On a recent trip to Havana, I was startled to find some of my preconceptions challenged. I had concluded from press reports that the city would be filled with rattletrap old cars and a discontented population. I could see that many of the ancient American cars were just tourist attractions and that numbers of little Fiats and other European and Japanese cars zipped around, though in very limited quantity.
As I was on a group humanitarian mission, there was little time to wander on my own, and practically no chance to speak to locals. However you go, you'll be dealing with a kind of dream world, caused by the feuding between the U.S. and Cuban governments, in which you travel on a level that has nothing to do with the real Cuban economy. Cuba has recently outlawed use of the American dollar, so you have to exchange your greenbacks for the "convertible peso (CUC)," which you get at the rate of 80 centavos for each U.S. dollar. You are not allowed to have the real local currency, the peso, except in change for CUC.
American travelers will stay in hotels forbidden to those without CUC money, eat in similar restaurants and private homes, and shop where only CUC money is allowed. Meanwhile, the real Cuban economy is chugging along beside this one, with vastly cheaper prices for the citizens and non-American travelers.
[Editor's Note: For an in-depth analysis on the "travel ban" to Cuba for Americans, please see: www.frommers.com/destinations/cuba/3173020059.html.]
As outlined in our excellent Frommer's Cuba guidebook, there is plenty to see. Havana is like a museum of colonial and early 20th-century architecture, there being relatively little in the way of modern skyscrapers or other accoutrements. I was told by frequent travelers that the physical appearance of the city is improving each year, with old façades along the Malecon and Old Town streets being repaired faster than ever.
Hemingway lovers will want to inspect his old haunts around town, including the Hotel Ambos Mundos, the El Bodeguita del Medio and the still imposing Hotel Nacional. True fans will get themselves out to his estate east of the city, where they will find reconstruction underway; currently you'll find the only furnishings are a toilet, bidet and sink in a corner bathroom on the ground level. (Workers on the scene said, "Who knows?" when asked the date of expected completion, but a guide said, "July to December.") Still, you can walk up three flights to the still-furnished tower room where he loved to work and take in his fishing boat, Pilar, now in a shed to protect it from the elements, and a huge, empty swimming pool where he cavorted on occasion. Finca la Vigia, San Francisco de Paula; tel. 891-0809.
After visiting his house, go down to the seaside town of Cojimar, where he kept the boat in his glory days. Though there is a stone gazebo holding a bust of the great man, the best thing about Cojimar is the La Terraza restaurant (Calle 152, No. 161; tel. 7/55-9232), crammed with photographs of the author and other famous people, where you can have a really good lunch. Preceded by a mojito, you should have the crab soup and local shrimp or other fish, and a nifty banana flan for dessert. Main courses CUC 10-25 ($12.50-$31.25).
The Museum of Fine Arts (Calle Trocadero; tel. 861-3858; www.museonacional.cult.cu) contains many prizes, but I liked best Roberto Fabelo's installation on the third floor of five giant balls made of insects, flatware, coal, bones and bullets, respectively. Elsewhere are exhibits of art from the colonial period to the present, the most famous of modern Cuban artists represented here being Wilfredo Lam.
You could have coffee here in the pleasant little restaurant, with sandwiches from CUC 1 to 3 ($ 1.20 to 3.60), blue plate special for CUC 4.50 ($5.65). Museum admission CUC 5 ($6.25).
Strictly for politicos is the Museum of the Revolution (Calle Refugio; tel. 862-4091) with dusty exhibits inside, tanks and planes outside. Also includes Granma, the boat Castro used to return from his exile in Mexico to start the liberation of Cuba in 1956. Admission CUC 4 ($5).
Arts & Culture
Not listed on many tourist itineraries is the wacky studio of Jose Antonio Rodriquez Fuster (Calle 226, esquina 3ra. A., Jaimanitas, Central Habana; tel. 537 271 2932; e-mail: email@example.com), where an exotic mélange of sculpture, murals, paintings and etchings awaits at U.S.-style prices for very original work.
If you have time to spare, you can see a display of many arts and crafts produced by local people on display in the vast lobbies of the impressive Capitolio, Cuba's answer to the American seat of government in Washington, D.C. (The dome here is 61.75 meters high, said to be a few feet higher than America's capitol, they claim.) The lobby space is occupied by tables and booths of painters, sculptors, and crafts makers, many of good quality, many at the kitsch level. The statue representing Cuba in the rotunda is said to be the third tallest indoor statue in the world. There is a nice coffee shop and an Internet Café, both off the main rotunda, open to the CUC-bearing public. Entrance to the Capitol building is CUC 3 ($3.75), an extra CUC 2 ($2.50) if you want to take photos.
NH Parque Central (Neptuno & Prado y Zulueta; tel. 537/860-6627; www.nh-hotels.com) is perhaps the most modern and well-equipped of Havana hotels, each room boasting room safe, minibar, separate shower and bathtub, and more. Located on Central Park near the Capitol building and Old Town shopping streets, the Parque Central has currency exchange, business center with Internet access (CUC 12, about $15), rooftop pool and an excellent dining room, where the breakfasts (included in room rate) are splendidly copious. Rack rates range from $94 and up per person.
Former President Jimmy Carter stayed at the Santa Isabel (Calle Baratillo 9; tel. 860-8391; www.habaguanex.com) on the famed Plaza de Armas when he visited here not too long ago. Beautiful, but lacking some of the amenities of the Parque Central, for instance. Standard doubles start from about $200.
You should try a mojito cocktail in honor of Ernest Hemingway, but the local beer is more refreshing. Spanish and South American wines are still another option. A good place for the mojito is at Ernie's favorite lunch spot, La Bodeguita del Medio (Calle Empedrado 207; tel. 867-1374), where the ambience is better than the food (so-so rice and beans, dry pork and too-spicy ground beef for me). Main courses run CUC 10- 30 ($12.50-$37.50).
At El Patio on the Cathedral Plaza (Plaza de la Catedral; tel. 867-1034), the ambience is as important as the food. As with most dinners for foreign groups visiting Havana, you get a choice of two or three entrees, in this case grilled chicken, grilled red snapper or roasted pork loin, all good to satisfactory. Main courses run CUC 5-20 ($6.25-$25).
La Dominica (Corner Calle O'Reilly & Mercaderes; tel. 860-2918) in the Old Town, the best Italian restaurant in Havana, it is said, makes those three tourist choices shrimp brochette, or one of two pastas. Main courses range between CUC 15- 30 ($18.75-$37.50), pastas less.
For light meals or just having coffee and people watching on its terrace, try the Gran Café el Louvre, opposite Central Park and next door to the Theatre Nacional, or its neighbor, the Café Francesa.
If you can do so, arrange through your hotel's concierge to eat at a paladar, a restaurant in a private home. I dined at La Casa (Calle 30, No. 865, e/26 y 41, Nuevo Vedado; tel. 881-7000), where the mother/chef (Silvia Cardozo Sanchez) presides over a small cash box on the dining room table, a son welcomes and seats visitors, and other family members help, taking orders and bringing out the food and drink. Again, there were three choices of entrees, and the food was both delicious and copious, the ambience cozy.
My appetizer was a shared plate of deep-fried chicken, onion rings, shrimp balls and fish. For an entrée, I chose good, tender pork fillets (three of them!), with rice and beans, plus mashed potatoes. The salad was so-so, but a choice of flan or ice cream made everyone happy at the end. The home was early 1950s modern (think Bauhaus and Breuer), with about seven tables in three rooms, a patio with small pool, greenery everywhere. The owner surprised us after dinner by mentioning a recent vacation trip taken to Key West. Dinner for two is CUC 25 ($31.25), she said, or CUC 15-20 ($18.75-$25) per person. Lunch prices are CUC 13-15 ($16.25-$18.75).
Alas, nearly all the early members of the Buena Vista Social Club are leaving the planet, three in their 90s having died just last year. On the night I attended the club's performance in its own huge "1930" room at the Hotel Nacional (tel. 873-3564; www.grancaribe.cu), there was only one old fellow playing a violin, and he didn't want to talk. The other six musicians were all in their 30s, 40s and 50s. The group consisted of two violins, piano, bass guitar, two drummers and a female singer. The music was grand, a couple of professional dancers were great, but I heard nothing from the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s in my hour of listening, as most of the music was Cuban modern, except for a rendering of Guantanamera, the Cuban folk anthem, based on a poem by the country's George Washington, Jose Marti. Cover here is CUC 20 ($25), drinks run about CUC 4 ($5), and dancing is permitted but the space is limited.
Chalk up the Nacional Hotel's nightclub, the Cabaret Parisien, for a time travel experience, as the show here is traditional revue, rather than razzle-dazzle technology. The women performers have on more clothing than my grandmothers wore to church, and half the audience smokes. Everyone says the Tropicana is better, but I couldn't get in there. Show from around CUC 35 ($ 43.75), dinner from about CUC 60 ($75).
Along Calle Obispo, a pedestrians-only lane much of the time, you'll find the Café Paris (tel. 862-0466), a slightly shady but thoroughly delightful jazz club that stays open 24/7. Here, the Corazones de Fuego (Hearts of Fire) group of six played away the night I visited, blasting up a storm. When a couple in my party got up to dance, they were hastily stopped, as the spot has no license for that sort of thing. (They were just carried away by the music and the occasion.) The all-male band consisted of bass guitar, snare drum, two conga drums, two small bongo drums, a sax and a singer who also wielded maracas. (He also stomped on a tambourine with his right foot on occasion.) Domestic beer here runs CUC 1.50 ($1.88), and I think you should tip the band well.
At the Hotel Florida (Calle Obispo; tel. 862-4127; www.habaguanex.com), it's hard to get into the ground floor nightclub, but well worth it if only to see the customers dancing, some of the best footwork I've seen on stage or off. Most drinks cost about CUC 5 each ($6.25).
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