Its undeniable charms drew politicians and stars to fabulous hotels and bars until the country was virtually sealed off by Fidel Castro’s revolution. Now, the Cuban capital is alive once again, with visitors exploring its streets and imbibing its most famous export, rum.
Photography: Vincent Long
In some parts you’d be chastised for wasting what could easily be drunk, but here it is part of tradition. As each new bottle of rum is opened, a little is let spill to the floor. “Para los santos,” says the person in charge of pouring the drinks. The phrase means ‘for the saints’.
When you consider how much rum (or ron as it is called here) is consumed in Havana alone, the saints must be truly inebriated. Walk into a corner store and there may not be any bottled water in the fridges – this is still a communist country, after all – but you can be sure the shelves will be weighed down by bottles of Havana Club.
For visitors to the capital, the official rum destination, the Museo del Ron can be underwhelming. It includes a tour guide, a video, a model of what was one of the world’s first railway systems used to transport sugar cane, a taste of Havana Club Añejo 7 Años at the end and a firm push into the shop where, thankfully, the bottles of rum are a lot cheaper than you’d probably ever expect (the equivalent of about $15 for that Añejo 7 Años, which will cost you $65 on Australian shores).
That’s the end of formalities since there’s nowhere in the city to tour a distillery. The next best thing, of course, is to imbibe.
Your first stop, since it is just beyond the doors of the Rum Museum, is Dos Hermanos. Naturally, this portside bar was once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, as well as high-watt Hollywood stars including Marlon Brando. On a hot, still afternoon, a group of men is sitting in front of a fan and sipping slowly from their drinks. The bartender has a line of collins glasses stuffed with mint leaves, ready to fill with remaining ingredients for a mojito because every visitor to Havana orders the combination of white rum, sugar, lime juice, soda and mint. Well, you have to. It’s what Papa would want.
“Well, we were the first to make it,” Romey Chuit says, when asked why the best rum comes from Cuba. Romey runs tour company Locally Sourced Cuba and is used to being asked daft questions by visitors. “In the 19th century, Facundo Bacardi came from Spain looking for a better life. He distilled molasses and got raw rum, then aged it in white oak barrels.”
At his distillery in Santiago, on Cuba’s south-east coast, Facundo studied his craft, experimented with different techniques – apparently he discovered shaking the rum in
its barrels made it better – and honed his product. (A
drink called tafia had been made from sugarcane juice throughout the Caribbean long before then, but it was what you might call a little rough.) His son Emilio then took the famous brand to the rest of the world, but the family’s opposition to Fidel Castro’s revolution meant they lit out of the country in 1960. The former Bacardi distillery now produces a brand of rum called Caney (confusingly, still often called Bacardi by Cubans).
Following the Hemingway bar trail – daiquiris at Floridita and mojitos at fun-filled La Bodeguita del Medio, where
music blares from a live band – is part of being a tourist in Havana, but head deep into the Old Town for the other side of the city. This is where the restoration works are ongoing, street art decorates corners and you dodge huge potholes, kids playing soccer and bicitaxis (tricyle taxis) in almost impassable streets.
Here, there are no men with guitars singing love songs to passersby in exchange for a few CUCs (the tourist currency) or groups of tourists haggling over I [HEART] CUBA t-shirts. But you will find El Chanchullero, a tiny bar with wooden tables and benches, bank
notes from across the world stuck to the walls and an equal mix of Euro travellers writing postcards to home and locals discussing the football. Outside is a sign that proclaims “Aqui jamás estuvo Hemingway” – it translates to Hemingway was never here –
which means that liberally poured mojitos, daiquiris and Cuba Libres
cost just CUC2 (about $3), rather than up to three times that at the writer’s favoured haunts.
Despite the price, there is one other destination all visitors to Havana
should include on their rum tour: the shaded Bar Galería on the patio of the Hotel Nacional, high on a cliff overlooking the Florida Straits. Afterwards, wander the wide streets of the Vedado neighbourhood down to the famed Malecón.
This seaside promenade stretches for eight kilometres back to the Old Town. Sit on the sea wall, with the waves sending sprays of seawater over its crumbling concrete, and watch as lovers promenade along the broad esplanade, classic American cars cruise the highway and fishermen dangle
lines among the rocks. This is Havana’s soul and, as flags
are raised and embassies reopened, it’s on show to the
whole world once more.
It can be difficult to see rum being produced anywhere in Cuba, but head a few hours outside of Havana and visit the town of Pinar del Río. There at Casa Garay, you can see a local drink called Guayabita del Pinar being bottled. Although made in a similar style to rum, it has guayabita, a small wild fruit with a similar taste to guava, added during the ageing process. “After a month, we filter the alcohol and select the fruit that looks nice and put two or three inside each bottle,” explains our guide Margarita. It’s available in a dry and a sweet version, both drunk straight.
Pinar is in a lush green valley south-west of Havana. Perfect for a day trip, this little-visited part of the country is also where Cuba’s other famous export originates. Just outside Viñales, tobacco farmer Benito Camejo is happy to let visitors check out the sheds where heavy leaves are hung to dry. There, one of his men will extract a huge knife from the back of his belt and carefully roll a cigar that you can either smoke with a cup of strong coffee or take away for another occasion.
Locally Sourced Cuba (locallysourcedcuba.com) can
organise a private tour to both the distillery and tobacco farm, as well as a trip to the Mural de la Prehistoria (a weird cliff painting of snails, dinosaurs and cave people commissioned by Fidel Castro) and an impressive lunch
at a local organic farm.
There are some decent beaches near Havana, the closest being Playas del Este about 15 minutes away. The best stretch of sand, thankfully, is Santa Maria, the closest to the city. There’s a resort town called Varadero, about two hours from Havana, but if you’re serious about sun and splashing, it’s worth jumping on a flight to Holguín then heading to the fishing village of Gibara. It’s small and undeveloped with some glorious stretches of deserted white sand. Head to Restaurant La Esperanza for just-off-the-line seafood on the terrace and, while you’re there, ask someone to direct you to nearby freshwater swimming holes.
Food for thought
A decade ago, travellers to Cuba knew the next good meal they had would be in another country. But now there’s an alternative to state-run restaurants. Paladares are privately owned establishments, offering all kinds of cuisine from local tastes to more exotic and international fare. In the Old Town, Doña Eutimia is a favourite. Order the ropa vieja, slow-cooked, shredded lamb served with black beans, rice and salad. With its wooden beams and stone arches, Nao, near the waterfront, has a lot of atmosphere – the specialty is lechón asado (grilled pork).
Vedado, a neighbourhood west of the Old Town, has some of the better paladares in the city. An open grill is the centerpiece of El Idilio, set in a garden. It has a homespun charm, but a dish of rolled fish stuffed with lobster and prawns in a velouté sauce is cooked to perfection. La Torre, at the top of the enormous Edificio FOCSA building, is probably one of the most famous paladares in Havana, but Café Laurent gives it a run for its money. The sea breeze whips the sheer white curtains lining the fifth-floor patio, as you stare around the FOCSA building at the ocean. Indulge in ceviche and a risotto-esque dish of arroz with pulpo. It’s loaded with clams, prawns and octopus, and drizzled with a rose sauce.
Next article: from Havana head to Oregon, where you can enjoy world-class pinot noir