How to Spend New Year’s Eve in Havana, Cuba
After finishing our leisurely lunch and saying our “see you laters”, Tristan and I set off to explore more of Habana Vieja. The colonial period, lasting nearly 400 years, gave Habana much of the Spanish Colonial architecture that distinguishes it and led UNESCO to designate the colonial core as a World Heritage Site in 1982. For a sensory feast, Old Havana is best explored on foot. It is this part of the city where you can meander along the narrow lanes, chat to the locals, feel the pulse of music echoing from every direction, and savor a strong coffee at one of the charming plazas where Cuban Baroque meets Art Nouveau.
We wandered into Plaza de la Catedral, one of the five main squares in Havana, and the site of Catedral de San Cristobal from which it takes its name. Originally, it was named Plaza de la Ciénaga (Swamp Square) because of its muddy terrain, but by the 18th century, it had already become one of the city’s most important squares. The area was drained and paved, allowing wealthy families to move in and begin constructing their lavish mansions. It finally became Plaza de la Catedral after the Catedral de San Cristobal was completed in 1777.
The Catedral is elegant yet dominating, capturing the gaze of every tourist in the vicinity. Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier described the cathedral as ‘music made into stone’, and with its curves and flourishes above each door and window, I can see what he meant.
Outside of the Plaza, preparations for New Year’s Eve were well underway. Only a couple of streets away from the main tourist area (Calle Obispo), we came across a group of Cubans preparing to kill a pig, the squeaks and shrills of a hog about to perish were something I had never heard before. Two men tied the rope around its neck and shoved it’s head and neck inside a white bag (presumably to scare it/break it). I thought they were going to leave it to suffocate, but after a while they removed the bag and led the hog inside the home.
A group of about 10 bystanders stood around watching the act and laughing at my squeamish face. (You can see that face for yourself here.) While it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, I do think that there is something valuable about being so aware of where your food is coming from and what had to occur for it to end up on your plate.
Normally in Havana it would be unusual to see a whole roasted pig, but cooking a full hog on a spit over coals is very popular outside of cities. However, because it was a special occasion, we saw quite a few different pigs at various stages of the cooking process. Tristan was lucky enough to be chosen to command the spit for a while (the invitation was not extended to myself) and he took the responsibility very seriously — knowing that a family’s New Year feast hung in the balance.
Pork is the ubiquitous protein in Cuba, served as street food, in restaurants, and in the home. Due to constant food shortages (I will go into that in another post), pork and chicken are normally the only regularly available options.
Slightly concerned that now we wouldn’t be able to stomach our own New Year’s Eve pork dinner, we continued meandering around the city. Without meaning to, we arrived right outside El Floridita — the historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar that is known for its daiquiris and for having been one of the favourite hangouts of Ernest Hemingway in Havana. An extremely popular spot for tourists, we reasoned to ourselves that because we hadn’t intended to go there, we weren’t being typical tourists. (We really can convince ourselves of anything!) Plus, it was New Year’s Eve!
In 1914, the Catalan immigrant Constantino Ribalaigua Vert (nickname Constante) started working in this bar as a bartender, eventually, by 1918, working his way up to owner. Constante is credited for inventing the frozen daiquiri in the early 1930s, a drink that became linked to the fame of this place, whose motto is now “la cuna del daiquiri” (the cradle of the daiquiri). Today, the highly skilled cantineros (bartenders) continue to specialize in whipping up cocktails prepared with fresh fruit juices and rum, still preserving the traditions of Constante.
The place still preserves much of the atmosphere from the 1940s and 1950s, with the red coats of the bartenders matching the Regency style decoration that dates from the 1950s. The décor is plush and upscale, and the room is dominated by the long central bar. There are cheaper drinks pretty much everywhere else, but it is a fun (and kind of essential) place to have one or two.
While we were there, it turned midnight in Spain and so the entire bar (who apparently were all Spaniards) erupted into New Year cheer. Hemingway would have been proud.
Hemingway often frequented El Floridita, proudly holding the house record of 16 double Daiquiris in one sitting! The bar contains many photos of the author (below with Fidel Castro!), a bust, and this wonderful life-sized bronze statue, sculpted by the Cuban artist José Villa Soberón.
With our homage to Hemingway complete, we headed back to our AirBnB where we were expected for a family dinner.
Our hosts Mali and Hector were the loveliest and most welcoming of couples. They were the first ever Cuban AirBnB “super-hosts” and Mali was sent to Santa Monica last year to represent Cuba at an AirBnB convention. They had been hosting guests for over 20 years and building a network of casas particulares while doing it. So, when AirBnB decided to enter the Cuban market, Mali and Hector were the people they first had to contact and co-operate with.
Everyone in their family was so compassionate and helpful. Her mother, Lupe, cooked us breakfast ($5) every morning and her young boys entertained us by playing around with their young puppy. We were so lucky to be welcomed into their home and especially to be invited to celebrate the start of the New Year with them. From the beginning, we were blown away by the hospitality of all our casas.
Mali made sure to let us know that she was the one who had cooked everything, and Hector was merely in charge of the cutting!
Cuban food is similar to that of the countries in the Caribbean zone, like Columbia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The most emblematic dishes include roast pork, yuca con mojo (yuca with garlic sauce), and congrí rice. Yuca con mojo is one of Cuba’s national dishes and is made by marinating yuca root in garlic, lime, and olive oil. This was our first time having the side dish and while we quickly learnt that it accompanies every meal, this home-made version remained the best we had. Black beans also accompany everything, as does rice and lettuce.
Fed and watered and very very satisfied, we moved to Fábrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.), one of Havana’s coolest options for nightlife. Unfortunately, we had to wait in line for almost 2 hours before we were finally granted entry (at 12:05!), but it was totally worth the wait. (Every other night you can skip the line by handing the bouncer a couple of USD!) We made friends with the other people in line and all celebrated the countdown together — outside the club.
When we finally made it inside, we were greeted with the coolest concept for a nightlife space.
Music, movies, theater, dance, literature, painting, photography, graphic & industrial design, architecture and fashion meet harmoniously in the rooms of this former oil factory, rescued by the Cuban musician and audiovisual artist X Alfonso, and then reconverted into a multicultural center. X Alfonso is one of Cuba’s most respected fusion musicians and based the place on similar venues he had seen in Europe, mostly in Germany.
Entrance is CUC 3 ($3), but note that when you enter you are given a card on which your food and drinks are marked on, and then you pay on the way out. Don’t lose the card, or it will cost you CUC 30!
The space contains an art and photographic gallery and a dance space, a cinema and a very well-stocked bar (although when we finally got in all they had left was gin!). You can boogie as much as you want downstairs, and then contemplate buying artwork upstairs. The art on display was beautiful, thought-provoking, cheeky, fun, disturbing–everything you want art to be. None of it was boring and we loved the fact that you could browse art while having a night out!
After a couple of hours of hanging out with Cuba’s most creative, we hopped into a 1950’s taxi and whizzed back to our AirBnB. Rather tired but extremely excited about the beginning of the New Year and everything that was to come, we crawled into bed and instantly fell asleep.
Photos by Jenny Heyside and Tristan Marsh.