Real Havana
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  Posted June 4th, 2013 by Zdenko  in Travel | No comments yet.

Traveling Cuba

By Mateo Radford

An alumnus shows us an insider’s view of the Cuban capital
The Malecón is the magnet. For Cubans of all ages, shapes and sizes, this cement promenade in downtown Havana serves not only as a seawall against the pounding surf, but as a place to congregate and ponder the quixotic realities of modern Cuba.

The Malecón in Havana

In good times, children come here to hurl themselves into the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, old men fish for their supper, and young adults meet here in the thousands each night to drink rum, dance, and wait for the sun to rise over the Florida Straits. In worse times, Cubans come here to protest against government policies (their own as well as those of the United States), or even to launch homemade boats for the hazardous journey north. Whatever the reason that draws them here, this eight-kilometer stretch of rocky shoreline is ground zero for the citizens of this 500-year-old city and should be the starting point for any visitor wanting to see the real face of Cuba.

Canadian in Havana

Horse taxis waiting for tourists on the main square in Havana

Although tens of thousands of Canadians visit Cuba every year, the vast majority of them see Havana as part of a day trip from the beach resort of Varadero and they rarely venture beyond the Old Town (called Habana Vieja) unless on the top of a double-decker tour bus. Without a doubt, the Old Town is worth a visit. This compact area of the city contains the original Spanish colonial town, built between the 16th and 19th centuries, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. Since then, the once-crumbling shells of buildings have been rebuilt, repainted and filled with new restaurants, cafés and dollar stores. But though the area is teeming with both Cubans and tourists alike, it increasingly has the feel of a colonial theme park, with guided tours elbowing past each other and dime-a-dozen bands serenading bar patrons with classic tunes like “Guantanamera.” Every day, hordes of tourists partake solely in this pre-packaged ideal of mojitos, cigars and Che Guevara T-shirts, but Havana has much, much more to offer. In order to encounter regular Cuban folks and see this gritty metropolis at its authentic best, it is necessary to move beyond the sanitized tourist experience of Habana Vieja, the luxury hotels and the Tropicana nightclub, and into some of the outlying neighbourhoods where the daily rhythms of this great city can be felt.

Paintings showing typical Havana buildings

Paintings showing typical Havana buildings

Private Reserve
The first place to go to immerse yourself in the real Havana is the immense neighborhood known as Vedado. Until the late 19th century, Vedado was a thick tropical forest prized by the Spanish colonial government as a crucial barrier against any land-based attack on its treasured port. For centuries it was strictly forbidden to clear this area for development, which led to the nickname Vedado, meaning “private reserve.” However, by the early 20th century, after Cuba had gained independence from Spain, the forest was quickly replaced with a luxurious new residential zone, where Havana’s elites constructed glorious classical mansions all laid out in a very North American-style grid, complete with leafy tree-lined boulevards and a wide array of public parks. A counterpoint to the claustrophobic and largely treeless downtown, Vedado very quickly became the city’s second centre.

Solidifying Vedado’s importance, the esteemed and beautiful University of Havana, founded in 1728, was relocated here in 1902. Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the mansions and luxury apartments of this area have almost all been converted into multi-family dwellings, resulting in a diverse and exciting neighbourhood.

The central artery of Vedado is Calle 23, rising up from the Malecón to the famed Havana Libre Hotel, several blocks north. Originally the Havana Hilton, this imposing structure was completed in 1958, just in time for Fidel Castro’s assumption of power. In fact, Castro and his guerrilla fighters used the hotel as their base of operations when they first arrived in the capital. Now it sits in a vibrant section of Vedado dubbed La Rampa (meaning “the ramp”), and is surrounded by restaurants, bookstores, movie theatres and bars. Check out the lobby with its grainy photos of the victorious guerrillas, but skip the rest of the hotel and walk directly across the street to one of the most beloved of the city’s landmarks: Coppelia.

School kids walking the streets in Havana

School kids walking the streets in Havana

A must-see for anyone interested in experiencing the real Havana, Coppelia is not just an ice cream shop, it’s a social institution. Every day, throngs of Cubans mob the three entrances to this enormous domed complex, lining up for hours in the hot sun for an ice cream. A dozen or so flavors are on offer, and they change daily, but among the best are piña colada, limón, and the always popular fresa y chocolate. Enjoying the ice cream is just part of the fun here. The people watching is a great time in itself.

Vedado is also a movie-lover’s dream, with no fewer than six theatres all within walking distance. Across the street from Coppelia is the beautiful 1940s Ciné Yara, and further down Calle 23 is the granddaddy of Havana’s theatres, Ciné Charles Chaplin, the headquarters of Cuba’s powerful national film institute. Cubans have been cinephiles for decades and attending a show once a week — or even every night — is commonplace. No doubt part of the appeal is the chance to escape from the searing heat and humidity into an air-conditioned theatre, but even more is the entry fee: a paltry two pesos (approximately eight cents). With the latest Hollywood blockbusters being few and far between, Vedado’s cinemas show an incredible array of international films, as well as classic black-and-white pictures from the ’40s and ’50s. These theatres also play host to the annual Latin American Film Festival every December.

Havana theatre

Just around the corner from Ciné Chaplin, on Calle 12, is the entrance to one of Cuba’s most incredible and treasured spots, the Necropolis Cristobal Colón. This graveyard, at over 50 hec¬tares, is practically a city unto itself, with numbered streets and dozens of large, intricately carved pantheons dedicated to the island’s most celebrated families. Over 800,000 Cubans are buried here, and spending a few hours visiting the final resting places of luminaries such as novelist Alejo Carpentier, political martyr Eduardo Chibas, musician Ibrahim Ferrer and poet Nicolas Guillen is like taking a trip through Cuba’s cultural history.

Park  with monuments along Avenida Paseo

Common way of transport in Havana

The Locavore’s Dilemma
Although Havana is not necessarily known for the quality of its cuisine, it is possible to enjoy a delicious meal in the city — especially in Vedado — but you’ll have better luck if you avoid the expensive hotels that cater to tourists and stick to places with a more “local” atmosphere. Unión Francesa, on the corner of Calles 17 and 6, may sport the Eiffel Tower on its logo and maps of Paris on its walls, but this quirky restaurant is as authentically Cuban as it gets, offering an amazing selection of local dishes on its rooftop patio. Best of all, whether you order the fried shrimp and tomato sauce or the enormous fried half-chicken, all entrees come with bread, rice, beans, a salad and even a beer for just $5.

Beautiful Cuban girls in Havana

Cigars for tourists… I had to pay these ladies before taking the picture…

Lonely kid on a balcony

Local bend playing in a restaurant

For a less upscale, but equally tasty meal, try one of the hundreds of informal pizza shops that have opened all over Havana since the disastrous economic crash of the early ’90s. While generally not for the faint of heart, these meals form the core of many Cubans’ daily diet and are often served right out of the doorways of local homes. Many months of trial and error led me to Pizzeria La Gaviota (The Seagull), a very humble yet popular enterprise run out of a family home on Calle 10, just a couple of blocks north of Calle 23. Its pizzas are markedly superior to those of most competitors and are an incredible value at around 13 pesos (50 cents).

Another excellent street option is the bustling Cafeteria H y 17 located, appropriately, on the corner of H and 17. Always surrounded by a crowd of Cubans and foreign students, this flimsy looking stand serves up delicious pork chop sandwiches for 20 pesos (75 cents) and the best batidos — or banana milkshakes — I have ever had.

An old building in pretty bad shape

Tobacco factory (first building on the left) in downtown Havana

Believe it or not, this building has tenants.

With a communist, centrally planned economy, and a long-standing, U.S.-led trade embargo against it, Cuba suffers from a chronic shortage of many foods, and there is a general shabbiness to much of what is on offer. This phenomenon is best combated, in my opinion, with a visit to Barrio Chino. Wedged between the Old Town and Vedado in the crumbling district of Centro Havana, Havana’s Chinatown is a fascinating remnant of what was once the largest Asian community in Latin America. In the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in Cuba to work the sugar cane fields, and many settled in this area of the city that at one time comprised as many as 44 city blocks. However, after 1959 most departed for the United States, leaving a contracted neighborhood, now centered around Calle Cuchillo. For the few thousand Chinese who remain — and for anyone who appreciates a delicious and varied cuisine — this district is an integral part of Havana. While a dozen or so good dining options exist here, my favorite is Tien Tan, a Havana fixture, run by a friendly Chinese-Cuban couple. They offer some 120 different dishes — a mind-boggling variety for Havana — and many of them include a healthy dose of green veggie, something often lacking in the Cuban diet. Expect to pay around $10 per person.

Beach Blanket Beb’s
The majority of sun-seeking Canadians visiting Cuba will get their fill of the sand and surf in resort towns like Varadero, but, in fact, it is very easy — and much more fun — to tap into the Cuban beach experience in the eastern suburbs of Santa María del Mar and Guanabo (known collectively as Playas del Este).

Sun-seeking Canadians on Santa María del Mar beach near Havana

With white sand and turquoise water just as dazzling as at the private resorts elsewhere on the island, these beaches have one major advantage: Cubans. For the vast majority of Cuban families, visiting places like Varadero is simply beyond the realm of economic possibility — not to mention the fact that, until last year, they were not allowed into luxury hotels and resorts anywhere in the country! But these two beaches, which sit side-by-side about 20 kilometers from downtown Havana, have no major resort facilities and relatively few tourists and for both of those reasons are extremely appealing.

Local girls on Playas del Este

If the weather is nice, expect to see hordes of locals here playing volleyball, dancing and drinking copious amounts of beer and rum. Generally speaking, Guanabo is the louder and more raucous of the two, while Santa María is where families bring their young children. Getting to either on public transportation is a hassle of legendary proportions, so I highly recommend commandeering a dollar taxi and haggling with the driver. You should be able to get there and back for roughly $20.

Farmers market in the city

This playboy has very attractive car

 Mi Casa Es Su Casa
Returning to Havana after a long day trip to the beach, I always relish being greeted by my Cuban host family. Unlike most vacation destinations, Havana offers literally hundreds of private homes where tourists can stay for a night — or months on end, as was my case. Called casas particulares, these accommodations are found in virtually every part of the city, but are concentrated in Centro Havana, Vedado and the further flung suburb of Miramar. While they vary greatly in terms of quality and reputation, one guarantee is that a visitor to the city will save hundreds of dollars in comparison with a standard hotel.

Casa Diana in Havana suburb of Vedado

Vedado casas

Casas have other advantages, too, such as home-cooked meals and free Spanish lessons. Most importantly, getting to know locals within their homes will greatly enhance anyone’s understanding of contemporary Cuba. I have stayed at several different casas during my many trips, and I have always found my hosts to be insightful and hospitable. On this six-month visit, I am staying with Ana, who runs a fantastic casa next to Ciné Chaplin, and every evening she tells me in vivid detail about her daily concerns, local events, and the ever-changing cultural, political and economic landscape of her city. Either in Spanish or English, our talks constantly remind me that the truly vibrant heart of Cuba is not to be found in the canned playgrounds of Varadero or Habana Vieja, but in the challenging and dynamic lives of everyday Cubans.

More about Havana here on Zdenko’s Corner.

About Mateo Radford:
After six months of soaking up the Caribbean sun and navigating labyr¬inthine archives, Mateo will soon return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he will commence the infinitely more difficult portion of his dissertation: actually writing it.

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