Havana's spell is a real mystery. On the one hand, the city is exponentially falling apart, and on the other, it stands proudly with unusual force. Things are happening, moving forward, and the so-called 'change' was as imperceptible as it was undeniable until just a second ago. A whole new Cuba is now on the rising much quicker than ever imaginable. During the last weeks of summer, the torrid and sticky days are almost unbearable, finding a fresh salad is a doubtful business and the occasional blackout isn't entirely a thing of the past. Still, the wit, charisma and self-confidence of the people never cease to amaze me, as much as the city's peculiar and intoxicating charm remains hopelessly bewitching. So much has been said about what the future holds for this city, my birthplace and where I return often, yet the answers are still uncertain. For now, in this very moment of transition and optimism, here is a tiny taste of my darling Havana.
Pastelería Francesa in Paseo Del Prado
From this hub, located next to Hotel Inglaterra, you can sip a café and devour a "señorita" (a Cuban desert called The Virgin), while your eyes adapt to the inconceivable fashion and mystique of the Havana runway. Next, a walk in Paseo del Prado, surrounded by an exquisite architectural diversity where the intricacy of baroque balconies abuts with façades of art deco and art nouveau. At Parque Central, on Paseo, different groups of baseball amateurs discuss in complete euphoria, while the most flamboyant transvestites glide their way across in tall heels, a mother is holding her baby with one arm and on the other arm she's carrying an uncovered merengue cake because there is no such thing as packaging just yet. The city in that area is like a pressure cooker about to explode. More Havana than this Havana: impossible.
Museo de los Orishas
There are many museums and galleries in Old Havana which are worth a visit. Museo de los Orishas, however, is one of the most unique. It's small, although unusual and intriguing, where sculptures and landscapes are decorated with attributes that represent the different Afro-Cuban gods. In the times of slavery, the Yoruba people that were brought to the New World were not allowed to build temples or reproduce images of their gods, the Orishas, which is why they had no choice but to syncretize their gods with those of the Catholic Church. The store located on the first floor is another destination unto itself.
Hotel Parque Central's Panoramic Views
One of the fanciest hotels in Havana. My local family had no clue a place like this even existed. Exclusively for hotel guests, the rooftop is never crowed, which is what makes this spot so special. From there, you see another world. You see the rawness of this metropolis vibrating on the rooftops terraces of other buildings, which are like the open mouths of Havana. Through the clotheslines filled with undergarments, everyday scenes are filtered. Many homing pigeon trainers at work, vianderos hawking fruits and vegetables, dominoes players with their usual clatter, ceremonies of worship, children running and shooting at each other with fake guns as if in an air force battlefield, the occasional couple mating in some corner and neighbors passing the only community telephone between buildings. There are organic vegetable gardens wildly growing, gothic parties, women throwing buckets of water onto the floor following old traditions of cleaning, hairdressers and barbers, private outdoor gyms, mini theaters... all part of a bigger theater seen from above.
A great meal along with good service in Havana had been for a long time a rather chimerical concept, until recently. This restaurant stands out for its friendly atmosphere, great service and taste, location location location (on the water), wide range of wines and mixed drinks, and above all, the fantastic and unheard of salad bar (a luxury in this city).
Cuban Jazz continues to be a protagonist in the world´s music scene. El Gato Tuerto, an intimate Jazz Club in the Vedado neighborhood, still retains its alluring and decadent soul of a woman who has been deceived and abandoned by her true love. The live music begins at 11p.m.: Filin, descarga, experimental Jazz: you can hear it all here. Just a few blocks away is La Zorra y el Cuervo, the most famous Jazz Club in Havana, where a mix of tourist and locals coincide until the wee hours of the night, listening to the most prominent musicians in Cuba.
La Feria de San José at the Puerto de La Habana
If you want to take home a nugget of this island, this indoor arts and crafts market is just right. The vendors are friendly and accommodating, and the artisanal variety is overwhelming. If you're patient and inspect thoroughly, you may find quality antiques for unthinkably low prices. A fresh coconut water with rum is the perfect opportunity to regroup your thoughts after a few rounds through these jammed hallways of merchandise.
From the feria, you can walk to the Plaza de la Catedral, one of my favorite places in La Habana Vieja, and in the world, really. The baroque church was restored for Pope Francis's visit last year is a relic worth seeing. Like many of the churches in the city, the façade made of stones contains corals and fossils of the marine flora and fauna. The other buildings bordering the plaza are also of great scenic attraction, and the terraces are usually animated by live music from local bands. For about five CUCs or dollars, the santeras, wearing flashy outfits with thick cigars peering out of their mouths, insist on reading your fate. In a small table they keep their cards ready to be drawn, next to a tall glass of water and a black doll dressed in white for protection from the evil spirits. Do it!
A new little gem of a paladar (a restaurant managed from a private home) that has become a favorite. The service and the dishes (with a modern twist to the typical cuisine) are simply stellar. In my opinion, they serve the best cocktails in Havana, and the pineapple juice with albahaca (Cuban basil) will make an impression.
A Drive Around Town 50s style
You'll want to see the maremagnum of vintage cars that gives the city that time capsule aspect. Recently, a new taxi service of old Chevrolets found in front of most hotels is becoming a thing. The fee is about $50 (negotiable) for a two-hour ride around town passing through different neighborhoods along the seawall. A few minutes from Vedado, on the other side of the Malecón tunnel on 5nta Avenida (5th Avenue), begins the parade of luxurious mansions and small palaces of Miramar. They are as ostentatious or more so than those in Vedado, in a style influenced by Neocolonial and Neo-modern architecture. If you are interested in cigars La Casa del Habano on 5nta Avenida is on the Way.
El Bosque, Havana's Lung
El Bosque, set deep amid the roaring traffic's boom, is an undisturbed magical forest somewhat unkempt and abandoned to its own fate. It's just a small fragment of the Almendares Park, the largest urban natural area in all of Cuba. It´s a place of reflection where you feel automatically restored, filled with magnificent giant pine and weeping trees, palms and bushes, all caught under a web of hiedra ivies. Engulfing unfinished eerie pathways, deserted buildings, and a silence so thick and dense, one finds no choice but to humbly surrender to its greatness.
For your afternoon intermission, the rooftop bar El Cocinero is a must. Previously an oil factory, this quaint building is dominated by the original steep brick fireplace built over a century ago. The mood has what few other places in the city can truly claim, a well-established and genuine celebration of 'good living'. New York's coolest rooftop bar has nothing on this little tropical terrace near the clouds.
Havana, The Nocturnal Dame
Any day of the week, when the clock strikes midnight, this city is like a vampire, ruthless and insatiable. Countless clubs and bars are like sardine cans, filled to the top. Some of the trendiest places to get a feel for this craze are Mío & Tuyo, Sangri-La, Espacios, Up and Down, Bolahabana and Sarao. However, the super 'it', sexiest, hotter than hell place right now is FAC, next to El Cocinero. La Fábrica de Arte Cubano is an all-in-one arts and entertainment center where an eclectic crowd mingles effervescently. An initiative that might sound like a terrible idea, yet FAC pulls it off effortlessly. Prices, as in many restaurants, bars and paladares around the city, exceed the average wage, however, tourists may feel it is fairly priced, and locals somehow find a way.
Callejón de Hamel
On Sundays, this is the place to go. A callejón dedicated to Afro-Cuban culture. The explosion of colorful murals made by local artist Salvador González is the backdrop of this space where art and the community interact. Since it was founded in the early nineties, the most prolific and indispensable Santería voices have quivered with excitement in this fervent alley. Best to ignore the guides or art sellers, which can be relentless. You will be enthralled by an enriching experience, which will invariably lead to a trance as the drums unleash, while the dancing and the chants of the santeros evoke the spirits of the Orishas.
A Walk Along the Malecón
Synonymous with nostalgia, this esplanade has witnessed the evolution and involution of this abnormally chaotic yet phenomenal city. It attracts the young and the old. Kids fly their kites; teenagers defy the waves by throwing themselves one and a thousand times into the ocean; fisherman patiently wait for their prey. Between rounds of rums, musicians play their heartfelt tunes, and old ladies with their heads full of rollers wander up and down aimlessly. The city from that very spot appears completely exposed, vulnerable and simply ravishing.