Stopping in the middle of the hills between and Trinidad, Cuba to buy a roadside lunch from a local house, we end up at a local party to celebrate National Honour Teachers Day – teachers, parents, children, food, wine, music, dancing – it was a pretty cool afternoon with some warm and welcoming people.
looking back at photos of the faces of people I come across in my travels take me right back to that time and place.
It would be a much shorter list to write down what I don’t love about Havana (ATMs don’t work?), but what’s the point of that when there is so much to love? Of course, in addition to this list, there is another underlying pleasure of being in Havana, and it’s that feeling of being naughty, of being somewhere I am not allowed to be. Even though it is legal for me to be here, it isn’t for a lot of people, so it does feel like a form of protest just being here. Which just adds to all the other pleasures, which include:
Walking along the Malecon in the daytime. The Malecon is the wide path running along the seawall around the huge sweep of bay in central Havana. On a hot sunny weekend I am amazed at the number of families at the beach, swimming, sunbathing on rocks, having picnic lunches. There are cyclists going up and down; there are people fishing for their dinner off the wall; there are couples cuddling on the wall; there are musicians playing the sax, drums, guitars, along the Malecon; it feels like the heart and soul of daily Havana is laid out for me to stroll past.
Walking along the Malecon at night. I find this just as interesting as during the day time. Now there are more couples promenading, more groups of teenagers hanging out with their friends. There is a huge curved vista of the lit up city at night spread out in front of me, and there are more tourists out and about as well.
Strawberry and Choc Chip icecream. Actually this is a Cuba-wide obsession of mine, they do some fine icecream, and the Coppelia in Havana is particularly intriguing, looking more like a spaceship than an ice cream parlour.
Queueing for up to two hours for meals. This may not sound like a good thing, but it’s a sure sign that I am going to eat in one of the more popular paladars. We spent one and a half hours one lunchtime queueing on the street, in direct blazing sun, to get into a restaurant up three floors of rickety staircase, but it turned out to be worth it. One night we queued outside a paladar for over two hours and got dinner at around 10.30. But we got to sit in the garden down the side of the house while we waited, and drunk our way though so many Rum Collins that I have no idea what we eventually had for dinner, but we did have a fun night. And lets face it, queueing for food is a fairly good way of getting a small insight into what the locals have had to deal with for decades.
Hiring a bright pink Cadillac convertible for a sightseeing drive. Getting driven around the embassy district and Revolution Square in a vibrantly painted 1950’s pink convertible has the added bonus of turning us into a tourist attraction too. Other visitors unlucky enough to not be in one of these cars are busy snapping us and our car as we cruise slowly by. Its even more fun when we add a few hats and hairscarves to channel the appropriate period. At the same time we get to explore the embassy district, where the palatial houses of the richest families before the revolution have since become embassies of Cuba’s allies, some restored to their former glory, some still falling apart depending on the wealth of the nation represented. It seems mildly inappropriate arriving this way in Revolution Square, huge enough to accommodate those massive Castro rallies, surrounded by the starkly serious architecture of the revolutionary government, and the gigantic iconic outline of Che on the side of one of the government buildings.
How many of the beautiful buildings have been restored and how many haven’t. There has been a huge amount of restoration work in Havana, especially the heritage protected Old Havana, which enables the buildings to glow in all their former pastel glory. And there are equally as many buildings just a few blocks away that are run down and on their last legs, a faded shadow of their former selves. For me this helps prevent the centre of Havana from becoming a theme park to its former self. The government is actively bribing citizens back into the restored heart of Old Havana to try and make sure it doesn’t become a sterile shell for visitors, that it remains a neighbourhood. It makes it fascinating to go walking, zigzagging through these streets, around every corner is a different type of view.
The perfect snacks: the cold chocolate milkshake at the Museo del Chocolate; the mojito in La Bodeguita del medio, claimed as its birthplace by Hemingway; the perfect expresso at Cafe Escorial in Plaza Vieja.
The Tropicana Show. Once upon a time, before the revolution, Havana was the original Vegas – it attracted the stars, the parties,the gambling, the corruption, the crime. And its centrepiece was the Tropicana Show, the original showgirl routines that Nevada has since built an entire industry on. It somehow has survived the decades of revolution and blockade, and the growth in tourism to Cuba has seen it regain some of its original lustre. Its pricy but we still wanted to go, its a little window back in time to a lifestyle that no longer exists. The Tropicana is a large open air amphitheatre under the stars and the trees, perfect for evenings basking in the sultry cuban heat. Tables are arranged in circular tiers around the stage so that everyone gets a view. There are really big production numbers with showgirls and guys, contortonists, aerial and high wire performers and strongman acrobats. And for a show based around displaying lots of naked flesh, it seems free from any sleaze. This may be partly because it was easy to, literally, see the frayed edges of the show. The costumes were obviously originally very elaborate, and just like the old 50’s cars, appear to have been held together with string and wire for the last few decades. The dancers shoes are permanently scuffed, the metallic paint worn off the edges. The dancers all wear “nude” coloured bodysuits, to give the impression they were completely naked except for the strategically placed nipple rosettes and g-strings. Once upon a time I guess these suits were made specifically for each dancer and matched their skin tones. However the Cuban population has skin tones varying from the blackest black to the whitest white, so it is definitely not a “one flesh coloured body suit fits all” kind of environment. Now the dancers and body suits are often mismatched – dark brown “flesh” on a pale girl, a pale cream on a darker girl, which if nothing else does give quite a homely quality to the pretend nudity.
La Torre Bar – cocktails and views for sunset. On the top floor of a 36 floor building, with floor to ceiling glass windows, this bar is the place to come, sit back, sip a cocktail and watch the sun set over all Havana. Of course the drinks are overpriced, but it is the best view in town. Its part of the famous La Torre restaurant, reputedly so ridiculously expensive it makes the bar look cheap, but we don’t bother finding out, it is back to the paladar for us.
Wandering the Old Town, between Plaza Viejo and Plaza Cathedral before 11am. In this small area of Old Havana, there are dozens of tiny cobblestoned streets to explore, opening onto many hidden and not so hidden squares. The buildings hide a huge variety to explore, everything from an armoury which still sells guns to the public, to a cigar shop which is one big humidor and has its own bar inside, to the Museo de Chocolate, to so many art galleries that I lose count. Up until about 11 in the morning I pretty much have it to myself, then it fills up quickly and is crowded for the rest of the day, just in time for me to retire to a rooftop bar for a refreshing mojito. So get up early and get to enjoy it both ways.
Our friends call from the door of our casa particular and we go out and join them, strolling down the rough cobblestoned street in our summer dresses. We have had a delicious three course dinner in our casa, and now its around 9pm, a bit early yet but its time for some rum and dancing.
Case de la Trova
We head to the Casa de la Trova. Trova is one of the mainstays of traditional cuban music, based on the original trovadores, travelling musicians who played guitar and sung. Its the style made famous to the rest of us through the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. Now every town has a Casa de la Trova, a “house” for the musicians to play at. They have become much more geared to tourists than locals, but can still feature some great musicians and we want to try it out. We grab a table in the courtyard and marvel at the canopy of old vines that make the roof over our head, as we wait for our order of “bottle of rum and four cans of cola thanks”. I really like the music, but the overall atmosphere in the place is a bit flat. I think its because all the dancers look like they are concentrating on remembering their moves from dance classes, rather than just dancing for fun. So we finish off our bottle and move on.
Salsa in the town square, Cuba.
We want to try the african percussion bar next but its already full, its seductive throb of drums spilling out onto the cobblestones. We walk half a block back to the town square, set out with tables and chairs in the open air, surrounding a large dance floor in the middle, a band playing boisterously on the side. This nightly open air gathering is free, except of course any drinks we want to order. There’s a big crowd dancing salsa, and an even bigger crowd watching, generating quite a buzz, so we push into the crowd and find a few stray chairs and order more rum. Amongst all the dancers are several local couples who are clearly professional dancers, maybe dance instructors as well, and they vie for the attention of the onlookers. There is no outfit too tight, no look too smouldering, no salsa dance move too sexy. They completely ignore all the other dancers and conduct their own informal dance off, and it makes for fantastic viewing- we all pick our favourites and cheer them on. There’s plenty of locals as well as tourists in the crowd too, we are sharing a table with a group of them and many more are table hopping, and occasionally persuading us to get up and dance as well, although we are feeling quite intimidated, not having had our lessons yet!
Picture Postcard perfect Trinidad Cuba.
Trinidad is a small town of only 60,000 people, on the southern coast of Cuba, all cobblestones and worn pretty-in-pastel Spanish architecture. It is a picture postcard of what we all expect Cuba to look like. But it’s not flash and renovated like Havana; it has a bohemian character, a mix of the renovated, the well worn, and the completely derelict. It is made for gentle days and party nights. We spend the morning wandering the streets, visiting fascinating museums, sitting in parks, and climbing the old bell tower for the best view in town. For lunch there are the little illegal ‘hole in the wall’ pizza shops that pop up and then close down within an hour when their stock is sold – you don’t know where they are going to open next but you’ll recognise them from the queue. The pizza is delicious and about 50 cents each. We retreat to the classic Caribbean white sand turquoise water at Ancon beach, a couple of miles out of town on the coast, floating in the warm water and soaking up the sun. All too soon we are back in town for the evening, in our salsa class, sweating madly and getting excited when it occasionally starts to come together.
African Drumming in Cuba.
And after dinner in our casa we are ready for another Trinidad night. But we have a quick diversion first. We head across the road to a small schoolroom where the students are putting on a nativity play. The daughter of our casa is in a lead role, so we are here to be official photographers of the event, and promise to send back a CD with all the shots. Then its off out for the night. This time we head straight to the African drumming bar, and find ourselves seats at the front.The decor here is patio inspired, wrought iron furniture in bright primary colours, and another roof of vines. As well as virtuoso drummers and percussionists with a thumping beat, they also have an amazing dance troup, all incredibly fit athletic young men with six packs and dancing abilities to die for, and one token young woman. For some reason the guys in our group don’t enjoy the entertainment as much as the ladies this time.
Trindad’s nightclub in a cave.
Around midnight we head to the Ayala nightclub in a cave. Its an adventure just getting there, we scramble up a steep uneven dirt slope for a few minutes, to get to the cave in the hills. Part way up a police car at the top turns its headlights on, to light up the path, unfortunately it just blinded us instead but we made it to the top anyway. This hill is next to a dodgy part of town which is why there is a cop car keeping an eye on things, but its safe enough going up in a big group. I wouldn’t recommend it if there are just a couple of you – take the long way round the road instead. I thought Jorgito might be exaggerating but this really is a cave! First we head down about three flights of stairs into the cave tunnels and then we start to hear the music – follow the tunnels for a few more metres and we come out in an underground cavern. At one end is a large dance floor, DJ station and giant video screens, and around it are various levels of decks, with seating or bars. My entry fee came with a free mojito, which is a nice start. The whole set-up is cool, it has a retro 80’s feel with lasers and videos on the cave walls, but the music is not so good- a mix of 10 year old house music and latino boy bands, with a fair mix of madonna thrown in. Not very conducive to practising our embryonic salsa moves, so we only last a couple of hours before we scramble back down the hill.
Christmas Eve in Trinidad, Cuba.
Another day at the beach beckons, and we head offshore on a hobicat for some snorkelling at a reef close by, although its quite a windy day so it’s quite choppy and visibility is reduced a bit, but still worth a look. It also makes for a nice tailwind as we fly back to shore. The afternoon contains more salsa lessons and cervesas and canchancharas under the shade at the Daiquiri bar. The delicious Canchanchara is a mix of rum, honey, lemon juice and cinnamon. At sunset we scramble back up the hill to the old ruin (right next to the cave nightclub) to watch the sun set over the town and sea.
Today is Christmas Eve and we have been invited to a christmas party at the house of one of the local bigwigs, fittingly named Jesus. Jesus’ extended family has prepared a spectacular buffet of whole baked fish, roast turkey, soups and salads. We contribute our usual supply of rum bottles and cans of cola. The ubiquitous ghetto blaster comes and and much bad dancing ensues, salsa and not. At 11.30pm we head off to the big church in the main square, which is full of local families. Realising in time that we are (a) not catholics, and (b) quite drunk, we sensibly decide not to offend the locals, so we skip the midnight mass and head back up the hill to Ayala in the cave to dance our way into Christmas Day.
It’s a balmy New Years Eve, on the farm surrounded by friends and family. One family friend is drunkenly playing a guitar in the corner, on the other side the teenagers have taken control of the CD player, and I am enveloped in the crisp fatty scent of slowly spinning roast pig on a spit.
But this is not my family, I only met the friends a week ago, I’m in Cuba and it is indeed a surprising place. I am travelling with a small group of Aussies, Kiwi’s, Canadians and Americans through www.cubagrouptour.com. I am surprised at how many Americans are visiting Cuba since in theory they are not allowed to, they are sneaking through Mexico or Canada in large numbers every year, and are happy to flout their government’s nonsensical rules.
Cuba: an extended family.
My hosts are the family of our excellent local guide, and they are almost a cross-section of Cuba. There’s Granddad, the charming silver fox, Dad who is a staunch communist who isn’t comfortable with so many foreigners around, Grandma who is happy as long as we refill her little half glass of beer, shy but smiling Mum, a brother in law who is loudly pro-American and wants to discuss politics all night, and the whole extended family. We feel honored to be invited to their party while we are so far from home.
Cuba: music, party, art.
This is the only communist country I have visited that really seems to love a party – I don’t know if there is much financial support but there seems to be great artistic support for the arts and musicians (& movies), and you didn’t have to look very hard to find music and dancing. It has become part of our everyday experience in Cuba. The locals are born to dance with snake-hips that no amount of salsa lessons are going to give me, but after a couple of Cuba Libre’s I give it a try anyway.
I am here during the 50th anniversary of the Revolution , which just amplifies the partying – there are government sponsored street parties at night. And I am amazed at how easy it is to indulge my love of art – paintings everywhere, art galleries, street markets. Camaguey and Baracoa have the best, while there was also a huge range of cheap but good street market stuff in Havana.
I am lucky enough to visit the Camaguey home of Ileana Sanchez & Joel Jover, and fall in love with, buy and take home a Joel Jover painting. I also realize that the value of art is very subjective – the price I pay is equivalent to a talented art student’s first exhibition in Sydney, and at least one tenth of the price for a known artist with 20+ years on international exhibitions, but it was still enough to make the bus driver nearly faint from shock.
There is another memorable party we go to, well, gate-crash really. Travelling on a long trip through the mountains to our next city, we stop at the gate of a house where the driver knows we can usually buy some lunch, as there were no shops or roadside cafes on this route (or on most in Cuba). There’s a bigger crowd than just the family here today and they warmly invite us to join them. It is National Honor Teachers Day, and the teachers and their families have gathered at this particular house to celebrate.
On our arrival they quickly wring the neck of one of their turkeys, and then invite us to join them for lunch, a feast that needs to cook for the next 4 hours or so. We sample their local rum, play some dominoes, dance a bit of salsa, and have deep conversations about the importance of great teachers in our lives – although this was somewhat tempered by our very bad spanglish.
We also wander down the farm to visit the beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. Of all the things I associated with Cuba, waterfalls had not been on the list, but I discover there are many throughout the country.
Cuba: more music, dancing and old cars.
I have to admit that most of my pre-conceptions about Cuba are a bit out of date – while I was thinking salsa, the locals are at the nightclub, while I was thinking Buena Vista social club the locals are thinking Latino hip-hop. We quickly learn the various rituals of “clubbing” of any form in Cuba – generally we would start the evening late, and sit through a “show” – it might be cover band of Celine Dion numbers, or Latino boy bands or Buena Vista copy cats, of varying levels of skill. After enduring the show, the dance music comes on and the crowd throw themselves into what they’ve really come for – dancing and partying. We also learn that the best way to order drinks is “a bottle of rum and four cans of cola” and then mix our own for the evening.
I’d heard all about the wonderful old American 50’s cars and they are everywhere, they look amazing, and it is even more amazing how they manage to keep them intact and running for so long without access to spare parts. And it is no surprise to see the old Russian Ladas, although somewhat less attractive. But I am surprised to spot some brand new Audi’s, imported as car rentals for tourists apparently – a sign of change indeed.
Cuba: change is happening.
Everywhere we go, change is the most common topic of conversation, although probably influenced by our own level of desire to understand it too. Many Cubans are openly talking about how things are changing, whether they think that is a good or bad thing, what they would like to see change or not change. Everyone has different views, and everyone seems to be engaged in a public conversation on this, again more so than I would expect in a communist country.
And it also seems like every visitor has a version of “I wanted to come now before it changes” – me too, even though I know how selfish a view this is. I take heart at the level of public debate on this, hopefully a good sign for the future – I only wish there was this much involvement of the general public in political debate in my country. And I hope that before too long the ridiculous 47 year blockade is finally lifted. What do you think?