December in Havana

MY HAVANA: Restaurant owner Hector Higuera Martinez

We sit over coffee in the beautiful restaurant that is Le Chansonier and start to talk about Hector´s love of Havana. What does he most like to do, where and when? But then the phone rings and its Miguel wanting to know when he can deliver the fish. Then it’s Maria asking him about the design of the table cloths. Then around 10 different people ring the doorbell asking about various things from antique clocks to chicken breasts and I realize we should have met at my house. But anyway, over another coffee and in between innumerable interruptions, we manage to make headway.

I leave an hour later – head swimming, wondering how this man manages to hold it all together. But this I can tell you: that his favourite other places to eat are Bien Estar, Doña Eutimia and Mama Iñez, his favourite café/bar is Madrigal, his favourite market is 19 y B and his favourite street-food place is Punto G. His other very favourite thing to do is to go to the beach at Jibacoa – an hour outside of the city; swim, walk and snorkel.

Then the phone rings again, simultaneously the doorbell – and I´m out of there! Its madness – but the sure thing I can tell you is that Hector Higuera adores this – his home city, Havana.

Sue Herrod

Photography by Olivier Prendes

Starbien: Calle 29 # 205 entre B and C, Vedado. Doña Eutimia: Callejon del Chorro, # 60-C, Plaza de la Catedral, Old Havana. Mama Iñez: #60, Calle Obrapia, between Calle Oficios and Baratillo, Old Havana. Madrigal: Calle 17, #809 (first floor), between Calle 2 and 4, Vedado. Punto G: Linea, between G and H, Vedado.

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Lydia Bell wins CTO Journalist award for Cuba Piece – Congratulations.

5 November 2013 – The Caribbean Travel Journalism Awards 2013 were presented during a networking evening after the first day of World Travel Market

The awards consisted of eight different categories: Carol Hay, the CTO’s director of marketing for the UK and Europe, said, “This event is about celebrating the quality of travel journalism in the UK and thanking all journalists and media involved for their continued support in discovering and showcasing the variety and attractions of the Caribbean region.”

CTO Travel Journalism Awards winners:

  1. Best national newspaper feature:

Winner: Lydia Bell, Cuba reveals the secrets of the saints, The Independent

Read the winning article here

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The Havana Film Festival

Every year, during the first two weeks of December, Cannes comes to Cuba with the opening of the Havana Film Festival. Starting in 1979 and pioneered by Alfredo Guevara, the famous intellectual and cinematographer, the festival has gone from strength to strength with its main aim being that of promoting the Latin American film industries and film makers.

With representatives from all over Latin America including Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia ,Mexico and of course Cuba, many of the films on show address or confront many of the problems and current affairs in Latin America, be it drug trafficking, corruption or poverty, the Havana Film Festival is difficult to summarise but impossible to ignore. The sheer effort involved in making each film is reflected, the festival really does show the best of the best in Latin America, the hours spent slaving away in the editing room or poring over scripts fine-tuning the dialogue is apparent as the 420 entrants, picked from thousands, all yearn for the main prize, El Grand Coral.

After viewing the best the stars of the Latin American silver screen have to offer, the festival moves out onto the streets and into the bars and clubs of Havana, discussing the days winners and losers before laughing and dancing the night away with the obligatory accompaniment of mojitos and salsa, perhaps rubbing shoulders with celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Pedro Almodóvar, Blanca Rosa Blanco or Patricio Wood (star of Havana 57 and Mauricio’s Diary), all previous visitors to this celebration of culture.

The films are not the only entertainment on offer, workshops teaching visitors about the Cuban film industry, tours of the sites of famous contemporary Cuban films or some of the more conventional tourist activities on offer in the Caribbean’s biggest and most beautiful capital city.

Neither this festival, nor the fascinating city of Havana are to be missed so if you would like to get up close and behind the scenes of the festival, Esencia Experiences have a Film Festival package to help you get right to the heart of these brilliant festivities, curated by the well-renowned British Film critic/director Stephen Bayley (

With prices from £1705 for 11 nights getting you VIP passes to the festival, workshops in the National Film School and a tour to a Cuban TV studio, amongst many other activities, this really is the best way to experience the festival. For more information email Esencia Experiences at

Patrick Dillon Hatcher

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Idania del Rio – Cuba’s next big designer

Thin as a rake, super-creative brain and a dream of a person, Idania de Rio is – as far as I’m concerned – the young designer of the moment here in Havana.
Born in what’s called Havana campo (Havana countryside) – in a tiny, 12-building village on the outskirts of the capital – Ida grew up drawing, copiously and meticulously, and has never stopped. She trained at Havana´s Design School, moving first into graphic design, book illustration and art posters. Then (2007) came a trip to Uruguay. There she spent two “fascinating and formative years” working as an illustrator in a high-profile, commercial advertising company. “I touted my own work around, too”, she explained, “but people said it was too experimental”.
Returning to Havana in 2009, inspired by the more client-centred experience, del Rio moved back into design, broadening her vision, practice and pace to include freelance projects from CD artwork, websites and concert stage visuals/design to satirical posters and restaurant business cards.
Now – in late 2013 – we are about to see her in full bloom. Supported by an artist friend she plans to open a small space in Old Havana; a design shop. It’s the first time we’ll be able to see, and buy, her beautiful, quirky and innovative products – ranging from t-shirts and “message” sofa cushions (expect surreal, gentle satire here) to cotton bags and tea towels: “…things that are reasonably priced and useful”, she insists.
I´ll be writing more about this exciting project as it develops but, in the meantime, if you’re here between September and December you’ll have the chance to catch her. Along with a group of 23 other young, emerging designers, she’ll be exhibiting at Factoría Habana – one of the capital’s most prestigious and experimental galleries. Her particular piece (about insomnia) is a pile of soft, downy, white pillows, each printed with a simple, tongue-in-cheek, image related to securing a good night’s sleep: an opened packet of one of Cuba’s much-used sleeping pills; a pair of crumpled knickers; a sleepy sheep, popping Prozac; a used, tied condom; a Cuban bank statement showing a trillion dollar deposit!
Don’t miss the work, or the artist.
FACTORÍA HABANA: Calle O’Reilly #308, esq. Calle Habana, Old Havana. Open: 9.30am-5pm (Mon-Sat). Tel: “+537 863-6690/866-9488. From September 20th for 3 months.

Sue Herrod

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THE CHINESE IN CUBA: now and then

Walk along any street in the capital or in the countryside and you will, at some time, hear someone shout: ´´Oye, China…´´(Hey, China), o ´´Ven a aca, Chino (Come here, Chino)  …´´ My friend Liuba (pictured here) told me, wryly, that many people in her neighborhood – who´ve  known her all their lives – simply don´t know her real name.

Mention Cuba and China and you may think only of the present; of the intensely developing trade relationship between the two countries. But what many people don’t know is that the Chinese have been on these Caribbean shores – developing their own community and traditional practices – for centuries.

Chinese people first arrived in Cuba in the late 1850´s as the massive African slave trade diminished. Some came voluntarily – searching for new lives following tumultuous upheavals of the First and Second Opium Wars; others were brought here, semi-indentured, as Spanish colonisers searched for further cheap/free labour to work the sugar plantations. The result is plainly seen today in the offspring of intermarriages that ensued: Liuba´s Chinese grandfather married a Cuban woman of African descent.

It´s estimated that people actually born in China, but still alive, here, now only number around 400. It’s also a fact that many traditional practices have died out over the years as links with the homeland weakened (1970´s onwards) and, more so, as younger generations of mixed Chinese descent had little interest in that side of their roots. Despite all this a few people – like Liuba´s mother – are now on the march, determined to renew links, revive interest and re-form networks and traditions. The culture may be relatively small but it’s still very present and, as trade relationship develop, will surely become even more visible and potent with time.

Over the next few weeks I´ll be going to visit Liuba´s mother and take a look at one of her cultural projects. I´ll then write a further blog which I hope will give you a deeper insight into this fascinating community on la isla.

Sue Herrod


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JULY 26TH: Bank Holidaying, a lo cubano

If you are, as I write, packing blue suede shoes, sun hat and shades  - getting ready for your holiday to Cuba – you´re going to be with us on very auspicious day that’s worth knowing about.

You´ll be greeted by a people en fiesta, with two or three days off work, and lots of middle to large-scale, open-air concerts in various of the capital´s neighbourhoods. And it’s not just here in Havana. These, mainly musical, shindigs will be taking place the length and breadth of the country. Some folks will hang huge flags from their balconies, others will go street partying; many just quietly stay home, glad of the rest. It’s not a good time to marry, file for divorce or register your baby´s birth. But it is quite an interesting time to be here. Its el 26 de Julio; July 26th.

On that day, back in 1953 – six years before the revolution was secured (Jan. 1959) – a group of young rebels attacked the Moncada Barracks – the island´s second most-important military base – in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.  The effort failed but its young leader – laywer, Fidel Castro Ruiz  – was marked for a long and very industrious future.  And now el 26 is a national day (ferriada), bridged by a couple of days (de fiesta) either side.

It’s a lively time – good for wandering round the area you´re staying in and seeing how local people don their dancing shoes, hang out street-style or hang loose at home on their Bank Holidays. And, if you´ve the time and energy, to take a stroll along the sea-side wall  – el Malecon – and stop (Malecon and N) to admire this impressive display (see photo) of dozens of proudly-fluttering national ensigns.

Oh, do bring your earplugs. Just in case one of those open-air, beer-fest parties happens to be playing right outside your bedroom window!

Sue Herrod


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THIS WEEK´S MAN IN HAVANA: a first impression of the capital

It was only a few days ago that I was talking with a couple of foreign residents here – quite devotedly I might add – about a certain British weekly. We waxed lyrical that this superb publication saved us (when we could get hold of it) from world news oblivion and from hours of top-story surfing. But, most importantly, that it gave us – in short, smart and pithy, paragraphs – what we most wanted: résumés of three or four diverse, quality UK newspaper opinions of issues ranging from current affairs and health to best books and best new films. Got it? I´m sure you have. It’s THE (wonderful) WEEK.

I was more than happy, then, to jump right to it when a friend asked if I had time to meet up with the paper´s travel editor, Tom Yarwood. And, that after lots of tea and biscuits, he (a very sweet and charming man) agreed to give me his first impressions of La Habana.

He describes a dream-like quality, a sense of being frozen in time, the architectural beauty,  proximity to the sea, the relative sense of peace and personal safety, a slower pace and the space to think and create (helped by far less access to internet/cel/phones etc). But, he added, it’s not boring! He had the idea that here one could be less of a consumer and more of producer. And that – a very good idea expressed very succinctly, a la Week – is what they pay him for!

Tom says he´s interested in coming back and for a longer time. It may be to write or it may be to develop his first work and passion, film-making. Whatever, we hope he does. And I hope (hint!) that this time he remembers to pack a few back copies. Gracias!

Sue Herrod



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WITH A BIT OF FINE TUNING: Una Corda is back in Havana.

This week I spent a very entertaining evening over a meal and a bottle of wine (and later, on the back of their trademark scooters) with some old friends – the Irish contingency of UNA CORDA. They had flown in for a few days to see what was happening to a great little joint project (Ireland-Cuba) they´d initiated here some years ago.

Back in 2005, one of the group – an unassuming, but well-known, Irish piano tuner, Ciaran Ryan – had come across a project called SAPH. ´Send a piano to Havana´ was the brainchild of the extraordinary Ben Treuhaft who collected piano´s from all over the USA and shipped them to Havana – despite a fierce US blockade – in order to fix and tune them.

Ryan later joined Treuhaft in Havana then returned, excitedly, to Ireland where he and other aficionados – UNA CORDA – raised a deal of money to develop the work. And so it was that Ryan and a group of Irish tuner colleagues – armed with felt, leather, piano wire, glues and tools – came back here, in 2009, to work alongside six young, Cuban, trainee tuners in the capitals pre-academy music school. Why Cuba, you might ask? Because tuning is a dying trade, because of the great humidity and because of pesky little termites which simply eat the wood. Students and teachers are working with pianos which are falling apart and there aren’t enough tuners or materials to save the day.

The project has suffered a few setbacks this last year but the UNA CORDA people don´t give up easily. They are back to give the project the necessary push forward, with the hope that their dream – to support tuners, work together with Cuban institutions and set up a new and independent exchange project – can be realized. Watch this space.

UNA CORDA is always looking for very kind visitors to Cuba who will be ´´mules´´; to bring out bits and bobs of tools and equipment. Please contact ESENCIA for details of how you can help this very wonderful and worthy project.

For more information about the Irish piano tuners project or the radio and documentary programmes being made about them, please contact Ciaron Ryan at

Sue Herrod


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Flagging it up: the UK hits Havana



It’s wandering around Havana where you really notice it. Before this it was all stars ´n stripes,  Che, or more home-grown, Latino garb.  So what happened? Was it early 2012, marking the 250th anniversary of the British capture of Havana? Or was it later on that same year when life on earth came to a virtual standstill for seventeen whole days as  - planet-wide – we were communally glued to our teles or radios and to the runs, jumps, punches and throws of the world´s crème de la crème?

Yes, I´m talking Olympics and, yes, I´m talking Union Jacks. The red-white and blue is everywhere. If it’s not shoes, its bags, t-shirts, nails, toes and even body tattoos. Cubans  – young and older – are revelling in our national ensign and in this latest, ongoing , colourful, big-splash fashion statement.

Bring your own and be the most popular tourist in town!


Sue Herrod.


Photography: Byrom Coto Aquinoas









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Going OM in Havana

I really never thought I’d see the day on this Caribbean island. Hot on the heels of the very first regional meeting of clairvoyants and spiritualists there´s another first going on in town. With an attractive-looking  programme offering a long weekend of events, lectures and documentaries – and even a place to register, for the very reasonable fee of 50 Cuban pesos – around 1.50 gbp – the capital city has opened up various venues and places for reflection and debate.  And more, there are to be times and spaces for practicing – for actually doing it.

I refer to the age old and wonderful practice of meditation.

Cuba has a long and very active tradition of all kinds of spiritual practices ranging – to name but a few – from traditional Afro-Cuban forms to yoga, reiki and astrology. But meditation is another thing; it’s about being still, quiet and empty-minded – and that’s not exactly very Cuban!

Nonetheless, here it is -as demonstrated (photo) by some of the participants – Cuban Hari Krishna followers; another surprising development in a context of much social change. And whatever happens – even if it ends up being a bit noisier than you´d like – it will be very interesting indeed and is extremely welcome.

Sue Herrod

Photography: Byrom Coto Aquinoas

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