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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Havana Good Time

Our first port of call was Havana, a vibrant, creative hive of musicians and artists, a city of crumbling colonial façades, faded Hollywood, dancing queens and cocktail dreams.


Everywhere you turn in Havana there are relics of a bygone era, grand imposing buildings, their aged paint jobs flaking, overlooking boulevards dotted with multicoloured Cadillacs and beaten-up ladas. Up until 2014, Cubans were forbidden from purchasing new cars. Prior to that, they had to get a government permit to buy new vehicles. The state has a monopoly on new car sales now and is marking up prices by 400% or more, so few people can afford them. This means that on nearly every street there are old Cadillac’s being fitted with new tyres; older models balance precariously on a makeshift ‘garage’ where you can spot someone fixing the ailing machinery from the undercarriage.



Apart from the obvious Cadillac tours, we took rickshaws in Havana at the insistence of the casa owners. We got spruced up in our multicoloured dancing dresses to go to see the Buena Vista Social Club, hopping into a rickshaw with a friendly, young man in his twenties. As he cycled with the two of us in the back like the ladies’ muck, he told us that he had graduated as an engineer a few years ago. He left his previous job as he made more money lugging tourists around than he did working as an engineer. The stark reality of communism is doctors and engineers make the same or less than those working in the tourist racket. This means that many parts of the city are quite impoverished and run down. The upside is all citizens have free education and health care, yet many are still doomed to repeat the cycle of poverty. Despite the penchant for the tourist con, I was told by one rickshaw driver that there was very little crime in the city because of the surveillance cameras dotted around. I hadn't even noticed them and it made me wonder if this was a government ploy to tell the residents that big brother was watching.



After venturing to El Floradita in La Habana Vieja one evening to toast the bronze bust of Hemmingway with a daiquiri, we found ourselves with two American lackies after asking them to take photos of us in a pink Cadillac. Who needs boyfriends of Instagram? We all jumped in and were taken to a late-night club off the beaten track where we were the only tourists. We bought mojitos and stood watching in fascination at Cuban’s answer to Save the Last Dance. Men and women bumping and grinding on a Cuban dancefloor was like realizing that Miley Cyrus’s twerking was a poor man’s interpretation of the real thing. Cubans dance with their whole body, moving as if they have become part of the music, transfixed. Sweaty men and women in tight-fitting shorts and cut off t-shirts, shaking out some very raunchy moves to reggaeton that would make an Irish mammy’s head explode. It was incredible.



Present-day Havana is often described as three cities in one: Old Havana/Habana Vieja, Vedado, and the outlying, newer suburban areas. Habana Vieja, with its multicoloured houses and overhanging white-washed balconies, which flank narrow streets full of people and cars, is the traditional commercial hub of Havana. Vedado, now rivals it for business activity and nightlife.


Havana boasts a bustling nightlife, and an art scene unrivalled even by some of the most creative European cities. Bright, vibrant canvases line the streets from Calle San Ignacio, Callejon del Chorro to Calle Villegas, which houses works by famous artist Leo d'Lazarro. Soak up the ambiance, buy a piece of art, dance to some salsa and sip mojitos 'til the early morn', as this is what Havana is all about!



Things to do:

  • Go and see the Buena Vista social club strut their stuff. Some of the musicians have been playing with the group for 50 years. You can have dinner here too. A lot of fun. If you get food, you are seated on a round table at the top with other diners in the midst of the musicians. It is located at ‘de Castro Society/50's Tradicionales’.




  • Avail of the free salsa at Parque Central between 3 and 6.

  • In 1950s Havana, the only place to be was Tropicana. “A pleasure dome where the shows (and showgirls) were dazzling, the gambling was high-stakes, and the revellers included Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and J.F.K., to name a few.” You can still go and see the cabaret here: https://www.cabaret-tropicana.com/en/. For more history on Tropicana read: https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2011/09/tropicana-201109

  • Go and do a classic car tour around the city! You get to see the sights in a vintage car, painted a garish colour of your choice from bright blue to pink, and drive around the city. Lots of cars by Hotel Inglaterra at around $20 each.


  • WALK! Take a stroll down the Malecon, pass fishermen soaking up the sunshine, waves crashing over the old walls. Soak up ‘Havana Vieja’ and take a stroll around Vedado, a beautiful leafy suburban neighbourhood.


  • If you want to take a day trip to a lovely, white sandy beach you can go to Santa Maria, Playa de Este. It’s a 30-minute taxi ride and easily accessible. It's a beautiful beach, except when you arrive early in the morning and you see all the rubbish that has been left behind by the locals. That was pretty soul destroying as you wonder how much has gone into the ocean overnight. This is the case all over Cuba though. I guess it boils down to education on the environment or deeper societal rifts. You can rent chairs, umbrellas, and there are places to buy drinks, food, etc. You get off at the Tropicoco hotel, and it’s a short walk to the beach.


Art:







  • Artists Street is Callejon de Hamel. Callejon de Hamel is an area of Vedado filled with art and colourful murals put together by the community to raise money for children with disabilities. Very sweet project and well worth the visit if you have time.

  • Check out Fusterlandia, it’s like Gaudi!

  • Fabrica de Arte Cubano

  • Leo D’Lazaro Art Gallery

  • Taller experimental - artist market. Beautiful paintings.

  • The best galleries are listed here. There are so many cool places! https://theculturetrip.com/caribbean/cuba/articles/the-top-art-galleries-in-havana-cuba/



Eat:

Bodeguita del Medio- live salsa music, great mojitos and delicious food. Such a fun place to hang out for an afternoon.


El chancurello, is on Brasil, on a small square heading towards the capitolio building. It is a bar and a restaurant that makes good food and strong cocktails (5 dollar lobster).



King Bar restaurant: Does veggie burgers


Drink:

La Floradita: Super touristy but a must to have a drink with the late great Hemingway and taste his signature cocktail! Pricey so stay for one and go to another bar to dance the night away!



Bar 1830, it's an amazing salsa club by the sea.

Hotel Inglaterra they have an amazing roof top with a great view

Las Nardos - also near capital building

La fabrica - didn't go but hear it's very nice

O'reillys - It's not Irish but is a Tapas bar.

Bertol Brecht: hipster watering hole


To change money:

Cadeca: Calle Obispo/ Compostela in Havana Vieja (open until 8pm) or Hotel Telegrafico/ Hotel Inglaterra à 1CUC = 25 pesos


Wifi:

In Havana, you can buy a wifi card at the Hotel Ingleterra or at one of the kiosks nearby but again they can be hard to find. There are wifi zones in Parque Centrale but they cut in and out.

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