Along the Malecon

One morning I woke up early and hopped in a Cocotaxi (a three-wheeled, two-seater taxi that is like a moped with a fiberglass roof) in order to explore Havana. 


It was a nice way to go, because as you can see, it is open-air so I could enjoy all the sights and sounds, and my driver pulled over whenever I wanted to snap a photo. Which was often.

We headed down the Malecon, a broad walkway and seawall that extends 5 miles along the harbor from my hotel in the Vedado District down to Old Havana. It's very popular among locals, who you often see strolling, jogging, socializing, or fishing along its path.


There are several points of interest along the Malecon, many marking historic military figures and events, like this status of a Cuban General on horseback:

Cuban general

Another one, commemorating General Antonio Maceo y Grajales (an early guerrilla fighter in the war for Independence):


And even a monument to the 261 Americans killed by the explosion of the USS Maine, an armored cruiser sent to Havana Harbor in 1898 to protect U.S. interests there during the Cuban revolt against Spain. In all these years, no one has ever come forward to accept responsibility for the attack, which claimed three quarters of the ship's crew. Apparently, there used to be an eagle on top of this monument, but it was removed as too overt a symbol of American Imperialism.

USS Maine

Speaking of which...the nearby José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform opened in 2000 as a place for the government to hold rallies and showcase some spectacular propaganda like a billboard that proclaims, "we will never surrender."  

Anti imperialist

It's no coincidence that the platform is located right next to the U.S. Special Interests Section, our de facto embassy since diplomatic ties between our two countries were severed after the revolution.

US Special Interests

In 2006, US diplomats displayed messages on a scrolling digital billboard in the windows of their top floor - things like, "In a free country you don't need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country?" and a quote from George Burns, "How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair." This so incensed Fidel Castro that he erected 138, 20-meter tall flagpoles carrying black flags with single white stars that obscured the messages. The flags have since been taken down, but the flagpoles remain, separating the platform from the Special Interests Section building:


The next stop along the Malecon was the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a large Art Deco building opened in 1930 and host to a who's who of '30s and '40s era celebrities, including Errol Flynn, Meyer Lansky, Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Lucky Luciano, Rita Hayworth, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole and Walt Disney. It became the site of Castro's 26th of July Movement during the revolution.

Hotel nacional

The Parque Nene Traviesa is a mosaic wonderland created by ceramicist and painter José Fuster, who's designs have completely overtaken his hometown of Jaimanitas to the north of Havana.


Here, too, we passed the sherbert-colored buildings and classic cars that have become iconic Cuba:

Green car

Side street

Red car

But moving further into Habana Centro, the buildings become much more fragile, congested and run down. Some are clearly - if astonishingly - still inhabited, while others are literally just shells for their former selves that could crumble at any moment.

Habana centro

Despite the decay, there is a hint of their glory days in the pastel colors of their peeling paint, and the Moorish design of their broken tile work.


Tile work

This area is also home to some impressive street art:

Blue car





It isn't until you get closer to Havana Vieja at the eastern end of the Malecon that the buildings have been fully restored. And it is at this end that we encounter Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro (Morro Castle), a fortress built in 1589 to protect the port of Havana (and the ships docked there that were loaded with New World goods bound for Spain) from pirates or other enemies.

Morro castle

This is essentially where the Malecon ends. I had the Cocotaxi take me inland for the return trip to the hotel, and will save those photos for another post.


Puerto de la Habana

After exploring the Plaza de San Francisco, we headed over to the Port of Havana to check out the Almacenes de San José craft market.


The market is housed in a giant steel warehouse dating back to 1885 and is now home to local artisans selling leather goods, baskets, ceramics, wood carvings, linens, and lots and lots of paintings.





Outside, young men played chess (a common site here...if not chess, then dominoes which seems to be wildly popular in Cuba!)



A quick walk around the block afterwards showed this to be a somewhat grittier neighborhood than we'd seen so far (typical for the dock area in any city, I would imagine), but still boasting some fabulous street art and flashy cars.





I also stumbled upon the Cervecería Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y el Tabaco (Former Lumberyard and Tobacco Warehouse Brewery), which enjoys a beautiful spot on the wharf formerly occupied by the Havana Central Railroad.


Inside people sit at tables with tall "tarros" at the center - glass towers that hold up to six jugs of beer! Each has a spigot at its base so diners can serve themselves (while enjoying the house special, "chuleta de puerco a la cerveza," - pork chop with beer). Yum!


Later in the week, there was a British cruise ship in the port (remember, only US tourists have been prohibited from traveling here...other countries have been vacationing in Cuba for years).





Plaza de San Francisco

The Plaza de San Francisco borders the Havana port area, and was originally a commercial center thanks to the nearby ships transferring goods to and from Spain. It is comprised of the old customs house, Aduana General de la Republica (1914), and the old stock exchange, Lonja del Commercio (1908). On the top is a statue of Mercury, the god of commerce.

Lonja del Commercio

To the right of the building, in the distance, you can see Cristo de la Habana, a 60-foot tall white marble statue of Jesus in the fishing village of Casablanca, which is right across the Bay from Havana Vieja. It was commissioned by President Batista's wife in 1958, just 15 days before Fidel Castro initiated the Revolution.

Carriage y Cristo

Plaza de San Francisco

On the southeast corner of the square is the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, from which the square took its name. Built in 1580 as the home of the Franciscan community, it is now a concert hall for choral and chamber music.


Next to the basilica is a statue of Fray Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan friar who conducted missions in Southern California (then New Spain) to convert the native population in the 1760s. A Juaneño Indian boy is depicted alongside him.

Fray Junipero Serra with Juaneño

From Wikipedia:

Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 25, 1988 and Pope Francis expects to canonize him in September 2015 during his first visit to the United States.This has been controversial with Native Americans, who criticize Serra's brutal treatment of their ancestors and associate him with the suppression of their culture.


Lastly, the cruise terminal Sierra Maestra sits between the Plaza and Havana harbor.

Terminal Sierra Maestra

And of course, the terminal/plaza wouldn't be complete without an image of Che:


In and Around Plaza Vieja

Happy Easter! Here's a timely photo from our walking tour through Plaza Vieja in Old Havana:

Cruz Verde

This green cross, Cruz Verde, at the corner of Amargura and Mercaderes is one of twelve that existed along this road in early colonial days. Each Easter, Cubans would make a pilgrimage along the Via Cruces (Way of the Cross), from Plaza San Francisco to Plaza del Cristo. The building now contains apartments and the Museo de Chocolate - a cafe where everything on the menu contains chocolate! 

Cruz Verde2

We saw many shades of green in this particular area, like the trimming on this building at the corner of Calle Mercaderes:

Calle Mercaderes

This wall with the famous image of Che Guevara:

Che Guevara

And this shuttered window:


I just love the colors of these old buildings - it's like the patina on oxidized copper.

Te Amo Mucho

Cafe Express

One building did have these framed, blue Delft tiles hanging outside; I'm not sure what the back story is there:

Blue Delft Tiles

There are also some magnificently ornate buildings on the square, like the Gómez Vila Building below, which houses Havana's Camera Obscura on the top floor (the only one of its kind in Latin America and the Caribbean). If you're not familiar with camera obscura ("dark chamber"), it's a method of photography whereby light is reflected through a pinpoint hole in a darkened room - in this case, images of the Havana streets below are projected on the room's walls. I first learned about it via the work of Abelardo Morell (he's Bowdoin class of '77 and was born in Havana!).

Gomez Vila Building

Then there is the grand, baroque styling of the Hotel Raquel, originally built in 1908 as textile storage warehouse and renovated into lodging around 2003. "Raquel" is Hebrew for "innocent," and the hotel is dedicated to Jewish art, cuisine, and heritage (it is near a Jewish neighborhood in Havana). The hotel's exterior:

Hotel Raquel

And the stained glass dome over its interior:

Hotel Raquel Dome

Outside, there are women selling sweets:


And men selling sweets (giant coconut orbs!):

More sweets

Children playing soccer:


The ubiquitous bicycle taxi:

Bicycle taxi

And lots of folks just strolling around the square. Another beautiful walk in Havana.

Plaza Vieja

El Taller Experimental de Gráfica

There is a thriving art community in Cuba, which I love because I always try and bring back small, original works from local artists when I travel.

So I was thrilled to visit El Taller Experimental de Gráfica ("Experimental Graphic Studio"), a cooperative graphic print shop in Old Havana.

El Taller Experimental de Gráfica

It was established in 1962 by by mural artist Orlando Suarez with the support of then Minister of Industry, Che Guevara.

Orlando Suarez

There is a group of artists working and studying there that preserve old print making techniques; you can see some of the presses in these photos:


Printing press

From the Global Studies: Cuba blog:

Grabado (printmaking) is a very important traditional art form. The handmade quality and aesthetic value along with the fresh smell of ink and the high quality paper (things that are rare in Cuba) make Grabado very sought after.

Printing press2

Here is one of the artists performing his craft:




I bought two small etchings here and was able to meet one of the artists; sadly, I can't recall or make out his name on the art itself, but I think I have it in my notes/receipts somewhere and will update if I can find it.

Cuba Libre


Graphic Artist


Paladar Moneda Cubana

Right near the Plaza de la Catedral is Paladar Moneda Cubana, a family-run restaurant that was founded in 1924 by an avid coin collector (hence the name, "The Cuban Coin").

Paladar Moneda Cubana

We stopped here for lunch after our walking tour of Old Havana, climbing up a narrow staircase from the street to find a bright, open-air top floor space. The vaulted ceiling at the top of the stairs had a stained glass mediopunto and flags of the world - including the U.S.!

Paladar Moneda Cubana entrance

The Colonial-styled dining room was richly decorated with dark woods, burgundy curtains, China figurines, and Leonardo da Vinci replicas on the walls, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. French doors opened up to balconies on either side, and a beautiful breeze cooled us.

Paladar Moneda Cubana dining

As usual, we started with complimentary mojitos (kicked up a notch thanks to Franklin's personal stash of Angostura bitters), followed by shared appetizers (crackers with a sort of ceviche on top), bread, and a delicious entree of chicken, potatoes and veggies (tomatoes, peppers). And, like most of the paladars we dined in, a band serenaded us with Cuban music.


Another popular item in Cuba: ice cream! Here, we had a dish of vanilla with strawberry sauce, jimmies, a sprig of mint, and a sugared rim.

Ice Cream

After downing that delicious treat (which I basically ate every day in Cuba!), I went out on the balcony to investigate the view. What great timing! Some Cubans in Carnival gear just happened to be strolling by.


Another fun, colorful experience in La Habana Vieja!

Plaza de la Catedral

Plaza de la Catedral2

Plaza de la Catedral is one of the main squares in La Habana Vieja; it dates back to the 16th century and is dominated by the gorgeous Baroque facade of the Catedral de San Cristobal (note the asymmetrical bell towers).

Plaza de la Catedral
Plaza de la Catedral


Construction of the cathedral began in 1748 under Jesuit priests, but was completed by Franciscans in 1777 after the Jesuits were driven out of Cuba by the Spanish crown. It is made of coral rock from the Gulf of Mexico, and while I didn't see them, marine fossils are apparently visible in some spots. According to popular belief, the relics of Christopher Columbus were housed here (hence the name) before being moved back to Spain after the Revolution, although no official historical record confirms it. Pope John Paul II also held mass here in January of 1998.

Catedral de San Cristobal
Catedral de San Cristobal
Catedral de San Cristobal2
Interior of Catedral de San Cristobal

By the time we finished touring the cathedral they had closed the front doors for the day. As they ushered us out through a side door, two tiny orange kittens darted in from outside and hid in the transept! They looked terrified, and their mother was outside in the alley calling for them :(


Adjacent to the cathedral (left of it in the above picture) is the Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras, built in the 18th century and home of one of the last titled nobleman to live in Cuba, it currently houses a paladar.

Palacio de las Marqueses de Aguas Claras
Exterior of the Palacio de las Marquesas de Aguas Claras

Across from this is the Palacio del Conde Lombillo which housed families of some of the first settlers in Havana and is now occupied by the historic society, and the Palacio de los Marqueses de Arcos, home to the father of the first Marquis of the dynasty, later a post office and now an art gallery.

Palacio del Conde Lombillo
Palacio del Conde Lombillo

I spotted this woman on the edge of the plaza, and took a few photos of her in exchange for a couple of pesos (CUCs).

Cigar lady

The plaza is also home to the famous bar La Bodeguita del Medio ("little shop in the middle"), birthplace of the mojito and frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Nat King Cole, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Marlene Dietrich among others. I didn't get a chance to go inside and see the various photographs, drawings, graffiti and autographs from its illustrious visitors over the years. I must go back!

Plaza de Armas

On our second morning in Havana, we met with a representative of the city's Historian Office who talked about their efforts to preserve the architectural and cultural heritage of the area. She then took us on an walking tour of the 18th century plazas of Old Havana.

Plaza de Armas sign
Street signs from a tile factory in Portugal

Plaza de Armas, which dates back to the 1600s, is lined with cobblestone streets, Baroque buildings, and lots of tropical vegetation.

Calle Obispo
Calle Obispo
Plaza de Armas
Secondhand book market in Plaza de Armas
Bird Bath
Bird bath, Plaza de Armas

There's also a huge second hand book market with newspapers, magazines, and books from the 1940s and 1950s. Lots of Revolutionary materials, as you can imagine.

Book Market
Book market, Plaza de Armas

Book Market2

Used Books, Plaza de Armas

The buildings around the square are beautiful examples of Spanish Colonial design, like the Hotel Santa Isabel, with its mediopunto windows -  half moon, stained glass created in the 18th century to protect houses from the glare of the tropical sun.

Hotel Santa Isabel

And El Templete, the spot where the city of San Cristobal de La Habana was founded in 1599. Inside are 3 large canvases by Jean-Baptiste Vermay depicting scenes from the history of Havana.

El Templete
El Templete, original site of the city of Havana.
Bronze pineapples - Queen of the tropical fruit - at El Templete

Transportation options are queued up on the square: take your pick from horse drawn carriages or classic cars.

Horse and carriage
Horse drawn carriage, Plaza de Armas
The Malecon
Classic cars along the Malecon

Like most tourist areas, there were also lots of entrepreneurial people looking to make a fast peso: people dressed in traditional Cuban and Colonial garb who charge 2-3 Cuban Convertible Pesos for a photo (of course I did it!), men anxious to create pen and ink drawings of you on the spot, and many musical performers.

Street Performers
Just one of the girls.
Street Artist
Drawing your portrait...for a price.
King Fernando VII
Woman in Colonial garb, in front of Statue of King Fernando VII

Another curiosity in the square: Calle O'Reilly, marking where an Irish-born, Spanish military officer came ashore in Havana:

Calle O'Reilly
Calle O'Reilly
Calle O'Reilly2
"Two Island Peoples in the Same Sea of Struggle and Hope: Cuba and Ireland"

But my favorite sighting this day was the dogs lolling about in the sunshine. There are tons of stray dogs in Cuba (and sadly, I heard rabies is a problem), and while many of them are in tough shape, the ones around the Plaza de Armas looked content.

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty

The reason is that some museums in Havana have taken it upon themselves to shelter the stray dogs, like this lucky fellow who's name tag reads, "My name is Aparicio. I live in the Museo de Orfebreria, and I have been neutered!"

Aparicio, outside the Museo de Orfebreria

I'll leave you with one more classic car picture...because there are tons to share :)

Classic Car

Cafe Laurent

People keep asking, "how was the food in Cuba?"

To be honest, I had low expectations going in, having heard about its state run restaurants, limited food supply, and ration system under Communist rule. But I was pleasantly surprised - if not by the meal preparation itself, then by the burgeoning private dining industry via the country's paladares.

Paladar is the Portuguese and Spanish word for "palate" and is the designation for the privately run Cuban restaurants - usually out of peoples' homes. They've been around for years, but weren't legalized until the 1990s, when the Cuban economic downturn resulting from the fall of the USSR led the government to open up the country to international tourism and allow paladares to operate.

Initially, the businesses were limited to 12 guests at a time, and could not serve certain dishes like beef and lobster (over which the government had a monopoly). But the rules have been relaxed in recent years, and while many paladars are still small, family run businesses in the home, others operate like more traditional restaurants with professional food service staff and full menus.  Raul Castro's economic reform program started in late 2010 has spawned a wave of new paladares around the country.

Our first dinner in Havana was at Cafe Laurent, a paladar in the Vedado district serving Spanish-Basque cuisine. Its chef has worked in Spain and Argentina, and The Guardian named it one of the top 10 paladares in Havana.

Cafe Laurent

The restaurant offers indoor/outdoor dining in a modern penthouse above a 5-story apartment building; there's no sign out front, just a greeter at street level who ushers you into an old elevator, or points out the stairs. The inside dining room is brightly lit, with white furnishings and fixtures, and 1950s-era newsprint on the back wall.

Cafe Laurent2

We got to sit outside on the terrace, which was wonderful, given the cold weather I had left behind (and sadly, returned to) in Boston. It also afforded us a sunset view of Havana:

View from Cafe Laurent

As is custom in Cuba, they started us off with a complimentary mojito (white rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water, and mint), followed by bread, a creamy vegetable soup (also common here - and we had pumpkin soup on more than one occasion, too!), shared appetizers like tuna carpaccio, a main course of grilled mahi mahi with rice and vegetables, and ice cream for dessert.

Ice cream appeared more than once on the trip, too. When I asked why there isn't more flan made available (which I love, and which you normally see in Spanish cultures), I learned that eggs are too hard to come by. The staple foods that appeared again and again included: papaya, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, yucca, plantains, potatoes, beets, chicken and pork. Plus coffee and rum. There were other things, but these items were in heavy rotation, and quality varied depending on the location. From my limited experience, the paladares had more interesting, better-prepared meals than the state run restaurants. But neither produced the flavors - or used the spices and seasonings - you may be accustomed to with other cuisines.

I'll talk more about the ration system, and highlight additional paladares, in future posts.


Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes y Memorial Granma

On our first afternoon in Cuba, we visited the National Fine Arts Museum in central Havana where the former director of the museum, Moraima Clavijo, guided us through its modern section. The museum is divided into two parts - the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is dedicated exclusively to Cuban art, and the Palacio del Centro Asturiano which includes a more universal collection.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

You can see that this museum has a more contemporary exterior; while it was originally founded in 1913, it occupied multiple different places before settling into a Rationalist building with geometric lines built in 1954. Havana has done a nice job integrating modern buildings into the Colonial landscape by using glass facades which reflect the more historic buildings nearby. Here's a view of the Hotel Sevilla next door, from inside the museum.

Hotel Sevilla
Hotel Sevilla

There is a huge art community in Havana, and the Palacio de Bellas Artes hosts an expansive collection of pieces ranging from the Colonial period to contemporary Cuba. Moraima provided a nice overview of the different styles and key artists, speaking in Spanish while our Cuban guide Lazaro translated everything into English. My favorite pieces were those by René Portocarrero (1912-1985), a Cuban art school dropout who went on to create brightly colored Baroque pieces, and actually had is first show in New York City back in 1945 (his artwork is in the permanent collection at MoMA). I didn't take pictures inside the museum, but here's a sample from the Christie's website to give you an idea:

Rene portocarrero
Paisaje de La Habana by Rene Portocarrero; image courtesy of Christie's

And here is a sculpture made of coffee pots from the museum courtyard, the work of renowned Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo (there's a great interview with him from a showing of his work in Long Beach, CA last year here).

Roberto Fabelo
Coffee pot sculpture by Roberto Fabelo

There is another glass pavilion in front of the museum - the Granma Memorial which houses the yacht used to transport 82 fighters of the Cuban Revolution (including Fidel & Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos) from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956 in order to overthrow the regime of Fulgencio Batista.

Granma Memorial
The Granma Memorial

It also includes vehicles from the Bay of Pigs (1961) and the remains of an American spy plane shot down in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.

Granma Memorial2
A plane flown during the Bay of Pigs invasion

Lastly, for a bit of "lighter" history: right down the street from the museum is Sloppy Joe's, a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway's known for its drinks, its less-than-hygienic environment, and its messy ropa vieja ("old clothes") sandwich made of shredded meat in a tomato based sauce.

Sloppy Joes
Sloppy Joe's Bar

It was founded by a Spanish barman named Jose Garcia who had worked in bars in New Orleans, Miami, and ultimately, Havana. Because the establishment was a mess, he earned the name "Sloppy Joe." Here's a fun excerpt from a 1923 issue of New York World:

Joe sells either by the bottle or by the drink anything there is, or has been discovered, to tickle the palate of men. The furnishings of the place are about as up-to-date as those of a Tenth Avenue delicatessen shop, but he gives the biggest drink of the best liquor for the least money - or so it is said by visitors - and has a reputation as a cocktail mixer that extends from New Orleans to Demerara...

Over the years, the bar hosted celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Ted Williams. It was also featured in Graham Green's Our Man in Havana

Sloppy Joes2

In 1959, after the triumph the Cuban Revolution, Sloppy Joe' s Bar was shut down; it reopened again in 2013 after being closed for 48 years.