The Soul of Cuba

Article by Brendan Powell, photography by Jorge Victor Gavilondo

Every evening while walking the streets of Havana, I witness the same ritual. Husbands and schoolchildren stand under crumbling apartment blocks craning their necks, calling up to mothers and grandmothers. Women come to windows and hang over pockmarked balconies, tossing their only keys down to the street so friends and family can let themselves in through the gate below. The evening key shower.

In the mornings I watch a different, almost complementary ritual repeated. Salesmen walk the potholed streets, calling out their wares. From above a small plastic bucket descends on a rope, deus ex machina, filled with a few pesos. The pesos are replaced with fruit, bread, whatever is being flogged, and the bucket is reeled back in like a marlin. In a city with few elevators, and fewer working buzzers, this is how the vertical world of Havana is managed.

Castro has courted the fly-and-flop tourism in his bid to insulate Cubans from the capitalist hordes but for me, Cuba’s real charms lie elsewhere. Sure, the beaches are crystalline and the sun almost always shines. But to experience the soul of Cuba, one must be willing to venture beyond the compound walls into the sweating, music-filled, tobacco-tinted fray.

This is the Cuba I love, and there is no better place to immerse oneself in the essence of Cuba than in Old Havana—La Habana Vieja. While droves flock to the sandy beaches and all-inclusive resorts of Varadero and Holguin, I head to the very core of Old Havana, to the Hotel Santa Isabel.

Sandwiched between Havana Bay and the regal Plaza de Armas, the Santa Isabel is certainly not the busiest hotel in Havana, nor is it the flashiest. But for those in the know—recently among them Jimmy Carter, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jack Nicholson, to name but a few—there is simply no better location in all Havana for experiencing the full spectrum of Cuba’s history, architecture, art and culture.

Originally the 17th century palace of the Count of Santovenia, the Santa Isabel was first transformed into Havana’s most elegant hotel in 1867, when its regal splendour and sumptuous comfort made it the favourite hotel of ship chandlers, merchants and artists. Today it is the jewel in the crown of the Habanaguanex group, the government company charged with managing all Havana’s great old mansions. It was here that Pope John Paul II chose to stay on his visit to the island in 1998.

Entering the hotel from the downtown bustle is instantly relaxing, its lush open-air courtyard complete with bubbling fountain and live pianist the perfect antidote to the midday heat. An antique iron-cage elevator takes guests to a rooftop terrace with panoramic views of Havana harbour and the tree-filled Plaza de Armas; all of the Isabel’s 27 rooms feature equally splendid views. Sipping a mojito I slip into a chair by the balcony and enjoy my ringside seat.

My room is dark and understated, with high ceilings, French shutters, Spanish colonial furniture and an enormous iron bed frame. A rainbow of light filters through half moon-shaped stained glass windows, and walls are hung with contemporary works by Cuban artists like Zaida del Río. Ten rooms are junior suites and include small sitting rooms, jacuzzi tubs and, best of all, large semi-private rooftop terraces overlooking the plaza.

Once the epicentre of an empire that stretched from Texas to Tierra del Fuego, today the plaza is a leafy square filled with used bookstands and ruthless domino games. Around the perimeter sit stately colonial buildings. Facing my balcony across the square stands the most important of these, the Palace of the Captains General, built in 1791 and considered the most beautiful work during the Spanish rule in Cuba.

At the peak of Spanish power in the Americas vast fortunes were controlled from here, and Havana’s deep water port served as an assembly point for massive armadas laden with New World plunder before their perilous journey back to Spain. The great flow of wealth bequeathed the city an architectural heritage unequalled in the region.

Left to decay after the revolution, Old Havana became Cuba’s first Unesco world heritage site, with its mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards. Today, the restoration of the quarter-mile-square district is in high gear, and since my last visit two years ago there have been significant changes. The Plaza Vieja, formerly a maze of dilapidated buildings crowded with laundry and makeshift scaffolding, has completed its transformation into a gleaming Spanish Colonial gem, and there are scores of recently refurbished stores, cobblestone streets, plazas and restaurants.

The next morning I watch the city awake while sipping a cup of strong, dark Cuban coffee. There can be fewer more pleasant or entertaining places to breakfast than in Santa Isabel’s own café, with tables that spill out onto the city’s most lively square. Havana is a city lived inside out, and at most hours of the day or night there are more people in the street than inside. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Plaza de Armas, and a string of musicians, cigar-sellers, newspaper boys and street-sweepers entertain me, as if to prove my point.

The Isabel is walking distance to everything in Old Havana. Only a stone’s throw away is the Ambos Mundos Hotel, made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who penned the first chapters of For Whom the Bell Tolls here. The rooftop bar is perfect for a sunset cocktail. Just up Obispo Street is La Floridita, another Hemingway haunt and birthplace of the daiquiri. A short walk away is the city’s cathedral, and on weekdays a craft market sprawls along the adjacent waterfront.

Food in Cuba is notoriously mediocre, but two good options for authentic Cuban food are La Mina, right on the Plaza de Armas, and La Bodeguita del Medio, the latter another Hemingway favourite. The best-and most reasonable-food in Cuba, however, is to be found at the small family run restaurants called paladares. Doña Carmela and La Guarida are two favourites, but ask around for recommendations as they change frequently. At under $20 a person for an enormous home-cooked meal, it’s hard to go wrong.
A final word: “Modern” Cuba is a place where nothing quite works the way it is supposed to; to expect it to would be to invite disappointment, and such perfection would require an almost hermetic sealing from Cuban life. Like one of the ubiquitous ’57 Chevys with a fresh coat of paint, Cuba retains its dents and characteristic rumble even once its crumbling façade has been restored. One can never quite erase the frayed edges…but then again, who would want to? It is in this slightly shabby elegance that Old Havana’s charm lies, and I would be disappointed if things were truly flawless. After all, that would be almost un-Cuban. If you expect the perfection of a modern five-star, head elsewhere. If you are looking to experience the soul of Cuba, then look no further.

Just watch out for falling keys.M

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