I visited Myanmar soon after they opened their borders to tourism, so it only seemed fitting that the next country on my list of places to visit be…. Cuba. Technically, the embargo still hasn’t been lifted and tourism to Cuba isn’t totally Kosher, but hey, that makes it all the more desirable now, doesn’t it? I knew that I had to make it to the land of cigars, music, rum, and Castro before everyone else did. Getting to Cuba wasn’t nearly as complicated or stressful as I prepared myself for, and will only get easier as relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to develop.
For my one-week excursion, I decided to focus solely on Havana and the nearby beaches to truly soak in the Habanero culture. Lodging options in Havana are fairly straightforward. You either stay in one of the government owned hotels (expensive) or in a casa particular with a native Cuban family (I went this route). Cubans are extremely friendly and contrary to popular belief, love Americans. I stayed with a lovely family thanks to a friend’s recommendation – which seems to be the “Cuban way” across the board. Need a place to stay in Trinidad? “I know someone there…” Want to take a taxi to Santa Maria beach? “My cousin drives an old ’65 Chevy. He’ll take you!” This is the Cubans own way of introducing capitalism into what has been a Communist nation since Fidel Castro led the Revolution in the 1950s.
Walking around Havana felt like being transported through time. The buildings from former dictator, Fulgencio Batista’s reign, once glimmering with the royal intricacies of Moorish, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Roman architecture, are now crumbling. But the vivid coats of paint that have been slapped on to cover up the city’s deterioration are actually quite charming, and the layers of Havana’s history can be seen through its architecture. The Bodeguita del medio, for example, once a regular hangout for the bohemian likes of Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is now adorned with scribblings and pictures of visitors past and present.
The vintage car situation in Havana is exactly what you imagine it to be. Once a major center for American car companies, after most trade to Cuba was cut off, all that was left were these vintage American cars and the strange Russian ones sent over in the 80s. I tried to ride in these beauties as much as possible, because riding along the Malecón (Havana’s famous coastal thoroughfare) in a ’55 Chevy convertible is a once in a lifetime experience.
Surprisingly, the food in Havana is not as scrumptious as you’d think. Those gooey pulled pork sandwiches you get at Versailles are replaced with who-knows-how-old deli ham and a slice of cheese slapped between a semi-stale roll. If you’re lucky, it will be pressed hot, nay warm, on a panini maker. But as a nation slowly emerging from its Communist cave, cuisine is not necessarily at the top of their to-do list. We did, however, discover a quaint little restaurant wedged in a tiny alley, off of the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana that had pretty amazing grilled seafood and tapas. It was there that we also met our new Cuban friend who called himself “Junior” and played guitar in the Cuban band that took up residency at the restaurant. We ended up eating there several times, both for the food, and to listen to the enchanting music played by our new friends. My love for Latin music and secret desire to be a drummer led them to invite me to play attempt percussion with them for a rendition of Besame Mucho. As the afternoon faded to twilight and then on to a humid Cuban night, I let the hours go by as I sipped Cuban beer and let the music take me away.
I only saw a small slice of the vibrant Caribbean country, but one of my favorite memories of the trip was a day visit to Viñales, a valley region 3 hours outside of Havana. Here is where the lush, exotic landscape really takes over and the nutrient-rich soil shines a deep red that feeds the tobacco, coffee, and fruit crops that grow there. We rode horses through the valley – mine’s name was Negro, and the sweet smell of tobacco leaves and the vast, luscious foliage around me left me in a daze of ecstasy. After a while, I asked the guide if we could run and before I knew it he was yelling “Corre caballo!” and we were galloping across the open valley alone – no other tourists in sight. As cliche as it sounds… I really felt free.
No visit to Cuba is complete without a visit to the cigar factory. Officially, the Partagas Factory is the only government approved cigar production in the country, but many street vendors sell lesser quality versions. Some of the cigars at Partagas are even “Fidel approved”, marking his personal favorite stogies. I opted for traditional Cohibas in addition to some artisan ones that I bought from Leonardo, my new cigar making friend from Viñales.
Much of Cuba’s charm truly emerges when you simply get lost wandering the streets of Old Havana. You may turn a corner to find the most enchanting band of musicians playing yet another rendition of Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan”. Or stumble across an alley where local children are playing with a kite. Around another corner is a Libreta, a store where food and other goods are rationed out according to the Communist government order. Each breath of humid Cuban air is sticky sweet of papaya, tobacco, and a little bit of gasoline. Each gaze is colorful and animated. These people have soul and are just trying to make it work with what they’ve got. Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating; Cuba is a country of undeniable and enigmatic magic.
On one of my last nights in Cuba, I walked, as I tend to do when I visit new places. I walked along the Malecón, the 5-mile coastal esplanade that marries the city to the sea. Originally constructed to provide protection for the city, with the Morro Castle fortress perched across the water, now the roadway is more popular for twilight promenades and a haven for fisherman. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the chance to visit this magnificent country before many other Americans. And I also couldn’t help but feel a little scared at what opening up the borders to the outside world would do to the island that has lived in isolation for so long. But that’s life and things change. So as the sun set over the Malecón and the sky turned from blue to gold, I thought to myself…. “This moment right now will never change. And it is magic.”
*Note – originally posted in August 2015