I turn away from Havana's back streets to spend a few days as a tourist amongst the famous landmarks of the Cuban capital.
During the day, I walk the ocean-breeze-cooled Malecón, the curving esplanade running from the harbor in Old Havana to Vedado and the city’s living room. Couples stroll arm-in-arm, tourists jog or snap pictures, waves crash to entertain kids screeching in the spray.
Overlooking the Malecón in Vedado is the 1930s art deco Hotel Nacional that was renovated in the 1990s as a museum of its history. I go to glory in the photos of former celebrity guests such as Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Fred Astaire. A regular was Lucky Luciano, one of the many mobsters associated with the island’s casinos, banned during the revolution. The hotel’s Cabaret Parisien was opened by Eartha Kitt in 1956 and is still going strong, with more recent appearances by Buena Vista stars such as Compay Segundo.
To see another real icon, on a rare day off Alvaro takes me to Parque Coppelia, the spaceship-shaped ice cream parlor, also in Vedado. He tells me Fidel made this ice cream parlor one of his priorities when he came to power in 1959. “He demanded Coppelia serve a minimum of 32 flavors and he used to personally choose the flavor of the day,” says Alvaro.
Coppelia is a perfect illustration of Cuba’s economy at work. Tourists can walk straight in and pay with CUC but locals pay in the non-convertible national peso, the CUP, which trades at 25:1 against the CUC. The trade-off is that we have to wait for hours but socializing is a large part of the fun and Alvaro seems to know almost everyone in line. At one point, we wander off for a cool beer but no one seems to mind when we jump back into the same place. Such are the rules when standing in line is a large part of daily life.
Once at the counter, Alvaro orders an “ensalada” of five scoops, hardly surprising as a reward after that wait. Looking around, I see slim girls devouring ten scoops. The ice cream is that good.
Do you know other hidden (or not so hidden) gems in Havana and are you keen to introduce other travelers to them? Become a TRVL Local Expert!