On afternoon I decided it was time to explore a different part of Havana that I had yet to see, Centro Habana or Central Havana. I’d see enough of beautiful Old Havana and thought it was time to see the real Havana that has been untouched. Central Havana is the most densely populated part of town and unlike Old Havana, nothing has been restored. I hailed a coco-taxi (a three-wheeled scooter) right from my hotel in Vedado and enjoyed a fun ride down the Malecón to my first destination in Central Havana, a special place called El Callejón de Hamel or in english, Hamel’s Alley. I was in for quite a wonderful surprise!
I paid my fare which was much cheaper than a traditional taxi and wondered why I hadn’t tried a coco taxi earlier. It certainly was a fun way to see Havana! The neighborhood was dramatically different from the other parts of Havana I’d seen. Much more rustic, rundown with buildings in various states of disrepair. Yet it also felt more Cuban. More like the real thing.
In Central Havana, homes and buildings are not being restored like they are in Old Havana and nearby my hotel in Vedado. Instead, buildings are decaying, weathered and falling apart. Sidewalks are filled with huge gaps and the streets could use a good repaving. Yet, the people are all the same. Smiling. Resolute. Frustrated. Resigned. Just like other nicer parts of Havana, Cubans sit outside on doorsteps chatting with neighbors and playing the guitar.
I had heard that Hamel’s Alley (El Callejón de Hamel) was a treasure for photographers. Tucked away between two streets Calle Aramburu and Calle Hospital on Hamel this two block area is a phenomenal Afro-Cuban community art project. Created in 1990 by self-taught Afro-Cuban painter and sculptor, Salvador Gonzales Escalona, Hamel’s Ally is an impressive example of how a simple idea can transform a rundown place into a creative explosion of color, culture and art.
The moment I stepped out of the coco cab and set foot into this magical place, I was entranced. Entire four-story buildings are painted in a burst of color and designs reaching all the way to the sky. Whimsical sculptures are made out of recycled antiques into works of art. Inspiring quotes and saying are painted into the walls.
As soon as I walked through the gate I was met by a licensed guide who for a few dollars gave me a tour of the place, pointing out the best works of art. For some reason, I had the entire place to myself, a rarity per my guide. If it had been a Sunday afternoon, Hamel’s Alley would have been jammed packed with locals and tourists alike listening to live Rumba music and dancing.
Besides the murals, there are interesting sculptures made out of antiques and other recycled objects such as bathtubs, typewriters and even old cars. Nothing goes to waste in Hamel’s Alley. There is also a learning area for children in the community to take their try at creating art.
I couldn’t get enough of this place but felt it was time to move on with my exploring of Centro Habana. I only had another hour until I had to go on our next people to people visit. We were having cocktails at our hotel with Cuban university students.