So you want to go to Cuba?

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How about Havana?

There is any number of tour companies regularly taking groups of tourists to the island. Some restrictions apply for Americans.

For US nationals there are guided tours. You have to stay where they want you to stay, eat where they want you to eat, see what they want you to see. They go under the banner of “people-to-people” tours, where they take you to “cultural” sites, such as the Cathedral, or to a cigar “museum” where they hope you will buy some Cuban cigars to bring back to the US. Don’t. Customs will confiscate them.

That is pretty much the picture that I saw in person when in 2015 my wife and I visited the city where I was born and grew up and which I had not seen in 57 years.

As an American citizen you can go on any number of tours and cruise ships that will take you to Havana and, in some instances to some of the smaller cities in the interior of the country. You would do well to first get an idea of prices from any one of the many companies that specialize on tours to Cuba or those that include the island in their catalogues as one of their destinations.

Again, compare prices.

But there are other alternatives available to the seasoned traveler.

Many adventurous tourists interested in seeing Cuba on their own terms are flying to the island on carriers that originate in  Europe. Some originate in Jamaica. The flying time is longer than the 45 minute flight between Miami and Havana but not by much. The Cuban authorities will not stamp a visa on your passport, but will instead give you a document that you will turn back upon departure. That way you will not be hassled upon your return home by an overly inquisitive customs person. Do remember though that you should carry a traveler’s insurance policy that includes repatriation costs in case of an emergency.

Once adventurous tourists get to Havana they can stay wherever they wish (see list below), eat at any number of family-owned paladares (some listed below) and choose to lie on a sandy beach or walk around in the capital, or hire a taxi – many of them pre-1960 American vintage cars – or visit any number of the meticulously-restored buildings that date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s that are now repurposed as museums. The possibilities are endless. Once there, where do you go and what do you want to see? That depends on what your interests might be. For those interested in getting an overview of the city, here follow some ideas.

Even if you have gone with a group or on a charter flight or cruise ship you are likely to be given some free time to explore on your own. I suggest hiring a taxi for the day or half-day. Cuban taxi operators are free-lancers licensed by the government, and they operate, as so many private entrepreneurs in today’s Cuba do, on their terms, meaning no tariffs, often no English, just lots of Cuban charm.

Negotiate the price, but do so fairly. Pay in dollars. You will have a Cuban friend for life. You can then let the taxi driver/guide take you to what he thinks will be of interest to you. Or you can have a list of sights and sites and give it to him up front, so that he can lay out an itinerary that makes sense. Add an incentive such as buying him a lunch half-way through your sightseeing trip. You’ll get the royal treatment. Tip generously. We hired a taxi for one afternoon for $40. Tipped $5 at the end. The driver was over the Cuban moon.

If the visitor is interested in Cuban visual arts, I would encourage attending the Havana Biennial, which occurs every two years. But at any time there are several art centers where the art lover can merely browse or acquire a work of art for a few dollars or for a sizeable purchase price. It  depends on the artist. Arrangements can be downright confusing, so that, if you plan to buy Cuban art, you ought to do some homework ahead of your visit.

Music in Cuba is everywhere: early everybody can sing or play an instrument or make up an instrument out of a tin can or a wooden box. Music is in the air. You can walk into any café or restaurant and find a trio playing and singing boleros from the 1920’s or trovas from today.

On one visit we heard a brief daytime concert by the great choral group Coraleo in a music conservatory, visited a recording studio where a recording engineer and his producer were seated at an impressive console putting the finishing touches on a DVD of Cuban Salsa music, while in another room a couple – she from Germany, he a Cuban – were laying down the first track of JS Bach’s complete suites for cello and harpsichord.

In Cuba, the performing arts are alive and well and thriving, especially Classical Ballet and Modern Dance. If the visitor happens to be in town at the time of one of the many performances given by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the elegant Teatro Nacional on the Prado Boulevard or at the other National Theatre, the one located in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and can get a ticket, he or she will be in for an artistic treat.

Havana is a sprawling 281 square mile metropolis. Those who go to the Cuban capital expecting to find another sleepy little Caribbean backwater are in for a surprise. The City is home to 2.1 million people, and because of its being surrounded by water on three sides – the Caribbean Ocean, the Bay of Havana and the Almendares River – it has had to expand eastwards beyond the Bay into the Habana del Este neighborhood, where large apartment buildings are home to a growing population. On its west, Marianao is home to the overflow of humanity that cannot find a place to live in the city proper.

On a first time or even a subsequent one you may want to concentrate on one or two of the several neighborhoods that make up Havana. The old part of the City – dating back to 1592 – hugs the bay and expands for a good couple of miles. Within it are contained a significant number of architectural treasures, some of which date back three or more centuries. This old part of the City is best seen on foot, wearing comfortable shoes and carrying a handy map to help locate things. Many of the old buildings are now home to hotels, eateries, boutiques, art galleries and museums. Funds from UNESCO continue to help the City renovate, restore and save architectural gems that have earned Havana the status of World Heritage Site.

The Vedado and Playa neighborhoods are a mixed bag of old and sometimes dilapidated buildings long past their former glory, side-by-side with imposing mansions dating back as much as a hundred years, now serving as homes for embassies and consulates and, on occasion, as homes for members of a growing Cuban elite made up of foreign and Cuban-born entrepreneurs and government functionaries.

The US embargo on trade with Cuba has made it very difficult for the City to maintain all of its neighborhoods. Paint is hard to come by. Pressure cleaning is unknown or unavailable. Cement, bricks, concrete, steel and many construction materials are difficult to obtain. But Cubans are very good at two things: “resolver” (to solve) and “inventar” (to invent), and all over the city you see the signs of ingenuity at work.

The house where I grew up – a three family triplex mid-century building – now sports the same coat of now-peeling paint it got in 1958, and on its roof now sits a ramshackle shack made of found materials and plywood, a jerry-rigged home to somebody’s daughter or son and their in-law still wanting to live on their own but unable to find an apartment or even a room for themselves in a city where new construction is a rare thing. But, yes, a visit to Havana’s outlying neighborhoods will give you a glimpse of how most Cubans live: cleanly, modestly, even in straitened circumstances, but with touching dignity.

GUIDEBOOKS

In my library I have several maps (www.streetwisemaps.com) of both Cuba and Havana. There are also several excellent guidebooks that will help you navigate your way around Havana and, beyond it, the island.

I like CUBA, published by Moon Handbooks in Canada (www.moon.com) and Frommer’s CUBA (email: frommersfeedback@wiley.com)

CUBA, published by the English company AA (email: travelguides@theAA.com) is my favorite, for its pocketsize dimensions and for the maps included in it.

LODGING AND DINING 

Most hotels in Cuba, even those with 4-star ratings do not begin to compare to those in the United States or Europe. On one occasion we stayed in the Melia Cohiba in the Vedado neighborhood. There was nothing really wrong with it, but it was neither near anything interesting that you could walk to nor comparable to similarly-priced hotels at home amenities.

Getting to know a city means walking around it and, for my money, next time I visit Cuba I will try to book a room in one of the hotels in or near the old city, such as the San Miguel, the Raquel, the Saratoga, and or the Mercure Sevilla. There are also some very nice B&B’s in or near the Bay, some with gorgeous views of the Bay and the City of Regla on the other side.

If I were you I would make all my travel arrangements through a good travel agent. Our friends at Victoria Travel (www.victoriatravel.biz) here in Cincinnati have always done a great job for us on any number of trips we have taken.

OK, now let’s have something to eat. But not in the hotel, unless breakfast is included and edible. Contrary to myth and misinformation, Havana is a great city in which to eat out. A couple of caveats, though: drink bottled water, not ever tap water. Avoid iced drinks. Cuban beer is great, so is Cuban rum, but it is served mostly in iced drinks. Avoid those and drink the beer. My wife and I ended up in a hospital in Miami with a bad case of…Montezuma’s Revenge. I called it Fidel’s Last Wish.

Avoid leafy vegetables and instead enjoy Cuban tomatoes, avocados, plantains, eggplant. Do not leave without trying some of the tropical fruits of Cuba: mamey, anon, zapote, guanabana, pineapple…Cubans have always had a light breakfast: a cup of café con leche, bread and butter, occasionally a fried egg with some ham and even some potatoes or some fruit. Try having a Cuban-style breakfast at any number of little cafes that you will find in the vicinity of your hotel. After that you will be ready to explore.

Cuban cuisine is not spicy hot, like Mexican food can be. Instead of chili peppers, Cubans flavor their cooking with sofrito – a mix of garlic, onion, olive oil, bay laurel leaves, cumin, cilantro, and tomatoes using the sum of all these parts or in partial combination thereof, depending on whatever is available at the market that day.

Some of the chefs that rule the kitchens of the humbly appointed eateries of Havana are geniuses who, in the absence of the traditional minced beef used in the Cuban dish known as Picadillo, get away with a minor peccadillo by substituting lamb or pork (or even rabbit or goat in extreme cases) for the beef traditionally used for this dish. Ropa Vieja, Fricase de Puerco, Fricase de Pollo are all must haves. Snapper and other fish are as widely available to the visitor able to pay with cucs (the currency available only to the tourist) as they are scarce to the average Cuban.

How odd it is that dairy products are hard to come by for many Cubans, unless they are the parents of an infant, though ice cream is widely available in popular ice cream parlors, such as Copelia, at the corner of L and 23 streets in Vedado, as long as one is willing to put up with the interminable long lines.

For lunch or dinner avoid the overpriced and mostly mediocre government-owned restaurants and try instead a family-owned paladar. These are small eateries created by enterprising Cubans in the living and dining rooms of private homes. They are mostly small and usually booked up, so you will need to reserve your table, which you can do through your hotel. The Café Laurent in the Vedado neighborhood serves one of the best meals in the City. I can attest to that.

I close this posting on my birth city with all good wishes to those wanting to visit Cuba. Questions directed to me on this blog will all get a response from me. Happy Travels!

Rafael de Acha

 

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