If you’re visiting Havana, inevitably you will explore Old Havana (Habana Vieja). It’s filled with cobblestone streets, restored historic buildings and loads of cafés. The problem with Old Havana is that you won’t find many locals beside you as you sip a coffee or enjoy an afternoon stroll. Habana Vieja is a place for foreigners and you’re more likely to hear conversations in English, French and German than in Spanish. While Old Havana is a must see, it is also filled with jinteros (hustlers) who know Habana Vieja is on every tourist’s check list.
To see the real Havana, wander off the Malecón and into Vedado. Vedado is easy enough to navigate with its grid like streets. Vedado’s leafy trees act like luscious umbrellas providing shade from the hot island rays. The sweeping beauty of the truly magnificent Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón alone is worthy of a wander, but Vedado’s true charm reveals itself when you tuck yourself into comfortable cocoons like Cuba Libro for an afternoon.
Cuba Libro is an English language bookstore and café that opened nearly four years ago.
Conner Gorry, Cuba Libro’s owner, is an American journalist who moved to Cuba 15 years ago. Gorry has a fabulous blog called Here is Havana which is a must read for anyone interested in Cuba and an insider’s take on what life on the island is really like.
The café serves as a community connector providing things like free condoms for locals…
…and delicious homemade .25¢ chocolate chip cookies for visitors.
The sweetest thing about Cuba Libro wasn’t the tasty treats, it was Douglas. After roaming the cemetery for a few hours we tore through no fewer than eight cookies and we were dangerously close to emptying Cuba Libro’s little tub.
Douglas, who works in the café, graciously pointed out that El Garage next door would be the perfect place for us to procure a few pan jamon (ham sandwiches) in order to keep our grumbling bellies at bay. Not only that, he said we’d be more than welcome to bring our grub back over to Cuba Libro, so we could keep our coffee IVs flowing.
Seeing as how it was our first day in a foreign land, we cautiously wandered up to the counter at El Garage and stared bleary eyed and slightly jet lagged at El Garage’s menu. Ten dollars (Ten CUC or Cuban convertible pesos) seemed really steep for a breakfast item, but it was our first meal outside of a casa peculiar, so we shrugged and figured we ought to go for it. We knew there were two different forms of currency in Cuba – CUC and CUP – (Cuban pesos or CUP, the “local” currency is worth about 1/24th of what a single CUC note or one U.S. dollar is worth), but this was the first time since setting foot on the island we thought we might be bumping into it. Out of seemingly nowhere, Douglas tapped me on the shoulder and came to our rescue. Our four sandwiches were not going to warrant the hefty $40 CUC bill we thought we’d have to pay, they were actually only to set us back $1.60 CUC or $40 CUP. Thank goodness for Douglas!
Sweat wiped off of brow and sandwiches in hand we headed back over to Cuba Libro for a respite from the midday heat.
Lucky for us, Cuba Libro just happens to be the coolest place under the Cuban sun given its array of hammocks and plentiful shade.
In addition to having loads of comfy spots to relax in, Cuba Libro also has a ton of great books and magazines in English you can peruse.
Cuba Libro has killer coffee, tea and juice. My personal favorite was the café bonbon which is 100 percent Cuban espresso combined with a shot of sweeten condensed milk.
The café also has a number of warm thoughtful touches (like its postcard service) that will bring a smile to your face even if you don’t take advantage of them.
Normally I’m not big on buying souvenirs on day one of a two week trip, but Cuba Libro had such gorgeous local artwork on display and since Douglas has saved us 96 percent of our money at El Garage we ended up bringing a piece of Cuba Libro home with us.
There’s a lovely portfolio of really well priced prints (around $20 to $40 CUC) that are worth leafing through inside the café.
If you’re looking for a place to have genuine interactions with Cubans and non-Cubans, Cuba Libro’s book lending library/gallery/café is the perfect place to set up shop for a couple hours.
At Cuba Libro you can get off the beaten path. You’ll enjoy quality conversations, great music and connect with the real Cuba. Just make sure you come early if you want to secure a prime hammock position in the garden.
Address: Calle 24 (On the Corner of Calle 19 and Calle 24)
Havana, Cuba (in the Vedado Neighborhood)
Hours: Monday Through Saturday 10:00am to 8:00pm
Phone: +53 7 8305205
Pricing (All in Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC): Coffee Drinks ¢.60 to $1.75, Juices ¢.75 to $1.00, Tea ¢.75 to $1.00 and Cookies ¢.25