Peggy Goldman is one of the top Cuba travel experts and specialty tour operators, serving as president and co-owner of Friendly Planet Travel, making Cuba travel even easier. Cuba Journal recently spoke with Goldman about a range of subjects, including her favorite places in Havana. Here are her picks for must-visit sites.
The garden and courtyard of the Hotel Nacional
This beautiful verdant setting of palms and occasional meandering peacock is the sought-after respite from a hot and busy day taking in the sights and sounds of Havana. Find your spot on one of the plush portico couches or wander deeper into the courtyard’s green space and settle into a rattan chair. If you’re into it, you can pull out your cigar and tell your server to bring back an ashtray as he delivers your daiquiri. From this vantage point you can see the mouth of Havana’s harbor and catch a glimpse of the lighthouse at Morro Castle. While this is a destination frequented by international tourists, you may see Cubans celebrating a wedding or a quinceanera with film and photography crew in tow.
The famous seawall that attempts to keep the ocean out of the streets of Havana happens to be the most happening social scene any weekend in Havana. The crowd of young people begins assembling as the tropical sun sets, ceding its oppressive control of the day to the cooling hours of night. The pathway swells in population as well as volume as the vibrant groups of friends continue to arrive. Don’t be intimidated by the size of this majority young Cuban crowd. Take time to say hello to strangers and be prepared to receive Cuban hospitality. Take a seat on the wall and enjoy people watching at its best. As you sit on the Malecon listening to and watching the rising generation of Cubans, Old Havana will serve as the backdrop. Ninety miles behind you is the United States and you get a feeling that your experiences in Havana have awakened you to discover that you have left your old understanding of the US behind and now see a future of better times between our nations and the people who make both countries so unique.
Plaza de Armas – in Old Havana
I love the Plaza de Armas where you find the Used Booksellers Market. You can haggle for posters, coins, stamps, cigar labels and, of course, used and new books. The posters are copies of original movies, from long before the Cuban Revolution, and some of them are framed and hanging in the lobby of Friendly Planet. Around the Plaza are several interesting museums including the lovely Havana City Museum and the Natural History Museum. You can get a drink at one of several lively cafes and see plenty of characters from the Kissy girls dressed in traditional 19th Century fruit seller outfits to performers on stilts. If you want a unique souvenir you can always find the caricature artists in this area to create a portrait for you on the spot.
Plaza Vieja – in Old Havana
This is a beautifully restored plaza that is not just a historic place but full of life – in the present. Where else but here in Havana do you have a living, breathing world heritage site where people still live and where a school is in session? I love it because it is beautifully restored and has a sense of history. It has a lovely fountain and some interesting art including a nude woman riding on a chicken that never fails to make me smile. The plaza is close to Café Taberna where you can catch a good Buena Vista style music show at night. There are several cafes and places to shop. A good place for coffee is Café El Escorial. I also enjoy seeing school children using the Plaza as their playground during their physical education class. The school is also in a building on the plaza.
The Christopher Columbus Cemetery
This place is a history-lovers nirvana. Cuban aristocracy have buried family here for generations, often under imposing, elaborate monuments you might find in Europe. It’s an outdoor sculpture garden that deserves a visit with a guide, who can explain the various tombs. There’s a wonderful scene that plays out each day, as Cubans come to the cemetery to pray at the statue of the Virgin. The places where they touch her as they pray for favors have become gray and darkened, attesting to the power of faith that still exists in this country. Another fascinating thing to see is that as people leave the area around the statue, they do so walking backwards, as a sign of respect.