There are a few crazy places in the world that are still big and legitimate enough to be on a tourist’s map. Well, on a male tourist’s map at least. For instance, you have the Hotel Del Ray in San Jose, Costa Rica; pretty much all of Playa Jaco in Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, unbelievable Pattaya in Thailand, a few neighborhoods in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Saigon, Vietnam, Angeles City in the Philippines, and, finally, the Red Light District of Makati in Manila, the Philippines.
I’m going to talk about that last one – the red light district in Makati, in relation to the popular Café Cubana there. Here, a man is free to be a real man. That is, to sit around looking like an ass hat, chase women much younger than him that he’d have no chance of bedding it wasn’t for his money, and spend a significant portion of his children’s college fund, one dollar bill at a time. Ahhh the smell of male liberation!
All joking aside, Makati is the business center of Manila, and also where the majority of tourists come, go, and stay while in town. The red light district in Makati isn’t huge – just a few streets centered around Burgos Street, with dozens of clubs, strip joints, massage parlors, and, yes, a midget boxing show (Ringside). It’s also where you’ll find the Café Cubana, only a couple doors down from the Best Western Oxford Suites hotel where I always stay.
Café Cubana is a Cuban revolution-themed bar and restaurant that’s facing the heart of Burgos Street – a perfect place for people watching. It’s open 24 hours a day, which is to say that that it’s open to serve food, but also you’ll find people boozing it up and in all states of inebriation at any hour. I usually wake up early like 6 or 7 and walk over there for coffee and breakfast with laptop open to get some work done. Even at that hour, there are stragglers from the night before (usually the English chaps) completely pissed and disheveled and carrying on. But there are plenty of patrons late morning for breakfast, and again in the afternoon when the early beer drinking crowd comes out. At night, it’s hard to even get a table it’s so packed.
The appeal of the Café is not the décor (the Cuban revolution/Fidel Castro/Che Guevara is a popular theme for bars and restos over here, as they lack a lot of historical or cultural context into the revolution). The food is fine, with big breakfasts, plenty of bar food options like burgers and sliders, etc., and just about every other dish you can imagine. It certainly ain’t cheap, since a good meal will easily cost you $10 USD – a fortune for local food eateries. The staff, too, do their level best but are completely overworked, spread too thin, and hustle around dealing with drunk idiots all night for small tips.
But the real attraction to Café Cubana – and what puts it on the map along with those other destinations I mentioned – is the people watching. The street outside is an absolute circus, with call girls, massage girls, pimps, taxi drivers, guys selling knock-off Viagra and fake iPhones, street kids begging or pickpocketing, vendors pushing their carts up and down, and infinite ladyboys. In fact, Café Cubana has a row of tables right on the sidewalk (sit at your own risk because EVERYONE will stop and harass you to buy something) and then a railing and a row of tables facing the street. I usually sit a row or two inside but even in the early morning, people are working and I’ll get the occasional annoying solicitation. But if you like people watching and are fascinated by how primal, disturbed, and twisted humanity is, just stop at Café Cubana for a sandwich or a beer – you won’t be disappointed!