Havana is a city many people visit, but few really get to know. And that’s not surprising, for Havana reveals itself slowly. It has as many layers as a Spanish onion.
The difficulty in finding the real Havana is partly due to the fact that, in this scruffily elegant colonial city, the paradoxes are everywhere—and constantly confuse. This is largely a Catholic city, yet is extremely liberal; communist, but surprisingly laid-back; politically stunted, but sensual and hedonistic; poverty-stricken, yet extremely friendly and safe.
Many visitors see Havana in a very limited way also due to a mix of lazy and misleading generalisations about the city. There is the Havana of cigars. Fidel Castro. Salsa. Vintage cars. But Havana is far more than a clutch of icons and clichés, or a few places to check out in the Old Town.
The Havana that most visitors never see is a living, breathing city. It is a constant revelation, with stunningly cheap yet excellent restaurants, little-known places to see and things to do; extremely cheap accommodation; semi-secret bars and clubs, and a vitality that almost defies belief given the adverse social and economic conditions.
When I first visited Havana in 2007, one thing struck me more than anything else: how badly represented one of the most colourful and exciting cities in Latin America is. The Havana I discovered, in the course of numerous visits since then, does not feature in any suspiciously inaccurate guide book or brochure-style website. I decided, along with a team of people who live there, to compile the ultimate independent insider’s guide to the city—to show the best of everything this fascinating metropolis has to offer. The culmination of our efforts, three years later, is wonderfulhavana.com, which is now online.
The soul of Havana is its people. Their humanity and spirit is the city’s greatest paradox, and by far its most impressive aspect. It’s not easy to be upbeat if you’re Cuban living in Havana. Life there— haunted and humiliated as it is by poverty and deprivation—is endlessly difficult. Most Cubans live in poverty or just above the poverty line. Dire living conditions, shortages in basic food and other goods, electricity blackouts and water shortages are common. The average monthly state salary is around €10, far from enough to survive on; one needs €120-€150 just to subsist in Havana.
Many Cubans are forced into wheeling and dealing in what is now the real economy—the black economy. This is especially true in their interface with tourists: selling art and home-made goods, and recommending tourists to restaurants, accommodation and nightclubs in return for tips.
The devastating and deeply unfair economic embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba still stands after 46 years, despite relentless criticism by the United Nations. Most trade between the US and Cuba is banned. This has helped to cripple the Cuban economy. Meanwhile, the faltering communist system struggles to cope with hard economic and political realities. Against this tragic background, the resourcefulness, gentleness and good-humoured civility shown by habaneros is strikingly impressive. They struggle hugely, yet with an overarching dignity. They are gracious, charming, spontaneous, engaging, and blessed with a wicked sense of humour. Most impressively, they are unembittered. Theirs is an improbable lightness of being.
Thanks to them, Havana is a capital pulsating with life. The sense of community is tremendous. There is a feeling of togetherness we in the developed world have long since lost in our frazzled individualism. The relative lack of rudeness and aggression in Havana is inspiring. Despite all their difficulties, the vast majority of these people are extremely conscious of how they behave.
Everywhere in Havana, the talk is passionate and full of vitality. You will find harmony among strangers, an easy rapport between people of all ages and backgrounds. There is an energy on the street, a fizz and restless hum, animated voices competing with the cavernous sound of 1950s car horns. The city remains quaintly freeze-framed in the 1950s, with most of the cars being vintage American classics.
Havana has a strangely seductive power—a slowness allied with a desperate urgency. There is a sense of life in suspended animation. Since the past is irrelevant and the future uncertain, there is nothing else to life but the present. And so life is lived with a peculiar, joyful intensity. In Havana one regains faith in humanity’s remarkable ability to remain cheerful in the face of extraordinary hardship.
Music is a constant feature of this tropical city, from the taxis to the bars to the streets—a never-ending urban soundtrack. The other thing Cubans have in abundance is sex, and they enjoy it with a hedonistic passion. Everywhere in Havana, charming, insanely good-looking men and women make very direct advances towards foreigners. Considering the glaring economic divide, these sexual liaisons are usually inspired by the need for money, or the dream of escaping the suffocating reality of daily life by marrying a foreigner.
On a first visit to Havana, head straight for the magnificently restored Old Town (La Habana Vieja). Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much of the area has being lovingly restored to its former grandeur. It is a colonial delight, a riot of colour and atmosphere, its quirky blend of architectural styles constantly fascinating.
The area is a treasure to stroll around, and, along with Vedado to the west, is the liveliest part of the city. It boasts four gorgeous 16th century plazas. Check out sleepy Plaza Vieja in particular. There’s a wealth of museums and galleries, and many of Havana’s most impressive sights.
It is Vedado, however, that is Havana’s most fascinating neighbourhood. It is funky, diverse and alternative. Packed with theatres, museums, hotels, cinemas, bars and clubs, the overall ambience is frenetic and decidedly 1970s. From the mulattas dressed all in white (exponents of the Santeria religion) to the swaggering reggaeton hustlers with their massive sunglasses, it is a cornucopia of colour and personality.
Many visitors miss out on the charms of Vedado’s most vibrant street, 23rd street by only seeing the short, rather bleak lower end that stretches from the seafront promenade, the Malecón, to the picturesque Yara cinema. On La Rampa’s western reaches, and the streets just off it, the real Havana reveals itself. You will find relatively few tourists here—a refreshing change from the well-worn paths of the city.
Many tourists opt for the terrace garden at the Hotel Nacional for a view over the sea. But how about a cocktail instead at the highest bar in Havana? The view from La Torre on the 33rd floor of Edificio Focsa (17th street, corner of M, Vedado) is the most sweeping, panoramic one you will get of the city. Although the bar itself is basic enough, it’s a fanatastic place to watch the sun set over the city and the Gulf of Mexico.
Further west, Cuba’s most affluent suburb, Miramar, provides a fascinating glimpse into how upwardly mobile habaneros live. Fifth Avenue is Havana’s most handsome boulevard, dotted with embassies and colonial mansions. Third Avenue is interesting, too, for its cosy neighbourhood feel and relative lack of tourists.
Miramar is home to many of the city’s best restaurants. These are privately run, and known as paladares. The most consistently impressive food in Havana (we have been there about 30 times) is to be found at Doctor Café. Nearby, Vistamar, El Palio and La Fontana are also highly recommended.