When the subject of our recent vacation to Cuba comes up, our friends don’t ask about the rum or the Cohibas—the first thing they all want to know about is how we got in. Only 90 miles from the U.S., it’s odd to think of one of our closest neighbors as an exotic piece of forbidden fruit. Unfortunately, ever since the American embargo was imposed way back in 1959, we Yanks have been severely restricted from traveling there with only a few exceptions for students, journalists, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
That said, there are ways around the situation—flights from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean—as long as you keep your passport clear of a Republica De Cuba stamp. For us, however, getting into Cuba was pretty straightforward. We flew directly from Miami to Havana, and even returned home with our passports stamped. Though the embargo is still very much in full effect, Americans can now travel to Cuba legally with an educational “People to People” license issued through group tours. According to our guide, more than 500,000 Americans are expected to visit Cuba in 2014, nearly double the amount compared to 2013. The loosened travel restriction through the program is one of the main reasons. Technically, this means that you’re there to learn about Cuban history and culture (not as a tourist), and your itinerary must include visits to places such as the cigar and rum factories. Done and done.
Our expectations going into this trip were limited to what most Americans might associate with Cuba—the infamous Fidel Castro, mojitos, premium cigars and of course, Ricky Ricardo and the Tropicana. Coming from a family of classic car collectors, we eagerly anticipated Havana to be “stuck in time” as everyone describes, with candy-colored Bel Airs zooming through neighborhoods of abandoned mansions and a bygone era of mid-century glamor before the “Triumph of the Revolution” put it to a sudden halt. We knew that this trip would be a rare opportunity, especially for a couple of Americans, to experience the city and concentration of Cuban culture the way it is before it inevitably changes. To temper the romanticism, we voraciously brushed up on our world history, from the Ten Years’ War and Platt Amendment, to Fidel’s rise to power, the Bay of Pigs, and what the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay has come to represent. We also downloaded “Against All Hope” on Kindle, a political prisoner’s memoir of being incarcerated and tortured during the Communist takeover.
Our first day of exploration started in the back seat of American “Yank Tanks.” Ours was a lime green Chevy Bel Air. Drivers picked us up from our hotel, the Parque Central, and we spent the day exploring the capital. We drove along the Malecon, the iconic seawall edging the Havana coastline, and stopped to see some of the iconic hotels facing out at the Atlantic. The legendary Hotel Nacional de Cuba, built by Americans in 1930, was a hotspot for celebrities and their mafia pals. Then there’s the towering Havana Riviera, the most glaring example of what might have been. Built in 1956 by Meyer Lansky, it resembled and rivaled the original Riviera Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Later on our trip, we caught a view of the back side of the grand Riviera and watched neighborhood children playing soccer in the empty basin of the hotel’s swimming pool. After Castro came into power, developers were pushed out and schools went back to teaching Spanish as the primary language, but the brut force of American culture left an indelible impression. A Cuba Libré, after all, is rum and Coke with lime.
When in Havana, mojitos and Cohibas (Cuba’s finest brand of cigars), are a must, and at least one of each should be enjoyed at La Bodegita del Medio, famously known as Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place to sip the muddled mint cocktails and white Havana Club rum. Up a few blocks is where he preferred his daiquiris at El Floridita, and you can order one from the bartenders, still dressed in that classic ‘50s-style with a white shirt and tie.
We found our best meals in paladeres (makeshift dining rooms in private homes and apartments) and felt completely safe exploring the city, the entire time getting rides in private taxi cabs. Although there’s dire need for restoration and new infrastructure (trying to get online while there will take you back to 1995), we were all incredibly impressed by the resilience and hustle of the friendly people we met. From colorful street performers to musicians serenading the streets with “Guantanamera,” there’s an interesting story around every corner.
On our last night in Havana, we dined at the famous Tropicana. We were blown away by the grandeur of the multi-stage performances, the endless ensembles of scantily tasseled dancers, and the nostalgic opulence transporting us back to a time we’ve only experienced through film.
After Havana, we drove a couple hours east along the coast to the white sand beaches of Varadero. This is where most tourists come to vacation. We stayed at the Paradisus Varadero, a resort with towel art twisted into swans and salsa lessons on the beach, but our highlight was venturing off into town for grilled lobster and live bands at the local bar. Here again we find the comforts of home as locals belt out American rock hits from The Doors, Iggy Pop, and Guns N’ Roses at the Beetle Bar.
Our adventures in Cuba leave us even more enamoured and intrigued than when we arrived. There’s no doubt we’ll be back for more.
All photos: Nicole Reed
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