Four Days in Havana
by Elizabeth Gracen:
I’m sitting in my outdoor painting studio, smoking a big fat Cuban Cohiba cigar (really, I am) at the end of 2018 in Los Angeles, under the waning moon, listening to one of my favorite soundtracks from the Wim Wender’s documentary film, BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB. All of this to get me in the right frame of mind to write about an adventure I took a couple of months ago with my gal pals, during the balmy last-of-the-summer days in Havana, Cuba.
It’s virtually impossible to really get a sense of a place in just four days, but when one of your long-time buddies invites you to join her on just such an autumnal adventure, the answer can only be a resounding, “Yes, please!” Honestly, it was a trip that I did not adequately prepare for, but had decided to simply go with the flow and basically wing it, confident that it would all fall into place without a lot of preparation.
Let's go back to two days before my departure as I sat under the dryer at a salon and casually opened a Town and Country magazine to an article about the maverick war correspondent and my latest obsession, Martha Gellhorn—Hemingway’s third wife and the woman responsible for finding their beautiful 19th-century estate, Finca Vigía (Watchtower Farm), outside of Havana. Their lives looked so romantic, turbulent, and exciting—the quintessential ideal of an exotic life in Cuba. I had to wonder . . . would Havana meet up to all the dreamy expectations I had every time I listened to this damned soundtrack? Would I be transported back in time like so many people told me I would once I arrived in Havana? There was only one way to find out.
I’ll start by addressing some of the basic, sometimes confusing information regarding travel, customs, money, and the nitty-gritty of traveling to a country that has been, up until recently, off-limits to Americans.
There are many helpful websites and blogs that provide the latest information on travel to Cuba, and I found a Moon Cuba travel guide, published by Avalon Travel, in a local gift store a couple of weeks before I left. The book’s suggestions and information turned out to be an excellent source for Cuban history and information on the lowdown and highlights about the country. I cannot recommend this guide highly enough.
Of course, the ultimate in vital information can be found on several governmental websites. Travel regulations between the U.S. and Cuba are ever evolving, so make sure to search for any and all helpful websites for the most current regulations.
At the present moment, Cuba has no restrictions on international travel, but if you are an American, since the 1950s, you cannot spend money in Cuba or spend it in the pursuit of travel without a license. That license needs to fall into one of twelve categories stated on the government website. We traveled under the Support for the Cuban People category since we were staying in a local home and planned to eat in privately owned restaurants around Havana. To further "fit" into this category, we packed giant Ziploc bags chocked full of travel-sized toiletries, hygiene products, school supplies, and other items that might be of benefit to the Cuban locals. Our intention was to donate these goods to an appropriate charity when we arrived.
With all that in mind, here are the basics based on my whirlwind experience to Havana:
Airline travel to Havana is easy—simply find the best route to get there from your nearest airport. My traveling companions departed from Little Rock, AR; the journey was quick and easy. I was up at 2:30 a.m. in Los Angeles for the Uber and the 6 a.m. United flight, so I slept all the way to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and had just enough time to dash to another terminal for the last leg of my journey to Cuba. Per instructions on the United website, I purchased a traveler’s visa at the gate in Houston for the last leg of travel to Havana for $75. I simply filled out a form, presented a credit card, and I had my visa. This "too easy to be true" scenario made me a tad nervous when I booked the trip, but in the end, it was a simple procedure that did not warrant my anxiety.
I upgraded my ticket from Houston to Havana because of the sweet $100 deal, and it turned out to be well worth it. I was served a light meal and had plenty of legroom—something I would be pining for on my return flights. It was a quick trip from Houston, and soon enormous white clouds parted just in time for the green and mysterious coastline of Cuba to come into view.
Upon arrival, the Customs experience was a no-brainer. I don’t know why I thought some form of inquisition (yes, I have an overactive imagination) would be required on either end of the Customs journey, but I did. Once again, there was no reason to worry.
My pal Sandra was the mastermind for this trip. She took the lodging task in hand and quickly sent choices from the Air Bnb site. After scrolling through a handful of excellent possibilities, we opted for a three-bedroom apartment in a private home with air-conditioned bedrooms and WiFi in the Vedado area on the Avenida de los Presidentes, our decision based heavily on photos of the private rooftop veranda overlooking a tree-lined park and the avenue.
This vantage point ended up being our major hangout in the morning before coffee and the cocktail/cigar terrace before and after our nights out on the town. It was a terrific bird’s eye view of the Malecón and ocean in the distance and a perfect vantage point to espy the busy goings on at the grade school in the faded blue stucco building next to us and the festive Halloween promenade under the trees late into a long Saturday night out for the locals.
Our lovely host, Lisette, lived in the apartment below us, so our needs were catered to and we never felt anything but safe. She would have cooked breakfast for us too, but we never took her up on the offer. She gave us our privacy, but she was there to answer all our questions and always kept the fridge stocked with water, soda, and beer and had our sheets changed daily. The air conditioning in the bedrooms was frigid cold—just the way I like it when its hot and humid outside. At home I sleep in a California king with a Viking-sized husband and our Weimaraner, Sadie, so the king-sized bed that I sprawled across every night, all by myself, was my idea of a real vacation, folks.
In Havana, this type of lodging is called a casa particulare. More rentals like this are becoming available all the time, and smaller boutique hotels in renovated homes keep popping up all over the city as well. For a more luxurious, all-inclusive experience, the larger, luxury hotels or resorts would be the route to go. A little research will help you decide which experience is right for you. For the record, by the end of our trip, we weren’t quite sure what lodging option we would choose were we to ever return to Havana.
If WiFi is important to you, you should know that most of the locals have to go to public plazas or parks that have WiFi zones to access it.
Our apartment did have WiFi service, but we had to purchase a scratch-off, prepaid Natua card that could be used at any Etecsa office or anywhere Internet service was offered.
There was no special data setup for Cuba available through AT&T, so in the end, I took advantage of "not" being able to use my phone quite as much. It was absolutely wonderful not to constantly feel compelled to check the news or email (remember those days?). I called my family once a day to let them know that I was still alive and kicking, but otherwise I opted to stay unplugged to technology as much as possible. (I had my Canon 7D Mark II around my neck most of the time). It was a glorious four-day break.
My beautiful friend, Sandra, had all the skinny regarding the trip based on information she was given by her friend in Arkansas. Her friend had traveled alone to Havana on at least twelve different occasions and guaranteed us that we need not fear. He gave us suggestions, hooked us up with a full-time driver named Kiko for about $100 a day, and put in an order for Monte Cristo cigars for his consulting advice. A fair deal.
Kiko was there to meet me at the airport, but legally he was not allowed to drive me from the airport into town. After loading me and my luggage into a taxi, he jumped into his chariot—a white Nissan with no air conditioning and lumpy seats that would become our main form of transportation for the duration of the visit. As we pulled into traffic, colorfully littered with the classic 1950s automobiles we have all seen in photos, the world of Havana slowly revealed itself.