The Cuban capital’s heart beats in spaces that show off musicians and artwork, such as Callejon de Hamel, Fabrica de Arte Cubano, and Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso.
Along the narrow streets, residents yell from their windows, vendors sell tropical fruit from wooden carts, and restless petty cab drivers dart in every direction, looking to entice tourists with tired feet.
Among the cacophony and colour, two things remain constant: music and art.
Pop songs pour out of doorways as tenants sit on sidewalks, observing the flow of activity. A stroll on these inner-city sidewalks reveals street art and public installations among the bright colonial façades.
From inside a house beside an 18th-century church, a band practises a heavy electric version of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk.
A long-haired man who looks like he’s in his early 20s comes out of the house and, seeing that someone has stopped to listen, smiles and gives the devil horns. It’s a funny, paradoxical scene, but it’s a good example of the vibe in this friendly metropolis, where Cuba’s rich history plays well with its youthful side.
A wonderful example of this duality of culture comes in the form of the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, right across from Parque Central.
Built in the early 19th century, this palatial theatre is just one of the many historical buildings swept up in a wave of restoration throughout Old Havana. It re-opened its doors in January.
The home of Cuba’s national ballet, this is the place to catch homegrown performers of a world-class calibre.
Make sure to stop by the box office during the day to find out about upcoming performances. This writer purchased same-day, second-row seats for only 30 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) or $38 (Canadian) to see the Cuban group Camerata Romeu, an incredible all-women string orchestra led by Zenaida Romeu.
If watching them perform a series of Latin-American compositions all from memory wasn’t enough, the program featured riveting original pieces by a young lead violinist named Yadira Cobo.
Thursday to Sunday, a journey to the central neighbourhood of Vedado is well worth the cab fare to wander the artistic labyrinth of the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, or FAC.
A converted warehouse run by the Ministry of Culture, 2 CUC ($2.60) lets visitors roam the multi-use arts space. From 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. there is art, music, movies and cocktails to take in along the way.
FAC is a modern nightclub and gallery space all rolled into one. There are tourists here, but primarily this is a space for Havana’s young and progressive art scene to mingle and shows its work.
A trip to the upper floor reveals an exhibit showcasing painting and photography and downstairs an energetic young band called Nube Roja play funk-influenced pop to a packed crowd of dancers and drinkers.
After a night at the FAC, a worthy mellow Sunday activity is a visit to Callejon de Hamel, a narrow alleyway in Central Havana filled with surrealist sculpture, vivid murals, and the smoke of barbecue.
The brainchild of Cuban artist Salvador Gonzales Escalona, the painted walls and sculpture park of Callejon de Hamel is an artistic ode to the vibrant African culture of Cuba, and every Sunday afternoon Afro-Cuban rumba bands and traditional dancers perform in the alley for locals, their kids and a smattering of tourists.
Dance, drink and eat an amazing barbecued chicken sandwich prepared in front of customers for 3 CUC ($3.87), all the while feeling like a guest at the coolest Havana block party of the year. And clear the afternoon, because the rumba bands will mesmerize listeners for hours.
It’s certainly easy to enjoy the hustle and bustle of Havana from the comfort of one of its many patios, whiling away the hours drinking mojitos in the sun. And it’s a decent option — the Hotel Inglaterra near Parque Central, for instance, is a prime people-watching location.
But a few trips into Havana’s cultural scene are too valuable to miss. After all, with all the commotion, what better way to hear the city’s heartbeat.
Grace Lisa Scott, thestar.com
August 20, 2016
Grace Lisa Scott’s trip to Cuba was partially sponsored by G Adventures, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When You Go
Get there: Air Canada flies direct to Havana year-round. A cab from Jose Marti International Airport into Old Havana should have a flat rate of roughly 25 CUC ($32.25).
Cash coverage: Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourists, and the Cuban Peso (CUP) for residents. Everywhere you go will accept the CUC. You can exchange your cash for the CUC at the airport or at exchange houses in the city. Plan to travel with cash in Havana, as local businesses don’t accept debit or credit cards. The CUC sits at roughly the same rate as the American dollar, but don’t be deterred by this, things are very reasonably priced in Havana.
Do your research: For more information visit GoCuba.ca