MESSAGE – Havana *Video*
You see it in the crumbling building alongside a beautifully restored Spanish colonial hotel. A stranded candy-colored Chevy with the hood propped open being offered a jump start from a sister sexagenarian Bel Air. The long lines at the ice cream parlor, where friends gather each evening, patiently waiting in line for a double scoop.
Here’re my 7 insider tips on enjoying this intoxicating city:
MEET (Cool Meet Ups) – The Malacón
Music, dancing, and love are all free in Cuba. And you see them in copious quantities on the city’s main boulevard: the Malacón. Rimming the city’s harbor, local Cubans gather with their friends and family starting about 10:00 p.m. every night and party into the wee hours with nothing more than a guitar and a bottle of rum and a new-found friend.
My traveling buddies and I dove in head first, heading to the Malacón after dinner several nights to partake in the festivities. We alternated walking for miles with perching ourselves on the sea wall. The one constant being the open atmosphere of fiesta and the shared moments of pure fun.
EAT (Tasty Eats) – Rum
Honestly the less said about Cuban food the better, so let’s focus on the real treat here: Rum.
If you’re being selective, you’ll pop for one of the aged versions and drink it in straight up. The rest of us are mixing the rum into a fancy umbrella drink—mojitos, piña coladas, daiquiris, and of course Cuba Libres. They all taste good.
The real differentiator here is where you drink your drink. For instance,
- For a frozen daiquiri, saunter down to Hemingway’s favorite haunt El Floridita.
- For a mojito, head to Hotel Ambos Mundos’ rooftop terrace. (I like my mojito made with honey instead of sugar.)
- For a piña colada, it’s the roadside stand on the main highway between Havana and Trinidad.
Old Havana, or La Habana Vieja, is the spot to be. The area spans 142 hectares and offers one of the best examples of Spanish colonial architecture dating from the 16th century. The plazas, cathedrals, and cafes are encircled by cobblestone streets.
As you wander, you’ll hear music at every turn, spy the colorful canvases of local artists, and shop for Che’ Guevara memorabilia. When you’re due for a rest, simply plop down in the nearest café and order up a Cuban coffee or your rum drink of choice. What better way to spend an afternoon?
SHOP (Gotta Have) – Cigars
Luckily my Cuban roommate Stormie is a cigar aficionado and gave me a bit of schooling on the subject. Tidbits like you don’t inhale and you don’t share your cigar with others. Good to know.
I admit, it was pretty fun to kick back and puff away while listening to salsa in an outside café on a hot Cuban night (even for us non-smokers). I brought a few back to see if this experience translates once I return to San Francisco. Something tells me that it will be tough to recreate that midnight ambiance, but I’m gonna give it a try!
If you are bringing a few home and don’t have a humidor, there are several ways to store your cigars. One option is to place a slice of apple in a ziplock bag with the cigar, which will gradually absorb the fruit’s moisture and prevent it from drying out. Another option is to place a cotton ball dipped in rum in the baggie. You can also pop for the more expensive variety that come in individual aluminum canisters.
ACTIVITY (Gotta Do) – Cienfuegos Day Trip
I believe Cienfuegos (translation: 100 Fires) is the only French-inspired town in Cuba. A 3-hour drive from central Havana, this lovely city offers a charming central square surrounded by flea markets and cafes and shops.
On our tour, we stopped by just to see their city’s famous choir. And the side trip was well worth it, with the choir nothing short of angelic. My mom was the recipient of one of their CDs, but here’s a small sampling of their heavenly voices:
Can’t see the video? Click this link: Cantor de Cienfuegos
GIVE (Greatest Need) – Collectivos
As a communist state, Cuba has no nonprofit organizations (except a few formed to lobby international governments to remove the embargo). But during our days in Havana we were able to visit several collectivos, local neighborhood associations formed to serve their residents.
One such collectivo was a community project called Muraleando, which was formed by residents to address the issue of overflowing trash that choked the street. The community came together to take over an abandoned water tower, clean out the debris and create a community garden.
The found materials were then used to create sculptures and murals throughout the neighborhood. Art classes were provided to the children and a small shop created to sell the local handicrafts. The result was a really sweet project that welcomed us with songs and dancing and a treasure chest of recycled objects.
ENJOY (Extra Fun) – CoCo Cabs
No trip to Havana would be complete without a ride in a CoCo cab – the cutest taxi around! It’s like riding in the Cubana-version of the Disneyland teacup ride.
There’s only about 150 left in the city, with about half on the streets at any one time. It’s the perfect end to an evening out, racing toward your hotel, wind in your hair, with the city sliding by!
Whew! That was a lot information and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface on what this magnificent city has to offer.
What is abundantly clear is that Cuba is at a crossroads and now is the time to go. You’ll get a glimpse, not only of the Cuba of the last 50 years, but also of the charismatic city that is ready for its re-entry onto the international stage.
Hold on world – Here comes Cuba!