About three hundred buildings collapse every year in Havana; the city is full of gap sites, disintegrating facades and hollow shells. UNESCO declared the old town (La Habana Vieja) a World Heritage Site in 1982. With so many Spanish colonial buildings in urgent need of repair, it must have been impossible to decide where to start. As you walk around cranes and past boarded up buildings, you see the enormous task that lies ahead. Not all of Havana looks like a building site; its churches, forts, and plazas are in remarkably good condition. One such building, and an impressive place to start exploring the city, is the Capitolio.
Once you’ve walked round this landmark’s palatial corridors, take a seat on the steps outside and watch the world go by as you soak up Havana’s intoxicating atmosphere. Every tenth car that drives by is a 1950’s Cadillac or Buick, although the majority of vehicles appear past their sell-by date, with their trail of exhaust fumes. Above the traffic and the crowded streets are wonderful examples of the city’s more extravagant architecture; balconies full of washing, and white vested old men puffing on cigars.
Three photographers operate vintage box cameras on tripods at the base of the steps. It’s fascinating to watch as they “cut and paste” the photo they have taken of you onto a previously taken shot of the stunning domed roof. They then photograph their forgery and, if you weren’t watching closely, you would believe the end result was exactly what they saw through the lens the first time. For the price of a dollar, you walk away with a miniature black and white photo that looks like you’ve been transported back in time.
Parque Central sits next to the Capitolio; it is the name of a plaza whose shady park is surrounded by grand palaces, many of which are now places of accommodations, such as the Inglaterra. Obispo Street leads you from here into the middle of Old Havana, past old fashioned drug stores such as Johnsons, corner bars and the historical Ambos Mundos and the Florida.
As you explore the old town, you will come across four plazas; all different and equally beautiful. At times the atmosphere in these squares can be Disney-like, but with the average monthly salary being less than $20.00, tourism is the best way for locals to earn much needed cash. It therefore helps to have a good supply of small notes so that you can tip the numerous musicians, buskers and pay for photographs taken with the plaza's colourful characters.
In the Plaza de Armas, you will come across a Che Guevara look-a-like. He poses in front of The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales – a beautiful building that takes up one side of the plaza. Located opposite the entrance is a small palm tree garden surrounded by second hand book stalls, each displaying an almost identical collection of books on the revolution.
A short distance away is Plaza de la Catedral. If you don’t want to be accosted by clowns, cartoonists and ladies dressed like Carmen Miranda holding baskets of plastic flowers, then the courtyard inside the El Patio bar and restaurant with its palms, fountain and birdcages is a more tranquil setting for lunch.
Around the corner from the large mamma, smoking a submarine shaped cigar whilst reading tarot cards, is La Bodeguita del Medio - one of Hemingway’s haunts. It is easy to spot by the crowds of camera wielding tourists taking pictures of the tiny bar crammed full with even more tourists. Much more interesting is the local flea market, located behind the cathedral. Four days a week, you'll find colourful handmade souvenirs.
Plaza de San Francisco is not really a square as it borders the port’s quayside; seems to be the meeting point for the town’s numerous horse drawn carriages offering romantic city tours. It’s here that you will also find the two most photographed ladies in Havana. Dressed in white, these great-grandmothers spend their days smoking cigars on the church steps; for a dollar, you too, can have their picture.
The largest of the plazas is Plaza de Vieja; surprisingly, it’s the least commercial. The plaza and the surrounding buildings appear to have recently been renovated with only two buildings left to be restored. The quietness seems out of place with the hustle and bustle of the rest of the old town, although it was easy to imagine it being surrounded by cafes and bars.
It’s worth stopping in one of these plaza cafes: to study your guidebook, to rest your feet before exploring the streets off the beaten track away from these tourist hot spots. The further away from the main streets you wander, the warmer the smiles that greet you. As you peek through doorways and windows and up at precarious looking balconies, you get a glimpse of what it is like to live in what can only be described as slum conditions. With very little traffic, you can hear canaries singing from behind closed shutters; watch as residents fill buckets with water delivered by hand pulled carts or tankers.
For the tourist, the only evidence you are in a communist country are the unusual queues outside the banks and shops. It doesn’t take long before you notice a distinct lack of locals mixing with you in the bars and restaurants. The discrete use of screening and cordoned off terraces mean the only people inside are tourists drinking Mojitos, smoking Cohibas whilst bouncers stand at the door to keep the locals out. It is, of course, understandable why bar and restaurant owners only want customers who have money to spend. It does create a rather tainted atmosphere, though. At night it’s even more obvious: small crowds gather outside on the streets to listen to the live music. You can’t help but feel slightly guilty at the cost of the drink in your hand.
Cuba, of course, is famous for its cigars; the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás is located behind the Capitolio. The factory has an English speaking tour which costs $10.00 – well worth taking, even if you are a non smoker. An entertaining staff member leads you through each process of cigar making; from separating the bundles of leaves to packing them in beautiful wooden boxes. The tour gives you another glimpse of real life in Havana; the factory employs 500 workers, who each produce on average 170 cigars a day. The speed and skill involved in rolling and packing cigars is fascinating; everything is done by hand with the only modern piece of equipment being the machines that test the air flow of every cigar.
If you are lucky, you will hear or meet the “reader” who sits on a stage in front of the school, like rows of wooden benches. He reads newspapers and novels to the workers. Partagás roll and box cigars for all the famous brands such as Cohiba, Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta. It even has its own school where out of 100, only 25 qualify. You can buy single cigars or boxes of cigars in the shop. They are not cheap, but you know they are the genuine article, as opposed to buying from the touts that hang outside. After a visit to Partagás, you will never again see a cigar without visualising how it is made.
Another way to see beyond the tourist spots is to take a ride in one of Havana’s most touristy form of transportation – an old American 1950’s Buick or Chevrolet. A good place to pick one up is outside the NH Parque Central. Official public transports have blue license plates, and these old cars are no exception. Our driver took us across to the El Morro Fort and the Statue of Christ where we had great views back across the city before driving along the Malecón – the city’s waterfront – avoiding the waves crashing over the sea wall spraying half the road.
Throughout our hour-long tour, we saw more examples of beautiful buildings being restored or about to collapse. Our driver took us as far as Miramar, the district where the embassies are located, in rundown mansions and villas. Another way to experience these historical cars is to take one to the fabulous art deco Nacional de Cuba Hotel, where you can have a pre-dinner cocktail on the garden terrace before heading back into the old town for dinner in a regular taxi – probably a dusty Lada.
Eating in one of the city’s Paladares – restaurants in private homes – is a must. Again, this is a fabulous way to experience how locals live, and a way to escape the restaurants selling Hamburguesa con Queso. The two we tried were totally different; both an adventure. The food was also excellent; a novelty in Havana. You need to pay in cash. Booking is also essential; your concierge will help you, as well as recommend other Paladares to try.
La Guarida was located on the second floor of a derelict apartment building. Climbing the dimly lit stairs and ringing the door bell was nerve racking. What awaited us on the other side of the door, though, was an experience not to be missed. The second Paladare – Doña Carmela – was in the garden of an old villa, in the middle of a housing estate, only served fish. It was the perfect venue for dinner, after you have been to the Cañonazo to witness the firing of the canon which takes place every evening.
The nightlife in Havana is aimed at the tourist, slightly old-fashioned with venues such as Tropicana, Le Parisien and Havana Café, ideal if you are happy to watch scantily clad ladies doing versions of the rumba all night. A better option is La Casa de la Musica located on Avenue de Italia (Galiano). It looks like an old run down cinema. Here you can listen daily to salsa or jazz between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m., or between 10:00 and 4.30 a.m. It's worthwhile checking before you go; we turned up on a day it was closed for a private function. We also discovered modern flamenco music and dancing at the El Mesón de la Flota, a restaurant just off the Plaza Vieja on Calle Mercaderes.
Havana is the city that everyone wants to go to before it changes – before the death of Castro and communism; before the U.S. trade embargo is lifted, and before it becomes too commercial. A lot needs to change before Havana can once again be one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Hopefully, tourists and Cubans will then sit in the plaza’s cafes and admire the city together. What will Havana and 103 Paeso de Marti be like in 10 years? I can’t wait to go back and find out.