Photos and Text by Liza Linklater
The Cuban capital, the largest city in the Caribbean, offers something for everyone, from beautiful colonial architecture to coconut-shaped taxis.
“Amigos, Buenos noches”, he repeatedly screamed over the fence, waking us from a deep sleep at 1 A.M. The yelling went on for five, ten minutes before it faded away. The next morning we discovered that the man’s girlfriend had supposedly thrown his wallet over the high hedge-lined perimeter of our casa in Havana. The owners had gone outside to search, in vain, for the wallet.
Nights were rarely like this, but mornings followed a pattern, with roosters crowing at 5 A.M., a neighbour’s motorcycle revving at 7:30 A.M. as he left for work, and a few big trucks noisily driving past. About two hours later, the phone rang for the elegant, 85-year-old matriarch of the household who spent much of her day talking to friends. The house was abuzz with people serving food, cleaning and gardening and friends visiting.
In the early evenings a rock band would sometimes practice across the street, and car sirens would go off, but all in all Vedado, once a home for the wealthy, is a quiet, leafy section of Havana. Scents of jasmine and mint fill the air, and it’s completely safe to stroll day or night.
We stayed at the same house for a couple of weeks over four consecutive winters and now consider the owners our friends. Even with minimal Spanish we saw a side of Cuba that those who opt for all-inclusive stays at the country’s beaches or hotels never experience.
Casa particulares, or private houses, operate as guesthouses, with owners renting out rooms in their homes for private income. The government takes a percentage even if no one is visiting. Visitors pay in cash. We paid the equivalent in convertible Cuban pesos of US$30 per night for a pleasant pink room with private bath. There are banks where you can get a cash advance on your credit card, but be sure your card is not issued by an American bank or you are out of luck. You can also bring traveller’s cheques but not those issued by American Express.
These homes can be found in travel guidebooks, and on the Web; some have e-mail addresses and most have phone numbers. We always contact them in advance but some tourists simply call once they arrive in Havana and find they are often booked up. Most homes provide breakfast, dinner, bottled water, coffee, beer or rum for Mojitos. Paladares, or private restaurants, are also plentiful in private houses or apartments in Havana.
Like many Canadians we returned to Cuba every winter for the warm weather but you may wonder why Havana, and not the beach? Havana has plenty to offer – many art museums, contemporary art galleries, historic sites, theatre, ballet, and there is always music in the air. It has been said that Havana has more cultural attractions than any other city in South America.
We spent most mornings reading on the patio in the garden among the bougainvillea, poinsettia, palms, and orange trees. We usually left around noon for leisurely walks toward old Havana, past the Art Deco and 1950s-style homes of our neighbourhood. Parts of Vedado and Miramar are modelled on 1950s Miami.
We often passed a statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench a few blocks away at the corner of Calle 17, between Calle 6 and 8. It was sculpted by Jose Villa Soberon in 2000 and carries these lines from Lennon: “You May Say That I’m a Dreamer, But I’m Not the Only One.” People have stolen John’s glasses a few times, so a guard now looks after him 24/7.
A 10-minute walk east from Parque John Lennon is the Museo de Artes Decorativas. Housed in a former residence of the wealthiest Cuban woman of the 20th century, it features a fabulous collection of decorative furnishings.
To get to Old Havana, we often wandered along the two-kilometre-long Malecon, Havana’s broad, wave-lashed oceanfront. It is especially beautiful at sunset, with the fading crimson, sun-drenched yellow-and-cobalt-blue facades glowing in the late afternoon light. Many residents like to fish, stroll, and just hang out there. It is always interesting to walk by the U.S. Interests Section building (the former U.S. Embassy) on the Malecon and view the political tit-for-tat that constantly goes on.
If we were tired or in a hurry, we could always grab a taxi or a coco-taxi, a three-wheeled coconut-shaped vehicle. Public transportation is in a state of crisis. There are few buses and those that do exist, like the camellos – long pink buses pulled by huge trucks — are always packed. You see people at all hours standing beside the road seeking lifts from those with cars. The vintage 1950s American cars — Lincolns, De Sotos, Chevrolets and Buicks — chug and belch their way along the streets. You will also see yellow school buses from Quebec – complete with Ecolier and Arrete signs. A fleet of jeepneys would be very useful here.
A city of nearly three million people, Havana is the largest city in the Caribbean. Unlike Manila, where much of its beautiful Spanish colonial architecture was destroyed in World War II, Havana’s sadily dilapidated buildings just have to contend with a lack of funds and years of neglect. Nevertheless, the architecture in the city is incredible – with everything from baroque churches, to flourishes of Art Nouveau and Deco. Although many of the buildings are rundown and weather-beaten, the slums that are so evident in other South American cities are less visible and the level of misery is much less.
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is 500 years old and features the finest surviving colonial architecture in the Americas. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, and millions of dollars have gone into restoration work. Obispo is the busiest street, and like the others is lined with 16th- and 17th- century buildings. No vehicles are allowed.
If Manila had not been bombed, it would look a lot like Havana. Some parts of restored Intramuros retain architectural resemblances to Havana. Historically, the two cities have been connected in many ways. Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti, and the Philippine’s Jose Rizal both led independence struggles against the Spanish. Then the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Paris in 1898 gave the United States control of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam. There were popular uprisings against the Americans in both countries.
Let’s continue our walk around the old city. Don’t miss visiting the Camera Obscura – it sits on top of a building on Plaza Vieja, and provides a 360-degree panoramic “moving image” of Old Havana. The camera takes 10 minutes to rotate and provides a unique live view of the city. It is the only one of its kind in the Americas.
Art is something you should definitely buy, but remember that if you purchase an original painting or print, you must get a receipt to prove you bought it at an official sales outlet. Otherwise, it may be confiscated by customs upon your departure.
There are many galleries throughout the Old Town and in Vedado. For example, there’s a contemporary art gallery above the Habana Club Rum Museum in the old town and around Plaza Vieja there are several art and photography galleries, including the Fototeca de Cuba. An outdoor art and crafts market is open from Wednesday until Saturday on Tacon Street, just outside the Plaza de la Cathedral where the buses from the Varadero beaches let off the tourists for their day trips around Havana.
Havana offers a wealth of historical monuments to explore. Our favourite is the Bellas Artes Museum beside the Museo de la Revolucion (Revolutionary Museum). There is definitely something for everyone — from the fortresses on the harbour, the scores of museums and churches, the Colon cemetery in Vedado, the Plaza of the Revolution where Fidel Castro often made his speeches and where the famous huge portrait of Che Guevara resides, Chinatown in Centro Havana, to the outdoor second-hand book market open every day except Sunday in nearby Plaza de Armes.
Near Parque Central is the Neo-Classic Capitolio Nacional which looks eerily similar to the Capital building in Washington, D.C., but a bit smaller. While there, see the art for sale, visit the Internet café and have a drink at the outdoor café overlooking the action on the street. Then stroll over to Parque Central to watch groups of men gathering to discuss baseball.
Life is lived on the streets. A typically Cuban habit is to chat outside their front doors or yell down from their balconies. One of the best things about Cuba is the enthusiastic friendliness of the racially mixed Cuban people. There is little of the tourist hustle of other places – people only try to sell cigars, Che coins, and peanuts in paper cones. If you buy cigars, be sure to get them from a registered dealer at a hotel and to ask for a receipt, or they will be confiscated at the airport.
We also enjoyed dropping in at the hotels. Most retain an atmosphere of times past like the 1930s Hotel Nacional, the Havana Libre (formerly the Hilton), the Habana Riviera, the Presidente, and the Inglaterra. Some new hotels have been built and many renovated. There are fabulous Art Deco hotels, like the Riviera on the Malecon in Vedado which was built by the mobster Meyer Lansky as a casino hotel in the 1950s. The last one to rise before the revolution, it still looks the same today.
There are about a dozen small boutique hotels that have been preserved in restored buildings and are definitely worth a visit. One such is the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where in Room 511 Ernest Hemingway stayed and wrote much of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Two doors away on Obispo Street is Café St. Domingo Altos, a great pastry shop to visit.
We had our lunches or drinks in the colonial plazas and dinners in one of the many restaurants – Italian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Chinese, even a great tapas restaurant, El Meson de la Flota on Calle de los Mercaderes off Plaza de San Francisco – and spent nights listening to jazz at the Jazz Club La Zorra y El Cuervo or the Jazz Caffe across the street from the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Vedado, or going to art / photo exhibition openings. We have even seen American films here.
Often we’d be out roaming around for 10 to 12 hours. The city pulsates with energy and music everywhere – salsa, son, rumba, reggae, rock and hip hop or gangsta rap, on the streets or in the bars, dance clubs, cabarets, theatres, and nightclubs. If you want to keep up with world news or friends, the Internet is accessible at hotels and some cafes.
If you want to explore outside the city as well, here are a few suggestions. For short day trips by bus or taxi: visit Playas del Este, the pine-fringed beaches to the east of the city; Cojimar,10 kilometres east of Havana, where Hemingway kept his boat, El Pijar and got the inspiration for the fishing village in the Old Man and the Sea; go east to visit Hemingway’s house, Finca la Vigia in San Francisco de Paula, now a museum, which takes half an hour and costs about US$30 round-trip by taxi. Or go further afield on the five-hour bus ride southeast of Havana to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Trinidad, a delightful pastel-coloured, cobblestoned colonial town with the beaches of Ancon only 12 kms to the south. Or take a day trip west to Pinar del Rio and Vinales, Cuba’s centre for nature tourism.
If you are weary of multinational box stores or fast-food restaurants, come to Havana where you won’t see any. Getting there is easy – simply connect to a direct flight from Toronto or Montreal in Canada, or go via Mexico City or Europe (you can’t enter from the United States). When in Havana, you feel you’re a whole world away.
If you choose not to stay in a Cuban home, go to www.habaguanexhotels.com where there are listings of many lovely hotels (large and small, in every price range). This chain is owned by the commercial division of the City Historian’s Office and all hotels have been tastefully restored.