As we step out the door of our temporary home in Havana, I am bombarded by a contrasting mix of sights and smells: Diesel fumes and baking bread, bicycle taxis playing loud music bumping along potholed streets past vendors calling out to passersby, their carts loaded with tropical fruits and colourful vegetables.
I hold my three-year-old daughter's hand tightly as we continue down the cobblestone street, but she pulls free and runs ahead. My husband, Josh, sprints to catch her, and an old woman clucks and smiles as she watches him toss her onto his shoulders.
"Que linda," (how cute) she says, smiling.
Old Havana is a tightly woven maze of narrow roads, closed in by colonial buildings in various states of repair, with Habaneros swarming the streets day and night, alerted to the presence of vehicles behind them by noisy clunking engines or the 'honk-honk' of the slowly moving drivers warning them to step out of the way.
Forgoing a beachside all-inclusive vacation in Cuba, we opt for a week of culture in Havana. Staying in the family-friendliest option available, a Casa Particular -- somewhere between a homestay and a bed and breakfast -- we're spending a week getting to know the family and wandering through the history-filled streets of a city that holds surprises around every corner.
Havana is a remarkably easy place to be a tourist. The Old City is compact and walkable, filled with fascinating buildings, museums, squares, excellent restaurants and entertaining people-watching. Cubans are helpful and warm, and love children. Family activities abound: There are numerous museums with kid-friendly exhibits, an aquarium, four historical squares for running around in, and an enormous children's park with jumping castles, playgrounds and pony rides on the weekends.
We start our explorations at the Plaza de Armas, Havana's oldest square. Crossing a park filled with bougainvillea and palm trees, surrounded by impressive colonial-era buildings, April chases the pigeons congregating around the benches. Stands covered with second-hand books line the perimeter of the park, and women in brightly coloured costumes with baskets of flowers mill about, posing for photos and chatting with tourists.
We dodge cars on the busy waterfront road and safely reach the water's edge. Looking across the bay from Havana we see two enormous fortresses. The one farther north, El Morro, is a symbol of Havana; with a tall lighthouse, it stands on a rocky outcrop at the edge of the sea.
A bus stop just up the waterfront pathway marks the starting point of the Habana Bus Tour, a hop-on hop-off double-decker bus that we use to familiarize ourselves with the city. The tour takes us up the famous Malecon, where the Habaneros sit by the water's edge, fishing, chatting or simply staring out to sea.
We descend into Centro Habana, passing the Revolutionary Museum, outside of which sit planes, vehicles and weapons used during the revolutionary wars. We continue to the Parque Central, across from which we get an impressive view of the Capitolio -- a smaller replica of the U.S. Capitol Buildings in Washington, D.C.
The tour lasts almost two hours and we see much of the city's varied neighbourhoods while April entertains other passengers with her boisterous antics. Locals wave and blow kisses as we pass, and our above-ground view allows peeks into bustling markets and the many crumbling buildings that characterize the city.
We finally disembark back at the Capitolio and go in search of food. There are so many options, I'm glad of our Time Out Havana guidebook, which lists detailed suggestions. While the country might not be famous for its food, we are delighted to discover authentic Cuban cuisine is delicious.
The best restaurants are inexpensive and generous, and typical dishes include lobster, shrimp or pork accompanied by Moros y Christianos -- black beans and white rice -- and simple salads. And then, of course, there are the mojitos and pi±a coladas, which at a dollar or two each are hard to resist.
We decide to try out a paladar -- a small restaurant in a Cuban person's home. Turning onto a side street, I spot the sign for La Casa Julia. A young Cuban man rises from his seat outside the door, and welcomes us into what appears to be the front room of his house. The decor is enjoyably kitsch, with an enormous painting of a bare-breasted jungle goddess accompanied by a lion and tiger on the wall, and brightly coloured wooden fruit and plastic flowers decorating the tables. Multi-coloured lights twinkle on the mint-green walls.
The food is delicious in the way mom's home cooking should be. We order marinated lamb in tomato sauce and roast chicken, accompanied by rice, black beans and cucumber and tomato slices. We have to restrain from licking our plates.
While travelling with a little kid means fewer museums and shorter days, I learn to embrace this style of seeing the city. The Plaza Vieja, an enormous 16th-century residential square, becomes a favourite spot for April. There are wide-open spaces and dozens of pigeons to terrorize. It's also the perfect place to stop for a drink: We sit down at the Factora Plaza Vieja, and Josh and I order pints of their house-brewed beers, watching in amazement as waiters place oversized mini-kegs on the tables of others.
Of course, being in Cuba, we can't skip the beach altogether. A 20-minute bus ride from Old Havana takes us to the stunning white-sand beaches of the Playas del Este. We arrive to a sprinkling of rain, but Josh isn't dismayed.
April shrieks as she runs into the surf and we get a half-hour to play in the waves before the sky unleashes an epic torrent upon us. Huddling under a beach umbrella, April and I sit enrobed in a soaked -- but warm -- towel while Josh continues to swim and then stands on the beach, defiantly staring out to the horizon.
On our final day, in an attempt to see the Cuban countryside, we go on an organized excursion to the Pinar del Rio province to the west of Havana. The Valle de Vi±ales is touted as one of Cuba's most beautiful regions, with limestone hills that jut out of the earth and some of the richest soil in the country.
Our 25-year-old tour guide is a fount of knowledge and answers our many questions about Cuban life. We go to rum and cigar factories, a tobacco farm where Josh smokes a cigar rolled for him by the farmer, and a stunning lookout point from which we survey the limestone hills and are encouraged to buy pi±a coladas while sitting and considering the view.
A local farmer with a large white bull signals to us to put April onto his massive beast, and she grins broadly as he leads her around. The man smiles and guides her through the parking lot toward the rest of the tourists, who snap photographs. We finally pull her off. She talks about the bull for the rest of the afternoon.
We convince our guide to let us eat before the afternoon's activities and, after a traditional Cuban lunch, we visit some limestone caves, where we see the work of thousands of years of water and calcium in the form of spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. Our final stop is a mural of Cuban prehistory, painted on a mountainside after the end of the revolution, featuring animals that were discovered in fossilized form in the region.
Exhausted, we nap on the return bus ride and arrive back in Havana after dark. For less than an all-inclusive vacation, we have eaten and drank to our hearts' content, made some great friends and spent a relaxing week so far from the reality of life at home that it's hard to believe we're going back in the morning.
At the top of the stairs to our guest house, we find the living room filled with extended family members. It is the grandmother's birthday. We're ushered inside and handed plates heaped with food.
A six-year-old girl shyly greets April and they play until well past their bedtimes. Watching the girls together, I grin when I think of the irrelevance of language barriers. Biting into a slice of birthday cake, surrounded by the cacophony of a good party, I cannot think of a better way to end a week-long visit to this sunny and welcoming island.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
To book a stay at a Casa Particular (Cuban homestay) go to havanahomestay.com or casaparticularcuba.org . Double-occupancy rooms cost $25-$35 per night. Breakfast usually costs around $5, and there are small extra fees per extra person.
Tourists pay for everything in CUC (pesos convertibles), which is valued at US$1. You can change your money at banks and Casas de Cambio. Make sure to take enough Canadian dollars to last you the duration of the entire trip and cover all expenses including accommodation. While your bank might claim you can withdraw money at a Cuban ATM, this is highly unlikely. Credit cards are not widely accepted, although you can use them at some hotels, restaurants and cigar shops.
Day trip to Vi±ales: $55 adults, $41 for kids under 12 (includes an enormous lunch). Visit Gaviota Travel Agency at gaviota-grupo.com . You can book tickets through any Cuban tourist agency.
Where to eat:
La Casa Julia, Calle O'Reilly No. 506A, phone 53-862-7438, mains CUC $8-$10. One of the oldest paladares in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), it features delicious large portions with rice and beans and vegetables or salad.
El Chanchullero de Tapas, Calle Teniente Rey (Brasil) No. 457A, 53-862-8227, mains CUC $3-$4.50. Delicious meat dishes with sautéed vegetables in flavourful sauces served with crusty bread and shredded vegetables. Excellent cocktails for CUC $2 and up. Don't skip dessert. The flan is to die for.
Castropol, Malecon No. 107, 53-861-4864, mains CUC $3-$12. Eat upstairs on the balcony overlooking the ocean. It's a favourite of Cubans and tourists alike. Your bill might add up more quickly here, but the food and service make it worth it. The seafood is some of the best in the city.