Let’s not say “if” you ever get to Cuba — let’s just say you will.
Because discovering a time capsule in your back yard is not an everyday occurrence — it’s an unforgettable travel experience, and actually, a pretty important cultural education. If you ever wanted to visit the living inspiration for the sets of “Pirates of the Caribbean” — forget Disneyland, head to Cuba.
While the entire island nation is worthy of exploration, Havana is Cuba’s heart and soul. Founded by the Spanish in 1519 and its capital since 1607, Havana is Cuba’s most populous city, with over 2.5 million residents. It’s also the home of notable Cuban exports like the Daiquiri and Andy Garcia.
Havana is often described as a faded beauty, and indeed, its streets are colored more vibrantly by rumbling 1950’s American automobiles than the patinaed paint of its Baroque, Spanish Colonial and Art Deco buildings.
But this “living museum” also has a vibrant heartbeat — its colonnaded courtyards thumping with Afro-Cuban rhythms, smokey basements beckoning with rum and jazz riffs, city squares where Futbol is practiced and Beisbol is (hotly) debated.
And everywhere, juxtaposed with historic art and architecture, are reminders of the Triumph of the Revolution.
The icy relationship between the U.S. and Cuban governments (which is thawing for the first time in over 50 years) has, in part, staved off the scourge of overdevelopment, but at the cost of even the most basic amenities for the majority of Cubans.
One small grace note has been the preservation of a once-grand Colonial past (which was, of course, built on the backs of African slaves), and the reminders that more than one revolution has taken place in this country, after all.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing many stories of our trip of a lifetime to the mysterious isle last year, just weeks after travel restrictions eased with the island nation. But if you’re thinking of making this trip any time soon, here are a handful-plus of “have-tos” for visiting Havana:
1. TOUR THE PLAZA DE LA REVOLUÇION AND José Martí MEMORIAL
Even if you’re not on a “people-to-people” cultural tour (still one of the few legal travel options available to American tourists), this is one of the important sites you should see to understand Cuba today. The Plaza de la Revoluçion is the big “town square” covering five square miles in the Vedado area of Havana.
Dominated by the enormous José Martí Memorial and flanked by government buildings bearing the imposing images of revolutionary figures Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, it’s one of the most important public places in the country.
The site of military parades, political rallies and official celebrations, the square has seen crowds of over 1 million people. If you go early enough, though, your only company will be a lineup of classic car taxicabs and the 60 foot marble likeness of Cuban patriot and national hero, José Martí.
The memorial tower, 358 feet of gray Cuban marble, is (seemingly sporadically) open to the public, with an elevator that rises to an observation area with a panoramic view of Havana.
The memorial was begun in 1953, when dictator Fulgencio Batista came to rule, and was completed in 1958, during his final days in power. The legal case of compensation for the inhabitants displaced by its construction was taken on by a young lawyer named…Fidel Castro.
2. STAY AT THE HOTEL NACIONAL
You don’t have to visit the Hotel Nacional’s “History Hall” to feel the weight of history in this once luxurious, and still stately, hotel (but it’s a great start).
Opened in 1930, you can still sense the ghosts of Winston Churchill, Erroll Flynn, Meyer Lansky, in its halls and salons. You may even stay in a room that was once occupied by Ava Gardner or Jean-Paul Satre.
It’s a government-run hotel, so you shouldn’t expect Ritz-Carlton-style service. But its location — on a promontory overlooking the Malecón and the harbor — and its elegant details make a stay here an experience to be remembered.
Built on the site of the former 18th century Santa Clara battery (with two of its guns still on display), the hotel has played a significant role in the country’s current military history as well. It was the site of the “Siege of the Hotel Nacional” — which pitted Batista loyalists against usurped Cuban Army officers in 1933, and acted as headquarters for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
You can’t ignore the whiff of past decadence that seeps from the hotel’s walls like the sweat on a Cuba Libre — but you can enjoy a Mojito on the covered patio while a Salsa group plays on the lawn, a tropical storm brews on the horizon, and the Atlantic Ocean tries to burst its way through the sea wall below.
3. STROLL THROUGH HABANA VIEJA
Havana’s “Old Town” contains one of the most beautiful and complete displays of Spanish, Neoclassic, Baroque, and Nouveau architecture to be found in Latin America. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982, Habana Vieja’s oldest buildings date from the early 1500’s.
Its narrow alleyways, broad plazas, cobbled streets and courtyards makes it a dream for architecture, culture and photography enthusiasts.
Habana Vieja’s Plaza de Armas is the oldest square in Havana and is effectively its “Ile de la Cite.” Framed by centuries-old buildings, including the Palace of the Captain Generals (now the Museum of the City of Havana), and the elegant Hotel Santa Isabel, this former parade ground now features a thriving second-hand book market, exalting a different type of power — Cuba’s 95% literacy rate.
A few blocks away, near the Plaza Vieja, you’ll find the Cafe Taberna, an elegantly-restored 18th century building which plays host to the current iteration of the most well-known traditional Cuban “Son” group — the Buena Vista Social Club.
While the Cafe might be a tad touristy, it’s worth a visit, and leads us to possibly the top choice of “what to do” in Havana — listen to music.
4. LISTEN TO MUSIC
This one is pretty unavoidable — music, rhythm and dance bleeds from the pores of every Cuban you’ll meet, and you will find music wherever you turn. Afro-Cuban, traditional Son, soul-scorching progressive — if nothing else makes you yearn to stay in Cuba, the music will.
While the contemporary clubs feature the popular dance music Reggaeton, it’s easy to find superior live jazz and traditional Cuban music throughout Havana.
For a taste of the traditional Cuban “Son” music that gave birth to Salsa (and which itself grew out of Afro-Cuban Rumba rhythms), you could stake out a spot at Cafe Taberna’s nightly revue by the Buena Vista Social Club. A better alternative might be to seek out a show at the Palacia de la Artesania, across from the Malecón on Cuba Street.
Housed in a restored 18th-century mansion, by day the Palacia is one of the top shopping spots (for tourists) in Cuba. But by night, the courtyard transforms into an open-air music hall.
Few musical experiences can surpass hearing Pedro Godinez croon “Besamé Mucho,” as you crunch the sugar crystals from your third mojito, cooling off from a round of Salsa under the stars.
5. TAKE A DANCE LESSON
Which leads us to the dancing. Everyone dances in Cuba. EVERYONE. It’s just another dialect of their national language of music.
So unless you’ve been dancing the since birth, like most Cubans, you are going to want to take a Salsa lesson.
Even if you don’t plan on hitting a Salsa club, it pays to be prepared. Most musical venues (including restaurants) employ attractive young dancers who act as dance “fluffers,” if you will — encouraging audience members onto the floor (probably for their own amusement). You may not expect to dance, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be compelled to.
And even if you are a “well-heeled” hoofer, you’ll find that Cuban-style Salsa, (which is actually a form of Cuban dance called “Casino”) is quite different from other Salsas, emphasizing the fourth and eighth beats, rather than the expected first and fifth.
Once you learn the polyrhythmic pattern of the “Salsa Cubano,” the Mambo, Cha Cha and Rumba are not far behind. Frankly, a month-long trip to listen to music, learn Cuban dance, and drink rum could be the perfect vacation.
6. TRANSPORT YOURSELF
Of course one of the most iconic images of Havana is its profusion of classic 1950’s American automobiles.
It’s a nifty image, but another reminder that what we take for granted (an abundance of reliable, fairly-affordable transportation) is a luxury in this country. Cuba has the least cars per capita of any country in the world, (with only North Korea having fewer), and 85% of those are taxis.
That being said, these remnants of the past are, by necessity, maintained beautifully and resourcefully, their drivers taking great pride in their gleaming chrome and creative add-ons.
It’s a rare treat to nestle into tuck and roll upholstery, making a cab ride in a classic car not only a cheap thrill, but the only way to go if you want to arrive in style.
You need to watch out for the tourist traps — Taxis that offer you a tour of the city which could end up costing you $200. Always agree on the price beforehand — most destinations within the city cost between 5 and 10 CUC (convertible pesos, about equivalent to the dollar), not including a 10% tip (and it’s recommended you always tip).
Another fun way to zip back to your hotel after a long day of shopping and sightseeing is the CocoTaxi.
Exclusive to Havana, these three-wheeled auto-rickshaws are named for their resemblance to coconuts, and you might think you’d be nuts to ride in one!
In truth, they’re as fun as they look. A CocoTaxi along the Malecón with your sweetheart will definitely be a highlight of your trip to Havana.
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In my next post, I’ll share another half-dozen Havana “have-to’s.” I hope you can get there; I know I’ll return.