The flight from Miami to Havana took less than an hour. After we checked in to the Hotel Nacional we wasted no time and left the hotel so we could start experiencing Havana. We walked to the Malecón, the iconic seawall that protects the city from the ocean. Two fishermen talked as they held fishing lines in the water. A group of middle school students in uniforms crossed the street to watch the surf hit the concrete and stone wall and spray into the air.
The day was clear and warm, perfect to take a long walk. In the middle of a residential block with towering rows of apartments, we went inside Bar San Juan on the corner of Vapor and Calle 0. Definitely off-the-beaten-path, Bar San Juan is a friendly, neighborhood hang-out. We took a seat at the curved wooden bar. The door and windows were open. The flags hanging from the ceiling fluttered in the breeze. My wife ordered a mojito and I had a long pour of Havana Gold rum. The mojito had a bright freshness, just the right drink on a warm day. The rum was mellow, golden and delicious. We had a friendly conversation with the barmen. The flags hanging from the ceiling were from just about every country on the planet, except for the United States.
We spent the next week happily exploring a city that for so long has been off-limits to Americans. In the past, if you wanted to visit Cuba, you did so on a restrictive tour or secretly, asking the immigration officer at José Martí International Airport in Havana not to stamp your passport. But no longer.
Now, that you can travel to Cuba openly, the only question is, why are you waiting?
In 2016, Cuba may well become a premium destination for Americans. There are direct flights from many U.S. cities. Travel agents can plan trips using charter airlines that fly nonstop flights to Cuba from key American cities like Miami and Los Angeles. At some time this year, U.S. airlines are expected to begin direct service to cities throughout Cuba.
If you book your travel on a group tour, you can choose one that focuses on your interests. You can visit historic Havana, churches, cigar factories, artists' studios, art galleries, museums, nightclubs and restaurants, UNESCO heritage sites or beaches outside of Havana to lounge or go scuba diving.
On a first time visit you will want to spend five days or a week. The first two days will be spent exploring the city on foot or with a driver so you learn the layout of the city. Havana is large, but the locations of interest for visitors are mostly concentrated in a few areas. During your stay you will want to visit museums, art galleries, churches, historical sites and relax at the outdoor cafes to enjoy a pleasant meal.
And, of course, you will enjoy music while you are in Havana. As you walk in the street, music will pour out of radios in people's homes. There are nightclubs, jazz clubs and nostalgic musical reviews like Cabaret Parisien and Cabaret Tropicana. Small bands play in cafés and bars where you can enjoy the music called "son" that was popularized by the movie, the Buena Vista Social Club.
You will pass open air cafés like Sofia Restaurant on the corner of Avenida 23 at Calle O intending to have a quick coffee, but a band with a singer and five musicians will be playing. You finish your coffee but the music is so infectiously joyful, you end up staying the rest of the afternoon. When the band takes a break, you'll buy one of their cassettes in an effort to prolong the experience by playing the CD when you get home. But nothing is as good as being in the café, in Havana, on a day when the weather is just right and the music is so full of life. Which means, before you leave the café you will be planning your next visit to Cuba.
One day I walked almost ten miles across the city where I saw Havana's rich history displayed in its architecture with a complex mix of Spanish colonial, Art Deco, 1950s modern and Soviet era concrete-block buildings.
You can't go to Havana without encountering vintage 1950s and 1960s American cars. When you are riding in the back seat of a beautifully restored convertible 1958 Ford Fairlane, you will look up at the passing palm trees and enjoy the warm breeze on your face, imagining that you have slipped back in time.
In the old city (La Habana Vieja), you will walk the narrow streets to buy souvenirs from narrow stalls tucked into old buildings, look at the work of local artists and search for Ernest Hemingway's haunts so you can belly up to the bar and order mojitos and daiquiris like Papa did. You'll be tempted to buy a hand-rolled Cuban cigar from one of the old women in white who are everywhere in the old city. But you have heard that the women who always have fat cigars in their clinched teeth do not sell quality cigars so you seek out the Partagas cigar factory (Calle Industria No. 520, Centro Habana) and watch cigars being hand-rolled.
As you walk around the city, you may remember the news reports about efforts to normalize relations between Cuba and the U.S. And, you may have also heard the angry voices railing against any effort to lift the sixty-year long embargo.
Those political issues will seem far away when you are stopped on the street and asked, "Where are you from?" If you answer, "the United States," the response invariably will be, "I love America." One afternoon on a long walk away from the tourist areas, I had that exchange with a young man in shorts who pulled up his t-shirt to show me a tattoo of the Statue of Liberty on his chest.
When I last visited Havana in December, 1999, the old city looked like a weathered New Orleans with wrought-iron balconies, vividly colored stucco walls and wooden shutters on the tall windows.
At that time, the city lacked some very basic services because the "special relationship" with the Soviet Union had ended and a feeling of deprivation was evidenced in shops with empty shelves. To fill the void created by the withdrawal of Soviet subsidizes, a few small businesses were experimenting with capitalism and American dollars were an informal, unregulated currency.
So much has changed in sixteen years. Today parts of Havana feel completely different. The streets are bustling. There are busy restaurants and paladares, where making reservations well in advance is a necessity. In the intervening years, new hotels and restaurants have opened. Streets have been paved. Historic buildings have been restored so they resemble their better selves when they first opened.
That is what most tourists see. To experience the city as locals do, walk into the central city where you will see the effects of the embargo. There, the streets are potholed and the buildings continue to suffer the ravages of nature and the lack of building materials to make much-needed repairs.
The big questions about Cuba are, when will the embargo end and how will that change the country? Commercial ties will certainly lead to commercial development. East Germany, China and Vietnam were all transformed when they transitioned from communist to capitalist economies. But those countries were variations on a theme. Prosperous China and Vietnam are still controlled societies with human rights issues, where as East Germany has been absorbed into democratic West German.
Cuba will have its own version. Change could be gradual or rapid depending on how the Cuban government manages the transition. Once the embargo is lifted by Congress, U.S. banks will set up relationships inside Cuba. That will mean U.S. credit cards will be accepted. American corporations as varied as McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, the Gap, Disney, Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Hilton, Ritz-Carleton and Starwood will look to find opportunities in Cuba.
What Havana will look like in five years is anyone's guess. If you go now, you will experience Havana as the change is just beginning. Now is a good time to travel to Cuba.
12 Reasons Why You Should Visit Havana
1. The Tourist Area of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja)
Certainly you will want to explore many parts of the city, but definitely walk on busy, crowded Calle Obispo from Calle Mercaderes, near Havana Harbor, west to Avenida Bélgica. The narrow street has closet sized curio shops selling refrigerator magnets celebrating Havana's cigars, cars and women, small mass-produced art works, stuffed dolls, marionettes, t-shirts with a photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and much much more.
Go with the flow and walk with the mass of people eating elote (corn on the cob on a stick), sticky pastries and small Cuban sandwiches. If you are lucky there will be music. Serenading bands set up on street corners, hoping for a donation. One day when I walked among the crowds, a colorful group of performers danced in the middle of the street on five-foot tall stilts. Dressed in Mardi Gras-styled multi-colored outfits, they would have been at home in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. Some of the men and women played instruments, the others smiled and shimmied, reaching out to children on their parents' shoulders or to couples standing, arms around each other, enjoying the impromptu celebration of all things Cuban.
2. Historical Havana
Travel anywhere in the world and you will see plaques describing the historical importance of a grassy field, a building or a promontory. Many of those sites mark the conclusion of a battle and rail against those who were vanquished by the nation's brave defenders. In Havana those markers can be uncomfortable for Americans. While there are many markers referencing the Spanish occupation of Cuba, there are as many noting when the United States initiated an attack or attempted an invasion.
Americans typically describe themselves as the good guys, so it takes a bit of effort to put your mind around the fact that in Cuba we have been perceived as the bad guys for a very long time.
The mix of current enthusiasm and historical enmity for America is part of what makes Havana what it is. Stop by the Nautica Bar on the back patio of the Hotel Nacional. Take a leisurely stroll on the walkway through the lawn facing the Malecón and the beautiful water beyond. The historical markers detail the time when America and Cuba faced one another canons blazing and soldiers dying under a hot sun. On a blue sky day, when the water sparkles and delicate white clouds float overhead, it is difficult to imagine such violent events happening, but they did happen and it is important to remember that history as the two countries look to reconnect in a more constructive way.
3. 1950s and 1960s American Cars
Vintage American cars are an iconic feature of Havana. You will enjoy the sight of so many antique Buicks, Pontiacs, Chrysler Plymouths, Ford Fairlanes, Chevrolets, Dodges and Studebakers. The most perfectly restored cars popular with foreign visitors wait for fares close to the hotels and in major plazas like José Martí Revolution Square. If you are a romantic, you will want to ride around Havana in one of those cars that evoke sex and glamour. But they are not cheap.
The cars can be rented for an hour or a portion of the day. That can be arranged in advance by your travel agent or by the hotel concierge. Cars can also be booked online from Nostalgic Car Cuba (www.nostalgicarcuba.com).
Not all of Havana's vintage cars are precious artifacts. Walk on streets where locals live, like Neptuno going west from where it crosses San Miguel and the vintage cars are not pretty and shiny. Held together by bailing wire, duct tape and Cuban ingenuity, those cars with dulled paint and thread-bare seats are the workhorses of the city, transporting people and goods for a few pesos a trip.
4. The Museum of the Revolution
A must stop on a trip to Havana. Formerly the Presidential Palace, the Museum has exhibits detailing Spain's colonization of the island, the period of Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship, the armed struggle that over threw him and American attempts at intervention like the Bay of Pigs.
Some of the exhibits attest to a decadent opulence, like the sold gold telephone given to Batista and featured in Godfather, Part II.
In the open area in back, there are relics from those struggles, including a Russian designed SA-2, surface-to-air missile like the one that brought down a U-2 spy plane during the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as warplanes and a tank used to defend the island.
Museo de la Revolución, Calle Refugio No. 1 between Monserrate and Zulueta, La Habana Vieja
5. The Palace of Fine Arts
Across the street from the Museum of the Revolution, the Palace of Fine Arts has a wonderful collection of art covering five centuries. Allow enough time to spend several hours exploring the galleries and enjoy a cup of strong Cuban coffee and a snack in the open-air café next to the ground floor, outdoor sculpture garden. The art in the museum was either created in Cuba or is the work of Cuban artists. There are also occasional exhibits with work by non-Cubans like the English photographer, Peter Turnley exhibit whose show runs until 2/15/16 with a very good curation of his extraordinary portraits of people living in conflict zones.
There are so many excellent works on display, you will have your favorites and I had mine. I especially enjoyed the mid-century work of Mariano Rodríguez (1912-1990) whose sensuous paintings utilized many styles, the brilliant, satirical cartoonist Rafael Blanco (1885-1955) who attacked the pretensions of the upper classes and politicians and an eccentric sculpture of a woman with a headscarf on a sled being pulled by a dozen alligators by Esterio Segura (1970-present).
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, Trocadero Street between Zulueta and Monserrate, La Habana Vieja, +53 7861-3858 or +53 861-5777, http://www.bellasartes.cult.cu
6. F.A.C. or Fábrica de Arte Cubano
On everyone's short list of places to visit in Havana, Fábrica, as it is known locally, is a sprawling complex with an art gallery, disco, screening room, café, bar and lecture space. A tall smoke stack towers over the block-long, three story building. The lively complex would be at home in Brooklyn, Paris or London. An artists' collective subsidized by the government, Fábrica is an affordably priced gathering spot for young people, artists and visitors.
Open from 8:00 PM-3:00 AM Thursday-Sunday, you will want to come early so you can view the art in the galleries before the crowds flood into the building. By design the art has political undertones. Some of the paintings, sculptures and photographs are overtly political like Fernando Rodríguez's 2012 "Suprematismo (Rojo sobre Negro)" with two hundred toy-sized red bulls mounting black cows next to a video loop of a speech by Fidel Castro.
You will tell your friends to hold on to the tickets they were given when they entered. Instead of paying for food and drinks in the café and bar, each person's ticket is marked. When you leave, your bill is totaled. You will patiently explain to your friends that if they lose their tickets, they cannot leave without paying a substantial fee.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.), Calle 11 #61, at 26th, Vedado, +53 7838-2260
7. Street Art
You will want to check out the street art that is everywhere in Havana, but there is no guide book to show you where to see inventive, colorful graffiti, murals and caricatures. Some are crudely drawn on stucco walls. Many are the work of talented artists who make the city their gallery. Your feet will be your guide as you wander the main boulevards and off-the-beaten-path streets. Some of the best art I saw was on the wooden walls surrounding construction sites, like the murals outside the under renovation Museo Nacional de la Música (on Aguiar and Avenida Belgica).
Much of what I saw might be gone before you visit Havana. But not the art at Salvador Gonzáles Escalona's Callejón de Hamel, a collection of sculptures and murals in a pedestrian walkway. The images are Afro-Cuban, with a heavy dose of Santería images. Everyday objects--bathtubs, tires, pots, pans, stones, bathroom sinks and wrought iron fences--are incorporated into wildly painted collages, sculptures and the walls of buildings. Children have art classes under the shaded patio and musicians gather to play and ask for donations. A paladar serves food and drinks. Artists sell their paintings in small galleries, some reached by descending twisting staircases into basement showrooms.
Callejón de Hamel, San Lazaro # 955 between Aramburu and Hospital
You have probably heard about paladares, the small dining establishments set up by families in their homes. When they first appeared, the Cuban government variously tolerated and then shuttered them. Now they are heavily promoted as a distinctive feature of Havana culture.
In 1999 we ate at La Guarida, a small apartment on the third floor of what had been an elegant mansion with a magnificent, curved staircase. The restaurant was in the front rooms of the apartment where the sofas and coffee table had been replaced by small dining tables and rickety chairs. The food was good but not special. Featured in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate (Fresa y chocolate), La Guarida became famous as "the" paladar to visit in Havana. That is still true today. But what is different is La Guarida itself.
The restaurant and bar have taken over the entire third floor. The intimate dining rooms are decorated with antiques and beautiful paintings. The food is excellent, as good as any meal you would enjoy in a 5-Star European hotel, with prices to match.
Today, there are many paladares and many types of paladares. Some, like La Guarida serve European style cuisines in settings that look very much like upscale restaurants. Others like Ivan Chef Justo still feel like you are eating in a family's home with bookcase lined walls, decorated with black and white photographs. Ivan Chef Justo is cluttered in a cozy, fun way and the food is delicious. You will especially enjoy the roast pork and the sauce served with the lobster. Both Ivan and Justo had been Fidel Castro's chefs at moments in their careers.
In the space next to Fábrica, El Cocinero on the second floor has the open, modern feeling of an upscale restaurant you enjoy visiting in New York, Miami or Los Angeles. Brightly colored paintings hang on the walls inside and outside a sprawling deck is shaded by tall tropical plants. Serving a European menu, the food is well-prepared and platted in a way that makes what you are about to eat as fetching as the art on the walls.
At the paladar Rio Mar in Miramar, you will sit outside on the covered terrace having an ice cold cocktail and hearing music coming from the 1830 Club across the Almendares River. You have heard the Club is a lot of fun but right now you are happy having drinks and enjoying a meal with friends. The waiter will ask if you would like another mojito. You smile to yourself because you didn't realize you had already finished the first one, it was that good. You politely refuse because right now you are more hungry than thirsty. You and your friends happily share plates of octopus salad, grilled shrimp and clams and a large, charred lobster tail, split on top with the thick meat easily available.
La Guarida, Concordia No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, Centro Habana,
+53 7866 -9047, +53 7866-2354, +53 5414-7852, www.laguarida.com
Ivan Chef Justo, Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon, La Habana Vieja, +53 7863 - 9697, +53 5343-8540
El Cocinero, Calle 26 between Calle 11 and Calle 13, Vedado, +53 7832-2355
Rio Mar, Avenida 3ra # 11, La Puntilla, Miramar, +53 7209-4838
9. Restaurants and Roof-Top Bars
The restaurants and cafés catering to tourists serve food that varies in quality. Some of the better restaurants have a Cuban-Italian menu like El Litoral (on the Malecón just west of the American Embassy and Hotel Nacional), a pleasantly modern European style café with a good bar. El Litoral has an antipasto table with a selection of salads, pizza and seafood and a full menu with upscale presentations of familiar European dishes and some typical Cuban dishes. The French fries are especially good.
Jacqueline Fumero Café is a block east of the Museum of the Revolution on a narrow street. The restaurant has a large Italian menu with service outside on a patio. On a sunny, cool day, you will definitely want to eat outside.
If you want to try a restaurant where locals go, you will want to visit Kasalta Sports Bar-Restaurant. Hopefully you speak Spanish because none of the waiters speak English. If four of you are eating together, you will ask for one order of the Pollo Kasalta. What will arrive at the table will be two large plates. One plate is topped with four large chicken legs and thigh, the other with a serving of soy sauce flavored fried rice with savory bits of chicken, ham and shrimp. That will cost you only $12 CUC and you will be very satisfied. Even if you are no longer hungry, you not be able to resist an order of flan served with paper-thin slices of fresh pineapple. After a round of espressos, you will be ready to continue with your exploration of Havana.
Like many cities, Havana is learning to exploit its rooftops. Go on a roof-top bar-crawl and start at the Saratoga Hotel, move on to the Hotel Ambos Mundos (corner of Calles Obispo and Mercaderes) and go upstairs above El Cocinero to the roof-top bar and enjoy a drink (the piña coladas are creamy-delicious!) before going next door for dancing, art and films at Fábrica.
El Litoral, Malecón 161 E, between K and L, Vedado, +53 7830-2201
Jacqueline Fumero Cafe & Boutique, Compostela No. 1 Esquina Cuarteles, La Habana Vieja, +53 7862-6562, www.jacquelinefumero.com
Kasalta Sports Bar-Restaurant, Calle 5th at 2nd Avenue, +53 7267 1717
Bar Piscina Mirador, Saratoga Hotel, Paseo del Prado #603 Esquina Dragones, La Habana Vieja, +53 7868-1000, www.hotel-saratoga.com
Hotel Ambos Mundos, Calles Obispo 153 at Mercaderes, La Habana Vieja, +53 7860-95-2931, http://www.hotelambosmundos-cuba.com
Rooftop terrace, El Cocinero, Calle 26 between Calle 11 and Calle 13, Vedado, +53 7832-2355
10. Dogs and Cats
Walk around the city and you will meet the other citizens of Havana. Dogs and cats are everywhere and they all look well-fed. Sleeping peacefully on the side walk in front of an art gallery or sitting at the entrance to a small shop, the dogs came in all colors and sizes. Cats with thick, clean coats watched people walking to restaurants and in and out of curio shops. Their unhurried manner suggesting they had owners who love them.
11. The Malecón
The Malecón is at the center of Havana life even if it is on the northern edge of the city. The broad boulevard curves along the contours of the sea wall. When storms sweep across the island, the waves crash over the broad wall in thirty-foot tall plumes. During the day, fishermen stand on the wall, casting their lines into the surf, hoping to bring back the evening's meal. At night hundreds of young Cubans gather along the seawall to play music, talk, flirt, gossip and go online at the WiFi hotspots called telepuntos.
12. The United States Embassy.
Located across the street from the Malecón, you cannot enter the Embassy without special permission. In the Plaza de la Dignidad, across the street there is a mass of flag poles without flags. In 2006, when the U.S. installed an electronic display that broadcast news the Cuban government had blocked, Fidel Castro responded with a phalanx of flags on tall poles to block the view.
Both the electronic news display and the flags are gone, but the flag poles are very much in evidence as is the Embassy. Inaugurated by Secretary John Kerry in August, 2015, the Embassy is a physical sign that normalization between the two countries has begun in earnest.
10 Tips Once You Are in Havana
1. Tourist Cards
Travel to Cuba is still subject to restrictions but the requirement to state the purpose of the trip has been broadened greatly to include family visits, people-to-people travel and the very general "support of the Cuban people."
You do not need a visa to enter Cuba, but you do need to buy a Cuban tourist card from a travel agent. Keep the card with your passport. You cannot leave the country without showing the tourist card. When you go through Immigration at the airport on your way home, you will be asked to give it to the officer.
Bring cash. Until the embargo ends, U.S. credit cards and American dollars are not accepted in Cuba. Foreigners must exchange their currency for the convertible currency called the "CUC" (pronounced "cuke") while locals use the Cuban peso. In December, 2015 the exchange rate was $1.00 U.S. for $0.87 CUC. If necessary, cash can be wired to you through a Western Union office.
3. What you can declare when you come home
Whereas in the past, American citizens could not legally bring back any articles from Cuba, now it is permitted to bring back goods worth up to $400.00 including $100.00 of rum and/or cigars. Given that a liter of Havana Gold rum costs less than $20.00, that limitation will still allow you to bring enough rum to share with your friends while you show them your slides from the trip.
At the moment, the practical reality is that traveling in Cuba means going off-the-grid. Plan your visit at a time when you do not need to be in constant contact with the outside world. Hopefully you will find that liberating.
There is WiFi in most of the hotels. At some, like the premium Hotel Nacional, the cost is $10.00 CUC per day and the service is intermittent. For the first two days of my stay, I was able to check email and search the internet. For the second two days, I was not able to do either, although I was able to send and receive text messages. At the Hotel Nacional, every time you go online, you have to reenter your user name and security code, which is quite inconvenient. If you search around, you will find hotels like the Melia Cohiba where the WiFi is free and the service is relatively more reliable.
5. No Internet Means No Google Maps
Mostly you will rely on a paper map, which can be purchased in hotel lobbies for $3.00 CUC. Much of the city is laid out in grids but the tourist-friendly areas are not easily navigated without a map. The Galileo Offline Maps app (https://galileo-app.com) can help you find your way around Havana. Download the map before you venture out into the city. The app will track your movements so you can tell where you are, even though you are not online.
6. Guides and Guide Books
Guides can be hired, often with cars, arranged by a travel agent or the hotel. Check that the guide is proficient in English and knowledgeable about the city. If you have a specialized interest, such as history, churches, architecture, cigars or art, discuss the itinerary beforehand so you can request destinations you especially want to visit.
Many popular travel guides such as Fodor's and Lonely Planet have published updated guides for Havana and Cuba. The blog Stories from the Malecón (https://storiesfromthemalecon.wordpress.com) has useful tips. La Habana (www.lahabana.com), a free, online guidebook, is updated monthly and is an excellent source for general facts about the city as well as Time Out-style updates about events and performances taking place that month. Download the guide so it is available as you walk around the city.
7. Bringing art home
There are many talented artists working in Havana. When you purchase a work of art from a gallery or directly from an artist, be certain that you are given an export authorization (Autorizatión de Exportación). When I bought a painting from the Almost Famous Gallery (Cuarteles #3 between Cuba and Aguiar, Habana Vieja), besides the authorization, the artist Dennys Santos Diaz stamped the back of the canvas with his seal. At the airport, there is a special desk where you must show the documentation before you can board your plane. When you enter the United States, you may be asked to show the authorization and a bill of sale.
8. Charter Airlines
Until the U.S. carriers begin regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, you will have to use a charter airline. Pick one that is flown by American Airlines, which has created a charter airline that uses the American fleet's crew and airplanes.
9. Is it safe to drink the water?
No. Because the water has a high bacterial count, do not drink, brush your teeth or clean your contacts with the water. In the hotels, bottled water can be expensive. Buy bottled water at a local market (a Super Mercado).
10. Walking and Talking
Always look down when you are walking to avoid tripping on broken sidewalks or under repair cobblestone streets.
Generally speaking, Havana feels safe. Crime appears to be very limited, although caution should be exercised. There is no need to flaunt your valuables by wearing expensive jewelry and watches when walking around the city. As in many Latin American countries, women on the street are sometimes the objects of unwanted attention. Mostly that means men whistling and shouting endearments. The best response is to avoid eye contact and continue enjoying your walk around the city.
You will certainly share the many photographs you took on the trip with your friends. I posted mine on FLICKR (https://www.flickr.com/photos/138824908@N08/).
When you return, please let me know about your trip.