As soon as the U.S. government relaxed the restrictions for travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens I was on the next plane out. I had gotten a couple of contacts from friends that had been there previously; restaurants, sights, hotels… and was on my way. The flight from Miami to Havana left on time and less than an hour later we landed in Havana. Hard to believe a country closed to U.S. travelers for almost six decades took less time to get to than going from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I had wanted to go for such a long time. The touchdown felt somehow historic, like, “Wow, I finally made it”. It was everything I imagined it would be. The ride into the city was surreal, meandering first through the faded splendor of the once upscale neighborhood of El Vedado pass the crumbling structures of the ocean-side Malecon Avenue into the colonial core of the city known as Havana Vieja or Old Havana.
Havana is changing rapidly. I want to share with you some reasons why you too should see Havana now, like a local
HAVANA IS BEAUTIFUL: BEAUTIFUL ARCHITECTURE, ART, NATURE, PEOPLE, MUSIC.
Havana is a powerhouse of colonial architectural masterpieces. In an effort to attract tourists and their foreign exchange the government has continued its efforts to reconstruct the colonial buildings in Havana Vieja which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In many instances these efforts have been successful. In others, the buildings were not rescued in time and just collapsed due to lack of funds. This is one of the sad facts of Havana as the structures are truly beautiful. Despite this, the city has an air of faded elegance and past glory. You look at the buildings and imagine what once was, what could have been and what you know will never be again.
HAVANA IS QUIRKY.
Havana plazas and streets are peppered with unusual and interesting sculptures. Colonial era monasteries and convents have been converted into hotels and restaurants. Street performers dressed as colonial carnival characters pose for pictures. Havana has a unique feel to it and is full of pleasant surprises.
In Havana we stayed at a working convent run by nuns. The thought of sleeping in a convent was just intriguing enough to induce me to stay there. I’m glad I did. The convent was clean, safe, housed in a beautiful renovated colonial era building centrally located in the middle of Havana Vieja and reasonably priced. What more could you ask for?
HAVANA HAS DOZENS OF MUSEUMS.
Havana is a museum city. There is something for every taste; revolutionary retrospect at the Museo de la Revolucion, colonial history at the Museo de la Ciudad, flora and fauna at the Museo de Historia Natural. For a museum lover like myself Havana’s selection was an embarrassment of riches but I finally settled on the Cuban art wing of the Museo de Bellas Artes or Museum of Fine Arts. The museum consists of two wings the other housing the international arts collection. It was late in the day and I only had two hours to see the Cuban art wing. My single regret on this trip is that I didn’t dedicate more time to this amazing collection of mostly 19 and 20 th century paintings and sculpture.
Another gem was the Napoleonic Museum near the University of Havana where my mother once studied. It was a complete surprise. I’m not sure what I expected but what I got was the finest collection of Napoleonic memorabilia outside of France.
There are also offbeat exhibits like the museums of rum and Partagas, the world famous cigar where you can purchase product and taste free samples. These are laid-back, fun places with bars, shops and the welcome air-conditioning.
Even the cars are museum pieces in Havana. Classic American cars from the 50s are everywhere. Contrary to popular myth, they are not in “pristine condition”. The body of the cars look original but the inner workings have long since deteriorated and replaced with any number of improvised parts. Truly a testament to Cuban ingenuity and necessity. Still, they are beautiful and cool and you can take a city tour in a 1957 Chevy convertible for about 30 CUC. See post on Cuban money here.
A more cost efficient way to see Havana is the hop-on-hop-off buses. These leave from the front of the Hotel Inglaterra every 20 minutes or so. For 10 CUC you travel to the areas outside of Havana Vieja that you might not see otherwise. The buses stop at important sites like Colon Cemetery, the second most impressive in Latin America after Buenos Aires’s La Recoleta, the Plaza de la Revolucion where over one million Cubans have gathered to hear political speeches and Havana’s luxury hotel area in the previously upscale section of El Vedado. The entire tour takes about 2 hours.
HAVANA HAS FASCINATING HISTORY.
The entire Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, area can be classified as a living museum since very little has changed of the architecture since 1959. The result is many buildings deteriorating to the point of collapse. But look closely. Many of the ones that remain standing or have been renovated are architectural gems from the colonial and art deco eras. A walk through the colonial plazas and leafy avenues to see the historical and architectural splendors of a bygone era merits several days scrutiny.
More recent history is also everywhere to be found and fun to learn about.
Hemingway wrote in the Hotel Ambos Mundos where his room is now a museum you can visit for 5 CUC. He drank at the Bodeguita del Medio, where the mojito was invented and Floridita, a 200 year old restaurant where the daiquiri was first crafted. Marlon Brando and Errol Flynn hung out at the Dos Hermanos by the port. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner enjoyed the ocean view from the Hotel Nacional, the Grand Dame of golden era hotels.
The Capri Hotel has been recently renovated and is now open for business. This hotel was owned by mobster Santo Trafficante, Jr. and was a major hangout for Meyer Lansky and his cronies during Havana’s mobster heydays. In the movie The Godfather, the Capri is where Fredo Corleone brings a suitcase with $2 million to his brother Michael.
The Hotel Perla has a poignant Shakespearean tale in its long history. The legendary Perla Hotel was the original luxury Havana hotel built in 1886. As of this writing, a disabled elderly woman lives on the 4 floor, one of only two remaining tenants. In 1961 she and her husband received permission to leave Cuba as exiles. As with all prospective exiles, their home was confiscated and nationalized. The couple didn’t care as they were leaving anyway. At the airport on their departure day they were told their visas didn’t go through and they were sent back to Havana. But now they had no home to return to so they went back to the Perla Hotel. Weeks passed and their visas never materialized. In frustration the husband ingested rat poison and jumped from the balcony to his death. When the woman saw this she too jumped but survived with broken legs and was returned to her room at the Perla. Shortly thereafter, as a result of the communist party’s property distribution project the woman was allocated the hotel room to live in indefinitely. She is still there today cared for by some compassionate citizens. Havana is full of stories like this; some tragic, some funny, some dramatic…but all interesting.
HAVANA’S MUSIC SCENE IS UNPARALLED.
Nightlife in Havana is simply too varied and pervasive to be described in a few paragraphs. The most striking thing is that just about every single band of musicians you encounter is way above average. And they are everywhere; in restaurants, bars, side-streets, plazas, beaches and even private living rooms. An impromptu performance in a public square will spontaneously turn into a dance party…and can they dance! The music is infectious. Music clubs like “La Casa de La Musica” tend to congregate in the newer part of Havana as do the classic jazz venues like “La Zorra y el Cuervo”. Just like everywhere else the clubs open late and close in the wee hours so get a good night’s sleep the night before and make sure you don’t have any early morning commitments the next day.
CUBA IS UNIQUE
Cuba is not your standard Caribbean destination. It can be challenging to get around, find a good meal and stay at a comfortable hotel. An American woman I met on a bus complained about her hotel; poor service, bland food, lukewarm water and an air conditioner that didn’t work. And this was at a luxury hotel! I understood her. She expected to find in Cuba what she would find in a 4 or 5 star hotel in Puerto Rico or The Bahamas. That is difficult to find in Cuba. You have to go with a different mind-set, adjust your expectations and just roll with it. It also helps to patronize the privately-run paladares and casas avoiding the luxury hotels whenever possible. Focusing too much on inadequacies will prevent you from enjoying the beauty, music, art and warmth of this unique country.
Why do you want to visit Cuba?