It’s a battle I’m quickly losing, so I drape my arm around my face to defend against the sun smashing down on me. At this very moment, I am wrestling with two possibilities in my head: continue to sit poolside at the Hotel Saratoga or pound the pavement for one afternoon in the old city. The pool seems to be a more sensible choice, but then I find myself grabbing my hat and shuffling back to my hotel room for the camera. It’s going to be a long, hot summer day in Old Havana.
Within minutes, I find myself across the street from El Floridita bar, where Hemingway was known to have a tipple in the company of red-jacketed barmen. I skip any urge for a cocktail in this punishing heat, and instead, follow the famed writer’s footsteps down to his one-time residence at the coral pink Hotel Ambos Mundos on Calle Obispo.
Suddenly, salsa music starts to stream out from a nearby café and a few locals shimmy to the sultry beat in the middle of a tourist-trodden Plaza de Armas. The strains of a Spanish guitar fill the air, followed by a sonorous double bass. A woman’s voice soars with every strike of the bongo, every shake of the maracas, and every ripple of the claves. Amidst the secondhand booksellers who have set up stalls around the leafy park that day, a typical Cuban scene transpires – one of celebration and abandonment through music. And even though the quiet arcade of the Hotel Santa Isabel across the plaza beckons, I surrender to the company of singers and dancers instead – women in tight shirts with skin-clinging jeans and men in traditional guayaberas moving to the rhythm of life.
No sooner do I forge my way deeper into the city, past colourful Spanish-Caribbean mansions with exquisite details: slatted wooden shutters, mediopunto stained glass windows, Moorish alfarjes carved ceilings, and elegantly arched portales. While a number of buildings have been meticulously renovated, many remain in a sorry state of disrepair, waiting for their turn to shine. Cracked pieces of glazed mosaic tiles, crumbling cenefa plasterwork, as well as the muddied patina on neoclassical stone facades are constant reminders of work yet to be done. But as soon as I set foot on Plaza de la Catedral with its squat Cuban baroque church, my eyes turn to the eloquent colonial assemblage before me. 18th century limestone mansions with wrought iron balconies and cascading bougainvilleas promise to reveal secret garden courtyards beyond the heavy gates. And the best place to soak it all in? None other than at the courtyard of El Patio restaurant – touted as Havana’s most beautiful. In one corner, a Cuban son ensemble is playing a Los Van Van tune that echoes throughout the bustling plaza, engaging passers-by in a nimble mambo. It’s a scene straight out of a tour package brochure, but it’s quite charming nonetheless.
I am late for my dinner reservation at a café on Plaza Vieja, so I make a mad dash for it. Beneath the shadow of a fading sun, I skittle past the swirl of baritone blues, pinky blushes, blazing canaries, and bijou greens of this Latin-flavoured Caribbean city. And even though the undercurrents of Castro’s politics cast a darkened gray cloud over its people, there is no denying that La Habana thrives in living colours.
Jen Laceda is a freelance travel writer/blogger based in Toronto and founder of the blog, Folie a Deux, a personal journal about her exploits in the world of food, travel and lifestyle affairs. To read more of her work and check out her beautiful photos go to www.myfolieadeaux.com.