Insiders list their preferred watering holes in Cuba’s capital city
So just where should you bend your elbow when in Havana, a city renowned for its bars and the distinctly Cuban drinks that they have created? Well, the answers undoubtedly lie with people who work in Cuba’s tourism trade and know the country’s capital inside-out.
And that circle of people includes Lessner Gomez, who oversees the Cuba Tourist Board’s office for English-speaking Canada, and whose personal preference is a storied bar that serves a storied drink.
“Havana’s nightlife and bar scene is fantastic,” says Gomez. “When in Havana, bar-hopping is a must, the live music, the vibrant atmosphere and the warmth of the Cuban people will ensure a unique and enjoyable experience. My favourite bar is Floridita, not only because of its historic significance and being a favourite of Ernest Hemingway, but because they serve the best daiquiri and I always have a good time when I visit. My favourite cocktail is the lime daiquiri, I would say my personal “doble-doble” with double rum and double lime. I would definitely recommend Floridita to Canadians seeking a taste of Cuba’s rich cultural heritage.”
The long-standing bar was a regular haunt for Hemingway and continues to draw large numbers of visitors, eager to try rum-based daiquiris — which originated in Cuba — in a bar synonymous with them.
Eloy Govea, a former director of the tourist board’s Toronto office and now with Air Canada Vacations, suggests Havana visitors stop by the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where they will be following in the footsteps of the rich and famous.
“My favourite bar in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba is Vista al Golfo (Gulf View). It is small, intimate, up next to the Vedado Hall, where IATA was founded in 1945. Hotel Nacional de Cuba is synonymous with history, and that’s precisely the theme of the bar, only that instead of celebrating the historical events that the hotel played host to, it commemorates the famous people that have stayed there. Pictures of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and so many other celebrities adorn the walls, and there is an old ‘vitrola’ (record player) in a corner, between the entrance door and the long, wooden bar.
“The atmosphere is inundated by Cuban traditional music, and the view looks onto the gardens, the sea, and a small pool that another VIP, Johnny Weissmuller, famously liked to use.”
Govea says he would order a mojito — another rum-based cocktail that began life in Cuba — in the Hotel Nacional. “Mojito carries the same traditional spirit that Hotel Nacional de Cuba epitomizes,” he says. “And it goes well with the relaxed ambience, where you enjoy all that comes to your senses sip by sip.”
Govea also knows a great Havana spot for those who appreciate the Beatles, with the Fab Four having a big following in Cuba,
“The Yellow Submarine bar is located by John Lennon Park,” he says of a bar that took its name from a Beatles song. “That name of the park is not necessarily official, but it is how it is known by everybody, which is more important. The reason is that on one of the benches, there is a human-size statue of the late genius of the Beatles done by Cuban sculptor José Villa Soberón.
“Knowing that, you know what to look for at the Yellow Submarine, and that’s not precisely Cuban traditional music, but rather up-beat, rock-and-roll music, which has a huge fan base in Havana,” he continues. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing in unison with people in leather jackets who just parked their Harley-Davidsons outside.
“That’s the spirit of the place, which invites you to have lots of fun and certainly more than one mojito.”
Govea says Yellow Submarine is pub-like, and it has a “more up-beat atmosphere that calls for something refreshing and uncomplicated that you can have a lot of. Now, although Cristal is my favourite beer, Bucanero would be my choice there.”
Roberto Diaz of Cuban hotel firm Gaviota says those who visit Havana on vacation should make a point of heading to the Tropicana, another city landmark.
“It is an amazing cabaret with about an hour and a half live show with dancers and famous singers. Usually with the reservation there is one bottle of rum and four cokes for every four people. But if I have to order, I will go for the mojitos.”
Meanwhile, Diaz says those who do venture to the Tropicana will have a lively night indeed. “The atmosphere is party-like, with flashing lights all over the place and music,” he reports.