Cuba Libre - Airbnbmag
Once a cooking-oil plant, the Fábrica de Arte Cubano now incubates a trendy arts scene. Photos by The Collaborationist.

BY DAVID GEORGI

Havana opens its doors to those who want to dance, eat,drink—and catch a glimpse of the island’s soul.

THE FAMILY OF WELL-DRESSED TOURISTS in front of us almost walked right into it, then flinched away, with much panicked tugging on arms. I got right in there to take a picture. “No,” a voice warned. It was a tall man behind me. “Mala suerte,” he said, wagging a finger as he continued around the corner. “Bad luck.” And then I realized: This wasn’t roadkill, this big healthy rooster with clean feathers, not flattened or matted. We were in Cuba, and this was Santeria.

fifty years telling you not to go

Havana is a gorgeous shambles in bright Caribbean pastels—turquoise, pink, sea green, soft blue. Out along the Malecón, the city’s long seafront drive, old mansions are pinned together as close as clothes on a line. Moorish, Venetian Gothic, rococo, art nouveau—some restored, some wearing bright tatters of paint, others crumbling completely.

On the other side of the boulevard, a broad sidewalk runs along the choppy Straits of Florida. Couples cuddle on the parapet, jumping up and whirling away as a jet of spray explodes over the sea wall.

For most Americans, there’s something tauntingly provocative about a place your country has spent fifty years telling you not to go. Within weeks of the doors opening, we ducked through, Natalie and I, to see Havana while we could. In particular, we came to Havana hoping to find out a little about Santeria, the island’s homegrown religion. As it turned out, Santeria found us.

La Guarida has become the most famous “paladar” (private restaurant) since it opened in 1996.
Along the Malecón.

I’M ON A BAMBOO BIKE, juddering over a packed dirt trail ropy with twisting tree roots, mogulling up and down steep little gulches, just trying to stay on. On both sides of the trail, the trees are draped thick with vines. The air carries a tangy funk from the carcasses of small animals that have been sacrificed and left for the gods. Not exactly an afternoon ride in the park? Oh, but it is, if you happen to be in Havana.

We are in a part of Parque Almendares known as El Bosque, The Grove—a favorite place for devotees of Santeria to come for rituals that need a forest setting. Our guide is a Cuban named Yasser, 31, soft-spoken, bushy-haired, and utterly reliable. Natalie is up ahead, standing on the pedals, mule-kicking her bike over the rugged path as if she isn’t afraid of anything. It’s true; she isn’t afraid of much. Ahead of us, one after the other, our little group is twisting weirdly off the narrow trail, swerving aside onto the grass, then back. When I get there, I swerve into the grass too: It seems like a better choice than riding right over the chalk circle that somebody inscribed across the path.

Off to our right, the Almendares River is seething fast and shallow over rocks. The far bank belongs to vultures. Perched on stones, they’re black and much bigger than you really want a bird to be. They hunch like old men in overcoats, red in the face, twisting their leathery necks. They’re here for the animal carcasses. The ashé of the sacrificed animals—their life force—may go to feed the orishas, the gods of Santeria, but their flesh and feathers go to the vultures.

We drop the bikes in a clearing around a monster tree, a kind I’ve never seen before. “Jagüey,” Yasser says, supplying the name. The trunk is like a thicket of trees fused together, an immense knot of trunks and vines plaited around a warren of hollows. The soil under the trunk is littered with the smashed remnants of plates left here with offerings of food for the orishas.

Get more on Havana and other places to visit

Subscribe to get 6 printed issues delivered to your door for just $15.
Subscribe
Keep exploring...