An honest view of Havana, Cuba
By Helen Wright
The taxi that brought me from the airport had a hole in the side so large I could fit my whole wrist through it. As I rattled along the Van Troy road, my rather excitable driver chatted to me in confusing part-English, part-Spanish sentences. Braking suddenly and frequently, he kept stopping to show me random places of interest. His interest. ‘Donde yo nací – me, baby’ he grins, pointing at a large brick building. I presume from the loose translation that this was his place of birth. ‘Christopher Columbus’ he gestures, as we pass another nondescript address. It’s only after we turn the corner that I realise he is pointing to the sea. I look back, but not much can be seen from the rearview mirror due to the plume of smoke that follows his rusty Buick.
It’s not just the cars in Cuba that are in desperate need of a makeover. There are few cities in the world as instantly recognisable as Havana but as we rumble into the Plaza Vieja, the oldest square, I can’t help but notice the bright Cuban colour made famous by a million postcard images, seems to have lost its lustre. Havana in the 1950s was in full swing. A favourite destination of The Rat Pack and Rita Hayworth, the Cuban capital had never been hotter. Then, in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his government took control of the country, everything was put on ice. Havana and its people were suddenly frozen in time. A glance at the world famous Hotel Nacional and you can almost smell the trunk of Sinatra’s Cohiba cigar, still balanced in its ashtray waiting for the star to come back and finish where he left off. Fast forward 50 years of communism and the famous city, dusty and sunlight-faded, lends itself more to a classic movie set than the photoshopped image I was expecting.
Walk the city
The morning sun, already high in the sky by 9am, wakes me up so I decide to explore the city on foot and take in my unique surroundings. Outside, the smell of petrol resonates, pumping from the ancient vehicles like a signature perfume. Crossing the road is a complicated task. There’s no mistaking its Caribbeaness with an almost horizontal attitude to the highway code. I dodge motorcycles, huge 50s trucks and the odd donkey pulling a cart. Grateful to make it across in one piece, I round the side of the impressive Bacardi building, an art deco structure built in the 20s to welcome prohibition era Americans, and head toward Old Havana. This area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 and despite a violent history, Havana shows little in the way of battle scars. The imposing Baroque buildings stand as bold and proud as they did 100 years ago. The residential areas haven’t fared so well. On the side streets, topsy turvy brick buildings are crumbling under the south-westerly ocean winds. Not that it seems to bother its residents who happily fly the national flag, which flutters in the wind alongside a zig zag of laundry hanging as far as the eye can see.
I head to the Museo de la Revolución, a former presidential palace which is now the city’s biggest museum. It’s worth a visit, if not just to see the spray of bullet holes left in the marble entrance from the day President Batista was overthrown. For those, like me, whose history could use a refresher, you’re given plenty of info to explain how Cuba’s troubled past has shaped its present. The country’s adopted son, Che Guevara (who was born in Argentina), features prominently but not just here at the museum. His image, probably one of the most iconic faces of all time, is everywhere. At the market in old Havana’s Cathedral Square, his iconographic portrait smoulders out from T shirts, mugs, ashtrays and awful Warhol-style oil paintings. Each item has the same image: a glamorous, youthful Che staring out from under his black beret. It’s a romantic picture; the nation’s hero. I find he is well loved by Cubans and his noble gaze even presides over the Plaza de la Revolucion in the form of an enormous wall mural.
Soak up the scene
I head back to Calle Obispo, the main artery of the city and the heart of Havana. Music blares out from bars and cafes and a brass band has set up for an impromptu performance to impress tourists. As the sun settles across the colonial rooftops, the sky is awash with shades of saffron. The dust on the street scorched golden and shimmering in a heat haze. It’s a cheerful scene. On the street, Habaneros, inhabitants of Habana, spend the warm summer evenings sitting at a table on the pavement outside playing dominos and putting the world to rights. I take position at an outdoor bar and sip from a seriously strong Cuba Libre (rum, coke and lime), happy to people watch until the early hours.
The next morning, nursing my Havana hangover I ease myself up. Through the window I can hear the percussion of the city in full rhythm. Ignoring the drumming in my head I step out into the midday sun flushed with the warm reception that greets me. Wherever you walk in Havana, people on the street clamour for your attentions, offering to show you the sights and give you tours. The more successful hustlers play up to their Cuban charm and once you get talking you’ll see that most Cubans are friendly, good natured and humorous. It wasn’t long before I made friends with Tony, a twenty something ‘tour guide’ who hangs about outside my hotel. He learns my name straight away and waves furiously as I emerge through the revolving door. Eventually, I give in and decide to take Tony’s tour. I pile into his rusty 1950’s Ford convertible (the roof is long gone) and a driver takes us around all the major tourist sites, while Tony jabbers away about Beckham and asks if you can buy Nike shoes easily in England. We sail past the Partagas Cigar factory, Capatillo building and the Malecon sea wall and eventually pull up outside a roadside bar, Dos Hermanos (two brothers). ‘The best mojito’s are here,’ he says, effortlessly leaping out without opening the door. Easing myself up from the sticky hot leather, I wander inside, grateful of the shade. Almost two hours of slow cruising in the baking sun and I was starting to frazzle. The bar was simple, with a cool Caribbean feel and wooden shutters that opened onto the street. A steel band playing in the corner really set the scene. And Tony was right, it was a great mojito. ‘Can you dance?’ Tony grins, excitably grabbing me by the forearm and forcing me to spin in what space we had between the rickety tables and an oversized cola machine. Despite explaining I had absolutely no rhythm, he insisted I visit Club Salsendo Chevere, a dance hall, later that night. ‘You’ll see the Cuban salsa,’ he smiles, doing a kind of Elvis hip wiggle. He finds this hilarious and begins laughing hysterically. I roll my eyes but can’t help but smile.
By early evening, the sound of my stomach groaning was drowning out the music. Food in Cuba is notoriously bad and the only way to eat is in Paladores, pop-up restaurants squeezed into family homes. They are legally only allowed to seat 12, and are forbidden from serving lobster or steak for fear of competing with the government owned places, but everyone bends the rules. I ask Tony if he knew where La Guarida was, Havana’s best known paladar, but he shakes his head furiously and manages to persuade me to visit another of his recommendations. We pull up outside an unlikely eatery, nestled in a dimly-lit street with net curtains and a stable like front door. I could hear the muffled sound of TVs humming from the neighbouring houses. Inside, Tony greets the owner with a warm hug and introduces me. Then, gratefully accepting a tip for his troubles, he waves goodbye and disappears into the night. Looking around, I’m not even sure if the place qualifies as a legal paladar. It looks more like a family’s quirky living room. Personal photographs and knick-knacks line the walls and mantle. But before I can make an escape, my starter, a spicy plantain soup, is placed in front of me. Tempted by the infusion of smells wafting up, I take my first mouthful. It tastes wonderful; creamy, spicy, flavoursome and after two days, my first experience of real Cuban cooking. I make a mental note to thank Tony if I see him again. My host speaks limited English but is warm and friendly. As I tuck into my grilled shrimp main, I am joined by an elderly lady clutching a guitar. She stares at me for a while and then begins playing her instrument and singing in Spanish. It’s an odd moment but even though I have no idea what she’s saying I find myself clapping along with the strumming. A few songs in and we’re joined by a little boy of four or five who gleefully joins in, singing every line. Rounding off the meal with a cup of the rich local coffee, I realise how wonderful it was to experience three generations of Cubans happily existing in their own home. It took me back to a simpler time where familes ate dinner together and we were entertained with live music and not Myspace.
Stepping into the warm night I decided to take Tony’s advice and visit the infamous Salseando Chévere dance club that night. Half expecting it to be a dive bar on a seedy back street, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The club was throbbing with energy. Tourists in shorts and t-shirts sashayed with professional salsa dancers and there was a good helping of locals to give the place an authentic vibe.
Popular songs were accompanied by whoops of delight. Skilful dancers seemed to appear out of nowhere, weaving through each other and swapping partners without missing a beat. Finding a space on the dance floor isn’t easy but with the music as intoxicating as the cocktails, it isn’t long before you’re up shimmying with the best. By the end of the night the whole room was vibrating in an almost choreographed formation. I left in the early hours, sweaty, exhilarated, happy.
Sure, this club, like the rest of the city could use a lick of paint and a 21st century kick up the backside, but I realise Havana’s appeal is its earthy authenticity. This is no trussed-up tourist resort, intent on keeping up appearances – what you see is what you get. The city might be showing its age in many ways but that’s no bad thing. Who knows how long Cuba can keep its unique homage to the past. I found an amazing place in Havana, one that no longer exists anywhere else. Its people may be cut off from the world but they have energetic zest for life. The buildings may be tired and crumbling but the people show no signs of fading.
Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Havana, Cuba from London (from £499)