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Street life and salsa beats: how Havana is welcoming visitors back in 2022

Famous for its live music, performed in tattered theatres and spilling from once-grand rum bars onto cobbled streets, the Cuban capital is striking up the band again after two years of restrictions.

Catedral de San Cristóbal, an 18th-century baroque house of worship that once housed Christopher Columbus’s remains.

Photograph by Susanne Kremer
Published 21 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 24 Feb 2022, 15:17 GMT

“It’s not so easy to find music right now, but we might get lucky,” says my guide, Mirvel Bravo, explaining that tight Covid-19 restrictions have hushed Havana, a city with a long and rich musical tradition. I'd come chasing its sounds — the Cuban capital is famous for the pedigree of its singers, institutions like the Buena Vista Social Club and a feeling that someone with a guitar or trumpet might appear at any moment. The pandemic had halted all of that, but while most venues are still closed when I visit, the situation seems to improve and grow noisier by the hour. From day to day, more bars and restaurants are reopening, and others, seeing their neighbours take a risk, are following suit. Bands are then hastily assembled and installed inside. 

Sitting on the edge of the busy Plaza Vieja, La Vitrola — meaning ‘The Jukebox’ — was one of the first to reopen its doors and strike up the band. Mirvel and I take a seat at the back, but we can hardly hear each other talk as the noise of the bongo ricochets off the walls and the high trill of a cornet competes with a whirring ceiling fan. For the players, some performing with their eyes shut in an energetic rapture, the music looks as much an exorcism as it does a concert.

 Locals sitting on a street corner, Old Havana.

Photograph by Kav Dadfar

Havana, is a tribute to another, more affluent time, one of starched collars and bow ties, of lavish neon signs and real Coca-Cola. Just when was it, this golden era? Mirvel suggests the 1950s, hesitantly. It strikes me that the bar’s aesthetic might be reaching back to an artful reconstruction of the past — part saturated holiday postcard, part heavily edited nostalgia — largely for the benefit of travellers like me. But this much is clear: Havana’s good old days belong to a period that may or may not have ever truly existed, but in any case exist no more. 

“The country is emptying,” says Mirvel of Cuba’s latest exodus. I hear laughter and music and joy in Havana, but it’s hard to ignore this sound — the sound of disappointment — too. Between sanctions arbitrarily reimposed by President Trump in his final days of office and the dreadful winds of the pandemic, Cuba has suffered as much as any country over the past two years. I’d worried that the timing of my visit was ill-judged, but to hear Havana’s raucousness returning instead feels like a strange kind of privilege. 

A cigar smoker on the streets of Old Havana.

Photograph by Susanne Kremer

Back out on the street, the sounds of hawkers mingle with the voices of guides leading group tours. Mirvel leads me around the city centre’s historic heart, first to the armoury museum, then down towards the 250-year-old baroque cathedral. He explains Cuba’s singular history and curious standing in the world today with a humour that disguises deeper anxieties. “Now we don’t say you are unemployed, but that you are available,” he says at one point. I can sense the grin under his mask. I’ve been in the city for fewer than 24 hours, but I find myself already nodding understandingly when he adds:  “Cuba is a complicated country.”

The sunny days roll past, the temperature oscillating microscopically between comfortable and optimal. Drivers stand next to their resplendent classic American cars, vividly painted behemoths as polished and handsome as at any point in the past 60 years. The revolution made the import and sale of new cars impossible, so this remarkable fleet has been frozen in time. Most of their owners offer private tours around the city, with prices wildly negotiable, but rather than play that game, I sign up with an organised tour called Havana Nights.

The city hums in the daytime, but it really comes alive after dark. I meet my guide, Ivan Franko, at my hotel and we walk out into the cool air to meet our driver and his convertible 1958 Ford Fairlane. Of all the noises in Havana, I’m not sure there’s anything more satisfying than hearing that V8 engine start — and not just hearing it, but feeling it reverberate through the car’s white leather seats, which are like saddles on a great gurgling monster below.

A narrow street with brightly painted buildings in Old Havana.

Photograph by Kav Dadfar

We drive the chaotic streets to Plaza de la Revolución. Above, colossal visages of the movement peer down on us — the globally recognised face of Che Guevara looking grimly towards a future he couldn’t possibly have predicted, and other, lesser-known figures, too. There is an undeniable weirdness in trying to meet their gaze from the back of such an ostentatiously American car, but by now I’m starting to understand a little of Havana’s endemic strangeness.

On we drive, north through the Havana Tunnel, that delicious V8 ripping, roaring, reverberating up its walls. On the north shore we emerge next to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a vast 18th-century fort complex that was built as a paranoid response by Spanish colonialists who’d temporarily lost the island to a sneak attack by invading British forces. Six months after the Spanish were ousted from the island, they traded Florida to get it back.

Today the fort is still occupied by the Cuban army. Young recruits, many of them doing their national service, perform a bombastic ritual while dressed in 18th-century uniform at 9pm every night. Ivan and I are joined by about 100 others on the ramparts, a crowd gathered to hear the cannon fire for only the second time since restrictions were recently eased. “Before the pandemic, it was all foreigners here,” says Ivan. “But now, look, it’s mostly Cubans. It makes me feel a little emotional.”

When it finally comes, the sound — violent and overwhelming — makes some children cry, the shock of the blast quivering in their little chests. Yet the main reaction is nervous laughter, both at the awesome noise and the knowledge that things are gradually becoming more normal in Havana.

El Floridita bar, a famous haunt of writer Ernest Hemingway that serves daiquiri cocktails.

Photograph by Kav Dadfar

Old Havana

Back in the old town, I take to the streets. Mewing cats cast long shadows in the amber streetlight, while the curiously mournful sounds of a wandering tamale seller swirl around tattered, Spanish-era buildings. There are hustlers selling impossible bargains, the almost imperceptible sounds of fist bumps signifying an agreement reached. On the bustling Obispo Street, as well as offers for cigars and rum, it feels as if I get 100 invitations to different restaurants — all of which I ignore to instead watch a couple dancing on their balcony to a radio playing Bob Marley’s Is This Love. I push on and reach El Floridita, the self-titled ‘cradle of the daiquiri’, where the overwhelming sound is the industrial grind of blenders crushing ice. Many writers drank here over the years, but none more infamously than Ernest Hemingway. 

 ‘Papa’ not only downed daiquiris in this 200-year-old bar, but loudly endorsed the place — marketing that its management still uses today. Ordinarily packed with tourists looking to have a cocktail in the manner of one of the 20th century’s most famous drinkers, I find only a handful of people inside, although this includes Hemingway himself, cast in bronze, propping up the bar.

A street scene from the so-called ‘Art District’ of Old Havana.

Photograph by Susanne Kremer

With Havana only just reopening, its ordinarily booming music scene is working on word-of-mouth recommendations. I feel very lucky, then, to hear about a Haydée Milanés concert at the Eclectico restaurant to the west of the city centre. The daughter of the celebrated Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, Haydée is an established artist in her own right who’d be capable of pulling in a good crowd on any night. But, under the circumstances — almost two years with no live music — her intimate, open-air set seems to take on extra meaning. She seems to sing as if it’s significant, too. The wonderful sound of her voice is captured and amplified by a decorative parasol, while her neck strains towards the most sublime notes.

By the time Saturday comes, Havana is almost back in full swing. On Plaza Vieja, the madly popular Cerveceria lifts the shutters and is instantly busy. Dozens of tables spill out onto the old square, a three-piece band performing for tips in between them. While this ragtag group work the tables, I order a cab to head out to one of Havana’s iconic venues, the undying Tropicana Club. 

The Second World War had just begun in Europe as this venue was opening its grand doors in a private estate in the Marianao neighbourhood. Then, as now, its al fresco stage hosted an unabashedly glamorous cabaret night under palm trees. It’s particularly satisfying that in Tropicana the drinks really are free — a half bottle of complimentary rum, depending on the ticket you’ve booked — and, for the time you’re inside at least, it feels as if there’s enough for everyone. 

I’m seated right next to the stage in intimidating proximity to the dancers. Everyone in the place is transfixed by the performers. Their legs kick high, their hips turn to liquid. Sequins shimmer in the night sky like an aurora. Smiles are tacked taut like guy ropes. The drums are infectious, the clapping relentless. The problems beyond the club’s walls haven’t gone away, but for now, they’re just noise.

Q&A: Rolando Fernández González, barman at El Floridita


How much rum do you get through in a day?
Normally about 40 bottles of three-year-old Havana Club. Our most popular drinks are, of course, daiquiris, so we need to use quite a lot of rum. 

Do people order anything other than daiquiris?
Well, thanks to Hemingway, there’s a big focus on the daiquiri, but really our mojitos are pretty good, too. Some people just order beers, though. 

Where are most of your guests from?
It depends. At the moment, we don’t get so many Americans, but there are quite a lot of Canadians and some Europeans. We get many Russians, too — it’s easy for them to visit Cuba and they like it in winter when it’s cold in their home country.

Are many of them experts on Hemingway?
I’m not sure. I think a lot of them just want to try to drink like him and people don’t talk so much about the books.

El Floridita is located at the corner of Obispo and Monserrate streets in Old Havana.

Musicians play in Havana Club, a bar in Old Havana.

Photograph by Susanne Kremer

Essentials


Getting there: Iberia offers regular flights from Heathrow via Madrid, while Air France flies via Paris. Alternatively, Air Canada offers routes via Toronto. American Airlines flies via Miami, though routes via the US are subject to change. 
Average flight time: 15h30m.

Old Havana is ideally explored on foot, but classic cars and bicycle taxis are widely available for longer journeys. Be sure to negotiate prices ahead of time, or talk to your hotel about pre-booking.

When to go: The best time to visit is from November to March, when humidity is low and the temperature hovers around a comfortable 25C. Summer months bring uncomfortably hot weather and, later in the season, the risk of hurricanes. 

Where to stay: Montehermoso, Old Havana. From £126, B&B. Madero B&B, Old Havana. From £60, B&B. 

How to do it: Journey Latin America offers tailor-made trips and group tours to Cuba. Its 10-day Tocororo: Rum and Revolution package visits key attractions in Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Las Terrazas and Viñales, and spends four nights in historic Havana. The trip costs £3,641 per person and includes flights, Cuban tourist card, transfers, good mid-range hotels on a B&B basis and excursions. 

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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