Friday morning after breakfast, I wanted an internet card to check email on my phone, so we started walking toward the Hotel Nacional when a local named Reynoldo told us we could get half-priced cigars just down the street, because it was a cigar holiday today! But only until noon. We kept walking toward the hotel, and just as we were about to enter, another local stopped us, said he recognized us from our B&B–because his mother lives next door–and he too said today’s the day for half-priced cigars and he’d take us to the best store to get them–right now! He was super friendly and enthusiastic, so we figured we’d hold off getting internet access and followed through the streets of the vedado neighborhood past dogs, children, and old cars as we twisted and turned further and further inside an unfamiliar world before–many, many blocks later–turning into a narrow alleyway and into a woman’s living room. I had no clue where we were. Suddenly, our innkeeper’s only admonition about the local area entered my head: “Just don’t buy cigars out of anyone’s living room!” she’d said with a chuckle.
The woman stood quietly and smiled while our leader rattled off the characteristics of the tightly-rolled tobacco in shiny boxes on the long table before us. I picked each box up, looked at its contents, smelled the insides, examined individual cigars from each, and set it down. The alleged bargains he touted were no better than the prices we’d seen the day before when our ’57 Chevy driver pulled over near the Cristobál Colón cemetery to interrupt our street tour for some nicotine. “I don’t think…I just want one cigar, not a box,” I offered as our companion bid against himself. “We’re just gonna go on,” my wife replied. “Yeah…” I muttered as I speed walked into the alley and grabbed my bride’s hand. “Then why walk all this way?” our guide argued to my the backs of my shoes, which were approaching a jog. He pulled out his phone and started yelling at someone in Spanish as we broke left and headed toward the water.
“What a dick,” I said once we’d reached the shore and were away from the Alley of Pushy Cigar Solicitation. We kept the Havana Bay to our left and the traffic to our right, heading toward old Havana, checking out some colorful graffiti and monuments along the way, finally stopping at the most famous bar in town–El Floridita.
The bar was freezing inside despite its enormous crowds and the heat outside; we ordered 2 daiquiris while waiting for the women with selfie sticks to finish posing with Papa, so I could sit and have a drink with the man whose homes, travels, and adventures I’ve traced from cradle to grave.
We finished our drinks and walk through the crowded sidewalks to Bodeguita del Medio, another supposed Hemingway haunt, climbed the stairs, and sat down at the upstairs open air bar for mojitos, snacks, and talented live musicians that made us not want to leave, but we still had much to see; we headed back down after a few songs and continued our exploration.
About 2pm, we entered a paladar called Doña Eutimia for lunch (which we’d found in our 1000 Places book), and it was the best meal we had in Cuba. Have you had a Cuban avocado? They make the ones from Mexico look like green gobstoppers.
Following dessert, we did more exploring on foot, stopping in the famous (and recently re-opened) Sloppy Joe’s for local beers and a clean restroom.
We walked to an outdoor used book market called Plaza de Armas in a fenced-in parking lot near a cathedral, perused all the tables selling old records, books, and keepsakes from days of old, and I saw this:
It was a scrapbook of sorts for Hemingway, including the first edition of “The Old Man and the Sea” published in Bohemia magazine, and it was signed by the man himself (though I can’t be sure of its authenticity). I negotiated for half an hour with the owner before walking away, thinking I’d try again the next day. We were half a block away when he ran after me, and we reached a deal; I handed him a stack of CUCs through the fence slats, and his assistant wrapped my prize in plastic bags before sliding it through the gap we’d used for my CUCs. I was ecstatic.
After walking through a cathedral, we navigated through old town via our maps.me app to get to our next activity, set for 4pm: salsa lessons. We entered an old apartment building with marble hand railings and dark wooden steps that zigzagged up 5 or so floors until finally reaching a rooftop patio with open air breezes and pergolas for reprieve from the sun.
“First, we learn to make mojitos, as that will help with the salsa dancing!” said the man who greeted us at the top of the stairs.
Once the drinks were drunk, our dance instructor set up a bluetooth speaker with a voice counting slowly for us as we learned to move our feet in a boxed cadence of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 before gradually adding some arcs to our squared off steps, picking up the speed, and then losing the audible counting and relying on music (and mental counting) instead. My bride found this very enjoyable–she has since said it was her favorite activity of our 4 days in Cuba–but I found it accentuating of the insecurities I have about my lack of foot-eye coordination. After several attempts, I felt like I’d achieved an elementary level of competence but was not upset when the lesson had concluded, and it was time to make more mojitos.
After walking more than 7 miles through Havana and dancing an hour, we badly needed showers, so we took a cab to our B&B, changed clothes, and headed back to Hotel Nacional for Cuban sandwiches, Cohiba cigars, and internet access. A group of 3 musicians was performing for those dining on the terrace; they walked up to us. “Van Morrison?” I asked. The lady who appeared to be their leader made a confused face. Remembering the scene where Frank Drebin performed with a mariachi band in one of the “Naked Gun” movies, I offered “Bésame Mucho?”
She smiled. Her band-mates began strumming and picking.
We finished our sandwiches and took a cab to Fàbrica de Arte, arriving shortly after doors opened at 8pm. It used to be a cooking oil factory but now features multiple bars in multiple rooms filled with paintings, sculptures, performance art, live music, and hipsters.
We loved the several hours we spent climbing stairs and meandering passageways throughout the compound. We bought several prints from the small gift shop on the highest floor after learning we could pay the artists directly via PayPal, which we couldn’t do without a wireless signal, but the girl at the register told us it was fine to leave with the rolled up prints, and we could pay once we got somewhere with wi-fi (which turned out to be Atlanta several days later), and I marveled at her level of trust.
By midnight, we were fairly exhausted, so we caught a ride back to the B&B. The next 2 days, we’d leave Havana to explore nature and the sea (of “Old Man and” fame)!