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Travel Diaries: Havana Then… (2015)

I first visited Havana in August 2015. From scenes in “The Godfather” to “Guys and Dolls,” it was to be a city of my dreams, definitely a bucket-list destination for me that suddenly seemed even more possible with sanctions from the US towards Cuba decreasing.  As I mentioned in a previous post and a Fathom article I wrote, I went to Havana under a People to People visa. While there, to fulfill that requirement, I volunteered with the arts organization, Muraleando.

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Going to Havana, I didn’t have what seems to be the standard expectation: a city frozen in time. Well aware that Cuba was still a big beach destinations for many countries besides the US, I assumed it couldn’t be all that different; but the cars — I was so excited by the cars. In some ways, Havana is a bit of a relic. For me, it’s not really the lack of amenities or hospitality standards that we’re used to the US and other first world countries: I’ve seen that difference in other Caribbean and former Eastern Bloc countries I’ve visited. As I mentioned during my post of my stay at the Habana Riviera, in some areas, this country feels like a watch face smashed on January 1, 1959.  Hotel ballrooms seem haunted by a ghost of a more decadent era as tables were set and the place-settings hardly seem to have changed since. 

Coming together by Nneya Richards

But there’s more to Havana than this. It’s the color play as you see bubblegum pink restored Cadillacs on the street parked outside of a mint green mansion in Vedado. It’s the people — so much so the people — and their warm smiles welcoming you as an American to the place. I definitely felt the strong love there as a black American. There were several encounters in 2015 and in my most recent trip this May 2017 that once a person realized I was not Cuban but rather American, and a black American their eyes twinkled with excitement and pride (and then they confirmed my “Latina blood”😂). It’s also the two different worlds that exist in this city.

There’s a polish for the tourists but not too polished. Havana is old and decadent, but at the same time gritty in it’s fading glamour. In very few other cities in the world is the Capitol building and the tourist-heavy old town alongside where locals live; El Capitolio casting it’s grand shadow over rations markets. Reggaeton can be heard blasting from a side street alley as you pose for a photo at Plaza de las Armas. I encourage you to get lost down those side streets and alleys and get a glimpse of the real Havana. That’s what I did. Here’s a photo diary from my trip there in 2015.

Heading to Capital in Old Havana

heading towards old Havana


1 at airport Nneya Richards IMG_5875

We booked through ABC Charters for our 2015 trip to Havana. Our charter flight left early AM from Tampa and ABC made it pretty seamless.

2 Landing Jetblue Nneya Heather IMG_2076

The charter flight was operated through JetBlue. Here’s my mom and I upon landing, we couldn’t wait to see what Havana had in store for us.


For most of our trip, my mother and I stayed at Casa Lilly in Vedado. Not only was it an incredible way to experience the city, in a casa particular, but it also was situated in Vedado, an awesome neighborhood we might not have otherwise explored. Vedado means “forbidden” in Spanish, referencing the neighborhood’s past as a military zone and forest. From the 1850s it became residential and was designed on a grid system. The streets have numbers and letters making it one of the easiest places to navigate in Havana.

Sunrise from Vedado by Heather Walker

sunrise over Vedado

A wealthy neighborhood once rife with American investors and sugar cane families, the mansions in Vedado are spectacular: think fountains, grand marble staircases, completely opulent. Many of these properties are still single-family homes, but a remarkable number of them were converted into state offices, government-sponsored cultural centers, and embassies after the 1959 Cuban revolution. The neighborhood and these beautiful buildings are also home to some of Havana’s best restaurants and nightlife. Really, on my most recent trip after not staying in Vedado, I realized what a pain it was to find a good, basic meal in Havana.

4 Blues in vedado by Nneya Richards

Staying at Casa Lilly, we hopped right into exploring what seemed to be the posher, Upper East Side of Havana.

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on the same street as our casa particular, Hotel Presidente

6 IMG_9771 copy7 Mansion in Vedado by Nneya Richards

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there were definitely moments in Vedado that I forgot that I was in Cuba and felt instead that I was in Paris, or Madrid.

9 Ballet in Vedado by Nneya Richards

the wonderful thing about Vedado is that it’s teeming with culture, like Cuba’s national ballet.

10 Blk Car Cruisin in Havana by Nneya Richards

11 Mosaic Mansion in Vedado by Nneya Richards

the beautiful tile work

Vedado landmark hotels like the Hotel Nacional, the Capri, and the Riviera (below) are towering odes to 1950’s Cuba, when it seems American gangsters and their gambling enterprises controlled the island. Meyer Lansky owned the Riviera before it was nationalized. The who’s who of Hollywood and the American elite at the time treated Havana as their playground.

12 Habana Riviera by Nneya Richards

We spent a day/night at the Habana Riviera and wow was it a throwback

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13 Nneya at Habana Riviera by Nneya Richards

see more on my Habana Riviera post for more

14 nneya habana rivera blk and white by nneya richards

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part of why we checked in to Habana Riviera… INTERNET. Although I do love the feeling of checking out while in Cuba. WiFi is so slow it almost doesn’t seem worth it unless you have serious business to attend to.

15 Park in Vedado by Nneya Richards

appealing bench in Vedado

16 School in Vedado by Nneya Richards

17 vedado orange taxis by nneya richards

the beautiful color play

18 Run down Vedado by Nneya Richards

even for all of it’s ritzy polish, Vedado is still Cuba and there’s grit that comes to the surface

58 FullSizeRender 2320 Looking up at the sky in vedado by Nneya Richards21 IMG_9843 copy

22 me and mom w casa lily crew by nneya richards

My mom and I with the owners at Casa Lilly. It was such a pleasure to stay at their beautiful casa particular with these incredible views of Vedado.

3 Breakfast at Casa Lilly by Nneya Richards

When staying in an Air BNB, Casa Particular etc, always say yes to the breakfast. It’s usually under 5/6 CUCs and you get a very full spread. I loved starting my day with tons of fresh cut fruit and juices.

27 Nneya w Housekeeper by Nneya Richards

Anna and I. Anna made the best breakfast hands down that I’ve experienced in Cuba (both trips, all cities). I loved being greeted by her warm smile and beautiful eyes every morning.

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Anna’s amazing breakfast.

25 Red Car at National Hotel by Nneya Richards

Couldn’t help but posing in front of this hot rod at Hotel Nacional

26 Looking down at night on Avenida Presidente in Vedado by Nneya Richards

The night view from our balcony at Casa Lilly

19 Man carrying fish in vedado by Nneya Richards

The people: Cuban daily life, man walking down the street in Vedado with a fresh catch.

28 older couple in Vedado by Nneya Richards

30 Viva Revolucion by Nneya Richards

The spirit of Che is everywhere in this country. From the walls…

29 Che Tattoo by nneya Richards

to the body…

31 Granma

Cuban daily paper, Granma, named after Castro’s revolutionary boat

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A visit into a Cuban bookstore

33 Arab Havana by Nneya Richards

Hints of the Arab area of Havana

34 Blue Car Chinatown by Nneya Richards

that pop of blue

35 Centro Habana Side Street by Nneya Richards

Majestic side streets

36 Centro Habana Yellow Building by Nneya Richards

Thanks to Julio, my mom got a true local’s view of Centro Habana

37 Train Capitol Car by Nneya Richards

El Capitolio looms in the distance

38 Pastel Colors on Buildings by Nneya Richards

Havana’s beauty exposing itself at every seam.

We spent a beautiful rainy day exploring Old Havana. The city kind of reminded me of the magic of Paris in the rain. Still beauty, still curiosities at every turn.

39 Plaza de Armas by Nneya Richards

40 Paseo del Prado Morrocan Building by Nneya Richards

I absolutely fell in love with this building.

42 Moroccan building by Nneya RuchardsProcessed with VSCO with v5 preset60 Paseo del Prado by Nneya Richards

41 Nneya on Wet Paseo del Prado by Nneya Richards

Paseo del Prado

51 Mom black and white on old Habana Malecon by Nneya Richards

52 black and white plaza de armas after the rain by Nneya Richards

In 2015, I was able to capture a shot like this, devoid of tourists.

55 old cars on Malecon after the rain by Nneya Richards

Classic Malecón shot

56 old Habana Bay by Nneya Richards

Havana bay

53 Blues on the water by Nneya Richards

43 Outside Rations Market in Centro Habana by Nneya Richards

A glimpse in a rations market

44 Rations Market in Centro Habana by Nneya Richards

45 Centro Havana Turquoise by Nneya Richards

Matching cars and buildings

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Central Havana is vibrant.

47 IMG_0098 edit48 IMG_0075 edit49 IMG_0270 copy50 IMG_9802 copy57 Centro Havana blue Car by Nneya Richards

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Callejón de Hamel, an Afro-Cuban art project

54 Calle Jamel Looking Up by Nneya Richards

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with one of the artists at Hamel

61 Motorcycle Blur by Nneya Richards62 Red Car in Havana by Nneya RichardsProcessed with VSCO with m3 preset65 IMG_597366 IMG_229367 IMG_2308

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A night at Casa Castro

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78 My Mom with Julio by Nneya Richards

Meeting Julio was an amazing introduction to the spirit of the Cuban people. Open, friendly, and eager to share everything they have.

74 Dancing in Hemingway Bar by Nneya Richards

Dancing with Julio at Floridita

73 centro habana blue wall and old lady by Nneya Richards

75 Goat Guy by Nneya Richards

It’s the people of this city that get me every time.

76 guys hanging out on the corner by Nneya Richards77 IMG_222979 IMG_603280 Vedado at Night by Nneya Richards

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