Travel writing: Havana, Cuba

‘Tu casa,’ our suave taxi driver exclaims, as we pull up to the Hotel Lido, in a classic 1956 Ford, known locally as ‘Máquina’. The hotel nestles in a cobbled side-street in La Habana Vieja district, at the heart of the Cuba’s capital, Havana.

The cluck of chickens and the patter of children’s sandals as they play soccer on the pavement detracts from the brightly painted buildings aligning the street. Vibrant clothes dry on balconies, as men sit below playing cards on overturned buckets used as makeshift tables and chairs. The smoke from their famous Cuban cigars fans across the narrow street, and into the neatly marbled reception of the Lido.

‘Chicos’ the suited porter wails, as he ushers us toward the reception desk. The clink of glasses can be heard as three bearded men are served Cuba Libres at the bar. The receptionist hands over the keys to one of the 65 rooms available in the hotel. The air-conditioned en-suite rooms are conservatively decorated and considerately arranged, in contrast to the vim and vigour of the street side. Strolling to the top floor, cooling your feet on the marble staircase, you reach the concrete of the sunburnt flat-top roof.

Encompassed by orange-tinted paving, corroded steel sheltering and satellite dishes from the densely packed building blocks, you feel as if you are peering into a Caribbean shanty-town. As your eyes focus they capture the baroque figures of various edifices, with the occasional neo-classical French inspired architecture. Of which, el Capitolio, or National Capital building, the old seat of the Cuban government, is moments from the Lido’s doorstep. Even the faint beat of conga drums and clatter of maracas can be heard erupting into a complete salsa rhythm at night from various corners.

The cleaning staff engage in regular banter, as the hotel manager’s wife looks on with a wry smile, peeking over a copy Granma, the island’s communist magazine, whilst lightly sipping tea. Breakfast is a typically demure affair, limited to two slices of ham, cheese and an egg, rationed carefully, just as hot water is turned-off on Wednesday mornings. The sound of Spanish novellas, or TV dramas, can be heard echoing through the corridor from various rooms, when the commotion outside ceases temporarily.

The Lido cannot compete with the mod-con amenities offered by some of Havana’s hotels, but for what it offers in simplicity, it delivers in unique character and authenticity.

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