A Day in Vedado

Before our short digression into the graffiti of Havana, we were just about to pull up to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, right on the eastern edge of Vedado, a neighborhood that extends from the west side of Centro Habana to the Almendares River and southward down to the Plaza de la Revolucion (which we’ll visit in an upcoming post on May Day).



Looks like a ’50s film, no?

Vedado is quite a step up from Centro Habana. The houses are far better maintained, and it’s dotted with higher-end hotels and embassies (including the new US embassy). Even though I spent a good part of my free morning exploring the area around the Hotel Nacional and along La Rampa (aka Calle 23, the main street in Vedado), I didn’t get to see it all.

The Hotel Nacional alone was worth the drive across town. Standing high atop the former Santa Clara Battery (duly marked with cannons), the hotel opened in 1930 and was famously the site of the Havana Conference in 1946, when Lucky Luciano brought together the Mafia leaders of the United States and Cuba.

There’s a room named after Jean-Paul Sartre, who stayed there with Simone de Beauvoir in 1960, as well as a Winston Churchill bar. The hotel also appears in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (like so many other spots around town, as explored in this article from Atlas Obscura).

After sneaking around the Hotel Nacional for bit, I headed over to the Tryp Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton). The lobby feels like a set for Mad Men.

While my group later drove past some of the famous casinos of the Batista era, unfortunately I did not get a chance to go inside or take pictures. I was fascinated to learn, though, that those American Mafia–run casinos were one of the first targets of the revolucionarios when they took Havana on January 1, 1959.

After a brief stop at a flea market in a vacant lot, where I made an regrettable decision about a straw hat, I continued up La Rampa to La Coppelia.* This is Havana’s famous “ice cream cathedral,” where locals and tourists alike go to enjoy a sundae. Since tourists use a separate currency from Cubans, there are different lines for foreigners and locals, but in both cases one pays by the weight of the ice cream.

*The opening scene of Fresa y chocolate, a well-known Cuban film about sexual politics under Castro, takes place at La Coppelia. The film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it’s quite good—kind of a Cuban take on an Almodóvar movie.

Long ago, back in my post on Habana Vieja, I promised that we would find a Don Quixote to go along with the Sancho Panza statue on the Calle Obispo. Entonces mira:

I also wandered around the backstreets of Vedado searching for a synagogue. One of my workshop partners, Nancy, had asked about Jews in Cuba, and this sign was the only trace I saw of their presence on the island.


I followed the sign but never found the synagogue, and the people I asked looked at me like I had two heads.

Instead, I stumbled upon a neighborhood cafeteria where local workmen were stopping in to get lunch, which was doled out on aluminum trays. No one seemed to be paying for this food, so I asked the lady at the counter if I was allowed to eat there. She was perfectly willing to give me a free plate, but her manager soon emerged to explain that only locals could eat there.

So I walked back from the Hotel Nacional to the Plaza de San Francisco (a 4.2 km hike beneath the blazing sun), and I stopped for some paella and a cold beer along the way …

The video below was taken on a different day. Here, the Cuba Writers Program is taking Bus 5050 through Vedado to Marianao.

Marianao is another neighborhood I was eager to explore, as I had decided to use it as the location of Elena’s mother’s home in my novel The Crimes of Paris (“on Avenida 41, just across from the Cine Lido, a run-down movie house with a blank marquee and a colorful but faded geometrical design on the façade”). I didn’t get to see the Cine Lido, but the neighborhood conveniently conformed in reality to my fictive descriptions of it. (Sometimes we novelists get to give ourselves the rare pat on the back.)

We traveled all the out to Marianao to see the Habana Compás Dance company perform. Afterward, we headed to still another area called Diez de Octubre to visit a barrio that’s been transformed into public art by the Muraleando Artist Community. But you’ll have to wait for my next post to see those …



Before we move on to Vedado, I’d like to pause to give you a closer look at one of the most interesting aspects of Centro Habana: the graffiti.


As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s very little advertising in Cuba. You see the occasional product ad on the backs of bicitaxis, but that’s about it. Outside the cities, most of the billboards are about the Revolution or the Castro brothers (as we will see later on a trip to Cienfuegos and the Bay of Pigs).

Here’s a particularly vivid example from Habana Vieja, where one side of the corner celebrates Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement and states that “The Revolution Is the People” while the other side gives props to Hugo Chávez and Che Guevara.


All around the city, you’ll see what I call “official” street art: this includes everything from political propaganda to business and community organization signage to street markers.


Yet there’s also a good deal of “unofficial” graffiti. And much of this is to be found in Centro Habana.

I asked our guide Orelvis if there is a lot of street art in Havana. He shrugged and said, “Not so much. Havana’s not a city of graffiti.” But if you wander around Centro Habana, you can’t help but remark the prevalence of some subversive—well, let’s be socialist about it and say “ideologically impure”—graffiti.

These pieces seem to me to be by the same artist, though I can’t be sure.

street art face

Compare this face to the small figure on the far left in the façade a few pictures back


But the graffiti below definitely seem to be the work of one person—perhaps it’s a series of self-portraits. I call him “El Graffito Bandito,” and his work is to be found all over Centro Habana, out in the open and hidden high and low. Always with a little “2+2=5” somewhere near the figure.*


*Later on during this trip, we would meet with Michel Encinosa Fú, a science-fiction author in Havana, who noted that Orwell’s work has only very recently become available in Cuba. He also explained that criticizing the government in this way is generally acceptable. It’s only when you call out specific politicians or local organizers by name that you find yourself in trouble with the authorities.

Now let’s continue on our way to Vedado …



Centro Habana

Centro Habana looks to me something like the atomic blast–shadow of capitalism. Not just because most of the buildings have a bombed-out appearance due to decades of dilapidation, but also because so much of this newer part of the city west of the Prado is a vestige of capitalism’s heyday in Cuba.

A detail that slowly dawns on you after about a day in Havana is that there are no advertisements. There are some understated shop signs, but mostly these are painted on the glass or on the building’s façade or hung from a modest board.

Havana from between 1930s-50s

Back when Havana was a playground for gangsters and starlets, the neon lights that lined the streets made it seem a Caribbean Las Vegas. But nowadays the brightest sign you’re likely to see is a faded mural reminding you that Fidel’s still with you, and always will be.

The absence of the trappings of modern commercial culture that we’ve all come to expect has a strange effect. It’s a bit like reading Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic masterpiece La disparition (A Void): About a paragraph in, you sense something unusual is happening, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then after half a page or so it hits you—there are no e’s!


On our first afternoon in Havana, my workshop partners Sue and Linda and I walked back toward the Capitolio Building. The National Capitol was built by President Machado in the late 1920s and was the seat of the government until the Revolution. It is currently being restored to house the Cuban National Assembly.

During our walk, we stumbled upon the Barrio Chino, a small area in Centro Habana that was once home to a sizeable Chinese population. These immigrants, most of them men, started coming in the late 1850s to work as sugarcane cutters, but after the Revolution when their businesses were nationalized they had less incentive to stay. But they left their mark on the neighborhood.


La Entrada del Barrio Chino


Calle Cuchillo is one of the few remaining vestiges of the once thriving Chinese community

After cutting over several streets and paying a visit to a large but mostly empty mercado (where not a single piece of meat was refrigerated as far as I could see), we strolled through a large indoor feria, where vendors sold everything from jewelry to artwork. The flea market was about to close, and we soon were hustled through to the exit.

Spilling out onto a random backstreet, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of rum-tippling workmen. Sue and Linda managed to slip through them, but the men insisted I stop for a chat. One particularly muscular guy with bleary, bloodshot eyes asked where I was from. “USA,” I told him, using the Spanish pronunciation, and completing uncertain of how my response would be received.

“America!” he shouted, offering his hand. “I love America! The best!” In the coming days, I found this to be a nearly universal response.

Before I knew it, his friend had handed me a shot of rum. (I have a weird talent for being offered booze by strangers in foreign countries.) I found myself firmly entrenched in a conversation with them. In Spanish. A language I don’t actually speak (as evidenced in the video at the end of this post).

“Venezuelan rum,” the fellow bragged.

“Venezuelan?” I said. “Why not Cuban—the best?” I thought I was paying him a compliment.

Porque soy venezuelano,” he explained.

¡Ah, perdoname!” I said, clapping him on the back, and all was well.

The party didn’t last long, but I did end up scoring some Internet cards from them for a few CUCs less than the hotel sells them. (I later learned it’s common for locals to hawk them on the street.)

On our bicitaxi tour the next morning (which I mentioned in my post on Habana Vieja), we returned to Centro Habana.


Heading west from the Hotel Telégrafo, we soon stopped in at a local bodega (where Habaneros go to get their state-rationed foodstuff) and a mercado selling fresh fruits and vegetables.


Next, we visited a Santería supplier, where they had a bin full of chicks and a backyard of hungry goats—all of them raised for ritual sacrifice.


On our free morning the following Sunday, I took the opportunity to return to Centro Habana to conduct some critical research for my novel The Crimes of Paris. I have a number of scenes set in this part of the city.


At one point, I passed an old theater, the Teatro America, which proved to be a cool respite from the morning heat. In the echoing, high-domed foyer sat a bored attendant. I asked if I could have a look around, and with a yawn he waved me into the auditorium.

While Old Havana has a thin veneer of restoration and revitalization, Centro Habana hasn’t profited as much from the influx of foreigners. You see them in ones and twos, but they are rare birds, and locals live here relatively unmolested by the tourist hordes.


Can you spot the tourist?

In fact, when you wander around on this far side of the Prado, you will remark the stand-out tourists and you will in turn be remarked by residents, who’ll regard you with a mixture of tentative curiosity and mild annoyance. In the more crowded areas, the taxi drivers will eagerly approach you, along with many residents eyeing an opportunity to get their hands on some CUCs.

Each district in Havana has a Comite de Defensa de la Revolución, a committee of so-called vigilantes, kind of like a neighborhood watch. One of the reasons crime is so low in Havana is that everyone knows their neighbors will report on them if they do wrong.

Back to my novel research: I have my character Casey staying at a casa particular on the Calle Trocadero, a perfectly unremarkable street that runs from the Old Havana side of the Prado to within a couple of blocks of the Malecón.


While I was wandering up and down this street, a man approached and asked me how I was doing. I explained what I was up to, and he was happy to help.

“Are there a lot of casas particulares along here?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “There and there, and several over here.”

“And if you go into these buildings, is there a courtyard?” We had to do a little dance on this one, since I couldn’t remember how to say courtyard in Spanish and he didn’t know it in English. But I managed to remember traspatio, and that seemed to get the idea across well enough. And, yes, they had courtyards.

“Is there a cafeteria nearby?”

“Yes, just up the street and around the corner.”

Other details definitely jarred with my fictional version of the neighborhood, and so revisions were needed. But I left room for a little poetic license.

It seemed to me you probably wouldn’t hear a whole lot of street music at midnight from your window above the Calle Trocadero (as you probably would in Habana Vieja). But since it provides a nice atmospheric touch in the scene where Casey and Elena first make love after his arrival in Havana, I decided it’s not always necessary to submit to the tyranny of realism.

As we shook hands, the man asked my name, and I told him. “I’m George,” he said.

“That’s my son’s name,” I replied with a smile. “But you’re Jorge, no?”

“Yeah, Jorge. George. Same thing … You need a car?”

“As a matter of fact, George, I do.”

He led me up a side street to a restored Chevy parked just off the Malécon. His partner was waiting for him there. George told him I wanted to go up to the Hotel Nacional. I hopped in the back and George rode shotgun.

As we zoomed up the Avenida de Maceo, our conversation downshifted into him trying to sell me discount cigars and me lying that I’d already bought some. But it was an otherwise pleasant drive along to the seawall to our next destination: Vedado.