It is really difficult to quench one’s thirst in Havana. After all, there is one great spot after another and, what the heck! We absolutely must try them all, right? Right!
So to properly get you started, I have compiled a short list of some of my favorite destinations to savor a mojito, daiquiri or beer (you will rarely deviate from one of these imbibing choices beyond a coffee in the morning or a limonada if you want to take a break from cheap and dangerous rum). This is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination but certainly a good place to start!
Probably the most popular and well known bar in Cuba is the Bodeguita de Medio (207 Empedrado in Old Havana). While I usually recoil at such cliché destinations, I recently discovered their second floor that has a whole life of its own. Here you will find a live band,
impromptu salsa dancing, the ubiquitous flow of mojitos (where, legend has it, Hemingway first discovered this sweet intoxicant) and some home cooking (the chicken dish is quite tasty). Drop in, take your kitschy photos on the main floor but head up to the upper level and live like a local.
Want to feel the true pulse to Havana? Then head to the Hotel Inglaterra (on Parque Central next to the Gran Teatro) and park yourself down on their terrace with a seat facing the street. I like to do this in the afternoon and order a crisp, cool Cristal (one of the two local beers: the Cristal is light while the other one, Bucanero is strictly for those with Teflon-lined stomachs and a high tolerance for alcohol).
While there, I inevitably order the fried chicken dish that comes with homemade potato chips. Don’t be in a rush. It will take forever to prepare and the waiter will do his best to discourage you from ordering it. Ignore him and simply enjoy the hustle and bustle of Havana’s epicenter while you wait.
If you are now emboldened with your mix of cocktails and want to further immerse yourself in Havana’s daily life, your next stop should be La Dichosa on Obispo street (corner of Compostela). La Dichosa always has a first-rate quintet playing (normally with a fatally attractive lead singer) and is right in the heart of Old Havana’s pedestrian stroll. A classic dark mahogany bar dispenses whatever you might be in the mood for. Keep in mind here that most bands throughout Havana only subsist on tips. While the band’s walkabout with an open wicker bowl and CDs for sale may feel like a shakedown, it is not, and a few CUCs for their fine entertainment is always welcome.
If you yearn for a little Havana history, the patio in the courtyard of the Hotel Nacional is the place for you. Ever picture yourself as the lead in the film Our Man in Havana? Well, take your position in one of their massive wicker chairs or couches and contemplate your past and future film roles over a frozen daiquiri here. In the inside lobby bar you will find a black and white photography gallery featuring legendary actors, singers, politicians and gangsters who have preceded you to these hallowed grounds. Walk down their beautifully landscaped lawn that overlooks the Malecon and Havana Bay. It will take your breath away.
One of the newest kids on the blocks, the Hotel Capri, is right up the street from the Hotel Nacional. Originally built in the late 1950s, when the American mob virtually ruled Havana, the Capri has been closed for decades and reopened in 2014 after another decade of painstaking renovations. The architectural design reminds one of a Jetsons cartoon but the rooftop pool bar is one of Havana’s best-kept secrets. The pool itself originally had a glass bottom where aquatic entertainment could be enjoyed from below, but this feature has not been retained in the more politically correct reincarnation.
Nonetheless, at poolside you have a unique view of the local neighborhood with the ocean on the horizon.
And, finally, for a real taste of Havana street life you might find yourself wandering into Sofia’s on La Rampa at any time of day or night. Here (at the corner of Avenida 23 and Calle O) you will find cheap eats and cheaper beers in an open-air café with a front seat to all the human element Havana has to offer. Clearly not as elegant as some of your other stops during your liquid trek but, hey, at this hour, who cares? ¡Salud!
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based writer and photographer and has an unquenchable thirst for Cuba. firstname.lastname@example.org