We arrived at the Havana Airport after a quick direct flight from Grand Cayman. We were greeted by Juan Carlos and Jon , our guide and driver for the trip from www.CubanGuru.com immediately upon arrival. Juan Carlos, our guide, described many buildings and roads in great detail as we were being driven to our hotel; as well as the history of Cuba.
It was immediately clear that Cuba would be unlike any other country I had ever visited. There was a constant back and forth emotionally; bliss to uncertainty by the hour. At 3:05pm, I could be in love with the country and it’s people and 3:09pm I would see propaganda in the form of art, that would make me want to open up uncomfortable political dialogue with any Cuban that would listen.
While traveling through the main road, you are enveloped in a time-warp feel with views of vacant stadiums, abandoned mansions, empty buildings and a Non-operating theme park as well as the anticipated collection of multi-colored classic cars. In between the glimpses of a city that has such an intriguing history lies a rich culture of humble, authentic and hard-working citizens. We were in Havana for only 2 days, but were able to become immersed in the culture almost immediately. The lack of cell phone towers, wi-fi and English can get you acquainted quite fast.
I would highly recommend that if you’re American and planning to travel to Cuba, that you do a bit of research on the Cuban Revolution from the eyes of a scholar or non-american before heading over to this beautiful and complex island. Cuba has so many layers that not acknowledging the politics on it would be like not having a mojito while in Old Havana. It is their past and their present; it is who they are. Most Americans think of a fierce dictator when they hear the name Castro. Fidel committed unspeakable acts against his people ,and in my opinion, stole their freedom. However, I was unaware that America’s shady dealings, corruption and greed helped open the door to one of the most unlikely and succesful (depending on which side you were on) revolutions in history. You can see why one generation loved Castro and the other despised him. This is apparent when traveling in Havana and meeting her citizens.
We went out for our first meal in Cuba shortly after sunset. The drive through back allies revealed homes that were in 10×8 foot room with a mattress lying on the concrete ground. The rooms, which I could only compare to a cell block, were illuminated by a flourescent bulb hanging in the middle of the ceiling. The drive through the allies was quick and therefore only short and periodic glimpses revealed the back and forth emotional roller coaster that was Havana. One block had a completely free and well-respected medical school for all of its citizens; the next block had cell blocks for homes and propaganda (depending on your perspective) disguised as art/graffiti.
That evening, we arrived at the restaurant Palador de Cristobal; one of the most mouth-watering, generous, warm dining experiences I have had in my life. Barack Obama ate at this gem when he visited Cuba so we figured that we should too. The atmosphere is evening ready with rooms of antiques, books and other clutter that feel interesting and beautiful. The servers were more attentive than in any country I have ever visited and thoughtfully tempted my palette with an array of vegetarian dishes. My husband was just as pleased with the multitude of cuban-style meats. The entire staff came by and greeted us and tended to our every need. The staff was mainly 30 and under and you could clearly pick up on the generational divide and the inviting atmosphere towards Americans. They all warmly greeted us, but the younger generation appeared to also be intrigued by us and America. We ordered four appetizers, two entrees, two desserts , four mojitos and two bottles of still water; our tab was only 57.00!
After dinner, we headed closer to the coast of Havana to listen to some Afro-Cuban Jazz. The Jazz bar was in a large ocean front building. There were extravagant marble steps that lead you to the main entertainment area. The ,once corridor, was covered in dirt and cracked concrete and at first glance, you may just think it was under construction. The marble floors were damaged beyond repair with 2-3 foot cracks, every 4-5 steps. However, once you entered the main lobby, all of the curiosity or even disdain I had about the structure, disappeared. We immediately became immersed in the sounds of the angel like trumpet, the drums, and even some other unfamiliar musical instruments. Cuban jazz is such a beautiful combination of everything alive in music. The cappuccino was pretty fantastic as well.
That evening, Steve and I went back to our hotel completely enamored with Cuba. What is there to not love? Amazing food, lovely people and exceptional live music… we were sold… As my eyes shut, I murmured “Viva Cuba!”.
The next morning, I woke up and the ceiling immediately caught my attention. The crown molding was cracked in several spots; paint was chipped almost in a pattern around the entire room; there was an odd humming noise and the rugs appeared to be something back from the 60’s. There wasn’t much light at all and the curtains were torn in several spots. It is interesting when you really take a look at what an embargo does to a country. Besides the obvious trade and financial burden; there are the everyday items that we take for granted that just don’t get fixed or replaced. When items break, crack and deteriorate…they just stay that way.
After a lovely breakfast at our hotel, Juan Carlos and Jon picked us up and we started our adventure into the ever evolving mosaic installation neighborhood; then to Old Havana and finally the Market.
We first visited an eclectic and completely gravitating neighborhood that was dedicated to and Gaudi inspired. When An artist by the name of Jose Rodriguez Fuster came home to Cuba after a trip to Barcelona where he viewed the works of Gaudi and the works of Brancusi in Romania, he desired to create a space where he and his community could live within art. Fuster opened up his home to all of his neighbors and welcomed them with unique mosaics, giant chess boards, benches to profess your love and beautiful poetry inscribed in random placed mosaics throughout the block. It was captivating to say the least. We didn’t want to leave. You could literally spend hours on this block and still not capture all of the beautiful detail.
After leaving Casa Fuster, we headed into Old Havana to have a much-anticipated mojito and lunch from Hemingway’s old stomping grounds La Bodeguita del Medio. This is where the Mojito was invented; while it is a bit of a tourist trap… it is absolutely charming and the mojito is fresh and definitely worth the visit to this gem. We arrived in time for live music that was playing in the lobby of the restaurant. It sounded so crisp and clear that if you did not peak your head in, you may think it is a produced itunes track of Buena Vista Social Club. Before leaving, the owner hands you a sharpie and as you can see from the above photo, you have to get creative and find a space to leave your mark on the wall.
After the much welcomed Mojitos and platanos marudos (sweet plantains), we strolled around Old Havana the way Hemingway may have; we admired the art, drank delicious cafe’s and wandered the streets. Old Havana is eclectic, charming and deteriorated all at the same time. When a vehicle barrier breaks… it stays broken.
Cuba is beautiful, complex, and gives a fresh perspective. While we loved our trip and enjoyed the culture and countless opportunities to learn and be more and more immersed in this forbidden fruit; we were happy to get home. Will I visit Cuba again? yes… I can’t imagine how different it will be after the embargo is completely lifted. I am incredibly grateful that we got to see it in it’s somewhat primitive form. If you are planning to visit… go soon… the cruise ships and other for-profit companies and their clientage will make this place unrecognizable in a decade or so.
Viva Cuba con America 🙂
Info and facts on how to get to Cuba-
How do you get there?
As an American, we were only allowed to travel to Cuba if we met some basic requirements. Thankfully, we qualified for two.- The People to People requirement and the Journalist requirement. Basically, if you are intrigued and want to travel to Cuba and see it in it’s raw form (hurry!!!! before the cruise ships take over and make Havana Land) ; you just have to get a travel guide to show you around and teach you a bit about the culture and history. When you have a tour guide show you around, you are meeting the “people to people” requirement. Here is a Huffington Post article that gave us the confidence to jump over, as well as the facts and links to the Treasury department. Go TO Cuba! We used the Cuban Guru and highly recommend that you use a driver and tour guide. They are fairly inexpensive and worth every penny.
The Obama administration was very clever with the people to people requirement. Basically, you have to get out of your hotel and learn something about this beautiful country. American’s are usually known for hanging out in their resorts, ordering American food and not interacting with the locals… hooray for the Obama Administration for making it a requirement that we get out and get to know our neighbors. Yes, I said neighbors… did you know that Havana is only 90 miles from USA?
U.S. issued credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba so travelers should plan to bring enough cash with them to cover all the expenses they might incur during their trip.
more useful info from the treasury department