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Top Ten Things You SHOULD Do When in Havana

1. DO walk a lot. Just like a lot of other places, Havana is best enjoyed on foot. Every walk you take, regardless if you are going to a specific destination or just taking a stroll, will be an adventure, but what kind of adventure, I leave to you to create and discover.

2. DO talk to people. Being it in English, Spanish, Spanglish or the language of hand gestures and facial expressions, it will make it an unforgettable personal experience that no tour guide can give you and you will be pleasantly surprised with the broad knowledge and the level of education of an average Cuban.

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Beauty in decay

3. DO try street food. I’ve consumed countless ice creams, churros, mini pizzas and take away boxes containing the staple of everyday Cuban cuisine-rice, meat and salad, and I never had any stomach problems. I try to stay away from burgers for fear they may be undercooked, but if I see pan con lechon sandwiches being sold on a street corner, with that wonderful mojo they squirt on top, I’m first in line. Fresh fruit is easy to find; there are many mobile carts selling fruit and vegetables, especially in Havana Vieja and Centro Havana.

4. DO take colectivos and guaguas. It is a misconception that foreigners are not allowed to use colectivos-large 50’s American cars that somehow still keep going, and serving as communal taxis. The first person to get in determines which way it’s going, otherwise they use pre-set routes along major streets and avenues. All you need to do is stand on a street corner, raise your hand if you see one approaching, and if it stops, tell the driver where you want to go. If he’s headed that way-in you go, if not-just wait for the next one. For a fraction of the price of a regular taxi, it will bring you very close to your destination and along the way will give you the opportunity for some close-up people watching. Guagua is simply a word Cubans use for a public bus. Even though the buses are extremely crowded, and of course, there is no air conditioning, you’ll have the opportunity to rub elbows, and I mean that literally, with some honest blue collar (and white collar, for that matter) bread winners. You can do it once, just for the heck of it, and it certainly won’t kill you.

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Ants invade Teatro Fausto at the 11th Havana Biennial in 2012

5. DO immerse yourself in the art scene. Havana is one big art gallery, and I’m not just talking about the architecture and beautiful façade ornaments that will surround you wherever you go. At any time of year, you will be treated to exciting and inspiring art, either in a traditional gallery setting or an impromptu open air one, especially during the Havana biennial which takes place in May/June (this year it is May 22nd to June 22nd).

6. DO go to the beach. Havana beaches are to the East of the city, easily accessible after about a half hour drive. Even though they are not as nice as some beaches in other parts of Cuba and are pretty crowded, especially in the summer, they are worth visiting. The ocean is fairly clean, save for the occasional dead white rooster the waves wash on to the beach (hello, Santeria!). On weekends in July and August, it is quite amusing to watch Cuban families devour unbelievable quantities of food and drink in the shade of a makeshift shelter. Drinks (mostly beer) are often consumed in the ocean as well, with laughter and music coming from everywhere. Cubans certainly know how to have fun.

7. DO visit La Finca Vigia. Situated on the outskirt of Havana, in San Francisco de Paula, it was what Ernest Hemingway called home for over twenty years. He purchased the property in 1940 and lived there until 1960, when he moved back to the States and shortly after, committed suicide. La Finca Vigia is a unique museum which you are forbidden from entering. No, I’m not joking. The house is preserved just as it was when Hemingway still lived there, with all of the furniture, books, vinyl records, magazines, and stuffed heads of all the animals he mercilessly killed on hunting trips in Africa. If you look close enough, you can even see his handwritten daily weight chart on the bathroom wall. You can look at everything only through the open doors and windows, but that’s what makes this place so magically frozen in time. It seems that at any moment Ernesto could materialize in front of you, and if there were any water in it, you could even envision Ava Gardner swimming naked in the pool on a hot summer night. Ah, those wonderful 50’s!

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Ernest Hemingway’s dining room

8. DO hire a guide. Even though I am personally not a fan of guided tours, in Havana you can hire a guide who will cater to your preferences-a colonial architecture tour, an Art Deco tour, a historic tour, or a little bit of everything tour, you will be happy you did it, and for a moderate price, too. Word of advice. Don’t hire a guide on the street, instead, do some research of reputable agencies based in the city. Here’s a source for an excellent, professional agency that can provide you with a guide who speaks the language of your choice and can design a custom tour. www.jorge-cubaholidays.com

9. DO explore the music scene. Even if you don’t know much about Cuban music and are having trouble making a difference between salsa, rumba and son, I guarantee you that you won’t be able to sit still when listening to Cuban music, especially if it’s performed live. If you are shy about dancing in public, your feet will be doing some crazy dance moves under the table. There is a ridiculous number of excellent musicians in Cuba and you can expect to be blown away by even an ordinary three person street band serenading you from the sidewalk while you are taking a coffee break or having lunch. If you prefer listening to well-known musicians in a music genre of your choice, there are many concerts year round in numerous theaters and music venues. The biggest challenge will be finding out who is playing, when and where, as Havana doesn’t have a publication with cultural event listings. Let’s hope that changes soon. Until then, your best source is Cuba Absolutely (www.cubaabsolutely.com) with their monthly “What’s on Havana!” guide.

10. DO enjoy yourself. Focus on the positive and beautiful, on the cheerful nature of Cuban people and their admirable ability to create beauty where there is poverty and decay all around. If you let them, they will disarm you with their hugs and kisses, their endless curiosity and joie de vivre.

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