Five free things to do in Havana

PETER ORSI
Last updated 10:40 16/07/2013

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For a city where people earn an average of US$20 ($25.6) a month at government jobs, Havana can be a surprisingly pricey place - at least for tourists.

From US$6 daiquiris at El Floridita, Ernest Hemingway's favoured watering hole, to the ubiquitous hustlers looking to con visitors into buying knock-off cigars, much about the Cuban capital seems geared toward separating travellers from their money.

Fortunately, some of Havana's most charming details can be experienced free of charge. Here are five great ways to explore this city stuck in time, without adding to the hefty fees charged by tour companies.

THE MALECON

Begun in 1900 during US occupation and completed in 1958 under strongman Fulgencio Batista, the Malecon, or seawall, stretches 6 kilometres from old town to the Almendares River.

There's no bad time of day for a stroll along what's known as "the great sofa" for being Havana's 24/7 centre of social activity.

At dawn, fishermen dip lines into the gentle waves as the city rouses itself from slumber.

In the afternoon, when the sunlight seems impossibly bright, children keep cool by doing somersaults into the water.

But the Malecon truly comes alive in the evening when thousands gather to laugh and sip rum, and canoodling couples form romantic silhouettes against the crimson sky.                     

OLD HAVANA

No visit is complete without a leisurely walk through the cobblestoned Spanish colonial quarter, much of it patiently rehabilitated by the Havana City Historian's Office.

A tour of four public squares is enough to hit the highlights: intimate Cathedral Square, home to the city's main Roman Catholic temple; leafy Plaza de Armas, where vendors hawk books, coins and Ernesto "Che" Guevara memorabilia at a daily flea market; sun-drenched Plaza Vieja, where uniformed children from a local school play rollicking games of tag; and breezy Plaza San Francisco, the jumping-off point for tour buses to Old Havana.

The latter teems with colourfully dressed, cigar-chomping women who make a living as what you might call officially licensed "greeters," attaching themselves to the arms of male travellers and leaving lipsticky kiss marks on their cheeks.

OLD CARS

Havana doesn't disappoint on its reputation as a living automotive museum, with finned 1950s Chevrolets, Fords and Cadillacs rarely seen elsewhere still cruising the city's avenues.

While some are barely held together by makeshift parts and creative soldering, many have been maintained with surprising amounts of TLC.

For a four-wheeled blast from the past, head to the streets around the wedding-cake-like Capitol building, where classic car owners park their antiques so nostalgic tourists can gawk.

Motorcycle enthusiasts will delight in the weekly gathering of the hogs just down the hill from the Hotel Nacional.

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ARTISTS' WORKSHOP

See art come alive at the Taller Experimental de Grafica, ensconced at the end of an alley off Cathedral Square in a former public bathhouse.

Founded in 1962 on Guevara's instructions, the shop hosts dozens of artists who are remarkably friendly and happy to chat with even the slightest prompting.

Some speak English and will give visitors an up-close demonstration of how lithographs, etchings and woodcuts get made. Just about everything you see is for sale, but there's no pressure to buy.

For more free art, walk up gently sloping 23rd Street, also known as "la Rampa," or "the Ramp," where dozens of mosaics by Cuban masters such as Wifredo Lam form a footpath gallery.

BASEBALL FEVER

Cubans are crazy for "beisbol", and Spanish-speaking fans won't want to miss the Central Park's "esquina caliente," or "hot corner".

Named after the baseball term for third base, this shady spot is a favourite place for Havana residents, mostly men, to engage all comers in passionate arguments about the sport during the November-June season.

Still haven't gotten your fill of Cuba's national pastime?

A ticket to the raucous bleachers of El Latino Stadium, home to Havana's most storied ball club, Industriales, costs just a few pennies' worth in the local currency.

- AP

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