I stayed in Havana for three days before heading deeper into Cuba. My last day again took me to the old part of the city where I marveled at the stunning Cathedral de San Cristobal, Plaza de la Revolucion and Plaza de Armas. The whole city was an addictive mix of baroque, neoclassical, art deco, and Khrushchev architectural styles and in combination with the sea and the sky, it was a pretty awesome place to be in. However, trying to explore offbeat Havana has strong downsides and apart from the constant eve teasing and hustling, pollution too reared its ugly head in the city. Strange looking Chinese buses filled with people plied down the historic broad roads belching obnoxious fumes and old dilapidated assembled vehicles added their bit too. For non-smokers or people freshly off cigarettes, it was a very daunting task to survive in Havana as a nauseating mix of pollution and nicotine constantly clouded the city.
Move away from cabaret, cigars, vintage cars, and rum for offbeat Havana experience
The freshly relaxed business restriction made the Cubans scramble to earn money and the constant hustling was very exhausting. Vintage car taxis, coco taxis, bicycle taxis, and hustlers selling cigars, casas, mojitos, sex everything and anything bothered the tourists at every step and it took a firm no with a smile to shake it off. Being a solo female traveller was like being in the limelight of male attention, even in parts of offbeat Havana and on the third day, I splurged on a Viazul bus ticket to Santa Clara. My departure was scheduled for the next day and I felt happily reckless to indulge in some mojitos, neat sidewalk cafe lunch at Centro Habana and an evening by the Malecon. It was my last evening at the historic city and I greedily wanted to savour its charm to the fullest. Since my restrained budget did not afford a cabaret show, I chose a Malecon sunset instead. As luck would have it, my lack of experiencing an iconic Havana cabaret show got taken care of, as I witnessed a rare Santeria procession pass by me.
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Get lucky and experience the rare Santeria ritual the offbeat Havana way
An intriguing Afro Caribbean religion, Santeria or the Way of Saints, is based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions with some Roman Catholic elements thrown in. A synthetic religion that grew out of slave trade in Cuba, Santeria has a huge number of followers and is a spectacular secret of offbeat Havana. Once looked down upon as ghetto religion of Caribbean’s poor and uneducated, Santeria’s astonishing popularity made even the Revolutionary Cuba ease it’s initial clamp down. The religion believes in enriching the permeable relationship between humans and powerful, but mortal, spirits called Orishas and is as spectacular as it sounds. Followers of Santeria believe that Orishas help them in life, provided that they carry out the appropriate rituals that enable them to achieve the destiny that God planned for them before they were born. A word of mouth religion with no scriptures, the fabric of Santeria lies on the co-dependency between the worshiper and the worshiped. Very much a mutual relationship in Santeria, Orishas need to be worshiped by human beings for them to continue to exist.
A throwback to Cuba’s slavery past, Santeria connects spirits with humans
Headed by a senior priest from his house which is called a casa or ile, Santeria is joined by members mostly in adulthood, who feel “called” upon by particular Orisha to do so. A Santeria priest can be a male or female and are often trained in traditional medicine. While this has given rise to a lot of quacks and dangerous practices, Santeria’s popularity is undeniable. Intense energetic dances, drumming, singing, animal sacrifices, talking, sleeping and eating with Orishas form the core of Santeria rituals and usually, the Orishas make their presence felt through a member/priest. While exploring the offbeat lanes of Havana Vieja, I was often intrigued by the Santeria shrines with their offerings of cigars, rum, cakes, and flowers. However, it was the drumming procession of white-clad Santeria followers which finally caught my attention and mesmerized me with its incredible energy.
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Imagine beating drums, swan-white procession, and a mysterious faith, offbeat Havana does not get better than this
Absolutely mesmerized, I followed the swan-white procession, till they disappeared inside a casa and the vulnerability of my solo traveler status stopped me going with their flow. I stood outside, listening to their powerful drumming when salsa beats made me drift towards the Malecon. There are some things which will forever remind me of offbeat Havana and these are crashing waves against sea walls, urban fishermen, and romantic promenade sunsets. I stumbled upon Malecon, Havana’s famed love spot after walking all the way from Centro Habana and the seawall was like a breath of fresh air. The walk was long, tedious and encompassed a huge area all the way from the sluggish Rio Almendares banks till the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. While the stunning art deco Bacardi building, lively Prado, the Buicks, Chevrolets, and other winged beauties were decadently beautiful, I struggled hard with the exhausting humidity and prowling lovers.
Move to the romantic Malecon for some lovers, music, and Caribbean sunsets
Constructed in 1901 during the temporary US military rule to protect Havana from erosion, Malecon was nearly always lined with hooked fishermen, who paid more attention to their fishing lines than me, thus happily leaving solo girl travelers alone. It was a great place to get away from the touristy parts and cool the toes in offbeat Havana. An esplanade and seawall, Malecon featured in countless photos, movies, and music videos, including the legendary Chan Chan by Buena Vista Social Club. Very popular with fishermen, street musicians, and amorous lovers, it was an incredibly photogenic and romantic place. The Caribbean Sea dashed playfully against the rocky wall and Havana’s eclectic skyline circled it like a crown. Old crumbling buildings lined the other side of the road and a stunning sunset lit up the island museum. Romance definitely was in the air along with music and dancing beats and the velvety Caribbean evening cast a spell.
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Malecon. Is this the most romantic place in offbeat Havana?
Pulsating salsa and hip-hop beats poured out from every car, bicycle taxi, window, and rum flowed like the nectar of life. Malecon buzzed with city fishermen heading back home, children splashed, and kissing lovers plastered themselves all across the promenade. Saxophone, drums, and trumpets of the street artists belted out groovy numbers and people swayed seductively to serenading buskers in the setting sun. It was a lovely end to a beautiful day in one of the world’s most photogenic cities and my tired aching feet dragged me back to my casa. I had an early start the next day and in spite of all the oomph of offbeat Havana, I was looking forward to moving deeper into Cuba.
Ever toasted a Caribbean sunset while riding in a vintage jalopy?
The trip back to my casa was not pleasant as I got fleeced badly by a devilishly charming taxi driver. It was yet another annoying factor of my Cuba trip and unfortunately, there were quite a few bad apples who were on the constant lookout to scam the tourists. With the sudden influx of tourism in their country, overcharging was like a trend and from restaurants and coffee shops (which had 2 menus-1 for locals and another for tourists), taxis, guides, to even the gigolos, this annoying habit permeated to every level. As annoying as it was to get ripped off, the beautiful drive along the Malecon in a seriously old, restored jalopy was a beautiful experience. A mesmerizing Havana night added to the magic and Mercedez’s warm welcome was the perfect antidote for the unpleasant scalping.
Mojitos, Russian tv, and a fish dinner, offbeat Havana is kind to the soul
With my day spent enjoying a bit of offbeat Havana, I dedicated the last evening to my hostess, Mercedez. We lounged in her living room having mojitos, watching outdated tv programmes and it left a lovely aftertaste of Havana. My airline experience taught me to rustle delicious cocktails in a jiffy and Mercedez, in a real Caribbean style was delighted with my skill. She pottered about busily getting the dinner ready as I stirred, shook and swayed to lovely rumba beats on the radio. After a huge fish dinner and a couple of minty shots, Mercedez left me alone and I happily toasted the brilliant Caribbean night from my sea facing terrace. Mojito sugar crystals sparkled like diamonds and the radio belted out seductive salsa strains as Havana lights blazed across the encircling sea. With so much of decadent pleasures, it sure felt good to be in Cuba.
Featured Photo Credit – Getty Images
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