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How Exploring The Nightlife Of Havana Became A Real Journey

Sometimes in travel you just need to go in search of something.

Concert in Havana
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HAVANA, Cuba- My first take on nightlife in Havana was a little grim. While I could see the infrastructure of a vibrant nightlife scene here, it came off like a Potemkin stage set.

“There’s nobody here,” the German said. “There are no tourists and the locals don’t have any money to go out drinking anymore.”

The Cuban economy relies on tourism, and three years with the sector virtually wiped out has had an impact which has resonated through the society.

Outside of the famous tourist bars of Old Havana, I would spend my nights sitting in these trendy, well-decored bars that were set up to receive crowds and be virtually the only person there. 

However, I understand that my experience of Cuba was not typical. I visited right in that empty expanse of time between the world opening back up after the Covid pandemic and people starting to travel to places like Cuba again. While I wouldn’t necessarily call the place dead, I would say that there was a cloak of inactivity that permeated the place. I imagine this won’t last for long. 

I met the German in a small, cheap, but kind of chic bodega that seemed popular with the young crowd in Vedado. It was basically in a narrow corridor between buildings and was little more than some refrigerators stocked with beer and premixed cocktails and wobbly plastic tables. In times like these it’s easy to find the budget places: they’re where the people are.

The German and I made that particular type of eye contact that seems to say “Hey, it’s a traveler” as I walked in. After I sat down with my drink he broke the ice, asking how long I’ve been here or something.

I pulled my chair over and joined him at his table. There’s this peculiar look that travelers get after they’ve been on the road for an extended amount of time. I’m not quite sure what it is — clothes that fit like a broken in catcher’s mit, unkept long flowing hair, the appearance of being a little too comfortable with being unwashed, or maybe it’s just the far off look in the eye … or perhaps it’s simple than that — maybe it’s just the outward show of interest in the people around them.

Short-term tourists don’t talk to anyone, they don’t look at anyone, they are absorbed in the itinerary of the day, building brinks around the fantasy that they’re bold explorers, and miss the real show that goes on all around them. 

This German was different. He didn’t even have a phone, having lost it a couple of days before and never bothering to replace it. The guy was just looking around, looking for someone to talk to, and it was clear that someone was me.

He was long and lean with wavy shoulder length blond hair that rolled in loose curls upon meeting his shoulders. He’d been on the road in some form for his entire life, bouncing from continent to continent for one reason or another. He came from a family of international intrigue, with his grandfather having moved to Tegucigalpa when he was a young man for an internship and staying for the rest of his life. He spoke of having previous success in the corporate world, but I suppose that rolls off the tongue a little easier than saying you were terminated and banished. These days, he’s just traveling, having crossed the five year point of perpetual travel. I believe he runs a life coaching business. 

But then he began talking about Tulum …

I told him that I thought Tulum was one of the worst places on the planet. He told me that Tulum was about flow. 

The only flow I experienced in Tulum was the flow of money leaving my pocket and going into the outstretched palms of people who were ripping me off.  

I figured it was time for us to move on to the next place.

He told me that he saw a flier for some electronic music concert on a telephone pole but couldn’t remember where it was supposed to be.

He couldn’t remember where the telephone pole was either.

But I had little else to do and it sounded random enough to be an appropriate mission for the night, so I proposed going to find it.

So we went in search of a telephone pole that would lead us to a concert.

I didn’t think it would be particularly challenging but then it became clear that this dude had no clue even what part of the city he was in when he saw the flier. We just walked from telephone pole to telephone pole inspecting anything that was taped or wheat pasted to them as he talked through his memory trying to remember where it was and what it said.

“I think it said the concert was in Miramar.”

“Cool, let’s start walking towards there and we’ll keep looking for fliers, ask people along the way, and stop for a drink whenever we find a cool spot.”

I didn’t think there was any chance that we’d find the concert and I was starting to doubt whether it really even existed but I appreciated the excuse to have … something to search for.

As we walked we checked the telephone poles. No sign of any flyers about any concerts.

“The government probably took them all down,” the German muttered.

Our first stop was at a roughshod bar that appeared to be set up in front of someone’s house. It was just a little mobile bar on wheels with some plastic tables arranged around it. But there were people there. They were a couple of groups who were already drunk and carrying on. We caught their attention and then began asking the usual questions. They seemed friendly, but they were at a different phase of their night. 

I hung out and half assed drinking my beer as the German continued ruminating on spotty memories of the flier.

“Electrica tk, tk, electric … noise … electric …” then his head shot up and his eyes got wide as he began shaking me by the arm:

“Tropical Noise Electronica!” He exclaimed. “That’s it! Tropical Noise Electronica! Let’s go!”

We then shot up from our seats and began walking towards Miramar with renewed purpose. We walked down a wide boulevard with nicely kept sidewalk. The sidewalks of Havana are really something to marvel over — you don’t notice them at first because you’re not tripping over the cracks in them or dodging sinkholes. Sidewalks are something that many countries have a really difficult time with.

We now knew the name of the event but still had no idea where it was, other than in a district called Miramar. But our strategy had changed. Rather than just checking telephone poles we were asking every hip looking person we saw if they knew where it was. If the hip looking person was also an attractive female the German was sure to try to leverage the interaction into a date.

Nobody knew what we were talking about, and we were getting to the point in our walk when we realized that we were getting a little far from home and began questioning whether we should keep going or just keep drinking.

The German said he knew of a bar that he’d been to before that was a little ways down the road, so we walked across the boulevard and headed there, sitting down at a table in their outdoor seating area. The bar was right next to one of Havana’s new virtual reality arcades.

“VR is the new thing here,” the German began. “The government started opening these VR places. It only costs like thirty cents but nobody goes.”

There’s semblances of Cuban making shows of advancing into the 21st century, but these shows often come off as a little askance and out of context — VR arcades and electronic information kiosks in parks — when the rest of the country could be considered bygone by global standards. 

But there was something a little strange at the bar. The servers didn’t really seem to want to serve us. They knew we were out there because we could see them looking at us, but nobody came over to our table. The German had to go in request service.

We ordered a couple of drinks and the German continued telling me about his escapades in Cuba. Most of his stories ended in one of two ways: with a girl blocking his phone number or being thrown out a bar.

It really made me think about what you’d have to do to become such a persona non grata in a country that was so desperate for tourist dollars ….

The German laughed as he finished telling another of these tales and segued into a reference to his family’s efforts to commit him in Germany.

“My sister would invite me out for drinks and then I’d look up as we were driving and realize that she was pulling into a psychiatric facility.”

He explained how it was similar to what his mother did to his father, who he described as a brilliant man who German society couldn’t understand.

“The Vatican did a sonar attack on me the last time I was in Berlin,” he continued. “I was on the floor of my room for a week.”

“Kind of like what the people in the US Embassy here claim was done to them?”

“Yes, but way worse.”

“Why do you think the Vatican would target you?”

“Because my energy was really big then.”

He then told me that I have a problem with my solar plexus or something. Then he started trying to convince me that I don’t really love my wife and, while I listen to my visitors, I was also starting to feel as if it was time to go.

He seemed to pick up on this and we left the little bar and started walking again. But he stopped short while eyeballing a parked taxi on the other side of the street.

“I have an idea,” he said as we began walking over to it.

He leaned over to the driver’s side window and asked the guy if he know where the Tropical Noise Electronica concert was.

The dude nodded his head yes and pointed down the street.

“He knows where it is,” the German said while turning to me as though he couldn’t believe it. I certainly couldn’t.

We got into his beat up little car from the 70s and began rumbling down the boulevard. It was obvious when we started getting close. What appeared to be a small stadium rose up from the shadows and both sides of the street were lined with cop cars with their lights flashing. The taxi driver slowed down but didn’t stop.

“This is it,” the German said, but the driver kept going. He was nervous about dropping us off anywhere near the police. We went a little ways down the road and then he quickly pulled off to the side and hurried us out of his car before peeling away.

We walked back to the entrance and found a police line blocking our way.

“Do you know what’s going on?” I asked the German. “Did someone get shot or something?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I think they’re trying to shut it down.”

We tried to make our way past the police line and through the gate but were stopped by two cops converging on us from both sides.

They asked if we had tickets. We said no. They said they weren’t letting us through.

We then tried pulling the white dude thing where you follow in a group of locals and just try to plow your way through, but we were picked out of the group and refused entry again.

We then tried negotiating with a female cop. We’d come too far trying to find this mythical concert to not be allowed in. But a nearby male cop wasn’t having it and began pushing us away in a manner that let us know he wasn’t fucking around.

The situation got tense fast and I was ready to call it. But the German was resolute. We hung back for a moment scoping out the scene.

“Let’s try again,” he said, “only this time we will take a soft approach.”

A senior looking officer was there by that time and we walked up to him and asked him nicely if we could go in.

“Go ahead,” he respond, appearing surprised why we’d ask him that.

The cops that were trying to keep us out grudgingly opened the gate. We made it. 

It was a legit concert. There were probably a few thousand people in the theater there and they were all really into the band, singing along with the lyrics, dancing where there was space, and pounding beers. The theater itself was a basic bowl ringed by a balcony. Everything was concrete.

My German friend was on the prowl, chatting up every pretty girl he could isolate into conversation. Invariably, she’d ask him for a drink … and a drink for her friends … and a drink for her friend’s friends.

And invariably there would be a girl tugging at my arm asking me if I could buy her a drink … and a drink for her friends … and a drink for her friend’s friends.

He did it once and I did it once and then we looked at each other like what the fuck are we doing?

After taking stock of the place and jotting my mental notes, I was kind of done. I didn’t see anything good coming from the rest of the night. The cops were also making their way into the crowd, on alert and standing back to back as though they were in the middle of a potentially inflammatory political demonstration rather than a concert full of kids that were just having fun. The Cuban youth just kind of ignored them and continued dancing. 

I stood back and watched the German operate. He would start talking with a young woman, begin dancing with her real close, start making out a little, and then he would whisper something into her ear that would stop things in their tracks. She’d look at him with a twisted look on her face and then walk away. 

“She probably just wanted money anyway,” the German would turn to me and say before trying again with another girl.

It wasn’t that the German was unattractive. To the contrary, he was a rather good looking dude. But like many rather good looking dudes who are used to having their appearance get them where they want with women, he didn’t quite seem to get the message when he entered his 40s that those days are over. The thing about rather good looking dudes is that they generally keep going for the same women regardless of how old they become.

Eventually, the concert was over and we all streamed out into a big open air market area behind the theater. The German had a group of five girls in tow. He invited them to come back to Vedado for a little private party. They said they wanted $100 each.

I was already walking away.

The German caught up with me and asked if I wanted to go to another bar with him. I declined. “Come on,” he urged, “I know of one that will have some awake women there.” I declined again and said I was going to bed.

“Come on, just one more.”

“Sorry, man, I’m done.”

“But I don’t think they’ll let me in without you …”

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Filed under: Cuba, Drink Drank Drunk, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Marco Wutzer March 22, 2024, 11:22 pm

    Very entertaining story. I was in Cuba a few years before the shutdown and while there were certainly a few more people around, my impressions were largely the same. An interesting but depressing place.

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    • VBJ March 23, 2024, 5:30 pm

      Thank you!

      That’s interesting. I was actually kind of hoping that what I was observing was a temporary thing … but actually may not have been. I really wanted to give the place the benefit of the doubt. I think I should probably go back soon and maybe go to some of the tourist areas that are said to be nice. I feel like my impression may have been a little too imbalanced … but that’s what I found so kind of obliged to write it like that.

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