Havana is a paradise for music and art, and on our Sunday there we decided to check out an amazing little spot for both! Callejon de Hamel is a short block in central Havana that’s also the center of Afro-Cuban culture in the city. Eclectic and artsy, it almost seems like the Burning Man of Cuba. Funky art galleries, rapping buskers, recycled street art, Santería icons, performers, and wall-to-wall people enjoying the lively atmosphere.
At the end of the alley was a whole rumba group. The crowd was thick but we gradually made it close enough to see most of the action. The rhythms were free-flowing and improvisational, each drummer vibing off the others. The singers chanted, and other percussionists danced maniacally with maracas. Check out the video below! We loved it!
We had been trying to go to Cuba for awhile. We had the whole plan set to go before we were officially allowed to, but easing of the restrictions made it easier for us. Our flight from Mexico City set down after dark and we had our visas and passports and we couldn’t wait to get out there exploring. They took our picture at customs then we waiting in the muggy airport for a long while waiting for our luggage. Everything was painted USSR red and the women customs agents wore tight khaki army skirts along with fishnet tights and heels. The agents led basset hounds around the airport, making people drop their bags while the dogs circled them. The form we signed made it very clear we were not to bring drugs, guns, or pornography into the country. Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign. She would take us to our casa particular in Centro Habana. First we had to change money. Cuban locals use the peso, while foreigners have to change their cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos which equal $1 or 24 local pesos. They charge 10% to exchange dollars so it was cheaper for us to bring Euros and trade them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). All the local shops use pesos while tourist areas only take CUC so after you get the CUC you can trade a little bit to pesos to spend on snacks and ice cream and such. It was confusing and redundant, like many things we would find in Cuba.
Our taxi was a red ’50s Chevy with the inside refurbished and a big TV screen that played loud reggaeton music videos. It was awesome. In Cuba travelers have two options for accommodation: government-run hotels or private “casas particulares” which are rooms in private family homes. Kind of like AirBNB, the casas are much more affordable and friendly than the overpriced, stark government hotels! In Havana we stayed in a fifth floor apartment in the center, with a nice lady whose Spanish was understandable.
The first thing I noticed in Cuba was the lack of billboards. The only thing resembling advertising was political propaganda. There’s about a 50/50 ratio of old/new cars in the city. The stores had dim lighting and the shelves were sparsely stocked with dusty goods. No Coca Cola! Only a national soda brand.
In Havana it seems like everyone is always out and about, living their lives outside. Every building is a different color and in a different state of disrepair or renovation. The cars were the same, with the freshly-painted old classics always full of tourists driving loops around the city. As we walked through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), enchanting live music flowed from almost every cafe, even at lunchtime.
Surprisingly, we were never really hassled; we just had a lot of friendly people want to know where we were from. We walked and walked, seeing the old castles and fortifications that kept the pirates out.
It was super hot on our first day in the city (high 80s) but the sea breeze coming off the Malecón (sea wall) helped a bit. The Malecón is where everyone gathers at night to hang out, drink beer and rum, and see and be seen. On our second night the wind picked up and sent waves over the wall in dramatic fashion, closing the road and sending careless tourists running for dry ground.
West of the Malecón lies the Vedado neighborhood. Newer than Havana Vieja, Vedado is home to the large hotels, sprawling residential areas, and the city’s best nightlife.
We found a Beatles themed rock club called Amarillo Submarino where they had a great rock ‘n’ roll cover band. It used to be illegal to play all English music, but times have changed in Cuba.
Our favorite spot in Vedado was the Coppelia ice cream shop. The place is shaped like a giant space ship and was opened in the ’60s right after the revolution. Always busy, you have to wait in a long line where they have a one in-one out policy. They try to usher foreigners into a separate area, but do not be led off course because the locals’ area is the real deal! Once inside you will be ushered into one of four rooms, seated at shared tables and served whatever ice cream flavors they feel like at the time. Each room has different flavors, so cross your fingers when getting seated. Oh, and the scoops are one peso each, or about 4 cents. Since the ice cream is so cheap, everyone orders at least 1o scoops apiece! On the best night we got a choice of mint or chocolate mint flavors, on the worst the choice was between guava, banana or plantain. It’s also a great place to people watch and witness the redundancies of the communist workforce. There are bored bouncers in several different locations, servers, scoopers, bussers, water pourers. It takes a simple ice cream shop to a crazy level of complexity. Never did it stop being strange.
Havana is a city of layers, never lacking in character or interesting encounters. The people are full of life and resiliency, pushing forward despite everyday struggles that are sometimes unbelievable. I don’t think you could see the same Havana twice with so much change happening at every moment. It did make us appreciate just how easy we have it, the simplicity of just going out and buying whatever, whenever. But then again, is that how things are supposed to be? Is that ability to freely spend really necessary, or is it just a lie created to fill fat pockets? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.