Revolutionary decor in Havana’s Coppelia ice-cream parlor
Well over a year after I left the place, I’m finally writing about Cuba. I didn’t stay as long in Cuba as I would have liked. The lack of Internet in Cuba made work, and hence a lengthy stay, difficult. My stay lasted only five or so days, but during that time I devoted myself fully to drinking in the sights – and the rum.
I left Guatemala on a dawn flight, transited in Panama, and was in Havana by early afternoon. From arrival Cuba had its own unique feel. Havana airport was slightly worn, but red painted girders and splashes of yellow made it seem bright and cheerful.
Expecting military uniforms, I was surprised to see the immigration and customs officials dressed in casual jackets and colorful t-shirts. While superficially reassuring, the mufti disconcertingly blurred the identity of officialdom, and made it harder to sense if you were being singled out for special attention.
Immigration was a breeze though. Cuba’s issues with the U.S. mean immigration officers don’t routinely stamp passports. If you want a memento of your trip you have to ask for an entry stamp. I asked, and got the stamp plus a smile. Viva la Revolución!
I had organized accommodation in a Casa Particular (basically a home stay type arrangement, and better value than most hotels), and so hopped in a taxi and showed him the address.
Rain was pouring down. The country smelled fresh, and the scenes we passed on our way into town were under-industrialized and attractively shabby. The driver didn’t speak any English but we managed to have a bit of a chat. For part of the journey he complained in the way taxi drivers everywhere are wont to. For the rest of the journey we chatted about rum. He liked Arecha and thought Havana Club was expensive.
Afternoon on El Prado. . .
My accommodation was on a quiet side street (Trocadero) just west of El Prado, the grand central promenade running between El Malecón, as the seawall is called, and the central square of the old town. My hosts were a kindly elderly couple, and in keeping with their personalities the process of settling in unfolded pleasantly, but ever so slowly. Keys were fetched, forms signed, coffee poured, water heaters demonstrated, restaurants recommended, rum mentioned, money exchanged, and eventually I ended up with a key in my hands and the freedom to head out for a wander. Lovely as my hosts were, the whole process had taken a couple of hours, and I was anxious to just get out, explore, and just possibly drink some rum.
It was late afternoon by the time I was wandering in Havana. The air had a cool post-rain feel, the streets were generously sprinkled with people, grand old buildings decayed attractively, children played football, and the vibe was welcoming. People appeared remarkably fit and healthy, with the women being slim and toned and the men looking like they worked out. Possibly the food rationing effectively put everybody on a healthy diet, perhaps the relative absence of cars meant people walked enough to stay in shape, or maybe a lack of alternative entertainment options made exercise popular. Whatever the reason, Cubans were physically impressive and I couldn’t help taking it as a subtle advertisement for the revolution. Racially the population was a mix of Latin and African, but mostly the former. Many people had a very Italian look to them.
Although I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, the absence of commerce was surprising. My immediate neighborhood seemed to have a bakery selling a single style of loaf, a couple of hole-in-the-wall groceries with little on offer, a dark cafeteria, a produce market that seemed to have closed for the day, and little else. There were more shops on El Prado and around the central square. Few had much to sell though, and in many cases what they had was displayed behind glass and could only be got by asking for a cashier for help. Havana was no shoppers’ paradise.
The vintage automobiles Cuba is famous for stood out immediately. While they don’t exactly dominate the traffic these days, they still comprise a fair bit of it. Walking around I occasionally felt I had stumbled into a vintage film. Mostly the visual clues of the 21st Century were there, but occasionally they disappeared momentarily and you were left with nothing but the 1950s – maybe a quiet back street with a single gleaming vintage car, and a guy with barber’s shop hair strolling past in pants, braces and a singlet, swinging an ancient leather baseball glove. The people had a slightly Old World air about them, a combination of their choice in music (tending to the Buena Vista Social Club variety), their clothes (the local stores were some years from the cutting edge), and their rather polite and subdued manner.
On hitting El Prado I turned left towards El Malecón. Havana’s Malecón is a beautiful sea wall, and the perfect front door for a grand old Caribbean capital. I ended up down there every morning and soaking up the atmosphere through a leisurely run. Besides looking impressive, the giant waves that sometimes explode across the top of the thing added an interesting dimension to my morning exercise. Dodging the waves meant constantly alternating between sprinting and jogging on the spot – kind of interval training I guess. The highlight of my route each day was the Hotel Nacional, which occupies a commanding vantage point on a low cliff.
The Hotel Nacional
After checking out the water it was time to head back up El Prado and towards the central square. I was starving by this stage and decided to hold off trying any rum until after dinner. I headed for a place called Murral, a brew pub with a reputation for decent burgers. The burger was nothing special (though good by the dire standards of Cuban food), but the beer punched above its weight, and carried a refreshing sour edge.
El Floridita, a lighthouse beckoning Daiquiri-seekers
With dinner out of the way I headed to El Floridita for a real drink. The legendary Floridita was a disappointment, but first I’ll concentrate on the good. The décor is impressive, and on the surface appears little touched since Hemingway was a regular. The place still looks rather 1950s, and much like in the photographs of its heyday. Quality could be better overall, but they don’t overtly pinch pennies – using Havana Club 3 años their basic mixing rum. So I guess you do get a little extra for the high prices, though there are plenty of cheaper bars in Havana offering the same for less. Their blender drinks also have a nice quaffable consistency, perhaps the result of either blending for a decent length of time, or not overdoing the ice. Blender drinks have a habit of separating into ice and liquor, but those in El Floridita don’t.
El Floridita’s impressively decorated bar, surely still instantly recognizable to Hemingway himself
OK, time for the bad. These days the bar staff at El Floridita do not measure anything, do not squeeze fresh limes, and use an overly sweetened sour mix rather than lime juice and sugar. Big Constante, the legendary barman from the days when Hemingway was a regular, would not be amused. The famous ‘Papa Hemingway’ is an abomination. Supposedly it contains maraschino and grapefruit juice, but the grapefruit juice is from a packet and lacks any edge, and on the day I visited they were out of maraschino and substituted triple sec. Overall the place does not offer much, having degenerated into a nightly tourist performance rather than a genuine bar with regular customers. You pay high prices for it too, with a daiquiri being over US$6, compared to $3 or less in most other places.
So in summary El Floridita should be mostly, though not entirely, avoided.
Churning out the Daiquiris in El Floridita
I left El Floridita to explore some cheaper and more authentic bars. There were several to choose from just off the main square, but I settled on the atmospheric Bar Monserrate. It was a little touristy, but compared to El Floridita felt like an authentic local bar. The décor was simple and the atmosphere relaxed, with quietly casual but efficient staff and live music – Buena Vista Social Club again.
The lively Bar Monseratte
There I bumped into a German guy who had been made redundant by the financial crisis. He had been to Cuba a few times before and had some suggestions for me. While we chatted I tried a Mojito, and both Cristal and Bucanero beers – all good. The Bucanero seemed to be the strongest local beer, but was only a percentage point or so stronger than the Cristal. The Cristal tasted a little crisper, while the Bucanero was sweetish.
On the recommendation of the German I finished the evening by taking a taxi to a place called Jazz Café, which was supposed to have good live jazz. In the stairwell of the shopping center where the venue was located I got waylaid by a hooker. My attempts to get past her prompted aggressive questioning as to whether there was some problem with her looks. I had to apologize and say she was possibly the most beautiful woman in the world but it was really too dark to be sure. She laughed. So I guess my bad Spanish joke went over OK.
Cuban liqueurs. . .
I thus safely arrived at the venue only to find I was too early, with the music not starting until 11pm.Â Â Instead of waiting around in the Jazz Cafe I went for a walk, and eventually found myself hunkering down for a couple of Mojitos in a deserted little neighborhood bar. The Mojitos were well mixed, better than at Bar Monserrate, and the friendly bartender gave me a lesson in how Cubans make the drink.
One of the nice things about Cuba is the friendly and down-to-earth bartenders. They are all competent enough (at least in matters concerning common Cuban drinks), don’t exhibit the prima donna tendencies of some Anglo-nation bartenders, and happily dispense advise to strangers.
A late night Mojito in a quiet cafe. . .
The hooker in the stairwell was gone by the time I returned to the Jazz Cafe.
Unfortunately I didn’t much care for the the music and so did not stay long. They were playing that post-60s style Cuban jazz – loud and unrelaxing. I think I was hoping for more of the Buena Vista Social Club that was being played everywhere else.
The Jazz Café was one of those places where you pay a cover charge that you then consume against. Either the cover charge was very high, the prices were very low, or I was very drunk, since I seemed unable to consume all I had paid for. I had a Mojito or two (decent), a plate of spaghetti (horrible) to ward off a hangover, then took the rest of my cover in half a dozen bottles of water to go.
As I left I saw the hooker from the stairwell sitting at a table with another girl and two guys. They were sharing a bottle of wine and seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Period decor at El Floridita
Leaving the bar I realized I was exhausted, plastered, spoke hardly any Spanish, and had left the card with the address of my hotel in my room. I jumped in a taxi, successfully negotiated a cheap fare home (failing to notice that the cheap fare resulted not from my sharp bargaining skills, but from the vehicle being a little three-wheeled motocab rather than a taxi as conventionally defined), somehow guessed the correct turnoff from the Malecon, and ended up directly outside my hotel door.
All in all, not a bad first day in Havana.