Most of my experience with this historical city has been with La Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, which was founded by the Spanish in 1519. A location that is so culturally significant that it was designated in 1982 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If for no other reason than the architecture, which is a rambling mix of the baroque and neoclassical styles, the city is a visual treat. From the inspiring Cathedral of Havana to the impossibly detailed National Capitol building, Old Havana is a constant surprise of courtyards, columns, and monuments in a city that is visibly struggling to keep its physical heritage intact.
The energy of Old Havana reminds me in many ways of the way New York City was in the 1970’s, before the powers that be turned Times Square into a Disney-inspired attraction. There is this constant buzz; a vibe, that radiates from the core of Havana. And like the Big Apple, it’s an attitude that comes about because of its need to constantly hustle.
During your stay in the city you will be approached several times by a variety of Cubans who will offer you “the best in all of Habana.” And that best will apply to absolutely anything, be it a ride in their vintage Buick, a horse and buggy tour of the town given by their cousin, or, more often then not, a box of Cuban cigars that they can get from a good friend for very cheap. All you have to do is say yes and you’ve got a comrade for life, or at least until you tell them “No gracias” several times and walk away.
At times it can get annoying, especially after walking in the sun for a few hours, but in the midst of all this pestering, Havana will also offer up these gentle genuine moments. It is very common, or at least it was from my experience, for a resident of Havana to walk up to you and ask you if you are enjoying your time in their city.
Again in my case, it was always a resounding “Si”, and upon hearing this, the Cuban would flash a grin or a smile and say thank-you and then continue on with their walk with a renewed sense of pride in their hometown. No gimmick, no ulterior motive, just an honest love for where they lived and a sense of having shared that feeling with a complete stranger. It always managed to catch me off guard and more than that, it helped me to shed some of my prejudices towards a country that for the most part has very little in terms of what we as North Americans perceive as wealth.
But beyond the hustle, there are the sounds of Havana. It is very difficult to stroll anywhere in the old city for a few minutes without hearing live music. In almost every café, or hotel, big or small, new or rundown, there is a live band playing. It’s infectious, it’s intoxicating, and it’s ridiculously addictive. Their love and passion for music appears to be genetic, just something that is a part of their DNA. It seems to come as naturally to the Cubans as baseball or hockey does for us as North Americans.
Unfortunately, I can also guarantee you that you will hear too many versions of the songs that come from the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, but once they’ve finished their token “tourist set”, these musicians will launch into a Spanish inspired song list that will have you ordering another Mojito and thinking that, “Maybe, just maybe, I could try to salsa just a bit.”
And speaking of Mojito’s, no memories of Havana are complete without touching upon some of the storied traditions associated with their Cuban rum and their inspired drinks.
One of Havana’s most famous residents was the American writer Ernest Hemingway, who for two decades, from the 1930’s – 1950’s, called Cuba home. One of Papa’s passions, besides writing, hunting and fishing, was his legendary enjoyment of cocktails.
In Havana there is a large tourist trade that promotes all things Hemingway related. The hotel that he lived in, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, which has a great rooftop patio by the way, the house where he lived, now a museum run by the Government, and of course where the Nobel prize-winning author drank his beloved cocktails.
For Hemingway’s mojito it was La Bodequita, and for his frozen daiquiri’s it was El Floridita; a classic cocktail bar located at the end of Calle Obispo – the most vibrant street in all of all Old Havana.
For my converted peso El Floridita is the better choice. The place is now a popular tourist attraction, and during the day there is a constant stream of camera wielding visitors who are hustled through the storied front doors and into the dimly lit 1950’s-like bar. Once inside the self-proclaimed “cradle of the daiquiri”, the busload of tourists are quick to do in rapid succession two things. One, to gulp down a quick over priced daiquiri, and two, to pose for a picture with the bronze statue of Hemingway, now forever ensconced at the end of his once favorite bar.
The trick to enjoying a drink in El Floridita is to wait until after 4pm, for this is the magic time, a time when all of the freezer-conditioned tourist buses have retreated back to their resorts with their guests in tow.
Now don’t get me wrong the drinks will still be just as expensive, and the place is still full of tourists, but it’s a different class. These are people who are here for the drinks, the atmosphere and sometimes even the expensive seafood, but not the quick photo opp. Folks like myself who just marvel at the notion that you can drink, smoke a cigar, hear terrific music and be waited on by waiters in red coats who seem to dare you to drink daiquiri after daiquiri. As to the daiquiri itself, well that’s a sure way to get into an argument in Havana. Ask any bartender how good their daiquiri is and you will hear the familiar refrain, “The best in all of Habana.”
But, after some serious research into the matter, and taking a wide variety of elements into consideration – ambiance, price, location, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best daiquiri’s currently being made in Havana are on the rooftop bar of the Hotel Parque Central.
The Hotel is located along with a cluster of hotels in the historical hotel plaza in the heart of Old Havana. And while it can be quite expensive to stay in the hotel, having a drink on the rooftop overlooking Old Havana is an affordable treat and one when combined with their daiquiri, simply an essential experience.
Havana is first and foremost a city, and as such, not for everyone. It is at times maddening, frustrating and brilliant all at once. What is a thriving and bustling town during the day becomes an almost pitch-black mystery after midnight because of their lack of lights at night and the fact that so many bars close down around this time. But, it still remains an experience unlike any other because of the countries unique place in history.
There are far too many treats and recommendations for any one or two or even three articles. Instead I’m going to pass on my current top 5 things one should consider doing when in Havana, in no particular order.
1. Having a drink at the Hotel Nacional on their patio that overlooks the Malecon and the Cuban bay during a sunset.
2. Touring Havana in an old 1950’s American convertible with Cuban music playing.
3. Strolling along the Paseo de Prada on a Sunday during the artists market.
4. Touring the historic Partagas cigar factory and then enjoying a smoke in their store.
5. Sitting outside at the Café Francesa, enjoying a cigar, and espresso and a pastry and watching the show that is called Havana go by.
This is Part 2 of a 2 part series. View Part 1 Here.