Cuba is a unique travel destination for many and sundry reasons: physically, it’s the largest Caribbean island, so there are lots of pockets and territory to explore; geographically, it lies only 90 miles from US shores, but crossing those miles is complex; and politically it’s an anomaly, having maintained a socialist revolution for over half a century. Pillars of that revolution include free and equitable education and health care, a commitment to developing amateur sports and making them accessible to the entire population, and nurturing autochthonous Cuban culture in its broadest sense.
For visitors, this translates into opportunities to experience the highly accomplished, totally fun, and fairly addictive activities that makes Cuba such an enjoyable and educational travel experience. What’s more, many of these events are free and bring Cubans out in droves, providing a positive setting for meaningful exchanges between locals and foreigners. Here are some of my favorite Havana freebies, in no particular order:
1. Peña de Pancho Amat – Cuba’s virtuoso tres player and his band El Cabildo de Son hold a jam session at the Museo Nacional de la Música (Obrapía #509, between Bernaza & Villegas; 861-9846), every third Thursday of the month at 5pm. This is a must for fans of traditional Cuban music.
2. Amigos de Fangio – This weekly gathering of antique cars, Harley Davidson motorcycles (with the odd Triumph and BSA thrown in), and Schwinn bicycles is a gregarious affair replete with DJ, Bucaneros, and lots of talk about anything with wheels. This is a great opportunity for photographers to get some stellar shots. Saturdays, 5-9pm, La Piragua (Malecón & Calle O)
3. Habana Bici Polo – There are over 400 clubs worldwide playing this polo on bikes and Cubans have taken to it like fish to water since the Havana club was founded in 2012. Weekly matches are held in El Vedado (corner of Calles 23 & 2), Sundays at 4pm until dark. Visitors are invited to play but beware: it’s harder than it looks!
4. Casa del ALBA – This center of Latin American culture almost always has something interesting on including concerts, book launches, and art openings. Stop by their headquarters (Línea, between Calles C & D; 833-2151) and check the schedule to see what’s on.
5. Coche Mambí – Once the Presidential coach (1912-1959), this meticulously maintained train car from the early 1900s in the heart of Habana Vieja (Callejón Churruca between Oficios and Avenida del Puerto) is a real treat – even if you’re not crazy about trains. It features Baccarat crystal and mahogany furniture, the original AC system using dry ice and the First Family sleeping quarters exactly as they were back in the day.
6. Debates del Último Jueves – Founded in 1984, Temas is Cuba’s top intellectual-political-economic magazine. The last Thursday of every month (except August and December), the editors hold expert panels, followed by audience debate on topics of current import in Cuba like: How’s the Poder Popular Doing?; Taste Makers: Consumerism and the New Rich; and Public Opinion & Decision Making. Centro Cultural Fresa y Chocolate, 4pm (Calles 23 & 10; 836-2096).
7. Estudio 5 – Artists’ studios pepper Havana. Pop in and you can meet the artists, buy their work and even watch them creating it, but Kamyl Ballaudy’s space in the shadow of the Santo de Angel church is special. Not only is he a gregarious host in one of the hottest up-and-coming Havana Vieja neighborhoods, his depictions of Martí, Havana seascapes and Cuban fauna is unsurpassed. (Compostela #5, between Cuarteles & Chacón; 766-3153)
8. Concerts, Casa de las Americas – Founded in 1959 by the inimitable Haydee Santamaría, this cultural institution (Calle G, corner 3A; 838-2706) promotes all manner of Latin American culture with a magazine, seminars, literature congresses and prizes, art openings and more. Try to catch one of the concerts by notable Cuban musicians in the Salón Che Guevara – always a great happening.
9. Casa Fuster – Some people call José Fuster the “Cuban Gaudí,” a moniker well-deserved: an accomplished artist, Fuster has completely transformed his corner of his Jaimanitas neighborhood by running wild with mosaics. The family doctor’s office, many of the neighboring houses, even the street markers are covered in tile and Fuster’s studio and house (Calle 226, corner 3A; 271-2932) are open to the public. You have to see it to believe it.
10. Taller Experimental de Gráfica – A visit to this working studio in an alley just off the Plaza de la Catedral (Callejón del Chorro; 862-0979) where Cuban printmakers bring their ideas to life is an education in itself. On any given day, artists will be hard at work rolling out paint and prints, most of which are available for sale (and legal to bring into the USA).
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012.
Photos by Connor Gorry