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.

As we’re about to get back on our bikes, Natalie beckons me over. Down among the tall roots that lean out like buttresses lie two little cloth dolls. They’re not voodoo dolls; vodun is Haitian, Yasser explains, but little figures are sometimes used in Santeria too. Dressed in yellow gingham, a skirt for her, a pair of shorts for him, they represent a real couple walking around out there in Havana. Somebody has been thinking about them intensely, praying over them—and not to wish them any good.

Twenty minutes later, we’re back under the blazing sun, zipping past the white frosted cakes of the Gran Teatro and the Hotel Inglaterra to the Hotel Parque Central, where 1950s Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Bel Airs flaunt voluptuous fins and grilles under the palm trees. Yasser stops the group regularly to explain what we’re seeing or to fill in some historical detail.

Yasser is a success story, Cuban style. The smart, ambitious son of good socialist parents who named him for Yasser Arafat, he moved to Havana from an island off Cuba’s southern coast to go to a special sciences high school and then to the university. Master’s degree in hand, he got a good job as a software developer. “Coding,” he says, in English. He liked it. But he didn’t like spending his days at a desk, so about three years ago, he joined some friends working at a bike-rental shop. Now he’s running this Airbnb Experience, under the title Maverick Biker.

Although bikes are a great way to explore Havana, navigating the city’s traffic can be intimidating for novice cyclists—no bike lanes! Which is why an outing with Yasser is a good intro.

Natalie and I met up with Yasser that morning at his headquarters in the garage of a whitewashed villa next to a church that stands half open to the sky. We were soon joined by six other Americans: three guys in their midthirties who were best friends back in high school in Santa Rosa, California, now reunited for this trip, along with three newer friends. They shared the easy warmth of old pals, and they didn’t let us feel like outsiders for long.

Riding in Havana with Yasser is a three-day experience, but it’s not all day, every day. And you keep your bike all three days, not just for when you’re riding with him. Even so, you’ll end up wishing you had more time together with your new bike gang.

THE WATER IS CALM AND OILY. A freighter lumbers across our ferry’s path. We’re crossing Havana Bay to visit the Black Virgin of Regla, who is also Yemayá, goddess of the sea; Mother of Orishas; and the One Whose Children Are Countless as Fishes. We’re with Reysa, a santera who is our guide into the mysteries of Santeria, and on a trip to Havana’s holiest shrine.

A few hours earlier, Reysa welcomed us at the door of her home in Centro Habana, a blue colonial house with white pilasters and an iron-railed balcony. With her white blouse and skirt, short hair, and assured manner, it’s not hard to picture her in her former career as a criminal defense lawyer. In 2015, she opened her house to guests, then decided to teach people about Santeria. It’s beautiful and powerful, she told us, and carries so much of Cuba’s history but is so misunderstood outside of Cuba.

Two stone columns frame the doorway to the patio, where we sat under a statue of a Catholic saint with a gold crown and halo, a woman in a white lacy dress and a red cape, with a sword in one hand. A maid brought us strong coffee in delicate cups and Reysa gave us a first lesson in Santeria. Afro-Cuban religion (a better term than Santeria, Reysa said) is a fusion of traditions from two different worlds. When Yoruba slaves were brought from what’s now Nigeria to work and die on the sugar plantations, they brought their gods with them. They were baptized and went to church, they prayed to the Catholic saints, but they merged the saints with the orishas, their Yoruba gods. For each god, there was a corresponding saint—a public Christian face. You could say prayers to Oshún, goddess of love, sex, and money, in front of a statue of Our Lady of Charity. For Orisha-Oko, god of farming, there was St. Isidore with his sickle. A plain stone hidden at the base of the statue serves as a reminder of the presence of the African god.

The ferry ride to Regla takes about 15 minutes.
Schools in Cuba are, of course, state run, and all students must wear uniforms—the color indicates which grade a student is in.

Reysa herself is a daughter of Changó, god of thunder and lightning, fire, and male potency. Her grandmother was very powerful in healing and divination. Some of the powers run in the family, she told us. “When my mother was a young girl, her brother came over to her one day and touched her forehead with his thumb and said the word viuda—widow—and walked away.” Her mother burst into tears—and, years later, was widowed young. “My grandmother gave me this,” she said, tilting her chin up at the big statue of the saint. “Santa Barbara is Changó.” I must have looked baffled, because Reysa smiled and explained. St. Barbara is always represented in red and white, Changó’s colors, and in the story of her martyrdom, her killer is struck by lightning. And that’s enough for believers to identify a fierce male god who rules over semen and virility with a girl in a red dress? “The outward form is not important,” Reysa said with a shrug. “You can stand in front of Santa Barbara and in your mind you have Changó.”

So for a daughter of Changó or a son of Yemayá, I asked, is Catholicism just a thin veneer? No, Afro-Cuban religion is a true mix of Yoruba and Christian beliefs, she said, lacing her fingers together. “If you are devout, you’re devout in both.”

Reysa’s family is from Regla, she tells us on the short ferry ride across Havana Bay. Revered on the southern coast of Spain since before the 1300s, the original Virgin de Regla was a sculpted black Madonna believed to have come across the sea from Africa—a portrait of the Virgin Mary in her role as protector of sailors. In 1696, when Havana Bay was busy with traffic from all over Spain’s New World colonies, a copy was brought over from Spain and became so well loved that a village called Regla grew up around her seaside shrine. It was here that Our Lady of Regla came to be identified with Yemayá, the Mother of Waters.

You can book a dance lesson for about $15 at the Casa del Son school in old Havana.

FROM THE FERRY LANDING ,we head up a paved walk to the church. In the cool shade under the beamed roof and whitewashed walls, Our Lady of Regla is seated in the central niche of the church’s ornate gold altarpiece. Her dark face is lost in a mountain of ruffles and lace, a black oval atop a white satin dress and a flaring cape in blue, the color of Mary, the color of Yemayá. Her black hands cradle a Christ child. The crescent moon lies at her feet like a slim golden canoe. The faithful—mostly women—gather below.

Back down by the ferry landing, the water is quiet this afternoon, lapping at the stones, gently rocking the melons and gourds that have been left as offerings. There’s a woman standing barefoot on the rocks. Her face is lined and worried. Her hands are raised slightly from her sides, and she stands there, ankle-deep, talking to the water.

STAND WITH CATHEDRAL-SIZE DOORS opening onto a jumble of beams and rubble on a Spanish-tile floor. Every few blocks you pass a skeletal facade with nothing behind it, looking light enough to old up and carry away. A stairway curves upward to an upper story dissolved into empty air; a garden row of vibrant foliage furs a decapitated wall.

The dilapidation is a big part of Havana’s charm, but how do you justify the preservation of urban decay? How long can it last before the rules of foreign investment relax and developers buy up the gorgeous old wrecks? A Starbucks here, a Topshop there, an Apple store in the big white one on the corner. What will happen to the 1950s cars when the import market opens?

After 57 years as the face of the Revolution, Fidel Castro died last November. It is still not clear what his passing will mean for Cuba. “¡Hasta Siempre Comandante!” (“Our Commander Forever!”) promises a faded poster in the window of an empty shop; Fidel smiles down, sun-bleached to the same green as his fatigues.

Time moves on. Tonight, in fact, it’s New Year’s Eve. Salsa, son, and rumba bands are packing fancy hotel lobbies and the larger corner bars: Brass blazes, cowbells clang, the beat billows from tall conga drums. Natalie and I are drinking rum at a small bar. Seconds before midnight, we pop up from our table and go out onto the corner. Voices count down from a party nearby, “tres, dos, uno,” and there’s a muted version of the whoop you hear in any city—and then the buckets of water start pelting down. In Cuba, we’d heard, it’s traditional to celebrate New Year’s by pitching water out the window, to toss out the grief and disappointments of the old year and start clean.

We get about 10 paces from the bar’s front awning when a splash explodes behind us, splattering us up to the knees. Soon there are more people out in the street—and more water cascading down. From three floors up, a bucketful somersaults in the air like a jellyfish, slow enough you can dodge out of the way. But it hits like a water balloon fired out of a cannon.

Cuban jazz singer Meiby is an expert in the country’s rich musical history and is a winner of the Cuban Grand Prix of New Voices.

Next to my head, the air expands with a quiet whump. I wheel around. It’s Natalie, exceeding all expectations: She’s just popped open an umbrella. Has she had it in her tote bag all night? I wonder. All week? She shoots an eyebrow up and invites me under.

Teenage girls are running the gantlet. Couples inch along, huddled together. A woman in a white dress pirouettes away from one splash, two, then right into a waterfall. She freezes in place with her eyes clenched shut, dripping, then opens her eyes and starts laughing. After some direct hits, our cheap umbrella is tattered and sprung, like a shipwreck. “I’m not made of sugar,” Natalie says, tossing me that eyebrow again. “You?” Before I can answer, she has already wrung out the half dead umbrella and stowed it away. She’s right; suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea to run out into the middle of the street and get soaked.

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