Barack Obama, the first U.S. President to visit Cuba in 88 years, was only in Havana for a couple of days yet covered most of essential tourist sites. Of course, with a free way around and a super automobile like “The Beast”, everything is much easier…
But you too can make a presidential walk through Havana like Obama’s, minus the pomp and flair, of course. What’s more, you can experience it much better because you won’t be in a rush to get to meetings or hold press conferences, nor a multitude of crowds eager to get a glimpse of you as you make your way or, perhaps, you will after all?
Whatever the case, dress comfortably, take plenty of water to keep you hydrated under Cuba’s unforgiving temperatures and have a small stash of cash on hand. Don’t worry, while you may not have the Historian of the City at your disposal to give you a private tour, you’ll have this handy guide, and trust me, you couldn’t find a better one.
A trip to the past
Obama started his tour in Havana’s oldest part. He made his way through Plaza de Armas passing by El Templete, where Havana’s first mass was officiated to celebrate the city’s foundation. Not long ago there stood a decades-old ceiba tree hailed for its mystical energy, which, after showing signs of aging and decay has been replaced by a new one.
The tradition here is to go around the tree three times while asking for good fortune. Obama didn’t do it but if you can...it won’t hurt to give it a go. What Obama did stop to look at in Plaza de Armas was the statue of Cuban national hero, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, dubbed The Father of the Homeland for kick-starting the war against the Spanish colonisers when he freed his slaves.
In front of said statue stands the grand Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which Obama entered to admire its spacious flagship-laden hall and take a look at the abundant relics from Cuba’s wars of independence. On most days vendors gather in this square to sell rare old books, most of which are about Cuba and written in Spanish. Obama missed out on this but it’s definitely worth your time to devote a few minutes perusing the old memorabilia, diving into antique publications and vintage Revolution posters.
Obama’s promenade continued for 300 more metres until reaching the Plaza de la Catedral, a must-visit spot not only for the historic cathedral and surrounding colonial buildings but also for its location near the famous Bodeguita del Medio (where the Mojito was born). In this cobblestone square you’ll find an abundance of small coffee shops, boutique bistros and paladares, as well as colourful murals and flamboyant characters to take a picture with.
Venturing deeper into Havana's (less pretty) urban side
Obama also got to know the city’s most humble side as he ventured into the municipality of Centro Habana for his first meal in Cuba. Because of the size of his huge limousine he had to drive all along San Rafael, a narrow street lined by crumbling buildings, in order to reach the San Cristobal paladar, where he got to experience the more gourmet side of traditional Cuban cuisine.
The President dined on sirloin steak while his wife enjoyed a dish going by the name of "Havana Temptation", which the First Lady said reminded her of her grandfather’s pepper steaks. To round off the meal, the Obamas drank Cuban coffee and greeted the personnel. Outside it was raining but the whole neighbourhood eagerly waited to catch a glimpse of the presidential family. "The Beast" certainly stopped traffic.
Discovering this part of Havana is definitely interesting and gives you a different insight of the city’s reality but it can also be dangerous if walking there alone after dusk. It’s better to go in groups, in plain daylight and carrying no valuables in sight.
Malecon and 5th Avenue towards Cubanacan
The Obamas spent their Havana nights in the suburban neighbourhood of Cubanacan, bordering the outskirts of the capital. To get there you have to drive all along the Malecon seawall and pass by symbolic buildings like the tall Hospital Almeijeiras, the Hotel Nacional and the U.S. Embassy, all before crossing the Almendares river through an underground tunnel that takes you to Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue).
On both sides of this wide avenue palatial mansions abound, many are home to embassies today and once-upon-a-time the grand residences of members of Cuba’s high aristocracy and the new rich. Few tourists venture out here but I always recommend travellers to come here for a stroll before the end of their visit in order to get a more well-rounded view of Havana and its many faces.
The views along Havana’s Quinta Avenida are only but a small preview of what you could witness in what once was known as the neighbourhood of Siboney, which maintains its elitist nature until today but with a new name: Cubanacan. Beyond grand mansions galore, in this exclusive part of the city you’ll come across many signs forbidding you to taking pictures, else you face military retaliation. In a wider sense it’s an accessible place to roam at leisure, except for the area surrounding Fidel Castro’s residence and known as Punto Cero (Point Zero), which is strictly off limits.
The epicentre of the Revolution
Quite ironically perhaps, the U.S. President went to the very epicentre of the Cuban Revolution: the Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolucion). It was there, in front of the obelisk-shaped tower that crowns this esplanade, that Obama took his most touristic photograph; with a large image of Che Guevara in the background.
You can photograph other emblematic edifications and symbols of national pride there, such as the Teatro Nacional, the Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti, or the Ministerio del Interior. You will also get to capture the wide Paseo avenue, walked thousands of times by marching Cubans during national parades and special festivities.
Don’t miss the opportunity of climbing to the top of the obelisk-shaped tower that locals like to nickname “raspadura” after a regional sweet made from nothing but sugarcane (it’s literally a rock-hard sugarcane cube that’s left after you boil sugarcane juice). At the top you’ll enjoy one of the most spectacular panoramic views of Havana.
A breath of fresh air
An interesting stop in Michelle Obama’s itinerary was the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a genuine space where Cuba’s most avant-garde artists exhibit their works or come to perform in futuristic halls dedicated to the seven arts. It’s a self-managed establishment that perfectly encapsulates the renewed spirit of Cuba in a time of change.
There the American First Lady got to know more about a variety of different educational projects in Cuba, but above all “discovered” this rare and interesting cultural centre. "La Fabrica" (or FAC as it’s often abbreviated) is a great hangout spot and a fantastic place in which to await dawn in Havana while enjoying first-class live entertainment.
On his part, Obama visited the Antiguo Almacen de Madera y el Tabaco, a huge beer joint (housing its own microbewery) located right on Avenida del Puerto. It was here that Obama filmed a short humorous sketch with Panfilo, Cuba’s most popular comedian in recent times. This old warehouse is the ideal place to rest off a long walk around Havana’s scenic bay, thanks to its great subdued atmosphere, its inviting décor, its good music and its generous lager servings; ideal for chilling with friends.
Back to Old Havana
An essential stop during Obama’s visit to Cuba was the recently renovated Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso (formerly known as the Garcia Lorca), an architectural jewel poised right in front of the centric Parque Central, a few steps away from the Museo de Arte Universal, the San Rafael boulevard and what looks like a slice of Washington in Havana: the magnificent Capitolio.
This is yet another great spot from which to start exploring Old Havana’s historic centre, but also some interesting nearby destinations that are just as seductive, such as the Parque de la Fraternidad (Fraternity Park), the Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas (Partagas Tobacco Factory), the Barrio Chino (Chinatown) and Reina Avenue.
The temple of Cuba’s baseball passion
Last but not least, Obama headed to the Cuba temple that stands as the greatest symbol of the island’s biggest sporting passion: the Estadio Latinoamericano (Latin-American Stadium), home to local baseball team, Industriales. Even those who don’t get (or like) baseball would enjoy the high intensity of attending a game in what’s also dubbed Cerro’s Coliseum (Coloso del Cerro) because of its location in the Cerro municipality, especially during the furore of the playoff series. But if there’s no game being played it’s not worth it to make the journey here; it’s nothing like the Camp Nou, Maracana or the Yankee Stadium.
As you can see, Obama’s itinerary was an intense and encompassing one, good enough to please a United States president. At least Obama promised to be back. Perhaps it was the Malecon’s sultry and salty sea breeze that cast its spell on him.