Every dawn is a new beginning in Havana.
Jackhammers crack apart old roads to make way
for the new; baristas fling open café doors and mop dew from the chairs outside; Habaneros sashay down laneways once heavy with hardship. Wherever you look, optimism and possibility rise like vapour from the crumbling foundations on which the city is built.
The queues spilling out from Panadería-Dulcería San-José (Calle Obispo 159) onto Old Havana’s main thoroughfare signal abundance rather than communist-era scarcity. Savour coffee and sugar-dusted pan de gloria (“bread of glory”) while watching tourists, touts and locals go about their working lives from your pavement perch.
Further along Calle Obispo, new entrepreneurs set up stalls selling revolutionary paraphernalia (Fidel Castro pins, Che Guevara posters) and a surprising diversity of dog-eared Spanish-language books: Hemingway, Martí, Shakespeare, the Bible.
Nearby, on the harbourside Avenida del Puerto, Cadillac drivers polish windows and tailfins in anticipation of the tourist trade. Relish the sea breeze and the views across the Canal de Entrada to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana’s 18th-century fort. And stroll among the tangle of locals that appear to have washed up here: youngsters dangling their legs over the seawall; buskers playing soulful tunes; fishermen casting their lines.
Burrow back into Old Havana’s narrow laneways, their sagging casas, mouldering shopfronts and gutted heritage buildings awaiting a capitalist makeover. Stop for a café Cubano (and a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans) at Café El Escorial on Plaza Vieja (Calle Mercaderes 317; +53 7 868 3545).
The airiness of the plaza contrasts with the smoky, wood-panelled interior of La Casa del Habano, a cigar shop on the second floor of Conde de Villanueva hotel (corner of Mercaderes and Lamparilla), where you can watch the torcedor (cigar roller) make those famous Cuban cigars.
Lunchtime crowds stream into tiny tapas bar El Chanchullero, just 10 minutes’ walk west, but the turnover is quick and the shrimp enchiladas and beef-stuffed peppers are just rewards.
Hail a taxi (bike, auto rickshaw, vintage Chevy) and visit some of the revolutionary landmarks beloved of Cubans: Plaza de la Revolución, where political rallies are overseen by giant steel portraits of Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos; Museo de la Revolución, housed in the former presidential palace; and Havana’s fortress, where you can regard the city from a more expansive point of view.
When the sun starts to sink, it’s time to order Mojitos at the panoramic rooftop bar of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana. Back out on the rabbit-warren streets, you’ll be enticed into the paladares (private restaurants) that proliferate here. Try Paladar Los Mercaderes (Calle Mercaderes 207; +53 7 801 2437) for its sparkling atmosphere and dishes such as ceviche and lobster bisque that defy the beans-and-rice stereotype.
It’s late but the jazz singers and salsa dancers are just warming up. The day won’t be over until tomorrow has begun.
Image: Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana