Havana, Where The Music Never Sleeps

Mention Havana and one conjures up visions of colour, music, salsa, and ‘abuelas’ sucking on fat cigars on every street corner, embraced by an ancient city begging to be restored. The local philosophy, to make do with what you have, contributes to the relaxed and spontaneous vibe of a bygone era. 

Five nights in Havana will leave you with more than enough time to soak up the local culture and there’s no better way to start than to shack up with a local at their licensed casas particulares (private homes). Run by a mother and her multi-lingual daughter, Casa de Miriam y Sinai (Neptuno 521, between Lealtad and Campanario) is a spacious first floor oasis located on a busy street in the heart of Centro Habana. If you’re after majestic colonial surroundings with an elegant central patio and sweeping spiral staircase, then Chez Nous (115 Brasil, between Cuba and San Ignacio, Old Havana) will be more your style. If you’re an antique collector or art lover, you will love Casa de Eugenio y Fabio (656 Calle San Ignacio, between Jesús María y Merced) and Casa de Dr José Mario Parapar de la Riestra (912 Calle 70, between 9 and 11, Miramar).

Day one’s itinerary will see you popping on your walking shoes and heading straight out the door. Soak up the centuries-old architectural heritage and delightful cobble-stoned street chaos of La Habana Vieja (old Havana). On your list of ‘must-sees’ are the Plaza de Armas  (Havana’s oldest square and the site of the city’s foundation), El Templete (Havana’s oldest neo-classical building), Casa de la Obra Pia (a museum of 18th century furniture and goods that features an exquisite baroque portico), and the Convento de Santa Clara (a pre-baroque nunnery with rammed-earth walls and beautiful cloister). Rest those tired feet in the afternoon by cruising along the Malecón, the atmospheric ocean road and Havana's 24/7 center of social activity, in a vintage Chevie, Ford or Cadillac. These vintage beauties from the 1950s cannot be hailed from the street so book ahead via your accommodation or hotel tour desk.

A visit to Havana’s museums will add another piece to your Cuban puzzle. Established in 1954, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts) reopened in 2001 after a five-year closure. Make a bee line for the Cuban art collection (Arte Cubano), which receives rave reviews. The main draw of the museum, however, is the building itself, two structures as dazzlingly beautiful as the collections inside them. And if getting an insight into santería, a widely practiced religion in Cuba, is up your alley, head over to the Museo de los Orishas, the first museum in the world dedicated specifically to orishas, a deity of the Yoruba spiritual system that originated in Southwestern Nigeria.

If Cuba’s political history holds your fascination, traipse across to the city’s entrance at Avenida de los Desfiles on Plaza de la Revolución, where a huge statue of Ernesto “Che” Guevara stands guard. Below the statue is the hero’s mausoleum, which houses the remains of the other Latin American guerrillas who died with him, displays on Che’s involvement in the Revolution, and some of his personal belongings. There are several other monuments around the outer neighborhoods where the famous rebel is commemorated. The Plaza de la Revolución rises majestically above the city on Catalanes Hill. The focus of the square is the magnificent Memorial and Museo of José Martí, as is the bronze silhouette of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, pinned to the Ministry of Interior building. 

Havana is cigar city and home to the famous habano. Whether you plan to partake in a few puffs or not, a guided tour of the best known cigar factory, Partagás, is a must. Founded in Havana in 1845 by Spaniard Jaime Partagás, the landmark neoclassical factory employs some 400 workers, who plod away for up to 12 hours a day, rolling such famous cigars as Montecristos and Cohibas. After checking out where the leaves are unbundled and sorted on the ground floor, continue on to the upper floors, where the tobacco get rolled, pressed, and adorned with a band and boxed. 

Dining like a local at the home of a local has got to be on everyone’s Havana “to do” list. Cubans have been opening their homes to paying diners since the mid 1990s as part of the government’s introduction of limited private enterprise. An amazing way to experience the delights of authentic home-cooked cuisine, you’ll get plenty of domestic outbursts thrown in as part of your entertainment. Particularly fine paladares (family run restaurants) can be found at La Cocina de Lilliam (1311 Calle 48, between 13 and 15, Playa) and La Esperanza (105 Calle 16, between 1st and 3rd).

As for the bars, here’s a tip: only tourists patronise the classic Hemingway haunts as they are overpriced, drinks are watered down, and they provide little more than brag value for your mates back home. Hang out with the locals instead at Bar Monserrate (401 Avenida de Bélgica, corner Obrapía) and Lluvia de Oro (316 Calle Obispo, corner Habana). 

Spending a few nights in Havana means an obligatory visit to a Cuban rumba spot. A folkloric manifest of the Afro-Cuban music that encompasses dance, voice, and drums, Cuban Rumba developed in the late 19th century as a result of Spanish colonial influence and the pulsating rhythms of the African slaves. The most atmospheric area for Rumba is the graffiti-decorated alley, Callejón de Hammel (between Hospital and Armamburu), where several rumba groups play on Sundays. Sábado de La Rumba at Centro Cultural El Gran Palenque  (Calle 4, entre 5ta y Calzada, 833 9075) is another good venue, and less touristy than Hammel. 

Havana is known for its clubs. Witness some of Havana’s finest groups perform on the weekends at the Copa Room (Hotel Riviera, Malecón, corner Pasea, Verdado). A hit with writers and singers in the 1950s, El Gato Tuerto (Calle O, between 17 and 19) is today a prominent venue for bolero, with a bill featuring first-rate artists who play three sets with interludes until 4am. For a spot of undiluted Cuban spirit, head to the Salón 1930 ‘Compay Segundo’ (Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Calle P, corner 21), the luxurious hall where the original Buena Vista Social Club strutted their stuff a few years ago. While the Buena Vista big names may have long gone, the remaining musicians are masters in their own right. If you don’t mind crowds, make the trek to Cabaret Tropicana, the grandest of Havana’s cabarets (4504 Calle 72, Linea del Ferrocarril). Tucked away in the western neighborhood of Marianao, it’s outdoor theatre seats up to 800. 

All that touring, dining and carousing is bound to have your energy levels hitting rock bottom. Grab a pick-me-up at the Museo del Chocolate (Calle Mercaderes, corner Amargura), where you can luxuriate over a decadent cup of thick hot chocolate or a smooth-as-silk glass of cold chocolate, after which you can watch chocolates being made at the back of the premises. But be warned: there are long queues for tables and the museum sometimes closes down when the chocolate runs out. 

As the sun sets towards the end of your stay, imprint Havana in your mind’s eye by visiting the only hotel in Cuba that’s a national monument, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. From the day it opened its doors in 1930, its been frequented by the rich, famous and infamous, from the likes of Winston Churchill to Al Capone. Head up to the hotel bar La Terraza for a cocktail over magnificent views of the Malecón and a chance to say a sentimental farewell to a city where time seems to stand still. May Havana long retain her authentic charm.

Fast Facts: Havana is the capital city, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. With a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, it is the third largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean. Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century, the city served as a convenient geographic springboard for the treasure laden Spanish Galleons that regularly traversed between the New World and Old. King Phillip II of Spain granted Havana the title of ‘City’ in 1592 and built the impregnable forts and walls to secure it.

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