Havana’s heartbeat is the pounding of drums. Infectious rumba and salsa music are ever-present, along with the everyday sounds: cries of peanut hawkers – ‘Mani, mani!’ – and the rattle of handcarts over cobbles. Ladies shout to their neighbours as they hang out washing in colourful lines like bunting, dogs yip from balconies, and the tinny noise of a televised baseball game spills from a window where a man stands shaving his chin with a cut-throat razor.
It often seems that all the drama of life here is lived out on the street. After all, Havana appears as a city-sized film set, with its crumbling colonial buildings and its classic cars belching bluish exhaust fumes into the air. But behind the city’s pastel-painted façades and ornate wrought-iron grilles, there is a whole world to be discovered – all it takes is to pull back the curtain…
Take a spin down the street of art and dance
Callejón de Hamel is less a street than a kaleidoscope of colour. A famed centre of Havana street art, its walls are covered in bright murals the size of tennis courts, and every corner is filled with sculptures made from engine parts, horseshoes or bathtubs.
Music fills the air. It’s the rhythmic chant of voices singing to the tippity-thump of a double-ended batá drum and the rasping rattle of a shekere – a polished gourd strung with cowrie shells.
In a small courtyard off the Callejón de Hamel, a young woman in a headscarf is twirling in a dress of red, black and white. She stamps her feet on the rough-paved ground, her face alive with an infectious grin. Soon she’s swept up in a circle of fellow dancers. They all spin in their silken dresses, raising their arms in the air.
This foot-thumping and drum-beating is much more than a simple performance. Callejón de Hamel is a centre for Havana’s Afro-Cuban community, and this display is a fervent prayer, a communion with the orisha, the gods brought to Cuba in the 16th century by slaves from what is now Nigeria.
Thairumy Rangel Chirino emerges from the dance and sinks into a plastic chair, happily out of breath.
‘You see here,’ she says, ‘in this dance each person is not just a person. They represent a god, an element of nature. For example, my blue colour represents the water of the sea.’ She indicates her sapphire skirt and towering headdress – she is Yemayá, the mother of all living things and goddess of the ocean.
Thairumy’s grandmother and mother passed down these sacred songs and rhythms to her when she was three years old, as part of her Santería religion – a unique Cuban meld of the West African Yoruba faith with Roman Catholicism.
The music draws curious passers-by to peer through the courtyard’s wrought-iron gate. She beckons them inside. ‘I love to share this with people,’ she says. ‘This dance is my life. How can I explain it? It makes me so angry when people dance without heart, without passion. When I dance, I feel it singing in my blood.’
Callejón de Hamel runs between Espada and Aramburu streets in Old Havana. It’s best to visit on Sunday afternoons for music and dancing.
Meet Olympians at Havana’s historic boxing club
It’s a mild day in Havana, but Emilio Correa Bayeux Jr is slicked with sweat. It beads on his face and chest, running in rivulets down his spine. After a 7am start, he’s just completed his morning session of training – the first of two for the day – and he catches his breath, leaning against a chipped blue wall in the Gimnasio Rafael Trejo.
This boxing gym in the heart of Old Havana is no stuffy indoor affair; it’s an open-air space where crowds gather to watch bloody bouts on Friday nights, lining the bare wooden benches that rise in grandstands either side of a well-worn boxing ring. There’s no fight today, but pairs of young boxers take turns to spar and pound at bags, practising their feints and jabs with small, noisy huffs of breath.
The gym first opened in the 1930s, and has barely changed since. Every surface is mottled with damp or shows evidence of a dozen repaintings, and the ropes around the ring are patched and frayed. But despite its humble appearance, this gym is a beloved Havana icon and a pilgrimage site for boxing enthusiasts from across the world.
Cubans are fervently passionate about the sport – and successful, with a world-beating haul of 38 Olympic gold boxing medals. Many of Havana’s champions have trained in this ring, and Emilio is one of them. The 31-year-old is an Olympic silver medallist, following in the footsteps of his father, who won welterweight Olympic gold in 1972.
‘Boxing is a way of life in Cuba, it’s so special for us,’ Emilio says. He is an imposing figure – almost six feet of solid muscle capable of lightning ferocity within the ring – but he believes it’s his bone-deep defiance that has made him a champion. ‘Cuban people are adapted to struggle,’ he says. ‘From the time we’re very small, we know that we have to fight for our future. We live with passion and we fight for principles, fight for pride – and that’s true not just in boxing, but for every Cuban.’
The gymnasium is a fitting stage for Emilio’s pugnacious words – it was named after a Cuban revolutionary martyr, Rafael Trejo, who was shot in a student protest in 1930. As Emilio packs away his gloves and prepares to leave, a group of young men wanders in, each perhaps 14 or 15 years old. They nod with respect to the veteran Olympian, then begin their squats and stretches, all lithe and light-footed – even with the weight of their country’s reputation for boxing glory resting squarely on their shoulders.
The Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo is located at Calle Cuba 815. Pre-bookings are not possible; instead, just enquire (nicely) at the door.
Get your hair cut on the barbers’ street
A young woman sits stock-still, eyes shut, as a barber slides his scissors across her brow, neatly trimming her fringe. She is surrounded by a glinting trove of 19th-century artefacts. Antique trimmers are scattered on shelves among pewter-backed brushes, rusty razors and steampunk-style blowdryers. This is Papito’s, one of Havana’s most famous salons, which doubles as a unique museum and gallery.
Papito himself – known formally as Gilberto Valladares – wields the scissors, pulled from a custom leather holster at his belt. He peers down at his client before carefully trimming a hair here and there, as though finishing a masterpiece. ‘Barbers are artists,’ he says. ‘To cut hair is to make a sculpture, with form, texture, colour – it’s a means of expression.’
Papito’s inclination towards the artistic is writ large on the walls, where colourful paintings fill every inch, all inspired by hairdressing – from swimming stylist mermaids to conquistadors duelling with scissors instead of swords.
Yet it is the barber’s passion for his community that’s driven the fortunes of this formerly rundown corner of Havana. The paved lane outside is now known as the Callejón de los Peluqueros (Barbers’ Alley) – a street-long ode to hairdressing, lined with themed sculptures, murals, and barbers’ poles striped red, white and blue. What started as a small business in Papito’s living room in the 1990s has become a broad-ranging social project. There’s a free hairdressing school for disadvantaged local kids, a funky café and restaurant, small artisan shops and weekly mini-fiestas featuring son cubano – a mix of Latin and African dance.
‘I am a barber, but I am also a dreamer,’ Papito says. ‘The most important inheritance in Cuba is our people and our culture. So we must focus on it to bring prosperity. Six years ago this was one of the ugliest streets in Havana. Now look.’
He gestures at the street, alive with young barber apprentices and coffee-drinking visitors, while kids stream down to the local playground to clamber over slides shaped like razors and see-saws like scissors that open and close as the children play.
To book a haircut at Papito’s, email him at email@example.com or call 00 53 7 8015102.
Dine in a hidden restaurant
La Guarida is easy to miss. The entrance is a cavernous, crumbling foyer of a once-grand palace now empty, with nothing but a chipped marble staircase and a forlorn goddess statue whose arms and head were lost long ago. But up two flights of stairs is one of Havana’s best dining spots.
La Guarida is a paladar, a private restaurant sanctioned by the Cuban government in the 1990s, which has become renowned for infusing traditional Cuban dishes with techniques imported from France, Italy and Spain. Plates emerge, artistically arranged with, perhaps, longfin tuna in a sugarcane-laced sauce, suckling pig drizzled with zesty orange-lemon reduction, or a tender tarte tatin made with mangoes and coconut.
The restaurant’s creator, Enrique Núñez, grew up in this vast, marble-clad palace when, after the 1959 revolution, it was converted from the residence of a well-to-do doctor into apartments for local families. ‘When I told my friends that I wanted to make a restaurant in an area of Havana that is not touristy, they said I was crazy,’ Enrique says with a little laugh, nodding to the crowded tables.
‘It was a good decision, but at that time it didn’t look like it at all.’
The restaurant business in Havana is far from easy. Shortages of basic foods are a constant battle – one day, there may be no eggs to buy; the next day, no salt. To combat this, Enrique sends three staff members to scour markets across the city daily.
‘After the revolution, all of the buildings, the cars, became stuck in time – and gastronomy was the same,’ he says. ‘Until 1996 we were not allowed to have private restaurants; everywhere was the same food. Now the city has 500 paladares, we have competition, and we are slowly reviving the heart of Cuban cuisine.’
Mains from £11 (laguarida.com).
Buy art in the lithography laundry
Rafael Perez Alonso’s face is intent, his curly dark hair falling forward as he guides a fine crayon over a rectangular slab of limestone. One deft stroke follows another until a picture emerges. He is drawing a shark with the face of a vintage car – its bumper-and-grille mouth gives the impression of comical yet ferocious-looking teeth.
The sketch is the first stage in lithographic print-making, the complex process of creating art with solid stone. Once Rafael has put on his finishing touches, fellow artist Max Delgado Corteguera paints the limestone with a layer of gum arabic and spreads it with ink, ready to be covered with paper and hand-wound through a press like a mangle. The resulting prints capture all the style and lines of the original car-shark drawing, but each has small imperfections caused by the patterns of the gum, and each is unique. When all of the prints are done, the artists wipe the limestone clean, ready to be used for a new creation.
Lithography is dying out across the world, perhaps because of its complexity and the skills required to master it, but here in Havana artists create lithographs with fierce devotion and a sense of national pride.
The art form was first brought to Cuba from Europe in the 19th century, to create bespoke labels for the country’s finest cigars. A number of those original stones have been handed down the generations and are still in use today, including the one recently daubed with Rafael’s car-shark. Its setting is hardly historic, however: the lithography press stands in the middle of one of Havana’s most dynamic modern art studios, La Lavandería.
The name is literal – this huge white-walled space under a corrugated-iron roof was once an industrial laundry. It is part workshop, part gallery, and filled with playful works, from a giant purple gun and a billiard table shaped like the Americas, to a couch made of barbed wire and decorated with cushions inspired by the Cuban and American flags. As Rafael and his fellow artists work, the radio blares with Puerto Rican rap music.
‘People ask, why do you use this technique of 200 years ago?’ Max says, gently scrubbing down the limestone. ‘And I say, I am working with the energy of this stone that’s two million years old. It’s part of the history of my country, and I am part of a continuum.’
‘Can you imagine how many hands have worked on this stone?’ Rafael asks him. ‘How many artists?’ They grin at each other and pat the stone dry. It’s now ready for a new vision, and the process starts all over again.
La Lavandería is on Calle 54 in the Playa district and open daily. Visitors can wander the gallery and buy art prints from £15; email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 00 53 7 2096737 for details.
This article appeared in the June 2017 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.