HAVANA — For a city where people earn an average of $20 a month at government jobs, Havana can be a surprisingly pricey place — at least for tourists.
From $6 daiquiris at El Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s favored watering hole, to the ubiquitous hustlers looking to con visitors into buying knock-off cigars, much about the Cuban capital seems geared toward separating travelers from their money.
Fortunately some of Havana’s most charming details can be experienced free of charge. Here are five great ways to explore this city stuck in time, without adding to the hefty fees charged by tour companies.
(Note: While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules, but there’s almost always a little free time to go off on your own, and some of these attractions may also be part of official itineraries.)
Begun in 1900 during U.S. occupation and completed in 1958 under strongman Fulgencio Batista, the Malecon, or seawall, stretches 4 miles from old town to the Almendares River. There’s no bad time of day for a stroll along what’s known as “the great sofa” for being Havana’s 24/7 center of social activity. At dawn, fishermen dip lines into the gentle waves as the city rouses itself from slumber. In the afternoon, when the sunlight seems impossibly bright — don’t forget the sunblock! — kids keep cool by doing somersaults into the water. But the Malecon truly comes alive in the evening when thousands gather to laugh and sip rum, and canoodling couples form romantic silhouettes against the crimson sky. Weekends at 23rd Street and Malecon are a real party atmosphere; for a more mellow experience and the best sunsets in town, pull up some concrete where Paseo Boulevard meets the Florida Straits.
No visit is complete without a leisurely walk through the cobblestoned Spanish colonial quarter, much of it patiently rehabilitated by the Havana City Historian’s Office. A tour of four public squares is enough to hit the highlights: intimate Cathedral Square, home to the city’s main Roman Catholic temple; leafy Plaza de Armas, where vendors hawk books, coins and Ernesto “Che” Guevara memorabilia at a daily flea market; sun-drenched Plaza Vieja, where uniformed children from a local school play rollicking games of tag; and breezy Plaza San Francisco, the jumping-off point for tour buses to Old Havana. The latter teems with colorfully dressed, cigar-chomping women who make a living as what you might call officially licensed “greeters,” attaching themselves to the arms of male travelers and leaving lipsticky kiss marks on their cheeks. A tip is expected if you have your picture taken with them, but a polite, preemptive “no gracias” before they can pucker up should keep you on budget.
Havana doesn’t disappoint on its reputation as a living automotive museum, with finned 1950s Chevrolets, Fords and Cadillacs rarely seen elsewhere still cruising the city’s avenues. While some are barely held together by makeshift parts and creative soldering, many have been maintained with surprising amounts of TLC. For a four-wheeled blast from the past, head to the streets around the wedding-cake-like Capitol building, where classic car owners park their antiques so nostalgic tourists can gawk. Motorcycle enthusiasts will delight in the weekly gathering of the “hogs” just down the hill from the Hotel Nacional. Members of Havana’s tightly knit Harley-Davidson club meet informally here each Saturday afternoon to show off their vintage rides, nearly all of them predating the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
See art come alive at the Taller Experimental de Grafica, ensconced at the end of an alley off Cathedral Square in a former public bathhouse. Founded in 1962 on “Che’s” instructions, the shop hosts dozens of artists who are remarkably friendly and happy to chat with even the slightest prompting. Some speak English and will give visitors an up-close demonstration of how lithographs, etchings and woodcuts get made. Just about everything you see is for sale, but there’s no pressure to buy. For more free art, walk up gently sloping 23rd Street, also known “la Rampa,” or “the Ramp,” where dozens of mosaics by Cuban masters such as Wilfredo Lam form a sidewalk gallery that goes for blocks and blocks.
Cubans are just as crazy for “beisbol” as Americans, and Spanish-speaking fans won’t want to miss the Central Park’s “esquina caliente,” or “hot corner.” Named after the baseball term for third base, this shady spot is a favorite place for Havana residents, mostly men, to engage all comers in passionate arguments about the sport during the November-June season. Still haven’t gotten your fill of Cuba’s national pastime? A ticket to the raucous bleachers of El Latino Stadium, home to Havana’s most storied ball club, Industriales, costs just a few pennies’ worth in the local currency. Go on, splurge — after a day in Havana without once opening your pocketbook, you’ve earned it.