The night started in a straight-talking manner, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at the way it ended. We were staying at a new two-bed apartment in Habana Vieja called Suite Havana – a homage to the eponymous decade-old documentary which tells 13 real-life stories from this battered, beautiful city. After a day trudging through hot, dusty streets I was heading back for a cold Jacuzzi soak before going out. I had left without keys.My friend, Jimmy, was supposed to let me in but it appeared he was asleep: at 7pm. The buzzer wasn’t working so I used the street shout-up, starting with “Jimmy dear, open up!”. Then I chucked stones at the elegant balcony until he emerged. Two bored bicitaxi (rickshaw) owners were watching. “Está es mas Cubana que las Cubanas,” one observed to the other, authoritatively.
“This one is more Cuban than the Cubans.” Suite Havana is a lovely place, the project of Leandis Diaz and her French husband, who searched high and low for an elegant hideaway to do up and rent. They’ve got a lovely marble staircase, a huge, spanking new kitchen and a smattering of top Cuban art. The surrounds – if you enter via San Ignacio at least – are like a war zone and it’s not the most tranquil place to sleep, but that’s all part of the Habana Vieja sabor.
While this city is slowly turning out these bohemian places to stay, the Cubans have everything to learn about marketing and a lack of internet stymies them. That’s why you must book via grassroots companies such as Esencia Experiences (esenciaexperiences.com).
Our first stop was part of our ongoing safari of newbie bars gracing Havana’s suburbs. This one, Bar Fibra at Calle E, Edificio 57 Apto 2, entre 3 y 5, Vedado, doubles as an open studio for artist Yosvany Martinez Pérez, though he’s not in evidence this evening. We’re saving ourselves for dinner but there are tapas floating around. Next stop, El Cocinero at Calle 26 entre 11 y 13 (elcocinerohabana.com), which is based at a cooking-oil factory in Vedado, accessed by a spiral staircase up the old tower.
After demolishing tilapia with a salsa verde, on the outside terrace of the newly opened restaurant half way up the tower, we crash a private party on the roof. The scene could be in Shoreditch or Williamsburg: an alfresco bar overhung with draped awnings and a large crowd dancing and drinking. After putting away a few guava daiquiris, it’s time to move on to gay night at Café Cantante at Paseo y 39, the basement club below Teatro Nacional on the Plaza de la Revolución. The atmosphere in this black-walled basement is upbeat; the cabaret preceding the club is in full flow. The Cuban gang we are with pronounce it “embarrassing, horrible”, but I am enjoying the bolero-singing matador, the transvestite lip-syncher and the gaggle of sparkly boy dancers with jiggling buttocks.
When the club starts, everyone is rocking. It feels amazing, and it’s not just the daiquiris: Cuba has come a long way since Reinaldo Arenas penned Before Night Falls.
At 4am, the only straight man left in the room, a lanky adolescent with a T-shirt slashed to his waist and neon glasses with no lenses, offers me his hand in marriage. I reply, soberly, that I’m already married and possibly older than his mother. Taxi!
A Hedonist’s Guide to ... (Hg2) is a luxury city guide series for the more decadent traveller. For more information, see hg2.com