Soon after nightfall, Havana lifts itself from its daytime slumber and emerges into the orange sodium-fuelled streetlight. Around every corner is a paladar with a green-blue tint, whose entrance would be swarmed by young gregarious Cubanos, awaiting a night of song and dance. The streets were lined with hitchhikers, hoping to catch a ride into Havana. Illuminated only by streetlamps, women on the pavement playfully chatted with our driver, who dutifully rolled down the windows, promising to return later with a cheeky wink.
Havana is, in many ways, a suffocating city. The instant we stepped out of the arrivals lobby, heat and humidity consumed our senses. The thick and heavy air drapes over and permeates every crevice as a thin but definitely noticeable film of sweat appeared on our skin. Like pretty much all Caribbean islands, Cuba enjoys a tropical climate with relatively stable year-round temperature. Nonetheless, the dry season, spanning November to April, is the more comfortable and less humid season to visit Cuba. We arrived to an early-summer Havana in early June, just prior to the dreaded hurricane and wet season of June to October. Torrential rain is a daily affair, and we were reminded of the prospect of a stormy evening by the lightning slicing through the dark in the distance.
This warmth extends to the people of Cuba. Cubanos are, of course, known for their passion and verve. The more wary among us may shy away from chatting with locals in fear of being scammed, but often their intents are not malicious. It is little surprise that once we got past the unrelenting tropical heat, we were surrounded by swarming crowds of taxi touts, offering to take us into Havana. All it took was a bit of vigilance and advice regarding legitimate taxis (those which are legitimate have an official licence number stuck to their windscreen – though over the course of our time in Havana, we did jump in a few unlicensed taxis) before we found one and headed for the dimly lit roads leading towards Havana.
Havana is a congregation of small towns disguising as a metropolis. Upon first glance, a sprawling city of two million people can hardly be spoken in the same breath as a town. And indeed, being Cuba’s capital and by far the most important and most visited Cuban city, Havana possesses centuries of history and charm. Her avenues and alleyways present a complex 500-year entanglement with the indigenous people, the Spanish, the French, the Americans, the Soviets. Almost a living organism, Havana spreads like ivy, extending its stems and leaves into neighbouring towns along the seaboard and assimilating them.
And yet – perhaps because of the lack of money to invest in infrastructure, and without the unrelenting driving force of capitalism, most buildings in the centre of Havana are at most three stories tall. The tallest buildings in the city are often old communist buildings now repurposed as hotels; in fact, tourism is and will be by far the most important and most promising source of income for Cuba. Because of the country’s drastic housing policy following the revolution, whereby Cubans owned the properties they were currently living in, practically overnight, many Cubans still live in the very centre of Havana. Strikingly, not one block away from the popular tourist spots of Havana, you can find locals going about their daily lives, playing spontaneous fútbol or béisbol in the streets, watching television, sitting on their doorsteps, topless and sweating.
Our taxi rolled into the taxi rank of Hotel Nacional just as the city seemed primed to burst into life on this Saturday night. The imposing Hotel Nacional, a place of bygone glamour, watches over Havana harbour. Neither the interior or exterior may look impressive, but where it lacks in aesthetic, it makes up for in a storied history. The hotel was constructed in 1930 and quickly became a hub of American mob activity, leading to the development of the famed Starlight Terrace Bar and the Le Parisien cabaret club. The hotel, being one of the most prestigious of its time, hosted some of the most famous guests imaginable, from Marlon Brando to Winston Churchill, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Frank Sinatra. While it may not be as luxurious as it once was, little has changed in its nine decades of existence – the 1930s semi-functional lifts, crystal chandeliers, and mahogany furniture are hardly modern, yet it is a small price to pay to traipse down halls once graced by the rich and famous throughout the years.
Hotel Nacional’s glamorous days have a darker footnote. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which almost precipitated a global nuclear apocalypse, Hotel Nacional acted as a secret headquarters. Under the seafront garden is a series of medieval-esque tunnels, bored out to counteract a potential naval offense on Havana. The tunnels also acted as a bunker for Cuba’s most important figures, able to uncomfortably house 100 or so people by our estimate. Ducking our heads and shuffling into the damp tunnels, we struggled to imagine how these narrow trenches could have served as anything but the most primitive of defences. Occasionally, we passed narrow slits which barely qualified as windows; guns and telescopes were pointed seawards, ever vigilant to a star-spangled flag emerging from the horizon. Narrow lone ladders would lead to the surface of the grassy knoll, perhaps giving a better view to the enemy. It is fortunate that nothing ever came of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the makeshift tunnels are a stark reminder of a world on the precipice of nuclear devastation.