Cuba has the coolest, most easily identifiable images of any travel destination: the shiny 1950s Cadillacs, the salsa-ing mulattas, the Buena Vista Social Club and what the travel writer Pico Iyer described as “the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set” are instantly recognisable, even to those who have never been.
So successful is the branding that the country even manages to make smoking look cool — with its visits to cigar factories and ubiquitous posters and postcards of Che Guevara puffing on a huge Havana. It is such a seductive combination that even teetotal, non-smoking, right-wing tourists invariably leave clutching a bottle of Havana Club, a pack of Monte Cristos and a Che T-shirt.
I love Havana. It beguiles and intrigues like no other city, but it is also one of the most difficult places to explore without bumping into a cliché; to go beyond the classic cars, the dancing shows and the mojitos and hang out with the locals.
Old Havana boasts more colonial buildings than any other city in the New World and most of the city’s state-run tourist hotels, bars and restaurants. This is where the government wants you to spend your hard currency and where most tourists spend their time. But on my second visit I soon tired of being serenaded by the Buena Vistas. I had been to the old town, done the cigar factory and brought the Che T-shirt three years ago and besides there is so much more to Havana. Despite its relative isolation over the past 50 years, it punches way above its weight in all the arts and is, with Mexico City and Buenos Aires, one of the most important cultural centres in Spanish-speaking America. The only problem is knowing how to find its gems.
I couldn’t believe, for example, that no one in Havana and none of the guide books mentioned the magiÂcal barrio of Jaimanitas. Here the renowned Cuban artist, José Fuster, a long-time resident, has turned the streets into a canvas, decorating 80 houses in ornate ceramics, mosaics and bold splashes of colour.
Without any financial support from the government or elsewhere he built dozens of benches, murals and domes, transforming the modest neighbourhood into a dream-like sculpture park.
Over a glass of his finest Cuban rum, Fuster (61) showed me his plans to extend his life’s work. These include an 80m mural to link the neighbourhood to the main road and at the junction an elaborate concrete archway in the form of a giant heart.
When I asked him the obvious question, he smiled and said: “I do it out of the love I feel for people. There’s no message in it; I’m just trying to make the world a lovelier place.”
Fuster’s fantastical vision is psycheÂdelic proof of how far artistic freedom has come since the grey old days when Fidel Castro summed up the purpose of art in society as: “Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing.”
These days visiting galleries is one of the best ways to try to understand Cuba’s many paradoxes and a great way to meet interesting, informed (and usually English-speaking) Habaneros. Foreign visitors, particularly Spanish and Americans, have energised the art scene and contemporary Cuban art is in vogue. There are dozens of studios and a few private galleries, mostly in and around the suburb of Vedado, where artists not backed by the state are happy to show you around.
I took a day’s tour with Art-Havana (art-havana.com), an online gallery created to meet the growing international demand for Cuban art, which also arranges guided tours of artists’ studio-homes. Its curator, Sussette Martinez, took me to meet some of the country’s most important artists, including Douglas Perez, Ibrahim Miranda, José Angel Vincench, Aziyade Ruiz Vallejo and the internationally acclaimed Sandra Ramos. Ramos’s powerful, overtly anti-government work is emblematic of this generation of young artists, whose outlook has been marked by the “special period” when the country was brought to its knees after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the migration of so many Cubans to Miami that followed.
I learned more about modern Cuba from these artists in one day than I did in the rest of my two-week trip.
If the country’s art scene is hot, its music world has been ablaze for years; there are dozens of shows of every type of music on every night in Havana. As a tourist, however, it can be hard to escape the salsa bands playing in the bars of Old Havana and the national cultural institutions that dominate the state-published listings. For a broader choice of music two useful English-language websites, thehmagazine.com and cubaabsolutely.com (the latter also produces a glossy magazine on the arts) list hip-hop, rock, DJ and fusion gigs, as well as salsa, and publish in-depth articles.
It was on one of them that I spotted a gig by Interactivo, a funky fusion collective of rappers, DJs, singer-songwriters and musicians, all classically trained but producing a very modern Cuban sound, with traces of salsa and son underlying the rapping. I saw them play at Jardines del 1830 (Malecon, esquina 20), a beautiful, intimate venue in a garden overlooking the ocean.
The place was full of hip Habeneros dancing under the stars — surely they must know where to go for a tourist-free good time? In response to my request one guy handed me a photocopied flyer for DJoy de Cuba, who was playing the following night on the outskirts of town.
Taxis are dirt cheap. You can go anywhere for a few bucks; better still hire a driver who can speak a little English who’ll drive you all over town for the night for $20.
My taxi-driver, Claudio, was a doctor moonlighting in his battered Soviet-era Lada. He drove me out to see DJoy play ear-blistering house music at the Jardins de la Tropical (Avenida 41, Playa), another terrific outdoor venue under a cover of giant banyan trees. Back in the day the Jardins was the place for couples dressed in all their finery to dance salsa, but on this night strobe lights were bouncing off the palm trees and trendy young things were happily waving their arms in the air.
Havana’s restaurant scene is also receiving a much needed injection of new blood. If you have ever been to Cuba you’ll know how bland the food can be in the state-run restaurants and hotels: the only places worth eating are paladares, the uniquely Cuban, privately owned restaurants set up in the homes of ordinary families. In this culinary desert the opening of El Templete (Avenida del Puerto, esquina Narciso Lopez, +7866 8807), an excellent Spanish-run seafood restaurant on the edge of the bay in Old Havana, is a revelation. This is perhaps the first restaurant of real quality to open since the revolution.
How did they do it? By bringing in a Basque chef, Alejandro Esnal, side-stepping the bureaucracy that other restaurants must observe and buying fresh fish direct from the local fishermen. I ate fresh baby squid, tuna in sesame seeds and perfectly cooked snapper.
Esnal hails from San Sebastian and trained in the Spanish foodie capital’s finest restaurants (Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Akelare) before relocating to Havana two years ago. It must have been a shock moving from the city with the most Michelin stars per capita and arguably the best food in the world to the country with arguably the worst, but he has created something unique in Havana. El Templete has the buzz of a stylish Mediterranean restaurant in full summer swing — and the food to match. The place is so successful that the same group is opening a cafe/steakhouse next door later this year.
There are already one or two nueva cocina vasca twists to the menu, such as a (delicious) cod mousse with tomato confit, but the ambitious Esnal wants to introduce Arzak-influenced dishes such as fried lettuce to the menu. “Our customers are locals as well as tourists and they want something different,” says Esnal, “to learn about food, even in Cuba … especially in Cuba. There is nowhere else here they can get it.” — Â