Havana nights might show a city that looks different from the nearly 500-year-old metropolis, which is bathed by the inclement and permanent Caribbean sun in the daytime. Both state-of-the-art buildings and those trying to stay in one piece look different. That effect is caused by the shy number of lights and shadows; at least for a while, people seem to forget their daily stress and they share their anguish and joy in the streets.
People say that Havana doesn’t sleep and that statement is likely to be right. The most cosmopolitan of all Cuban cities has successfully reactivated its nightlife. The level is not as high as many people would like to see; but at least that idea of deserted streets, people in their houses watching TV and waiting for the next monotonous day to come, has been left in the past.
Among all the interesting places at the Cuban capital, Old Havana is perhaps the one that better reflects the new economic atmosphere that is being lived by Cuba. The Historic Core of that picturesque municipality was declared World Heritage by UNESCO and it presently stands out as a must-visit area for people that travel to Havanas.
The economic transformations taking place in Cuba have helped Old Havana regain its colors, step by step. Private bars and restaurants, new hotels and hostels, more public areas with Wi-Fi access come together to offer a quite interesting contrast between the past, represented by buildings that date back to the 19th century, and the present, with luxurious hotels, always crowded with guests and high prices.
What to do in a hot night in Old Havana?
Nightlife seems to be linked to Obispo Boulevard, perhaps the most crowded area in the city. The tour kicks off at the Central Park. The Grand Theater rises majestically in front of it. The huge palace is undergoing a significant restoration process aimed at helping this building shine again. Restoration works are also being carried out on another giant in the area. The Capitol of Havana, a replica of Washington’s, is living a comprehensive restoration process, so it’ll later house the Cuban Parliament, just as it used to do before 1959.
The Central Park is always a seething mass of people. The statue dedicated to Jose Marti, Cuba’s National Hero, stands right in the center and there are three hotels just a few steps away: Telegrafo, Inglaterra and Parque Central. Step by step, we walk down Obispo. The famous corner taken by Manzana de Gomez is presently a framework, with dust and scaffolding all over the place. A lavish 5-star hotel is being built there, which is also going to feature boutique stores.
The impressive Museum of Fine Arts rises right in front of it as one of the most important museums in Latin America, which showcases superb collections related to different artistic movements. It’s closed at night, but the lights around it make this colonial palace look bigger. We move farther and find one of the most prestigious bars in Havana: Floridita. The statue of US writer Ernest Hemingway stands near the bar, since he was a regular customer of this bar in the 1950s, where he used to drink daiquirí, the most ordered drink in this place.
Throughout Obispo we’ll see a series of stores, as well as State-run and private bars, where trios or quartets usually play Cuban traditional music. Let’s forget about reggaeton —so popular in Cuba—, pop and fusion, because this is the space to enjoy pieces that range from Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan to La Guantanamera and El Cuarto de Tula. However, people interested in learning more about the rich spectrum of music produced in the country can go to several places and enjoy performances by bands of different formats.
The tour down Obispo takes us to the Square of Arms, where we find colonial palaces. Segundo Cabo Palace is being restored and Capitanes Generales presently houses the Museum of the City. The Square also comprises El Templete, built in 1828, where the first mass was held in 1519. Luxurious Santa Isabel Hotel comes next. The great state of preservation featured by the Royal Force Castle, the first fortress built in Cuba, amazes everybody.
We step out of Obispo and enter another famous area in Old Havana: St. Francis of Assisi Square, near the seawall. We see Lonja del Comercio, a facility where diplomatic corps, foreign companies and the media are based. This space is called “the square of pigeons” by the Cuban people, because of the significant number of these birds that share space with visitors. The cruise terminal is right across the street and, as a result of the thaw between Washington and Havana, its daily activity has gained momentum.
Our Havana tour comes to an end at the Old Square. This a spectacular place at night, since we can taste a cup of Cuban coffee or enjoy with our friends the beer that is produced at the small factory located there; moreover, we have the Planetarium and the Dark Chamber, which features a mirror mechanism so you can see different sections of the city.
Old Havana has gotten its colors back; although there are many contrasts. Beyond the tourism route, narrow streets and buildings in peril of collapse, where tens of families live, show a complex but still fascinating reality. A postcard on life in Cuba, beyond mojito, traditional music, Habanos and Cuban mullato girls.
By Miguel E. Gómez / PanamericanWorld – La Habana Photos: D. Miranda / PanamericanWorld