36 Hours in Havana
36 Hours in Havana
Havana is no longer frozen in time, at least not completely. With Cuba’s guarded openness to private enterprise grabbing hold, classic American cars and salsa singers now share the cityscape with new and inventive offerings in food, culture, night life and hospitality. No other city in Latin America, or perhaps the world, can claim to be having just the kind of moment that Havana is experiencing now after so many decades gasping for change. For visitors, the capital is a mash-up of past and present, freedom and restriction. It’s a city of architectural decay, but also creativity, where artists have turned a defunct cooking-oil factory into a performance space, bar and music venue that on any given night makes Brooklyn look as cool as a suburban Ikea. It’s a city where finding ingredients for a stellar menu requires feats of Promethean ingenuity; where opera is subversive, and kitschy too; where the Internet is just arriving, fully formed and censored; and where young Cubans without money are fleeing, while those with connections and ideas await great success. Officially, some limits for Americans remain in place. Despite restored relations with Cuba, tourism is still banned by the embargo. But for those who reach Havana under the 12 categories of legal travel, or without permission, and for the rest of the world, the city is ready to entertain and confound.
1. VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN, 4 P.M.
Start with what makes Cuba unlike any other Caribbean island: its record of unshakable resistance to the United States. The Museum of the Revolution is a shrine to Cuban sovereignty, housed in the old presidential palace, complete with bullet holes from the Revolution and dozens of glass cases documenting Fidel Castro’s triumphs — from his days as a guerrilla, to the Bay of Pigs and beyond. It’s all a bit musty now, and best experienced quickly, but it’s vital. This is the Cuba of a proud and former era that continues to hold on, like an anchor buried deep at sea.
2. THE NEW COOL, 6 P.M.
Climb the spiral staircase to the roof of the restaurant named El Cocinero (look for the soaring brick chimney) and settle into a hip new Havana. Chill on the banquettes with some empanadas de queso, or start with a trago or two of aged rum on the rocks. Then order more. The menu changes based on availability, but small plates rule, from a phenomenal hot crab dip to lobster and sides like boniato (Cuban sweet potato). Expect to pay about 60 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), about $61, per couple; the bartenders and servers are gems of efficiency and charm.
3. CULTURE FACTORY, 9 P.M.
Next to El Cocinero, sharing an expanse of the same century-old cooking-oil factory, La Fábrica de Arte Cubano feels like a mix of CBGB, Art Basel Miami, a community center, a coffee shop, a bar (or two or three) and a bomb shelter. Arrive for folk dancing, and you may end up lost, in a good way, listening to reggaeton or staring at sculpture, huge canvases of colorful paintings, or black-and-white photography. “It’s an urban experiment,” said Inti Herrera, a member of the artists’ collective that runs La Fábrica with permission from the government, which owns the building.
4. THROW AWAY THE PAST, MIDNIGHT
Finish your night with mojitos at Siá Kará, a centrally located bar and restaurant of just the right size (small) and style (are those old ’50s-era ties?). Grab a seat in a far corner from the piano and the singer to allow for maximum listening and diving into late-night conversation about the meaning of socialism, capitalism and life itself. No trip to Cuba is complete without intense discussion of existential quandaries; Siá Kará — an Afro-Cuban expression meaning “to wash away the past” — is an ideal salon, flush with good taste and liquor.
A courtyard in front of Iglesia del Santo Ángel Custodio. Credit Robert Rausch for The New York Times
5. FRAPPUCCINO CUBANO, 10 A.M.
Head to Café Mamainé in Vedado for Havana’s version of the Starbucks frappuccino. It’s icy. It’s strong. It’s sweet, flavored with a touch of cinnamon. And as you sit on the porch at Café Mamainé, in an old colonial mansion, it goes great with a ham and cheese omelet, or with a full American breakfast of fruit, toast, butter, jelly, more coffee, eggs and sausage. A hearty feast can be had for 10 CUC.
6. ART AND ENTREPRENEURS, 11 A.M.
Call for an appointment at the 331 Art Space. The renovated 1941 mansion, spare and modern now, is the work and display space for three young artists — Frank Mujica, Alex Hernández and Adrián Fernández — whose styles range from intimate drawings to large-scale prints and mixed media. Prices are roughly $500 to $10,000, a reflection of what Mr. Hernández describes as his generation’s grand, global ambition to create art that reflects Cuba but “looks to a wider audience, an international audience.”
7. A VIEW OF THE SEA, 2 P.M.
Rest and replenish at Café Laurent, which offers breezes, views of the sea just beyond the newly christened American Embassy — and some rich culinary options. Start with the octopus carpaccio and a bottle of wine (a rarity in all but a few places just a few years ago), then ask about specials. Go for the black ink seafood risotto if it’s available: love it or hate it, you’ll remember it. Expect to pay about 45 CUC per couple for lunch.
8. PUROS CUBANOS, 4 P.M.
Cuban cigars have become a bit of a cliché, but here’s how you do it with a measure of authenticity: First, visit the Partagas factory in Havana if it is allowing tours (sometimes, yes, sometimes no); then head to Casa Abel, a new bar, restaurant and cigar lounge run by Jose Abel Espósito Díaz, who spent 19 years working for Partagas. Abel, as everyone knows him, is a charming repository of tobacco lore and explanation. He often hosts events for cigar aficionados from all over the world. His humidor holds many fine offerings that are worth discussing and smoking.
The scene at Siá Kará Café. Credit Robert Rausch for The New York Times
9. REVIVAL AND RENEWAL, 7 P.M.
Río Mar has become a favorite of Cuba’s emerging elite, for its waterfront location on the edge of lush Miramar, its design-school vibe and its good food. Try the seafood pasta for a break from Cuban fare, or go deep into the past with pan de boniato and the ropa vieja — a shredded-meat classic made from lamb at Río Mar, in an effort to revive a dish that largely disappeared after the Revolution. Then order flan or rum and linger a little longer as the waves knock into the shore. Dinner should cost around 75 CUC for two.
10. GET YOUR GROOVE ON, 10 P.M.
Los Van Van, Celia Cruz and others may have to compete with reggaeton and hip-hop these days, but La Casa de la Música in Miramar is still a reliable nightspot for live music and dancing to salsa and merengue. The crowd size varies, and some locals may be looking for more than just a dance partner, but with the right band on the right night, you can lose yourself here for hours of visceral joy.
11. SMARTPHONE AND CHILL, 1 A.M.
Make your way to the Malecón, “a free place with a nice view and lots of possibilities” — that’s how young Cubans often describe Havana’s famous sea wall. Especially late at night, it’s a flytrap for youth and uninhibited performance. Couples kiss to music buzzing from old iPhones; friends and musicians dance, shout and flirt with tiny cups of rum in hand, as taxis honk their way through a dawn-seeking crowd overseen by the police who whisper but rarely intervene.
12. TO THE BEACH!, 10 A.M.
Tourists go to Varadero. Habaneros go to Guanabo, a beach town a half-hour east of Havana, and they go together. To do the same, grab a shared taxi at the small park with the old train at the corner of Agramonte and Misión. The cars tend to be old and slow — all the better for a leisurely trip along the coast, which is still shockingly undeveloped. The beach itself is a ribbon, flush with life at its most crowded spot with no more than a few dozen Cubans swimming and enjoying what has always made Cuba the Pearl of the Antilles: its pristine shores.
13. A HEMINGWAY DEPARTURE, 2 P.M.
Finish your trip with a daiquiri or two at La Terraza de Cojimar, a watering hole on the way back to Havana that was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. It butts up against a bay, on a bumpy road through a small town that hasn’t changed much since Papa was around; it’s still a gorgeous spot, if old and faded, and the house drink, the Don Gregorio, is still strong. Here at least, on a lucky afternoon, time is frozen. But as with all of Havana, the moment to go is now; in the world of Cuba that caters to visitors, change is here and accelerating.