Abel FL Berriz
Ok, you’re in Havana, a city that used to be renowned–back in the 1950s–by its nightlife. And you really want to hang out a little, meet locals, inhale some of the town’s spirit, and get a little bit intoxicated. That’s perfectly fine, you’re human. I mean, who’s gonna judge you? You got your right. You’ve been working like a dog for so long. Now, you need to relax and chill, listening to some music, in a cozy environment, a mojito in the hand. That’s just great, but, where to get it?
A little bit of history
Well, first, you should know Havana is many cities at a time. From the colonial buildings of the Old City, to the vintage neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar, it’s like traveling from Southern Spain to Miami Beach of Tel Aviv, with some touch of New York or Paris in the way. Prior to 1959, you could find a lively night rush in a cosmopolitan city full of pubs and party everywhere. Most of the venues were mafia-run, but, in spite of the management, people –and, by people, I mean both locals and tourists– used to hang out every evening, perhaps to forget a little the political scenario, the omnipresent corruption, and the minimum wages they got in their daily jobs. All that changed with the Revolution –I mean, the casinos were closed and most of the bars became lousy caves and progressive ruins run by the government. Corruption, however, survived in new ways, but the night parties were over.
Many of those once sparkling cabarets and pubs were re-opened, re-designed, and revived –as monstrous Frankensteins– in the 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block, the country needed a new source of revenues, and placed its bet on international tourism and joint ventures –that lasted, most of them, less than a decade. Havana had already changed a lot, not because new buildings had replaced the old ones, but because most of the once European-style cityscape was crumbling down –or was already a pile of moss-covered stones. However, retro venues and old cars were selling, for a mass of Canadian, Spanish, and Italian crowd too eager to see what was inside that shell closed for so long, so the government seized the occasion and brought up, slightly restored, many of the places that still stood on foot, and built new ones that resembled the old, in order to feature Havana as a frozen-in-time city, almost like a living museum.
But government-run venues soon proved to be insufficient for the growing mass of visitors the country –and the city– started having year after year –and, besides, without competition, they became static shrines of decadence–, which forced the government to, though reluctantly, open the ban for private business and encourage the local entrepreneurs to start their own venues. Without experience, and with forty years of backwardness and no other paragon than the very government-run joints they were supposed to compete with –besides medieval restrictions on the number of chairs and the variety of menus–, most of these private ventures didn’t make much difference at first, and only a great dose of imagination saved a few of going out of business.
That scenario changed, however, a few years after the turn of the century. Many European citizens –most of them married with locals–, plus Cubans coming home after years living overseas, decided it was time for the city to recover its past splendor. Some with better taste or luck than others, slowly started to spread and grow, and today you can hardly walk by a street of Havana without a myriad of private venues popping up out of thin air. It’s complicated to make a decision, nowadays, when it comes up to choose one place from another, and prevailing restrictions upon advertising make it really hard for them to catch attention –they have to rely on spoken word and, sometimes annoying, hired human billboards.
Depending on what you’re looking for, you may like to move in one area or another. However, you might find some of the best pubs of Havana around the Old Town, without even crossing district boundaries. The trail I suggest is both alternative –you may escape a little from the crowded traditional trails– and picturesque at the time.
You may set your start by El Capitolio –the Cuban 3 feet taller cognate of Washington’s Capitol. You’d probably find an old guy selling peanuts. Buy a cucurucho –a paper cone with unpeeled peanuts inside– from the old guy, and set your head towards the impressive building in front of the capitol –you’ll find a bookstore in the corner– and Teniente Rey Street –also called Brasil, depending on the road signs, whether they’re old or new. Three blocks after, you’ll reach La Plaza del Cristo –Christ Square– and, to your right, among street vendors, you’ll find the gates of El Chanchullero, a delightful tapas bar, the first of our journey.
The place is so small you’ll hardly find space and, since it’s quite popular both among tourists and locals, it’s always crowded. Perhaps you’ll be lucky and find a seat. The good news is you may sit upon anything here, from a hammock to a timber box. It really worths the pain. This is a cheerful place with great music, excellent drinks, and tapas, and friendly service –that you may find all along the way, but it’s always worth saying it.
Now it’s time to make another decision, whether you’ll remain here until it closes –or your eyes shut– or you’ll keep going. Perhaps you’ve made some new friends among the friendly crowd. Just invite them to stretch your legs and walk for three more blocks. The streets of Old Havana are narrow and blocks are rather short –and many of them cobblestoned–, and you’ll find it delightful to walk among old cars, taxi bikes, fruit wagons, trash cans, and people. You’ll see other pubs in the way, some of them interesting. You may try them as well, but then the list will never end, and you’ll never get to the next block.
But, if you decide to stick to the route, you’ll get to the Art Pub, a few blocks from El Chanchullero, to the left side of Teniente Rey Street. This is a very stylish pub, mid-way from minimalism to vintage. It has a happy hour with half-priced drinks from 6:00 to 7:00 pm, so make sure you get there just on time. You may sit by a window and watch the street while you eat a snack –you’re going to need it– and have an excellent drink, or you may choose the small, beautiful patio. You’ll find there, as well, an interesting collection of photographs, most of them made by the owner. Don’t be afraid to ask. Cubans are talkative and there’s hardly anything they enjoy more than a good conversation. Across the street, a church offers meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, if at any point you feel you’ve drunk too much.
Next pub from this list is a little far ahead, so, you’d either choose to walk –if not too much intoxicated– or you’d rather try one of those picturesque taxi bikes you’ve been seen all around. Tell the guy you’re going to Maximo Bar, at Cuba Nº 6. It’s going to be a buck or two –but try to have your singles at hand. If you’re fine to walk, though, you may enjoy the scenery of colonial style buildings, cobblestone streets, weird local markets, a pharmacy museum, and colorful people of all kinds and all possible origins. You may want to make a stop at the Plaza Vieja –the Old Square– and take a few pictures. The fountain at the center of the square is surrounded by a tall iron fence. Why? Because it has clean water, a scarce good in the area. You’ll find many other interesting places here, but just book them for another day, or your trip is going to last forever.
You may turn left by Mercaderes Street –once the street of the merchants, hence the name, one of the four streets that surround the square. This is another cobblestone street with fine scenery to stare at –the Museum of Chocolate, the Old Armory, and the Spice Market are some fine places to visit–, and its European-likeness would probably make you forget –but for the heat– that you’re actually in the Caribbean. A few blocks ahead, you’ll reach Obispo –Bishop Street–, with the Hotel Ambos Mundos at your left –the place where Hemingway used to stay before he bought his villa in the outskirts of Havana– and the San Gerónimo College just across the street. Turn right in Obispo, heading towards the Plaza de Armas –Arms Square– and take a look of the magnificent reflexions on the College’s glass walls. Next, walk around the square or take a time to rest in one of the benches, feed the pigeons, enjoy the breeze under the trees, and admire the colonial palaces where once the Island’s governor and his second-in-command used to dwell. At the other side of the square, you’ll find the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a XVI century fortress, built by the Spaniards to protect the city from pirate attacks –and now a museum of ceramics. The best route should be Cuba Street –also called Tacón– at the back of the fortress.
You’ll find some Rome-like excavation site just in front of the Former Catholic Seminary of Havana. These historical ruins are part of the once city walls –demolished by the early XIX century. To the right hand, you’ll get some fine parks, a fair, and the Old City’s Amphitheater. At your left, beside a government-run noisy lounge, you’ll get Maximo Bar, your next stop. You may like to try either its rustic but cozy interior, decorated with some Cuban contemporary art –by the owner and friends– or the outside tables, with a splendid view and the air from the sea refreshing your lungs. You may find some live music here, uncommon music –for Havana–, more in a sort of Irish Folk style, or whatever is not the traditional Cuban music you’ll find elsewhere. Also, try the mojitos, and the pasta, both specialties of the house.
Now, take a breath. Are you OK? Ready to keep going? The night is young –and so are you, either in body or in spirit. Take another walk –or, perhaps, now it’s time for one of those bikes– through Peña Pobre and pass by the Barbers’ Street. This is another interesting place, full of life –and fine places to eat and drink, and, perhaps, get a haircut. Keep walking –at your pace, there’s no rush– by Habana Street up to O’Reilly Street –yes, there were Irish people in Cuba. Look for O’Reilly 304, aka Gin Bar, a fashionable place to have one of the best times of your life, in a chill out ambiance, with exuberant people and stylish cocktails.
Ok, you’ll be speaking really funny by now. But there’s still one more place to go –the last one, I promise. You may either like to walk westward by O’Reilly or take crowdy Obispo –a block ahead. Look –or, don’t be afraid to ask– for Parque Central –Havana’s miniature Central Park. When you get a glimpse of the Capitolio again, you’ll know you’ve found the way. Head towards Industria Street. You just got to pass by the Grand Theater and turn right at the side street of the Capitolio. Next street to the left, up to next corner, Barcelona Street. There it is, Sia Kará Cafe. You’ve made it. Now you may rest on the cushions, ask for the coldest beer in town, or a fancy drink, or a cup of coffee. This vintage, baroquely-decorated lounge is also a house to rest and to heal. A very bohemian kind of place, you’ll also find friendly and bohemian kind of people both among servers and customers. You may sit at the piano and play a song, or wait for someone to play, or ask for one. They waiters may surprise you, singing with outstanding voices and a very deep feeling.
You’ll be still speaking funny by now, but no one will make fun of you because of that. You’re a grown up. Climb upon a bench and make your speech out loud. You’ll get the applauses, and the laughs.