Now Open in Cuba: English-Language Bookstore, Cuba Libro

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Image: Courtesy of Cuba Libro

Cuba Libro is the island's only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Cuba Libro is the island’s only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Because my husband is Cuban and because I’ve visited Cuba nearly a dozen times over the past decade, I get lots of travel questions about the island. I can’t answer most of these questions, as I tend to stay with my mother-in-law and I’ve never experienced Cuba as a tourist; I end up directing inquiries to my friend Conner Gorry, who has lived on the island for longer than I’ve been visiting. Her blog and her travel app are as much intel as you’re going to get without moving there yourself.

Conner just sent word about Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore and cafe in Havana… the island’s only English-language bookstore and cafe. It just opened this week. Here’s everything you need to know about it, straight from Conner:

This island is unique in so many ways (both good and not so) and one thing that has always struck me is that Havana must be one of the only – if not the only – capital city where you can’t get an English-language newspaper or novel. The reasons are complex (what isn’t in Cuba?!) but it means literature lovers have to beg, borrow or steal books in English or bring their Kindle well-loaded.

Located on a terminally shady corner in the desirable Vedado district, this ‘café literario’ is bringing the bookstore/coffeehouse concept to the island. All books and magazines pass through the ‘Conner filter’ (if you find a Harlequin Romance on the shelves, you get a free espresso!): I guarantee if you’re in need of quality reading material or conversation with interesting, creative Cubans, you’ll find it here.

In addition to featuring monthly shows by talented local artists – August showcases over a dozen captivating images by photographer Alain Gutiérrez – Cuba Libro offers many services travelers are after: water bottle refills; postcards, stamps, and mailing; a cultural calendar (so you won’t miss that hot concert or polemic play); and expert travel tips. This is an ethically-responsible business that offers a lending library for those who can’t afford books, a collective employment model where the entire team benefits, and an environmentally-friendly approach. Like Cuba itself, Cuba Libro strives for equity and a healthy, culturally-rich atmosphere.

This is also a regguetón free zone – we listen to real music at Cuba Libro! Come early to snag a coveted hammock or hanging chair in the garden.

Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm.

Walking Among the Dead at Woodlawn

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo and Julie Schwietert Collazo

We’ve visited many cemeteries while traveling: the Petit Family Cemetery on the land where I grew up in South Carolina, where the graves of slaves are indicated with simple rocks.

Cementerio Colon in Havana, Cuba, where the sister of Francisco’s son is buried.

The local cemetery in Mompox, Colombia, at night, during a ceremony honoring the dead, candles flickering on tombstones and families holding hands, some crying, some talking quietly, some entirely silent and meditative.

The municipal cemetery in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where ostentatious monuments marking the final resting place of former governors and famous families draw attention from the old crypts, cracked open by decay, displaying bones on the back retaining wall of the cemetery.

New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery

a cemetery in southern Chile

It’s not that we have a fetish for the dead. But there’s something illustrative about a place, a culture, and its people that can be narrated without words when you visit a cemetery.
Perhaps you’ve visited cemeteries on your travels, too, or stopped at the graves of the famous dead to honor them or simply say you’d been there.

But like us, you probably haven’t spent much time at the cemetery in your hometown.

Woodlawn Cemetery, one of New York City’s cemeteries, is located in the north Bronx in an area that was considered rural back in 1863, when the cemetery was founded. More than 300,000 people have been buried at Woodlawn since then, and many of them constitute a Who’s Who list of American public life.

We visited recently:

The tomb of Miles Davis

The mausoleum of Augustus Juilliard, founder of The Juilliard School

The tomb of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights, famous for writing The Declaration of Sentiments

The tomb of Joseph Pulitzer, the so-called father of journalism. Founded Columbia University’s School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize.

The modest tomb of Ralph Bunche, who, among many other accomplishments, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, the first African American to receive the honor.

What cemeteries have you visited on your travels and what have they taught you?

Peace Without Borders Concert in Havana/Concierto Paz Sin Fronteras en La Habana

Photos: Brayan Collazo Alonso
Text Edited by: Julie Schwietert Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en español]

Colombian singer Juanes, along with Puerto Rican singer Olga Tanon and Spanish singer Miguel Bose, organized the Paz Sin Fronteras/Peace Without Borders concert that took place in Havana today.

For Cubans and for people around Latin America, the concert was of profound symbolic importance, regardless of one’s political persuasion.

Brayan Collazo was at the concert, held in Havana’s Revolution Plaza, and sent the following impressions afterward:

“These are my impressions from the concert.
I think that the Cuban public–lacking these types of events–isn’t totally prepared with respect to how they should act at a gathering like this one. Everyone wanted to move toward the stage and to do so, they trampled children and women, which is terrible, very bad. One felt like he was on a boat in bad weather. When I couldn’t move forward, I tried to find a calm area where I could take everything in, but it was impossible. People kept surging forward. But by the end of the concert, there was more calm….

The music, the sound, and the services were all very good.

But what was most memorable was the way everyone was moved by Juanes’s final words, and Juan Formel’s [leader of the Cuban group, Los Van Van] rendition of [the popular Cuban song] “Chan Chan” [which all of the performers and the crowd joined in to sing]. The tremendous expectations of Juanes, Olga Tanon, The Orishas [another Cuban group] and Los Van Van were all fulfilled. In the end, the goal of the concert was achieved… and everyone was crying. Please share these photos and explain what this concert meant to us….”

Havana wasn’t the only city where people were watching the concert with the same sense of emotion, though. People from around Latin America shared the experience on Twitter, making the following observations throughout the hours-long concert:

From @CarolaValdez, from Venezuela:
“Me retiro por un rato, las ganas de llorar me dieron dolorsito de cabeza, pero por la mejor de las causas, emocion pura!!! Dios los bendiga.”/ “I’m going offline for a bit; the desire to cry gave me a headache, but for the best reason- pure emotion. God bless.”

From @rodolfob, from Argentina: “Este es mi primer concierto virtual y es espectacular asistir al mismo, hasta siento el calor de la Plaza de la Revolucion Bravo #Cuba!!”/”This is my first virtual concert & it’s incredible- I even feel the heat in Revolution Plaza. Bravo, Cuba!!”

From e_vk, from Venezuela: “Cantidad de personas en #pazsinfronteras impresionante!”/”The number of people in #pazsinfronteras: impressive!”

El cantante colombiano, Juanes, junto con la cantante puertorriqueña, Olga Tañon, y el cantante español Miguel Bosé, organizaron el concierto Paz Sin Fronteras que tuvo lugar hoy en La Habana.

Para los cubanos y el pueblo latinoamericano, el concierto tuvo una importancia profundamente simbolica, a pesar de las opinions politicas de cada persona.

Brayan Collazo estuvo en la Plaza de la Revolución para el concierto y nos envió sus impresiones despues del mismo:

“Esta es mi impresión del concierto….

Creo que el pueblo cubano por la falta de estos eventos no está preparado del todo para recibir con disciplina lo mismo. Argumento esto por lo que pude sufrir en el concierto.
Todos querian ir hacia delante y para lograr esto se atropellaron a niños y mujeres–eso esta mal, muy mal. Parecía que estabas en un barco en mal tiempo. Yo, cuando no pude avanzar mas, trate de acomodarme en un sitio tranquilo pero me fue imposible; como yo muchos se marcharon. Al final de la tarde y del concierto se podía ver una mayor tranquilidad.

La música,el audio,los servicios estuvieron bien.

Una verdad muy grande es que la gente se impresionó con las palabras finales de Juanes y Juan Formel quien cerró el espectáculo a todo lo alto con su orquesta Los Van Van. Las grandes espectativas para el público cubano radicaba en Juanes, Olga Tañon, Orishas y Van Van…. El concierto a la larga logró su objetivo y todos lloraron al final.”

La Habana no era la única ciudad donde la gente veían el concierto con la misma emoción. Las personas de toda americalatina compartieron la experiencia y sus emociones a través de Twitter, haciendo las siguientes observaciones:

De @CarolaValdez, de Venezuela:
“Me retiro por un rato, las ganas de llorar me dieron dolorsito de cabeza, pero por la mejor de las causas, emocion pura!!! Dios los bendiga.”

De @rodolfob de Argentina: “Este es mi primer concierto virtual y es espectacular asistir al mismo, hasta siento el calor de la Plaza de la Revolucion Bravo #Cuba!!”

De e_vk, de Venezuela: “Cantidad de personas en #pazsinfronteras impresionante!”

London Ballet’s Visit to Havana/La Visita del Ballet de Londres a La Habana

Text: Brayan Collazo Alonso
Photos by Brayan Collazo Alonso unless otherwise noted
Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]
[Editor’s Note: The London Royal Ballet performed in Havana in July 2009]

Photo: Lyn Pernille Photography

The versatility of Havana’s Capitol was on display this summer. Far from serving its usual function as Cuba’s political center since the 1930s, it recently served as the stage for the presentation of the Royal Ballet of London’s first and only performance in Cuba, in collaboration with the Cuban National Ballet.

In the course of its history, Havana’s Capitol building has functioned as the Museum of Natural Sciences and, until recently, also served as home to the Ministry of Technological Sciences and the Environment.

Tickets for the performance were on sale beforehand, but the demand far outstripped the supply; the majority of those who hoped to see the performance were left without tickets. For this reason, organizers put a Plan B into action: People without tickets could gather around the Capitol to watch the ballet on giant outdoor projector screens.

Though not ideal, the plan served the occasion well. People could watch the ballet in real time, in the open air, and just a few steps away from the National Theatre, which was wear the screens were set up. Swells of people crowded into the area in anticipation, but the first night was a false alarm; everyone had to wait for the second day to see the much anticipated performance.

Demand wasn’t the only problem with the tickets, though. Price speculation prompted scalping, which, in turn, touched off an aggressive police operation intended to prevent the tickets from being resold for as much as 10 times what they’d been bought for. Tickets were being sold for astronomical prices, sums that were equivalent to an entire month’s wages: 200 pesos, or 9 US dollars.

Elbow-to-elbow people from Cuba and from abroad, from all different social classes, gathered together on the 45 steps of the Capitol building. Beyond the performance itself, it was interesting to see how Cuban daily life continued to unfold behind the transparent screen– a profound contrast between “real” life and the classical music and star-studded ballet being shown on the screens, the picturesque panorama of plies and pointes being executed these two great ballet companies.

The old city of Havana was in a partying mood on that warm Caribbean evening. It was high ballet, yes, but Cuban style: cameras flashing, shots of Havana Club rum passing hands, running commentaries and spontaneous applause as the dancers performed. And without a doubt, the high point of the evening was the intermission, when the dancers from both companies left the luxury of their stage to come outside and greet the crowd. “Bravo!” and greetings resounded, with affection and respect being shared by both sides.

Acclaimed Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta told the masses how special it was for him and for all Cubans to be part of such a historic moment, adding with obvious emotion in his voice, “Enjoy it! It’s for all of us!”

The other incredible gift was the performance offered by violinist Charlie Siem, who caressed the crowd with his smooth, precise, emotive notes. The applause was thunderous and the experience– well, it was memorable.

The night closed with the presentation of flowers and special recognition to the members of the Symphonic Orchestra of the Grand Theatre of Havana, directed by maestro Daniel Capps. The grand dame of Cuban ballet, Alicia Alonso, also honored us with her presence, in spite of her fragile health and physical condition.

Alicia Alonso; Photo: dalbera

It was through Alonso that so many Cubans learned about ballet, and because of her that those in attendance knew the dances and even their exact movements. During the height of her career in the 1970s, it was Alonso who brought us interpretations of Coppelia, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and an endless number of classic, universal pieces.

The visit of the London Ballet was a gift to add to the repertoire of our memories, guarding it like a relic for future generations.


Photo: ChrisGoldNY

La versatilidad del Capitolio de La Habana se ha puesto de manifiesto en este caluroso verano. Lejos de cumplir con su función original como centro político de la Cuba de los años 30s, recientemente sirvió de escenario al publico para la presentación del Ballet Real de Londres en su primera y única visita a Cuba conjuntamente con el Ballet Nacional Cubano.
En su historia el edificio del Capitolio de La Habana ha funcionado como Museo de Ciencias Naturales y hasta muy poco funcionó como sede para el Ministerio de Ciencia Tecnología y Medio Ambiente.
Las entradas para la presentación de la compañía inglesa se estaban vendiendo con antelación, pero era más la demanda que la oferta y como era de esperar muchas personas se quedaron sin poder adquirir los boletos de entrada. Por esa razón nació la idea de presentar la puesta en escena en pantalla gigante en el Capitolio, a un lado del Teatro Nacional. La idea, aunque no magnifica, fue ideal y practica para esta ocasión. Se pudo observar en tiempo real, al aire libre y a unos pasos del Teatro Nacional. Sin embargo, la primera noche fue una falsa alarma; la gente hubieran que esperar al segundo día donde si se hizo realidad el sueño.

La especulación con los precios provocó una fuerte operación policial para contrarrestar las altas sumas de dinero de costo para un boleto que vio su valor multiplicado 10 veces hasta llegar a la astronómica suma equivalente al salario mensual de un obrero cubano 200 pesos (9 dólares).

Photo: headlessmonk

En sus 45 primeros escalones del Capitolio, se ubicaron codo con codo nacionales y extranjeros de las mas diversas capas sociales. Resultaba interesante ver como en el trasfondo de las pantallas se percibía la cotidianidad de los cubanos que en su ir y venir contrastaban por detrás de las pantallas gigantes con la música clásica que acompañaba el ballet de las estrellas. Pintoresco panorama de saltos y pasos con una técnica maravillosa las actuaciones de estas dos grandes compañías de ballet que se movían desde la danza contemporánea hasta el mas clásico de los ballet.

La añeja ciudad de La Habana estaba de fiesta y se estremeció en su caribeño atardecer. Se respiro un aire de teatro al estilo habanero acompañado de cámaras con flash, tragos de ron Habana Club, y comentarios y aplausos como estruendo mientras bailaban. Sin duda alguna el momento cumbre del espectáculo fue en el intermedio, cuando de manera inesperada y sorpresiva los bailarines de ambas companias dejaron su lujoso salón de actuación para llegar hasta la multitud de espectadores que observaba desde las escalinatas del capitolio la actuación en vivo para saludarlos. Gritos de “Bravo!” y saludos estremecieron el lugar dándole a la escalera, al Capitolio, y a la Habana un toque exclusivo para la historia de los dos pueblos. Se respiraba afecto y respeto de ambas partes.

Carlos Acosta afamado bailarín cubano expreso ante la multitud presente lo especial que era para el y para todos los cubanos esta presentación tan especial y agrego con palabras muy emotivas- Disfrútenla que esta es para todos nosotros!- estas palabras fundieron al publico que consideró y disfrutó de su actuación momentos antes en la tarima.

El otro magnifico regalo fue la actuación del violinista Charlie Siem que con sus suaves y maravillosas notas estremeció al publico con su ejecución precisa y su sentimiento personal. Grandioso fue el aplauso y la experiencia inmemorable para decir poco.

Para cerrar la noche hubo flores y reconocimientos especiales para los integrantes de la orquesta sinfónica del Gran Teatro de La Habana dirigida por el maestro Daniel Capps. La gran bailarina Alicia Alonso también nos honro con su presencia apesar de su frágil salud y condición física.

Photo: rayparnova

La Habana conoció los temas y movimientos a ejecutar. Fue a través de Alicia Alonso que nos llenamos y aprendimos sobre el ballet. Ella nos regalo las interpretaciones de Coppelia, El Lago de los Cisnes, Romeo y Julieta y un sin fin de obras clásicas universales en su etapa mas productiva en el ballet cubano de los 70s.

Hoy una vez mas, recibimos el arte como regalo para agregarlo a nuestro repertorio de la memoria, y guardarlo como reliquia para generaciones venideras.

Museo de Chocolate de La Habana/Havana’s Chocolate Museum

Text: Martin Pei de la Paz
Photos: Brayan Collazo; Indrani Soemardjan
Translated by: Julie Schwietert Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]
Every day, millions of people around the world consume chocolate in some form. Chocolate can be found in candies, drinks, and toiletries; it’s even been used in clothing designs and in the manufacture of exotic objects. If you’re a chocolate aficcionado and you happen to be in Havana, be sure to stop by the Chocolate Museum.

With a name like “Chocolate Museum,” perhaps you imagine a museum like any other, full of items with historical value, rare objects, antiques, precious artifcats, and an extensive collection of books, photos, and documents on display.

This museum isn’t exactly like that. This museum is for the display of the ordinary and the common, not just from Cuba, but also from Spain, Belgium, and Mexico… but what is true is that all the items in this “collection” are somehow related to the culture of cacao and chocolate.

Master chocolate makers from Belgium came to Havana to train an elite group in artisanal chocolate-making so they could open a store in Havana where chocolate truffles, bon bons, and bars would be made in front of visitors.

Bears and tobacco leaves are some of the whimsical figures this new generation of Cuban chocolate artists is turning out. The chocolates also run the gamut with respect to the percentage of cacao and sugar each piece contains; there’s bitter, dark, milk, and white chocolate on display here.

The museum is climatized and well furnished, offering several tables from which guests can enjoy the museum’s collection and watch the chocolate makers at work.

And remember– the chocolate museum isn’t really a museum at all, but a cafe where you can enjoy this delicious aphrodisiac hot or cold.

Besides the candies, the Chocolate Museum has an extensive variety of tempting drinks, like the Aztec hot chocolate, mixed with black pepper and nutmeg. It really is a drink for the gods.

Ironically, the museum is located on “Bitter Street” (Calle Amargura), which gives it a special touch! It’s open to the public each day from 10 AM until 7:30 PM. Stop by for a visit– just be careful to keep your temptation and weight under control!

Millones de personas en el mundo consumen a diario chocolate o los derivados de el mismo. Este se encuentra en golosina, bebidas, lociones, e inclusive se ha utilizado para la construccion de piezas de vestir y en objetos exoticos. Si es usted uno de estos consumidores que esta en La Habana con confianza acérquese y visitelo.

Al escuchar Museo de Chocolate quizas su mente asocie e imagine un museo como cualquier otro, lleno de piezas de gran valor historico, objetos raros, colecciones antiguas y preciosas con extensa coleccion de libros, fotos, y documentos. Bueno, no exactamente. El museo del cual les hablo a decir verdad tiene piezas ordinarias y comunes, no solo de Cuba, sino tambien España, Bélgica y Mexico. Todos relacionados con la cultura del cacao y del chocolate.

Maestros chocolateros Belgas con mucha experiencia en el tema llegaron a La Habana para entrenar y formar un grupo de elite que tendría la tarea de encaminarse en el arte de la chocolatería y abrir en La Habana un lugar donde elaborar frente al cliente, bombones y tabletas de una manera diferente, artística y artesanal.

Desde un oso a un tabaco se mueven las caprichosas figuras que nos presentan los artistas de nueva generación de chocolateros cubanos. No solo se diferencian de la forma sino de la cantidad de cacao y azúcar en cada mezcla, dando lugar a los amargos, oscuros, con leche y blanco.

Climatizado y bien amueblado cuenta el museo con varias mesas desde donde se puede apreciar la colección del museo y a la vez a los chocolateros trabajando. De hecho el museo de chocolate no es un museo, sino una cafeteria donde se puede consumir este delicioso afrodiciaco frio o caliente.

Una gama de ofertas de bebidas que exhibe el museo es extensa y tentadora, como la taza de chocolate azteca mezclada con pimienta y nuez moscada es deleite para dioses para decir verdad.

Ironicamente este museo se encuentra hubicado en la calle “Amargura” la cual le da un toque especial! El mismo abre sus puertas al publico todos los días de 10:00 am a 7:30 pm. Y mi unica sugerencia es cuidado con las tentaciones y su peso.