So you’re off to Cuba, and ready for a week (or more) in Havana.
You’ve already read my last post — A Half-Dozen “Have-To’s” in Havana — and you have your dancing shoes on and your jazz palate primed. But there’s so much more to fascinate and tantalize in Cuba’s capital city.
Until just recently, if you were visiting Cuba legally from the U.S., chances are you were part of a
forced march guided tour, with a firm schedule and not much flexibility. But even though restrictions have eased (you no longer need to travel with a U.S.-sanctioned tour company), you’ll still want to add these Havana “have-tos” to your own itinerary.
1. GET REVOLUTIONARY AT THE MUSEUM OF THE REVOLUTION
This museum dedicated to Cuba’s struggles for independence is, in deliberate irony, housed in this the former Presidential Palace, an opulent Neo-Classical building constructed between 1913 and 1920. Lavishly decorated at great expense by Louis Comfort Tiffany, it’s a stark contrast to the museum’s collection of cultural artifacts and military memorabilia.
Inside the expansive foyer, a bust of Cuban National Hero José Martí is framed by a spray of bullet holes pocking the honed white marble — souvenirs of the 1957 attack and failed assassination attempt of Juan Batista by 40 student revolutionaries (most of whom were killed in the gun battle).
The building and its original art and architectural details are spectacular, especially the Hall of Mirrors, the palace’s former reception room, which was modeled on the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.
In the rear of the main floor you’ll find some particularly interesting artwork entitled “Rincon de los Cretinos” (go ahead, Google it). Depicting unflattering caricatures of Juan Batista, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. and George W. Bush, the placards rather sarcastically give thanks to these fellows for helping to strengthen Cuba’s resolve for maintaining the ideals of their revolution. Travel — it gives you perspective.
Outside is an impressive collection of military vehicles and “souvenirs” of military triumphs, including the tank used by Castro to defend against the U.S.-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and the salvaged turbine from USAF Major Rudolf Anderson’s U2 reconnaissance plane, which was shot down at the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The centerpiece of the exterior display is the “Pavilion Granma,” a well-guarded glass enclosure which holds the yacht in which Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and 80 fellow revolutionaries traveled surreptitiously from Mexico to Cuba in December of 1956. Just two years later, the “Presidential Palace” would be theirs.
2. VISIT THE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS CEMETERY
The “Necropolis de Colon” in the Vedado area of Havana is one of the largest, and truly, most beautiful, cemeteries in the world.
This “city of the dead,” covers nearly 135 acres, and sees an average of 40 funerals a day. Nearly two million people have been buried here — though the interments are, for the most part, only temporary. After two years, the remains are exhumed and placed in urns, where they will reside in “asheries,” (although uncremated). The burial plots are then reused.
Built between 1871 and 1886, this Catholic cemetery features marble monuments with symbolic Christian imagery, mausoleums for some of the wealthiest old Cuban families (including three ex-Presidents), and even the site of a small miracle….
Visitors seeking blessings, fertility, or just good luck, make regular pilgrimages to the tomb of La Milagrosa — Amelia de la Hoz, who died, along with her baby, in childbirth in 1901. The legend stands that, although the child was buried at Amelia’s feet, when they were exhumed a few years later, she was cradling the child in her arms.
3. WALK THE MALECON
This five mile promenade that runs from the mouth of the Bay of Havana through the Central and Vedado neighborhoods is a neighborhood unto itself.
Both a barrier to the Atlantic Ocean, which tenaciously beats on its wall, and a thoroughfare linking older and newer districts of the city, the Malecon is also a public beach, a fishing pier, and a gathering place for seemingly all the youth of Havana.
At its easternmost point, there is an impressive view of the Castillo del Morro, built in 1589 to guard the harbor from piiirates, and its lighthouse, the last version of which was constructed in 1845.
A stroll at high tide on a hot day is liable to be quite refreshing — the sea splashes so mightily along certain sections that seaweed has taken root in the sidewalk.
Some of Havana’s prettiest historic buildings (including the Hotel Naçional) line the southern side of the street, and while their sunset colors are faded by salt spray, their elegance is undiminished by time.
4. TOUR A SANTERIA HOUSE
Santeria is a murky and mysterious religion that evokes images of dark priestesses garbed in white, and fiery rituals involving animal sacrifices and speaking in tongues.
But in essence, it’s a deeply traditional spiritual practice intended to connect followers with the wisdom of their ancestors and the blessings of their saints.
A syncretic, or “blended” religion, Santeria was developed by Yoruba slaves who were forbidden to practice the traditional version of their religion. In order to disguise their practice, their gods and goddesses were transposed with the names and images of Catholic saints, and their homes became their temples.
Santeria is a secretive practice, and remains somewhat of a mystery even to other Cubans who don’t follow it. (Its practitioners don’t particularly favor the name “Santeria,” but rather call it the “Rule of Osha-Ifå.”)
The best way to get a glimpse inside the Santeria religion is via Cabildo Quisicuaba, which is a socio-cultural project aimed at helping the needy and marginalized inhabitants of Barrio de los Sitios, one of the poorer in the city, with a large concentration of Santeria followers.
While the Cabildo Quisicuaba’s purpose is charitable, it also acts as a window into the private world of the “Way of the Saints.”
Headquartered in a 17th Century building in Los Sitios, an introduction and explanation of Santeria and the objectives of Cabildo Quisicuaba is followed up by a tour of a “home/temple,” a fantastical sight that you will not soon forget.
In addition to an overwhelming volume and density of natural objects, tchotchkes, statuary, jewelry, and an occasional live animal, which are collected as tribute to their ancestors and their guiding saints, you can also step foot into the “initiation room.”
Here, “neophytes” who are being initiated into the practice will spend seven days with minimal nourishment, seated on the throne of Shango (a hard, wooden stool in the center of the room).
They are then “reborn” — garbed in all-white for one year, during which they must study divination practices and follow strict rules prior to their acceptance into the religion.
5. SEE HOW CIGARS ARE MADE
Whether you smoke cigars or not, there is definitely a mythos behind the Cuban cigar — and rightfully so.
Until last year, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to possess, much less puff on a Cohiba or a Monte Cristo.
Your personal views on tobacco use aside, a “Totalmente a Mano,” or hand-rolled Cuban cigar, is a finely-wrought work of art. It takes around nine months from tobacco seed to harvest, and sorting, curing, fermenting and aging the leaves can take anywhere from one to five years.
A skilled “torcedoras” (most cigar rollers are women) must properly align and roll the filler leaves — three different types of tobacco, each with its own flavor and burning properties. A final wrapper leaf, a variety and quality chosen specifically for that purpose, brings the whole thing together.
While there are a number of cigar factories you can tour in Havana, the Palacio des Artesanias has an excellent cigar shop where you can learn about the process, watch a cigar being made, then purchase your now-legal allotment (up to $100 worth) to take home. A good cigar costs about $10; a higher-end Cohiba Bahica will set you back around $35.
6. VISIT FUSTERLANDIA
No, it’s not Havana’s version of “Portlandia,” it’s the homestead and neighborhood of Cuban artist Jose Fuster.
Working in ceramics, mosaics, sculpture and painting, Fuster (who studied in Europe) calls Pablo Picasso his “father,” and Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi his “uncle.”
Desiring nothing more that to create a space where he could “live with art,” Fuster has filled his small home studio in Northwestern Havana to the brim with mosaic murals and sculptures of palm trees, animals, saints, and even some famous Cubanos.
Eventually, as art often does, Fuster’s creations burst from their confines, spilling into his Jaimanitas neighborhood, where he has lived for over 30 of his 64 years.
It’s Fuster’s way of giving back to his community and his neighbors. Over 80 Jaimanitas houses now wear colorful tropical murals made of Fuster’s ceramic mosaics.
Inside Fuster’s home studio compound, his creations curl into every corner and sprout into the sky.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet the artist in his studio — but this is his home, so you should take care to stay in the well-marked public areas. Fuster’s son Alex is often there to talk about his father’s art and life. You can also purchase paintings, mosaics and ceramics to carry a little bit of Fusterlandia home with you.
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