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Digital Subscriptions > Lonely Planet Traveller (UK) > June 2017 > BACKSTAGE HAVANA


Havana’s heartbeat is the pounding of drums. Infectious rumba and salsa music are ever-present, along with the everyday sounds: cries of peanut hawkers – ‘Mani, mani!’ – and the rattle of handcarts over cobbles. Ladies shout to their neighbours as they hang out washing in colourful lines like bunting, dogs yip from balconies, and the tinny noise of a televised baseball game spills from a window where a man stands shaving his chin with a cut-throat razor. It often seems that all the drama of life here is lived out on the street. After all, Havana appears as a city-sized film set, with its crumbling colonial buildings and its classic cars belching bluish exhaust fumes into the air. But behind the city’s pastel-painted façades and ornate wrought-iron grilles, there is a whole world to be discovered – all it takes is to pull back the curtain…
Potent symbols of Cuba adorn the streets of the capital Havana – from classic American cars and crumbling colonial buildings, to cigars and the national flag


Callejón de Hamel is less a street than a kaleidoscope of colour. A famed centre of Havana street art, its walls are covered in bright murals the size of tennis courts, and every corner is filled with sculptures made from engine parts, horse shoes or bathtubs.

Music fills the air. It’s the rhythmic chant of voices singing to the tippity-thump of a double-ended batá drum and the rasping rattle of a shekere – a polished gourd strung with cowrie shells.

In a small courtyard off the Callejón de Hamel, a young woman in a headscarf is twirling in a dress of red, black and white. She stamps her feet on the rough-paved ground, her face alive with an infectious grin. Soon she’s swept up in a circle of fellow dancers. They all spin in their silken dresses, raising their arms in the air.

This foot-thumping and drum-beating is much more than a simple performance. Callejón de Hamel is a centre for Havana’s Afro-Cuban community, and this display is a fervent prayer, a communion with the orisha, the gods brought to Cuba in the 16th century by slaves from what is now Nigeria.

Thairumy Rangel Chirino emerges from the dance and sinks into a plastic chair, happily out of breath. ‘You see here,’ she says, ‘in this dance each person is not just a person. They represent a god, an element of nature. For example, my blue colour represents the water of the sea.’ She indicates her sapphire skirt and towering headdress – she is Yemayá, the mother of all living things and goddess of the ocean.

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About Lonely Planet Traveller (UK)

In the June issue… We are heading to some of the world's most exciting cities. Discover the spirit of Havana through the eyes of five of its citizens, experience two sides to St Petersburg a century after revolution pitted tsars against Soviets, and touch down in two dozen more cities around the world, with new openings to find in places including Seattle, Johannesburg, Mexico City and Dublin. Our Great Escape this month is to the charmed coastline and stirring moors of South Devon, plus we also have a recipe-filled tour of Japan's best regional cuisine, and much more