Take your pick: Havana six ways
After 58 years frozen in a time warp, the Cuban capital is on the brink of sweeping reform. We present six reasons why now is the moment to catch a glimpse of post-Fidel Havana at the crossroads of change.
1. Colour blocking
Havana’s candy-coloured architecture forms a photogenic backdrop for the whimsical palette of its 1950s classic American cars. Chevys, Chryslers, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks populate the streets in exuberant hues from lavender and emerald green to shocking blue and hot pink, some in mint condition. In keeping with the city’s time-warped appearance, Havana’s “coches Americanos” have been lovingly preserved not for tourists, but out of necessity due to the American trade embargo. Visitors renting a car are advised to choose a vintage model – in the event of a breakdown, everyone can fix a ‘50s Cadillac, but not a Hyundai.
2. Belting out beats
The home of salsa and son cubano (Spanish-African fusion) offers everything a music lover’s heart could possibly desire, from intimate jams to bikini cabarets at The Tropicana. Many great live music venue gems are not found in tourist guides, one being the Diablo Tun Tun Piano Bar recommended by local guide and music aficionado Lorelis Olivera Diaz: “It’s a special spot for dancing, with a great son singer, Ray Fernandez. And, if you’re lucky, you might stumble on an informal gathering where friends get together to play fusion music in the afternoon. Just go inside and join in the fun – don’t wait for an invitation!”
3. Viva la revolución
One of the striking things about Havana is the absence of commercial billboards – in their place are ubiquitous images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, along with political slogans such as “Long Live the Revolution!” and “Fidel Forever!” As Cuba experiments with a market economy, these impassioned historical catchphrases acquire new poignancy – will the romance survive on the cusp of political change? “There are people who come to Havana because they love Che Guevara – but we also attract tourists who come here especially just to hate our system!” says Tony Morfa of Cubatur.
4. People with personality
“There are hundreds of reasons why travellers come to Cuba. But the top reason given by respondents in every survey we have conducted is consistently the same. It’s not the rum, cigars, or beaches – it’s the people,” says tourist industry veteran Tony Morfa. “We are informal, hospitable, and spontaneous. And it’s not just for show; it’s the way we really are.”
A great way to connect with the locals is to stay at a casa particular, a Cuban home that rents rooms to foreigners. Private homestays offer an authentic, candid glimpse into the real Cuban way of life through (rum-laced) cultural immersion.
5. Beyond the tourist grid
A stroll beyond the tourist hub of Habana Vieja reveals surprises such as the world’s most surreal Chinatown, El Barrio Chino, and the ‘50s kitsch of the Vedado district, home to the Hotel Nacional, notorious former venue of mafia conventions. A walking tour of the new town is an eye-opening introduction to Cuban realities such as long queues for prepaid Wi-Fi cards and ice-cream kiosks with separate windows for tourists and locals (Cuba has a dual currency system). For a wider sweep of the town, flag down a taxi collectivo, which takes passengers on a fixed route around Havana for a fraction of a normal taxi fare.
6. Havana vieja
After nearly six decades in suspended animation, Havana’s riotous kaleidoscope of architecture is a spectacle of fading grandeur. Few cities boast such an eclectic cocktail of styles, from decaying colonial palaces to intricate baroque mansions and sleek jewels of American art deco. While many facelifted old towns have a theme park vibe, UNESCO-listed Old Havana is a miracle of small-budget restoration. A different fate appears to await the buildings along the famous seawall promenade of the Malecón, which seem to be losing the race against time and new business invasion.
Text and photos Silja Kudel