An American’s guide to Havana.
The summer is gone, kids are in school, and our thoughts turn to uniforms, Guy Fawkes and Thanksgiving celebrations and whether we really have the nerve to go for those over-the-knee brown leather boots (yes). This means that it will not be long before we catch ourselves day dreaming, number-crunching and saving up for our next warm-weather holiday.
Coming in at a fabulous 70 degrees (F) in January and making headlines all over America is the not-quite-so-forbidden island of Cuba. For a destination a 60-minute flight from Miami and theoretical 1 hour 45 minutes from New Orleans unlocking Cuba as a vacation destination is a no brainer. I visited Havana for the second time earlier this year and I have been determined since then to de-mystify, at least Havana, for my friends and encourage people to visit. It is a breathtaking island with complexity, culture, rum and cigars and so really…I mean really…it needs to be visited.
As of now, regardless of how often the “easing of restrictions” shows up in headlines, or how many photos you see of the new embassy in Havana, travel to Cuba by Americans is still complicated. It is not technically illegal, nor has it ever been, despite common misperceptions and incorrect reporting, rather it is illegal to spend money in Cuba under the terms of the (still existing) trade embargo. As of January 2015th, however, even if you are an American, you can travel to Cuba without a visa from the US government. You simply need to be able to prove that your trip fit one of 12 approved categories upon your return if questioned. Be aware in advance that one of the 12 categories is not “tourist” and you have to keep paperwork regarding your trip for 5 years after your return.
(Read about this directly from the US Government here)
If you don’t trust yourself to craft an appropriate trip, you can certainly travel with an authorized tour provider who can make sure you stay within the limits of the law and see much more of what Cuba has to offer than if you just go on your own. Frequently tour providers apply for a “People to People visa” on your behalf which primarily means that you spend your time in Cuba interacting with the Cuban people – and not just bartenders.
However you choose to visit, whether on your own or with a tour provider, Cuba has a tremendous amount to offer. If you have a short time only then popping into Havana alone is well worth the trouble and expense. It is a fascinating experience with a population of people who are kind, intelligent and opinionated and who have the hook up with some excellent rum and great cigars.
Getting there, for Americans:
As of this writing even though you can travel under a “General License” for which you don’t need to apply you still can not rock up and book a flight to Cuba. Until airlines relax their restrictions your best bet is to fly through Cancun where there are twice daily 80-minute flights on Cubana or Aeromexico. Remember, this is not illegal.
If you like the ease of someone else booking your travel but you do not want to attend a group tour there is a non-profit based in New Orleans called The CubaNola Arts Collective and their director, Ariana Hall, is the women with whom to visit Havana (or any of Cuba). She spends her life bringing New Orleans artists to Cuba and Cuban artists to New Orleans. Her strength is music but she also accentuates her trips with visits to studios of visual artists, arts collectives and performances. The days are long, informative and exhausting. Her groups are small and selective and you feel more like you are with a friend with insider information on this island than a traditional tour. email@example.com
Once you jump through the appropriate hoops and make your way down there is so very much to do and see. Southerners love their old cities and Havana will absolutely not disappoint. There are loads of things to do and you can really cover the city in a few days but don’t miss out on these goodies:
Walking Tour of Old Havana
Take a guided walking tour of Old Havana. Sure, you can see El Capitolio, Gran Teatro, Parque Central, and the Bacardi building on your own but a guide will make sure you don’t miss the interesting buildings, bars and restaurants in between. Give up your morning to a walking tour, stop for lunch and then hire a bicycle taxi to take you slightly further afield (Chinatown, for instance).
Vintage Convertible Tour
Book a car for a set amount of time, set the amount in advance, and then figure out where you want to go. Either take a trip “out of town” or just cruise around the city and stop in for cocktails along the way. It’s touristy but, hey, it’s Havana and if you aren’t in to vintage cars why in the world are you there?
The Colon Cemetary
Considered one of the greatest cemeteries in the world the Colon cemetary also known as Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is well worth the 15-minute taxi ride from Old Havana. Over 500 crypts, vaults and other gorgeously creepy things are tightly packed within 140-acres. Hiring a docent is inexpensive and highly recommended.
Plastic Arts lovers will find their fill in Havana. Of course there is music and dance in abundance but for those looking to experience the plastic arts here are a few great stops:
Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA)
Set on the grounds of the former Country Club of Havana ISA is a national art school for drama, dance, music and plastic arts. Entry has to be agreed upon in advance and can sometimes be difficult, but if you can swing it, it is well worth the visit. The structure of the plastic arts building itself is a wonderful and bizarre labyrinth of catalan vaulted walkways and an enormous ode to a woman’s reproductive system. You can meet students and artists there and even have a chance to purchase their work.
l Taller Experimental de Gráfica
Just up the street from La Bodeguita del Medio and next to the café with the worst name ever (Es No Es Una Café) is the The Experimental Graphics Studio. Printmaking is important in Cuba and this is the premier location for Cubans to study it. You can meet the artists and discuss techniques as well as see them mid-production.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana
There are actually two Bellas Artes in Havana. One dedicated to Cuban artists and the other to international artists. The buildings alone are worth a visit and the exhibits are stunning.
Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts)
Dedicated to Cuban artists this modern building houses a staggering collection of Cuban artists (not all from Cuba, which is odd). There is also a pretty good coffee shop to invigorate your museum legs.
Palacio del Centro Asturiano (Palace of the Asturian Center)
Home to travelling art exhibits, Colonial art dating back to the 16th century as well as ancient treasures that you will astound you including a fragment of papyrus of one of the Books of the Dead, a primitive Sarcophagus and a large Greek Panathenaic amphora.
Museo de la Revolución
This one is not on the top tours list for all visitors (a friend of mine was forbidden to visit it by one tour provider). As the name would suggest it is full of history and propaganda surrounding Che & Fidel’s landing in Santiago de Cuba, hiding out in the mountains and eventual removal of US-backed Batista from power. The museum has two parts; the modern building that contains the Granma the boat the Che and Fidel landed on the shores of Santiago de Cuba and the former Presidential Palace where the exhibit continues.
Where to eat:
Havana has come a long way since the days of government run restaurants serving dry, rubbery fish and grey meat. Today there are hip, private run restaurants, charming paladars and historic institutions competing for tourist dollars. Expect ceviche and octopus in every manner conceivable and beware any restaurant review that includes the word “ambitious” as that seems to be code for “trying hard and missing.” Daily change means the restaurant options increase and quality improves but as of June 2015 these are a few of my absolute favorites – food, atmosphere, service all combined.
Probably the most popular restaurant in Havana, La Guarida is an ornate grand dame that epitomizes faded grandeur. It gained notoriety as the setting for “Fresa y Chocolate” Cuba’s first and only Oscar nominated movie. Go up one floor beyond the restaurant for a cocktail bar airlifted from Miami Beach. Hint: Sneak up the exterior staircase to yet another outdoor space that is terrifying.
Concordia No.418 /Gervasio y Escobar.
Tel:+5378669047 Tel. 2:+5352644940
La Cocina d’Lilliam
Lilliam opened her restaurant 20 years ago in her verdant garden surrounding her mid-century modern abode. With no formal training Lilliam turns out some of the best simple Cuban cuisine you will see on any visit. Don’t skimp on the bread, malanga fritters or black beans.
Calle 48 No 1311 entre 13 y 15, Almendares, La Habana
Phone: (537) 209 6514
Housed in what is easily the coolest mid-century house on the planet, Paladar Vista Mar is nestled in between identical houses and stands out because it has been painstakingly renovated and now contains an outstanding restaurant. The food is very good but what you are there for is the architecture and experience. You can’t help but imagine life there in the 1950s before the discovery of sunscreen, skin cancer and Socialism. Hands down the coolest pool you’ve ever seen.
A hip new restaurant in a renovated old bicycle factory. Upside and downside is that you could be in any revitalized neighborhood in any burgeoning city. It is a refreshing break from the otherwise sometime challenging restaurants in Cuba. Cocktails are great. Wines on the wine list are mostly available and there is a great outdoor deck for dining or drinks. They can also accommodate big groups.
Calle 26, Vedado | Between Calle 11 and 13, Havana,Cuba
You can’t leave Havana without a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio. Though very few watering holes don’t lay claim to being a favorite spot of Hemingways this one is legit. Get there early and belly up to the bar. Beware the roaming bachelor/ette parties.
Where to stay:
For a taste of living like a local (albeit an absurdly wealthy one by Cuban standards) try book in at Casa Pedro-María. Billed as a “Boutique Hotel” this is a guest house / B&B that is located in prime Havana Vieja. High risk, high reward.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is well regarded as the grandest of Havana hotels. Keep in mind the relativity of that claim, however. The hotel is indeed grand and is worth at least having a drink in while visiting. The rooms, however, are more faded grandeur than grandeur and friends who have stayed there recently have said they would leave the fame behind and stay elsewhere.
The Parque Central is the most modern and universally highest-end hotel. What you miss in faded grandeur and a sense of connection you make up in room service and wireless access. Muy expensive.
A real taste of Havana history in a fantastic location and a decent price can be found the Hotel Saratoga. It was built in 1935 as a grand hotel but nationalized in 1960 by the Cuban government. It became a low-cost rooming house until it was shut down for the appalling condition (the mind boggles at how bad that must have been…). It underwent a massive renovation in 2005 and now holds 96 rooms, suites, a 24 hour bar, pool and wifi. Best of the lot!
You are allowed to return with up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba including original artwork, informational materials and recorded music. Of that allowance up to $100 can now be in Cuban rum and cigars. You can even claim it on your customs form, no need to stash it in your son’s duffel bag. Other than that great souvenirs for any kids back home include maracas ($1) and Cuban dolls ($2-$10) or small toy cars carved out of wood or sometimes made out of beer or soda cans ($1-$5).
In theory you can use credit cards in Cuba but in practice very few places other than hotels are set up for that. If you are an art collector there are many high end galleries to visit and most of those do accept credit cards.
I hope you make it. If you do drop me a line.