Cuba is enjoying a rush of tourism since President Obama announced that travel and economic restrictions against the island would come crumbling down like the Berlin Wall. Well, most of those restrictions are still in place more than a year later, but that hasn’t stopped the surge of curious gringos. If you happen to find yourself on a charter flight to the tiny Jose Marti International Airport, might I suggest you find some time away from Havana Vieja and mojitos to take in a movie in one of the country’s historic cinemas.
Forget about what you think movie theaters should and should not have. All of these are one screen movie houses, so if you miss a showing, you can only wait for the next one. If your show is sold out, there are no refunds, but your ticket will be (usually) honored at the next show. Around bigger movie houses, concessions can be bought from a street vendor hauling goods like cookies, pork rinds and plantain chips in a grocery cart. But you better get them before you get inside the theater that may or may not have house lights or running water.
And if no one’s told you yet, it’s highly recommended you bring your own toilet paper because from restaurants to movie theaters, that’s on you.
Here’s an honest look at some of Havana’s storied theaters.
One of the crown jewels of Havana’s Calle 23 is the red and blue lit Yara. With a video store and poster shop inside, a pizzeria around the corner and a diner across the street, the Yara is heavy hub of foot traffic at almost any time of the day. Here, you can easily find something to grab before heading into the large theater. Inside is dark, with small lights too far to really illuminate much, but most folks are understanding that it’s difficult to move through the narrow row of seats. There’s hardly a bad seat in the house, and as a sign in the lobby proudly declares, the theater is equipped for digital. Across from the ICAIC plaque in the same antique white lobby are several screen print posters of some of Cuban cinema’s biggest hits from Lucia to Habana Station. But don’t spend too much time in the gift shop, the show’s about to start!
Now this joint in the neighborhood of Miramar isn’t always used for movies, but when it came time for the premiere night of Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, it was a perfect host. The triple decker design holds large crowds for big events like this, even if it’s a little estranged from the theaters on Calle 23. Like many of the other theaters on this list, the Karl Marx kept its proscenium stage, which for most of the year, is used for everything from concerts to ballets. A plaque outside commemorates the spot as the site of the first communist congress on the island, but it seems a world away from the ‘60s café adjacent to the theater that plays chill Cuban sons from the radio.
He’s kind of a big deal on the island, with a restaurant bearing the Tramp’s likeness not too far down the road from the theater that shares his name. With no awning or sign to tip one off, it would be easy to pass by ICAIC’s office building without a second look. But a tiny box office next to the entrance is your ticket in to one of the sharpest theaters in town. This is the movie house run by what’s essentially Cuba’s film board. Although the floor and restrooms are a little worse for the wear, the burgundy seats in this mid-size theater are comfy enough for an extended stay. Like its unassuming exterior, this pared-down Revolution era theater is minimalist, with only the seat cushions and curtains as the only source of color inside.
23 y 12
The furthest outpost on Vedado’s Calle 23 is the mid-size 23 y 12 cine, named after its cross streets. The lobby is plain, with small photos of Cuban stars adorning the walls and an ancient projector rusting in a corner surrounded by benches. It’s dim inside the theater itself, with only flood lights to fill the void. But on either side abutting the screen are two larger-than-life modern paintings of dancers. It’s befitting of its saucy red exterior that kept its iconic wavy roof all these years. There weren’t any food vendors outside, but with plenty of quick restaurant options around, you’ll do fine. There’s even a shaded sit-down café if you’re looking for a solid fried chicken and rice plate a block or two past the theater. If you still need to wait out some time until your show, the ICAIC videoteca next door will make for fun browsing. DVDs were kept behind the counter, but you could rifle through stacks of papers to read the synopsis to Fresa y Chocolate or Maps to the Stars to help make your decision.
A mid-size theater on the corner of Calle 23 and O, the first thing you’ll notice about La Rampa is the garish ‘60s-esque mural on its side that repeats its names in various reds and oranges. Not far from the Hotel Nacional, various restaurants, and one of the island’s coveted wi-fi spots, La Rampa is relatively easy to get to. The theater’s name comes from the ramp visitors take to get into the cinema’s aqua-green auditorium. Giant black and white stills from the golden era of Cuban cinema sill proudly hang on the walls of this quirky little theater.
The Riviera is perhaps the tiniest stop on our theater tour, but no less charming. Modeled after the iconic hotel once established by Meyer Lansky, the Riviera is easily recognizable by its blue and white signage. Inside a miniscule (like it takes four or five steps to cross) lobby, a white-shirted vendor sells fresh popcorn and cans of soda to patrons. Unlike La Rampa’s switch from an orange exterior to green theater, the Riviera is outfitted in navy blue. If you’re hungry after the show, the restaurant next door may look very familiar. With a photo of Charlie Chaplin grinning at the end of City Lights greeting you, El Carmelo is the Chaplin restaurant you never knew had a good drink special with sizable portions. As you walk back to your place of stay, check out the painting along the edge of the restaurant that features the marquees of Havana’s movie theaters.