Runaway Happy Hour: Havana's alluringly unpredictable Bar Monserrate
by Island Expert William H. Strickland
If you ever find yourself on one of the many “People to People” programs visiting Cuba, your tour will surely include a visit to the iconic Floridita bar. Hemingway. Havana. Bar. Daiquiri. It’s part of the Cuban culture. You must go there. To not do so would be like visiting Paris without going to the Eiffel Tower. It’s elegant (in a Cuba sort of way) and steeped in history. But I’m a dive-bar kinda guy.
(A classic American car cruising down the Malecon in La Habana)
Step outside of the Floridita, turn left onto Avenida Belgica, go for one block and you will find a small corner bar called Monserrate. Walk through the slatted saloon doors and you will see what I am talking about. Most likely, there will be an even mix of tourists and locals drinking beer, rum, or whatever. One or two tables might have a patron or two enjoying a good smoke (they have good cigars in Cuba, in case you haven’t heard). There is a small area set aside for musical groups at the far end of the room. The music schedule is unpredictable, but you don’t really need to know anyway.
(Bar Monserrate is about a block away from the famous Floridita)
One of the things that makes the Montserrate interesting is the constant flow of traffic. It’s a good people-watching bar. Located on a busy corner, with windows open to the street, locals often peer through the windows, find a friend inside, and then pop in to greet them with a kiss to the cheek (women), or a slap on the shoulder (men). Some stay for a while; others leave after saying hello.
Unlike the Floridita down the street, Monserrate is cheap. Fried chicken quarter, French fries, and a salad? About five bucks. A lobster special including lobster tail, fries, salad, AND a couple of drinks? About ten bucks. Don’t expect five star cuisine, but it’s not too bad. Beer and rum are priced less than half of the ones offered at the Floridita.
I go to Monserrate when I am off the clock at the end of a day leading tour groups. It’s a “no lose” situation. I have nothing invested there. I don’t have to dress, I don’t have to wait in line for a table, I don’t expect to interact with members of the opposite sex and I don’t expect to be entertained. I let things happen. Or, not. Often find myself making friends with some waiter, or the couple from England sitting at the table next to me, or talking to a local through the open window. Feel like a cigar? Tell the waiter and one will magically appear. Authenic, or rolled by “my cousin who works in the factory." It’s hit or miss.
As the hours pass, the band gets louder. The music gets better. The barstools fill up. People get up and dance between the tables—not for show, but simply for the joy that Cubans have for dancing. And the Cubans know how to dance.
(Musicians at Bar Monserrate)
Side note: Keep track of your purchases. The cash register at the Monserrate seems to round up. Sometimes in substantial amounts. Don’t be alarmed—that’s part of the charm. Just correct your bill and always leave a good tip. The staff is probably paid an average wage in Cuba—about fifteen bucks a month. You just paid more than that for a lobster and a few drinks. Go with the flow.
There is a vibe in Cuba, and it’s never more apparent than there at the Monserrate. There are other places, too. It’s hard for me to put a finger on the reason, but that vibe is undeniable and strangely different from any other place I have been.
We want to thank the author for his fantastic post. William “Harris” Strickland is not only an expert on legal travel to Cuba, he is also the author of a terrific new novel set in Cuba, Africa, and Georgia entitled Hemingway Lies and the Search for Sam. You can see his bio on our Island Experts page.
(Photo credits: 1. Malecon, Havana, Momo, 2. Floridita, Wagner T. Cassimiro, 3. Bar Monserrate, Claire Hodson, 4. Havana Club rum, Guillaume Baivere, 5. Musicians, jennicatpink, all from Flickr. #3 and #5 cannot be used for commercial purposes.)