil. Gifts are exchanged on that night.
New Years Eve is also a favored holiday with many interesting customs. One of these is to eat a grape with every stroke of the clock as it countdown to midnight. By the 12th grape people are laughing because they probably can’t get all the grapes in before midnight. Another custom is to throw water on the floor and into the street symbolizing ridding the house of anything negative, so the new year can start fresh.
For the kids there is Three Kings Day on January 6. This is when the mythical three kings with their camels shrink so small that they enter your home through any crack or crevasse and brings gifts to the children. Waking up on January 6 and looking for what the 3 Kings left you, is one of the most exciting times for a Cuban child.
Havana is also host to many yearly festivals that are becoming increasingly popular worldwide. These include the Jazz Festival held in December in venues throughout the city and the Ballet festival, also held in winter mostly in the beautiful National Theater.
Which is the most happening area in Havana and why?
Havana is a city with multiple locations to party but the most talked about which has even appeared on U.S. television is the F.A.C. or Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory). This is a multi-story venue created in a refurbished cooking oil factory. On every floor there are either an art gallery, disco, dance performance, restaurant, snack bar, movie screen, poetry reading, photography exhibit and much, much more. One of my favorites was a little snack bar with a conveyer belt suspended from the ceiling carrying bottles of rum to the bartenders. There is nothing quite like this place anywhere in the world. It is constantly packed, and you have to wait hours to get in, but it is so worth it.
Where to head for affordable shopping?
The best shopping in Havana is for tobacco, rum and coffee. All three products are world-class. You can buy them at stores throughout the city as well as at the airport.
Rum is an important part of Cuba’s history. There is a rum museum in Havana which is well worth seeing. You get a tour of the history of rum in Cuba and the best part is the free samples at the end of the tour.
If you are interested in local artisanal products, head to the San Jose gallery by the port – it is near the rum museum, so you can do both in a short time. San Jose is a converted port with dozens of vendors selling paintings, macramé and woodwork. It can be a little touristy but a lot of fun.
Don’t miss the cigar factory/museum where you can see how the famous cigars are made by hand and purchase some to bring home.
Which is the most loved local food in Havana, both sweet and savoury?
Cuban food is underrated. Classic Cuban cuisine is in a class by itself. The ingredients and cooking methods are a combination of the influences of the people that contribute to making this such a rich culture. The Europeans contributed much of the ingredients and cooking methods. One of the cooking methods the native Americans used was placing food in a hole in the ground covered with banana leaves and roasting it with a slow fire. This method is still used to day especially to cook pork. The Africans brought to Cuba against their will as slaves contributed specific vegetables like okra and unique spices. There was a large Chinese population of about 150,000 brought to Cuba in the 1800s. They made their unique contributions and established a Chinatown which remains today, albeit greatly reduced. The Chinese contributions remain a staple of the Cuban diet.
The classic Cuban dish is called “ropa vieja” which translates into “old clothes.” This odd name comes form what the dish looks like, shredded strips of beef resembling old clothes. It is a savory combination of tomato sause, tabasco and olives and is usually accompanied by white rice. It is a unique flovor and utterly delicious.
Cubans have a major sweet tooth reflected in their deserts. The most common are “flan” a caramel custard. Also popular are casco de guayaba or guava shells in syrup usually eaten with cream cheese to counter the sweetness. Finally, there is rice pudding and cakes. The absolute epitome of a Cuban desert is pastelito de guyaba or flaky pastires filled with guava paste, yum!
Would you recommend any popular local apps to tourists for transport, food and hidden gems in Havana?
The one thing in Havana that is noticeably lacking is good connectivity. Obtaining access to wi-fi is a cumbersome process. For that reason, local apps are virtually non-existent. The process of accessing the internet in Havana is as follows:
Get a scratch off card at the local telecommunications office, ETECSA, for from 2 to 10 CUC per hour depending on where you buy it. Find a hotspot. Scratch off the code on the card and insert the number into your browser. Connect. It might take some time to connect and the speed with be slow but there you have it. If you run out of time you will be cut off. If you don’t use up all your time you can reconnect at a later date, but that process is iffy. You are better off buying a new card.
The connectivity situation in Cuba changes and things are getting better, but it is still far away from being a well-connected country.
If you really want to explore the soul of this exciting city, you must find ways to interact with the local people. Fortunately, this is very easy to do. The people are warm and friendly and love to meet new people. Enjoy!