For me, Cuba had been on my bucket list for many years. For some time, the allure was its preservation in time and the inability of Americans to travel there. What is it about NOT being able to do something that makes you want to do it even more? Thanks to changes in the relationship between the US and Cuba, the opportunity to travel there opened up in 2016 for individual Americans not traveling with a group. Unsure of what the new US President would do with this detente, I decided to squeeze in a trip before the changing of the guards. So in January of 2017 after tackling the Visa process my partner, Bruce and I, successfully wound up there for a week. Cuba did not disappoint. We loved Cuba for its colorful palette, friendly locals, its frozenness in time and of course for the history and famous daiquiris. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled the world and can say definitively that Cuba delivered beyond my expectations and is now hugging the top of my favorite places to travel list.
What struck me in Havana was the architecture full of cobbled streets, buildings that lie in ruins with spots of renovation, broad open promenades like the Paseo de Marti that unfolds to the Malecon which then continues on to circle half the island along the ocean. As we walked and took in the Paseo de Marti toward the Malecon, however, a young woman approached us and boldly reached into Bruce’s front pocket for his wallet. When he confronted her she shrugged and continued on. Beware of pickpockets.
Little tiny alley ways lead surprisingly to remarkable restaurants, hotels and sometimes to nowhere really at all. Culture awaits around every corner whether a ballet school, museum or signs of communist posters hyping the party line. Poverty is visible in the corner markets where shelves are sparsely stocked and meat is hard to come by. One restaurant owner shared there is an underground market for chicken it’s so scarce yet tourism flourishes and visitors pour in from all over the world.
In Havana there are five Plazas however only four have been renovated: Vieja, Cathedral, San Francisco and Armas. Each with its own personality and teaming with energy. On the way to the Plaza Vieja we navigated through back alleyways and pleasantly discovered a man smoking cigars who offered a smoke to Bruce. Together they enjoyed a cigar on a stoop while making cryptic hand charades for communication. When Bruce tried to pay him for the cigar he refused.
It was in the Plaza Veija on the same afternoon we met two sisters from Rome Italy, Paelo and Claudia, who shared their table with us in the crowded Plaza and we wound up enjoying a couple of hours of lively discussion over cocktails. One of the things I enjoy most about travel is the people you meet along the journey that make for a fun and memorable experience. Often they are open to sharing a table and a conversation. This was certainly the case on this day.
For a more contemporary experience than the old Havana Plazas, the Saratoga Hotel has a rooftop bar with fabulous views at sunset. Inside they feature live music and a lively atmosphere. Enjoyed this so much we went back twice. It was here we met a talented rock photographer, Erik Kabik, from Vegas who had interesting stories about photographing many major rock musicians and who was now shifting gears to capture rich imagery in Cuba.
Arguably the most famous restaurant, La Guarida, was recommended by a close friend, Caroline, who does tours in Cuba for Nat Geo. Upon arrival the old mansion in Centro Habana looked like it had been abandoned, however, after climbing two sets of a long and winding stairs the snaking line signaled a clue that something worthwhile awaited. Inside the rooms are beautifully decorated. Outside on a tiny balcony we enjoyed a delicious candlelight dinner overlooking an inky black neighborhood while a brilliant white moon cast light overhead. La Guarida is a unique paladar that charms and yet contrasts with Havana. A memorable experience.
Cuba is rich with history and characters who have sprinkled their stories there. Hemingway is one of my favorite authors and someone who lived an epic life in Cuba. He lived at Finca Vigia from 1939 to 1960 and this is where he wrote his most famous book The Old Man and the Sea. Now a museum, his home and fishing boat are just as he left them over 50 years ago. Was a ‘must see’ on our visit so we hired a vintage car and a charming English speaking Cuban man named “Elias” to guide us. Along the way to he told us his sage insight into Cuban life. “Cubans”, he said “do three things they drink, smoke and wait for change”. The Hemingway location was definitely a highlight and we spent a couple hours here peering through windows marveling at his typewriter, books, clothing, hunting trophies and even a Picasso plate adorning a wall.
“Cubans do three things they drink, smoke and wait for change – Elias”
At the Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole and home of the Daiquiri, the place was teeming with tourists and locals all of whom would talk about Hemingway while no one mentioned Castro. Our bartenders lined up to have a photo taken with us once they learned that we had a picture with a US President and after filling a dozen glasses at a time with Ernest’s favorite concoction.
Cojimar, is a small port town outside of Havana where Hemingway kept his boat, the Pilar, and this location was also an inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea. While viewing the incredible scenery, I saw a man floating on a large styrofoam block and fishing using only fishing line and a stick. Evidence of communism and poverty are around every corner. A short walk away was a disheveled elderly Cuban man with a horse. When I inadvertently took his picture he became very insistent about being paid. Sadly, I had no local currency “CUCS” to share with him and apologized profusely “lo siento” in my best Spanish. Leaving Cojimar we saw a man preparing many acres of farm field using two oxen pulling wooden plows. Time stands still in Cuba.
While there are a number of museums in Cuba such as the Museum of the Revolution I found them to be unsurprisingly biased to glorify the communist regime. This museum in particular was old, uninformative and self-serving and I didn’t stay long for that reason.
Cuba is known for its cultural diversity and we had the chance to see the Spanish African Caribbean influence of the island in the form of the Santeria dancers who perform their ritualistic dances. This religion grew out of the slave trade in Cuba. There is a free dance featured on Sundays and we packed into a small area jockeying with a large crowd for a view of the tribal dancers with colorful head wraps and clothing who jam to the sounds of gourds and congo drums.
Music abounds one must only walk along Obisbo from Parque Centrale to the waterfront stopping along the way at bars and restaurants to enjoy the local sounds along the way.
Of course Cuba is most known for the vast collection of vintage cars and one must enjoy a ride along the Malecon, through Vedado for viewing the old mansions and to the beach. A driver of a 1955 Chevy described it’s value at $40,000 (US) a fortune in Cuban terms. Another vintage car owner had retrofitted his American car using Russian parts that he could not obtain in any other fashion. There’s no question the vast vintage car collection and the time warp it represents is to be appreciated.
From the view of our fifth floor classic Cuban hotel room we had a perfect view of the fifth floor of the ballet school across the street. The sound of flamenco dancer’s feet tapping and stomping in rhythm had us frequently riveted to the windows to witness the dancers whirling past the open windows. Later we would walk through the ballet school and up the rickety stairs past the tinkling sounds of pianos to capture images of the dancers twirling in the late evening light.
Americans who travel to Cuba may have to lower their expectations with hotels and accommodations. A 2-star hotel in the US may be a 5-star hotel in Cuba. Our hotel, while expensive, was clean, spacious and the staff were accommodating. An alternative option to staying in a Hotel is a Casa Particulares which is a stay in a private home (think bed and breakfast). This can be a more authentic experience although some home stays have no English speakers. Those who open their hearts and minds to the experience in Cuba will have a phenomenal experience.
Having been fortunate enough to visit Cuba it’s disappointing to consider any backward movement from the current US government and Cuban relationship and progress made. Although the Visa requirements have now tightened I would highly recommend pursuing travel to Cuba for its uniqueness. It’s truly unlike any place else in the world and will most certainly not disappoint. In the end maybe Elias had the best advice “drink, smoke and wait for change”.