Cruise ships rarely stay overnight at a port; however, Norwegian paused on its normally vigorous schedule, allowing its passengers to experience the magic occurring on the streets after dark. Havana had revived its “golden age” nightclub scene. Recognizing the cultural significance Cuba has in “firsts”, creating some of the most enduring styles of music, a 28-hour port stop was included on its itinerary. Passengers could now experience those famous “Havana Nights.” With insider information provided by Roley, we wrote our own adventure.
Refreshed and re-energized after a couple of hours spent in our cabins, we disembarked from the ship for a second time. The Cuban port authority, along with the Norwegian Sky, made it easy to get on and off the boat. In preparing for the night, we had tossed a few ideas around. Should we buy into one of the expensive shore-trip offers the cruise line had organized, or go on our own?
Earlier in the day, I had asked Roley, “Where could we go within walking distance of the ship and experience great Cuban cuisine and live music?”
We weren’t looking for anything outrageously expensive (not that Cuban prices are high. In fact, prices are shockingly low if you stay away from tourist traps). Kilometro Zero Bar and Grill started off our night.
On the corner of Teniente Rey and Avenida Belgica is a small, unassuming restaurant. At night it turns into a lively place. Music resonates from its walls. It floats out onto the street through doors that are pulled open. It serves unique, delicious cocktails, and good food. With Roley making introductions between the staff and myself earlier in the day, we found our table already waiting(Old Havana can feel like a maze if you’re not familiar with it, so I asked Roley to walk me to its location).
A five-piece band was just setting up. Drinks were ordered, and we all settled in, enjoying the night air that flowed through the massive French doors. The first song that the band began with was Frank Sinatra’s timeless, “My Way.” How appropriate! The percussion started with a smooth rhythmic sway. The flutist was exceptional, and soon the vocalists pulled us into their magical spell.
Typical Cuban dishes like Ropa Vieja (shredded beef and rice), along with Caribbean favorites, were offered on the menu. The drinks were superb, mojitos, pina colada’s, and of course, local beers. Thanks to Roley, we had a fantastic time at Kilometro Zero.
Down the street at the Rosalia de Castro Cultural Center, a two-story building made of weathered, grey block, musicians were gathering. Their genre was pre-revolutionary music. The timeless rhythms of rumba, the mambo, and the conga were about to be revived. And most importantly, the era of the Buena Vista Social Club would be summoned up from the past, inspiring delight over the audience.
This was the period that influenced American musicals from the 40s and 50s. Scenes in Guys and Dolls, Westside Story, and I Love Lucy show with actor Desi Arnez portraying a Cuban nightclub owner would later pop into my head. For now, we walked ourselves up a grand staircase and into an expansive, vaulted-ceiling room lined with an arcade of arches and columns. If it wasn’t for the tables and highback wooden chairs on the floor, it could have been the remnants of a Roman temple.
We were in for a treat when the band began. A trumpet blared over the audience with a provocative articulation that made you want to get up and dance. The rest of the brass followed with the smooth rhythm set by the bongo drums. The audience roared with excitement. We were baffled by the responses. But it was our lack of Cuban history that put us in such a position. Later I would read why our fellow concert-goers were so ecstatic over the songs sung.
The Buena Vista Social Club was shut down after Fidel’s Revolution. Part of the political reform banned all nightclubs and casinos. Initially started as a members-only club in the 1930s, the Buena Vista Social Club catered solely to the Afro-Cuban community. Segregation was prevalent in those days, and these clubs or societies were divided into black and white.
The club evolved into a music venue that gained a large following. Such popular rhythms like the rumba, mamba, and conga originated in Cuba. Musicians and singers soared in popularity, their music seeping into American culture. So when the audience’s voices crescendoed with enthusiasm when Chan Chan, Chanchullo, or El Cuarto de Tula were sung, it was because memories were stirred and ignited.
We enjoyed a variety of singers as they stood on stage, sometimes walking into the audience, belting out classics from the past. Now and then, a waitress would pass by our table, taking drink orders. As the evening wore on, we noticed that the rotation of singers looped back into musical numbers that were sung earlier. A redundancy seemed to occur, so we decided to sneak out. A nightcap at the Floridita Bar was next.
Unsure if the bar would still be open, we took our chances. We noticed that bars and restaurants closed early in Old Havana. Windows were dark, and some buildings were vacant as we navigated the few blocks between the Buena Vista Social Club show and the Floridita. I noticed that the band was calling it quits when we entered, but several small groups scattered around the bar looked like they were going nowhere.
A massive wooden, saloon-styled bar dominated one side of the room. Painted in red with dark stained wood, it made a statement. On the far left and at the end of the bar sat Ernest Hemingway, a life-size bronze replica. Mr. Hemingway frequented the Floridita, claiming that the daiquiri was his favorite drink. Bartenders wore white short-sleeved shirts, red vests, and ties. They were in good spirits even at this late hour. We all bellied- up to the bar and ordered what the Floridita is known for…. its Daiquiris.
According to the Floridita, the Daiquiris was invented here. A frothy, icy lime and rum drink with a smidgen of sugar, it’s served in a martini glass. Yum! One wasn’t enough!
I wasn’t sure if it was the late hour or the alcohol, but soon we were making more friends as patrons ebbed and flowed around the bar. Travel stories were traded. We were having such a good time that we ended up closing the bar! What a night. The bartenders were gracious. They never told us we had to leave, but we finally took our cue.
Back on the ship at two in the morning, we all agreed that Havana and Cuba, in general, was a place that needed to be revisited. A warm reception was received everywhere. Folks were easy-going, friendly, and helpful. They were so welcoming that even the gentleman who I had talked with on our arrival to Cuba did indeed find his old house and was graciously invited in by the current occupants.
This article is dedicated to Roley.
Travel Enrichment tips:
The documentary “The Buena Vista Social Club” available on HBO is a great introduction to Cuban Music, pre-revolution.
Cuba and the Cameraman offered on Netflix is a great overview following one man’s real-life experience reporting on Cuba’s changes since Castro’s Revolution.
Hiring a local guide was the best move we made. If you enjoy connecting, learning a wealth of information in a short amount of time and obtaining great referrals, this is the way to go.