Let’s face it: Cuba can be a trying place to travel. Even residents, when asked how they are and how things are going, respond with perennially popular phrases like ‘no es fácil’ (it’s not easy) and ‘en la luchita’ (struggling). Whether it’s the heat, bureaucracy, interminable delays, or unexpected changes in itinerary, lodging, or transport taxing your goodwill and patience, inevitably the time will come when you’re ready to escape. Perhaps you’ve had enough of the hustlers or your head is spinning with Cuba’s complexities and you’re simply looking for a quiet place to digest it all.
I know: I’ve been there more times than I care to remember.
In order to maintain some semblance of mental health here in Havana (which can be loud, crowded, and generally just too in-your-face), I’ve sought out spots to quiet the psychic static, to give my brain some breathing room. With this in mind, I offer this selection of my favorite hidden spots, places casual visitors rarely happen upon. Indeed, a few of the sites I’m about to reveal may even surprise some of your Cuban friends. When you hit that traveler’s wall (and we all do!) I suggest checking out:
Parque Monte Barreto: It’s amazing how many Havana residents still haven’t explored this giant green space spanning Calles 82 and 70 between 7ma & 9a Avenidas in Playa. It’s one of the city’s most appealing parks, with pony rides, a botanical garden, basketball courts, and huge expanses of grass for running around, dotted with trees for shade. It makes a perfect picnic spot whether you bring your own or buy good, cheap comida criolla and refreshments from the several kiosks within the park proper.
Tip: All food is sold here in pesos cubanos (CUP) and although you can also pay in peso convertibles (CUC), this is a good place to try out the double currency.
Jardines del 1830: A true oasis, this spectacular seaside escape at the far western extent of the Malecón is an insider, off-the-beaten track favorite not to be missed. Every path, bridge, and secret nook and cranny here is built out of shells and coral, the arched and tiled Moorish gazebo is popular with trumpet players practicing, and many fisherman wile away the day casting their lines here. It’s especially picturesque at sunset and is a fine place to indulge in a cigar and bottle of wine (bring your own; beer is sold at the restaurant adjacent).
Tip: To access the Jardines, walk through the restaurant or talk to the folks at the gate and let them know you’d like to visit the gardens. Don’t forget your camera.
Bazar 43: Tucked away on a leafy residential side street, this outdoor bar and grill on Calle 22 between Avenidas 41 & 43 is a secret save to those who live and work in the area. I like this place for its unbelievably friendly service, economical prices, breezy outdoor setting (protected by a traditional palm-thatched ranchón), and neighborhood feel. There’s a full bar.
Tip: Meals here feature traditional Cuban cooking – grilled pork, fish or chicken accompanied by congrís (rice and beans) and root vegetable – at the very nice price of between $3 and $6.
Basilica pocket park: These days Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is one of the most hectic and crowded corners of Cuba. It makes sense since it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also the most visited attraction in the entire country. When you’re in need of respite from the hustle and heat, head to the little park behind the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis on the southern side of the Plaza de San Francisco. Entirely shaded by old-growth trees, grab a bench here to recoup before diving into more sightseeing or shopping. There are rotating outdoor art exhibits and interesting photo opportunities including a mosaic baptismal pool.
Tip: The longhaired fellow guarding the entrance to the Basilica around the corner is a treasured character from Havana’s history known as the Caballero de Paris. Locals and visitors-in-the-know stroke his (already burnished) beard for good luck.
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.