Monday, March 22, 2010

I’ll See You in C.U.B.A. - Havana part II

“Have you been longing for the 'smile'
That you haven't had for quite a while?
If you have, then follow me and I'll show the way
I'm on my way to Cuba, there's where I'm going
Cuba, there's where I'll stay”

- I’ll See You in C.U.B.A. words & music by Irving Berlin

My third visit to La Habana was short, sweet and sleepless. (See my previous post on Havana) My friend (ex-New Yorker Dan) and I spent most of our time walking, talking to passers-by, and training ourselves to stay up in anticipation that our last night would leave no time for sleep--our flight left at 6 AM. But this was easy since the Havana nightlife scene never shuts down and there are endless choices of musical venues. Cuba is a safe place; there are virtually no arms in the hands of the general populace, and no recreational drugs. I cavalierly entered headlight-less taxis, ventured down dark, empty crumbling streets, and was out on the town at 4AM--things I would never do in Mexico, Paris or New York. We were in so many people’s living rooms, drank so many beers and mojitos, danced poorly to salsa and son, and generally had the time of our lives.

“Cuba, where wine is flowing….
And where dark eyed Stellas,
Light their fellas…

The One Eyed Cat and other late night venues

In Havana there’s no dearth of music. One could spend every evening for a lifetime attending live performances of every genre from Yoruban to Reggaeton. Being the old-fashioned type, I search out classic son a la the Buena Vista Social Club – and always find it. During our five day stay I visited five performance venues, and that’s not counting the excellent flamenco guitarist who serenaded the stars at 3 in the morning on the Malecón. We started each evening at the old fashioned Café Montserrate, a cool, turn-of-the-century bar where an Afro-Cuban jazz combo serenades a mojito-sipping mixed crowd of locals and hip foreigners with predictable but beloved classics – Dos Gardenias, Guantanamera, El Manicero.

We could have hung out in this place forever, but we had tickets for the presentation of a new CD, Traigo Para Dar by the popular fusion group Síntesis. Founded in the 1960’s, their music is based on traditional African and Cuban rhythms, jazz, and even rock. This particular performance featured the great bolero singer Omara Portuondo as a guest artist. Held in the handsomely designed (‘50’s style, naturally) Teatro Mella, an integrated crowd of people of every skin color imaginable packed the house and raised the roof when the musicians started to play (about 50 minutes after scheduled starting time). People danced in their seats, in the aisles, and up to the stage. Omara came on to perform her number, at nearly 80 somewhat unsteady on her feet, but in good voice. Dancers in folkloric costume of colorful skirts and headdresses whirled about, and a ballet company of six gorgeous dancers, skimpily clad in sexy black, pranced seductively. The cost of admission was $10 for us, but much less for everyone else, a nice system that makes culture accessible.

We spent another evening at the Jazz Café. It is a large airy, modern space hidden upstairs inside a strange, circular, abandoned looking commercial center just off the Malecón. Although we had to wait what seemed like forever, when the young musicians finally started playing at about 11, they swung like the best beboppers of yore, invoking everyone from Miles to ‘Trane to Diz. The set lasted almost two hours without a break between numbers. The ten dollar admission covered multiple drinks and light food.

I had the most fun of all, however, at El Gato Tuerto, which translates as ‘the one eyed cat’. T
his is an intimate boite in the old Latin Quarter style, in business since 1959. They present bolero (ballad) and jazz singers, many veterans. We arrived around 10 to a full house and sat at the bar to the left of the small stage. A hip looking crowd was already installed and having a ball – I found out later, when one of the singers took a ‘poll’ asking where people were from, that there were three Mexicans (if I count myself), two Americans (if I also count myself and my friend, I am a dual national) , a group of Spaniards and the rest Cubans. The first act was a female vocalist of nearly 80, smartly dressed in a tailored black pantsuit and coiffed in a mysteriously elaborate wig. By her world weary but warm smile and rapport with the musicians and crowd it was obvious that she was a seasoned pro, but her voice sounded as if it had seen better days. Turns out she’s quite well known and has recorded many albums under the name Ela Calvo. Accompanied by a guitar and bongos, she wooed the appreciative audience with boleros and oldies but goodies. I kept noticing an elegant woman sporting a chic blond bob who was standing near us at the bar, communing with various insiders. The entire evening she puffed on a huge stogie that Groucho Marx might have liked. Later she danced with various patrons, male and female, trailing smoke behind her like a smelly jet stream. Also in attendance was a mysterious plump lady dressed in a white turban and purple tie-dyed smock who kept rhythm with a pair of maracas. Although she looked more like the owner of a health food store, she seemed to be a professional crowd-livener, cha cha-ing back and forth from the stage to the floor and dancing with anyone who felt the calling. The second set was performed by a younger singer with Cher-like long hair and an impressive voice. She had won a national music contest and with good reason. Everybody got up to dance when she broke into El Manicero (The Peanut Vendor Song). We stayed until closing time, 3 AM.

“Cuba, where all is happy
Cuba, where all is gay”

La Pecera
There isn’t much open gay life in Havana. The only public meeting plac
e is a café at the corner of 23 and P in Vedado, popularly known as La Pecera or ‘The Fishbowl’ because it’s surrounded on two sides by large windows facing the street. While a cross-section of the capital’s GLBT community gather from early evening on, police patiently patrol the corner to make sure the crowd, which often spills out onto the street, doesn’t get out of hand. Hustler types, known as ‘jineteros’ line up awaiting customers while couples and groups of friends chat, sipping beer, oblivious to any unsavory goings on. Lesbians, transvestites, you-name-it, everyone is here. While officially gay establishments are not tolerated, this one is, the authorities bowing to reality; Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul, happens to be a sexologist and has done much to push tolerance in government circles. I met Carlos there, tall, boyishly handsome, defiantly coiffed in a punk-like peak of hair taller than his head. He is a design student, astoundingly mature for his 19 years. Over mojitos at the Café Jazz the next night, we discussed music – he likes jazz saxophonists and black male singers. The topic then got to politics. When queried, Carlos told me he felt free to talk about any subject, unafraid of censorship of any kind – “you can talk all you want, as long as you don’t do anything about it” he postulated. Does he want to leave Cuba? “No, not really, I’m happy here”, Carlos assured me. “What do you think of Fidel” I finally ventured to ask. “He’s a great man, but like all men he’s made some mistakes” was my friend’s answer. I couldn’t argue with that. Carlos seemed unabashed, unafraid and assured me that he was ‘out’ to his parents, both doctors.
On weekend nights, parties are organized, private but open to anyone. Taking place in a house or a public space such as a hotel or club, drinks are sold and there is sometimes a drag show. Just show up around 10 at La Pecera and ask about la fiesta – groups hire collective taxis to take you there.
We even visited an openly gay beach, Playa Mi Cayito, about 20 kilometers from Havana. Hunky boys and even a few topless girls frolicked while police periodically strolled by. "It's Mariela's doing", our friend Yosely explained. "This didn't exist a few years ago". (to get to the beach, hire a taxi, and make sure you specify a time for him to pick you up, or else you will have to walk a grueling km. to the main road and hope for the best - it's about 30 CUC round trip. There is a small store selling drinks but not much else, so bring food).

“Not so far from here
There's a very lively atmosphere
Ev'rybody's going there this year”

The Havana Riviera
For aficionados of mid-century design, a visit to the spectacular Hotel Habana Riviera is a must. This high camp Vegas-style high-rise hotel was completed in 1957 and only lived a year-and-a-half of glory befor
e the revolution shut it down. Fortunately for us, it was well preserved and is the most intact ‘50’s modern structure in the world. The story of the Riviera is the stuff of big Hollywood pictures. Las Vegas and Miami boss Meyer Lansky brought in his Jewish mafia buddies (Moe, Morris, Hymie, Eddie, et al), with the blessing and financial backing of the Batista government to create the “Riviera of the Caribbean”. That they did. From the exterior aqua-blue Venetian glass mosaic façade to the elegant interior lobby, swirling with modular furniture, sputnick chandeliers and globular Henry Moore-like sculptures, to the over-the top bar, wig-popping Copa Cabaret, ritzy Bar L’Elegante, sunny Doris Day-esque breakfast room, and jaw-dropping L’Aiglon restaurant, the place dazzles. We had to try L’Aiglon. Even its menu seemed stuck in time, offering such anachronistic classics as Waldorf salad and Chateaubriand.
Surprisingly, the salade Nicoise and seafood bisque I ordered were quite good. Served by a balding maître d’ (a dead ringer for Franklin Pangborn) we dined surrounded by flecked smoked mirrors, post-deco patterned carpets, huge crystal light fixtures and the stylized modernist murals of Cuban revelers of Rolando Lopez Dirube. Amazingly, the original china is still in use, its gold Riviera insignias still gleaming after 50 years. I expected a perfectly coiffed Ginger Rogers to waltz in (she apparently opened the Copa room next door and Lansky remarked that “she can wiggle her ass but can’t sing a goddam note”). Esther Williams dove into the pool, Frank Sinatra ordered ‘one more for the road’, and Ava Gardner was reported to have grabbed a bellboy and pull him into her bed. Looking at the bellboys, I don’t blame her. Unfortunately, the rooms are not as well preserved as the lobby and grounds and don’t merit their high prices.

Fresa y Chocolate: Heladería Coppelia
On our last day we stopped at Coppelia, an outdoor ice cream complex set in a small park in Vedado, and made semi-famous when the film ‘Fresa y Chocolate’ came out in 1993. At the beginning of the film, a very gay guy ‘picks up’ a very straight guy over a bowl of strawberry and chocolate ice cream here. The circular modernist but rather stark building was inaugurated in 1966 and reminded us ex-New Yorkers of some long gone pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, which we’d both seen as children. We sat at an outdoor table, just like in the movie, but no one tried to pick us up. Here, an ice cream costs one dollar. People who have only Cuban pesos pay less but have to line up or sit at the counter inside. In 1966 it was reported that 25 flavors were offered. The day we went there was only one: strawberry with chocolate. I didn’t care. The dish of ‘fresa con bon bon’ was cool and refreshing just the perfect pick me up; it was 5 PM but we still had 12 hours to go…

Why don't you plan a - wonderful trip
To Havana - Hop on a ship
And I'll see you in C.U.B.A.”

Café Monserrate
Calles Monserrate and Obrapía, la Habana Vieja
Open around 12 to 11 PM, daily

Restaurante Los Amigos
M & 19, Vedado
tel. 830 0880
The best 'paladar' in town, highly reccomended by locals, serves authentic Cuban fare and although it is within walking distance of the Hotel Nacional it is not touristy.

El Aljibe

Av. 7, between Calles 24 and 26, Playa
Tel. 204 1583/4
Open daily noon-midnight
Famous for chicken; see my previous post

Los Nardos
Paseo del Prado 563 between Teniente Rey and Dragones, across from El Capitolio, Habana Vieja Tel. 863 2985
Open Daily 11:30am-11:30pm
See my previous post

Asociacion Canaria de Cuba
Avenida de las Misiones 258, between Neptuno and Animas, Habana vieja.
Tel. 862 5284
Open daily 12:00 - 20:30
See my previous post

La Torre Restaurante
Calle 17 No. 55, Edificio Focsa 36 floor, Vedado
This bar is the highest in the city (or country for that matter) and boasts spectacular views. Drinks and light food are offered

El Gato Tuerto
Calle O, between Calles 17 and 19, Vedado
tel. 53 71662 224
shows nightly starting at 10

Jazz Café
Galerías Paseo, Calle 1ra, e/ Paseo y A (off of Malecón) It's hard to believe it's in there, but it is. Go on up to the second floor.
Entry fee of 10 cucs (about $11 USD) includes that amount worth of drinks and food, i.e. several drinks and something to nosh.
tel. 53 (7) 55 3170

La Casa de la Música
calle Galiano between Concordia y Neptuno. Centro Habana.
Tel. (537) 8624165, 8608296
The best place to salsa to live orchestras, many of them well known
Go by and check the schedule outside, there are shows in the afternoon around 5, and later at night.
Admission varies between $5 and $10...

Heladería Coppelia
corner of L & 23, Vedado
Open daily until around 6PM
note: on a recent visit those holding CUCs (i.e. foreigners) were shepherded to an isolated section, away from everyone else. For once it may pay to get some Cuban pesos so as to be able to mix and mingle.

Hotel Habana Riviera
Paseo & Malecón, Vedado
Their Restaurante l'Aiglon is really quite good in a '50's sort of way

'La Pecera'
Café at the corner of 23rd St and P in Vedado. Always open but gets gay after dark. Be aware that drinks are pricier than they should be here - which is why everybody wants to be treated...

Casa Particular Maria Elena
Aguila 309 (between Neptuno y Concordia)
The amiable Maria Elena rents out a nice room in her apartment a few blocks from Habana Vieja with bath and breakfast, only $30.
Call her (no email) for a reservation - Tel. 53-7 663 0119
Her brother Rafa has more rooms upstairs for $25 (without breakfast but coffee is offered) catering to the gay set, these without private bath but with over the top kitchy grandma décor; both have fans and a/c.
Tel. 53-7-863-5107

Other tips:
The ladies at the tourist stand, on a corner of Obispo, a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, are helpful and speak English. To see what's going on at the Teatro Nacional, walk along under the arcade and check out the groovy posters painted on glass of coming events.

For more tips see my previous post: A Weekend in Havana


  1. I want the mural in the dining room at the Riviera NOW!!

  2. Can't wait to go to Cuba!