Cuba. The forbidden fruit of travel. A place where time stands still.
We arrived in Havana late at night, weary and weak, after a long day of travel. Lamp posts flickered on empty concrete streets, soft light diffused against decaying buildings, the lingering scent of cigar smoke clung to the thick, humid air like ghosts of days gone past. Arriving to Havana at midnight sent our imaginations running wild, mystery and intrigue loomed around every bend. The old cars, the crumbling buildings, tradition, simplicity- it sends the mind spinning, dreaming of Hemingway cooped up in tiny corner cafes with a drink and a cigar, walking home in the rain, watching the tropical sea meet the shore. We stopped for caipirinhas in the hotel lobby as midnight approached, exchanging stories well into the night with travelers and locals alike. We woke in the morning to blazing tropical sun, peering out the window to an expansive view of El Malecón, the famous stretch of concrete where the city meets the sea. Palm trees, coconuts, and brightly colored cars from the 1950’s replaced last night’s eerie darkness as we emerged into the bustling city center of Havana. The city’s outward appearance feels completely stuck in time, but it’s hard to ignore the energy of change that’s bubbling beneath the surface. The week we arrived was a historic one for Cuba- President Obama was there days before our arrival, the first US president to visit the country since 1928. The day after we landed, the Rolling Stones played a historic free concert in the city, only the second band to perform in Cuba after a decades long ban on rock & pop music (and yes, we were there! More on that later. . .). Shortly after we left, Chanel debuted their Resort collection through a fashion show in the streets of Havana. Needless to say, the once mysterious and dangerous communist country is experiencing a rebirth of sorts, and for a brief moment in time, we got to become part of it.
Many people say they want to visit Havana before “it changes too much.” And I understand why- visually, Havana is an artist’s dream- the balance of beauty and decay, color and crumbling stone, vibrancy and dismay- these visual contrasts meet the eye and send the heart fluttering. But beneath it all, Cuba is in the midst of much-needed social and political change. I too used to think I didn’t want Havana to change, as if the loosening of the communist grip would ruin a place so full of history and beauty. But now, as I replay rum-fueled late night talks with locals, and images of rotting buildings that once stood tall and proud, I realize that Havana’s re-emergence into modernity is one of beauty, triumph, and promise of a better future for a vibrant culture that can never lose its charm.
Hire a Fixer: Our Cuba experience was enhanced by the fact we hired a fixer - one who happened to be an actor in the Cuban film business. The places he took us and people we were introduced to were of the arts, which made for access to lesser known spots and interesting conversation. A fixer is optional depending on budget, but since our goal was to do a photoshoot he became an essential part of our team.
Currency: 10% commission is charged in Cuba when exchanging US dollars into Cuban Pesos. Consider converting to Euros prior to entering Cuba to avoid the charge. Be aware of limited access to ATM’s or use of credit cards.
Internet: Many hotels sell internet access, while others provide free wifi. Antoher option is any ETECSA station, the country’s national internet provider. Just look for a building with loads of local people outside on their cell phones, or waiting in line- that’s most likely an ETECSA station!
EAT & DRINK
304 O’Reilly: Tucked away on a back street in Havana. Try the taas or go big and have their delicious lobster!
Dona Eutimia: Owned and operated by the family for years, this gem offers traditional Cuban food and delicious cocktails. Reservation required.
El Cocinero: Located in the arts district, with terrace and rooftop dining. Visit art gallery Fabrica del Arte right next door.
El Chanchullero: A great (and cheap!) hole in the wall spot for lunch and a mojito. Get the Fricase de Pollo! If you’re searching for Hemingway, go to his favorite Floridita for drinks.
Live Music: La Zorra y El Cuervo: Provides the best. Quite small but full of soul, get there early to ensure you get a table. The entrance is through a red phone booth!
Casa Particulares- These are licensed homestays or bed and breakfast style lodgings available throughout Cuba that can be recognized by a small sign on the door. Just knock and have a look around! Vedado is a great coastal neighborhood with some beautiful Casa Particulares. Find a flat on an upper floor and enjoy a view of the coast. www.casaparticular.com
Melia Cohiba is a luxury along El Malecon. With a pool spa, and five restaurants to choose from, this hotel serves as a source of comfort and modernity. While many hotels in cuba sell internet access, the Melia Cohiba offers free wifi. Meliacuba.com
As the home of Hemingway for many years, the Hotel Ambos Mundos is a natural tourist attraction. His room has been untouched and for a small fee you are welcomed into the realm of a legend. Hotelambosmundos-cuba.com