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If you find yourself with a free afternoon while you are visiting Cuba, and you are able to get to Old Havana, this is a must read for you! Old Havana is just what it sounds like, the oldest area of Cuba’s capital city. It is filled with buildings that are hundreds of years old, and surprisingly still houses tens of thousands of the Cuban capital’s residents. Walk just a block or two from the gentrified streets that are popular with tourists, and you will find yourself in a Cuban neighborhood like others in Havana. Old Havana has several large plazas, the oldest being the justly named Plaza Vieja, or Old Plaza. Here you can find great coffee to enjoy while you sit and people watch, or have it ground for you on the spot and take a bag home. Across plaza from the coffee shop is a beer hall, or the Cuban version anyway, and if you’re lucky, the beer will be cold on the day you visit. This plaza is only a few blocks from the dock used by the cruise ships that are now stopping in Havana, so you may have to share the plaza with a few hundred other tourists if your visit occurs while they are in port.

Just a few blocks outside of what is strictly considered Old Havana, on the border that separates Old Havana from Central Havana, is La Casa de la Musica de Galiano. This is the place to go if you want to see Cubans drinking and dancing, and not a typical Old Havana club where the only locals are the ones working there. Some of Cuba’s best musicians and groups perform at La Casa de la Musica, and it is a genuine cultural experience for anyone who is visiting Havana. Locals pay forty cents to get in, but foreigner must pay more, and depending of who is playing admission ranges from 5 CUC to 10 CUC per person. If you happen to drop in on a day when Youba Andabo is playing, you are in for a true cultural exchange experience! La Casa de la Musica is closed for most of the summer 2018 because of renovations.

The San Jose arts fair is housed in Havana’s old train station across from the harbor. It houses a variety of small kiosks that sell a potpourri of goods. There are many painters selling their works here, and you can also buy all manner of keepsakes, from expensive humidors, jewelry, and cigars, to less expensive key chains, hats, and wooden sculptures. Most of the sellers are more than willing to make deals, so go ahead and haggle. Right next to San Jose is the old cigar and lumber warehouse, where many years ago these items crucial to Cuba’s economy were stored before being exported. It has recently been turned into a beer hall, and while the service is not the best, the beer is pretty good. They sell sandwiches, appetizers, and usually have some kind of live entertainment.

The Plaza de Armas oftentimes has some sort of live entertainment taking place. On a recent afternoon visit there was a classical music symphony playing right in front of the Captain General of the Island’s palace. There are a couple of restaurants right off the plaza, and though they are state run establishments, the food is actually pretty good, and the beers are usually cold.

And last but not least, you can walk around Old Havana for hours, even days and weeks, and still see something interesting and unique. This is after all one of the oldest cities in all of the Americas, and is many times larger than any comparable area in the Caribbean. The buildings may be in bad shape, and some even crumbling, but their beauty is still evident, and many continue to be impressive even in their current condition. It should not take you more than an hour to walk leisurely from the Capitol building to the San Jose arts fair, which is basically from the bottom of the peninsula that is Old Havana to the top. Many private businesses have been opening in the area, so finding a nice café to pop into and have a cold drink or snack is not difficult. Old Havana, just like the rest of Cuba, is very safe, and you do not have much to worry about.

Walk around, and while you may have to try to avoid the hustlers, you will have many opportunities to speak with Cubans, who are usually more than willing to engage in conversation with anyone, about anything, at any time.

By Frank Gonzalez

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