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.
Bright, graphic billboards celebrate the country’s history, the revolution, and its leaders—the Castros and the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel—their faces plastered everywhere. Small, clean ramshackle houses, stray dogs in the streets, beautiful Cubans living lives I would never know: it was all there in the heavy air, humid and polluted by the classic cars belching black exhaust that burned the eyes and throat—a sensation that would repeat itself every time we were out in any sort of traffic (probably the worst thing about the whole trip). By the time we pulled up to the rental and my friends, Sandra and Tammy, waved down to me in excitement from atop the veranda, I was ready for cool, clean air, a cocktail, and a shower—it didn’t matter in what order.
Our driver, Kiko, was a handsome, polite, twenty-nine year old who majored in physical education at university. As I got to know him, he confessed that he had no prospects in that particular field in his country, thus the driving/tour guide gig with us.
As the days progressed, little "truths" escaped in his unguarded moments—like telling us about his prize-winning fighting cock named "Macho." "This is what we do in Cuba. It is normal," he stated, our mouths open, our southern temperaments jarred by such a norm. When we commented that the numerous stray dogs looked well fed, Kiko informed us that Cubans loved dogs, but that in the 1990s, when Cubans faced starvation, many dogs and cats were killed for food. Just a little tidbit of information most decidedly not in the Moon Cuba travel guide.
Kiko still lives with his mother, who is roughly the same age as the three southern women he'd agreed to taxi around for this gig. I honestly don’t know what Kiko actually thought of us. His English was pretty good, but because our Spanish was in the "no bueno" category, we were definitely in the "lost in translation" zone with him from time to time. Honestly, I felt sort of sorry for Kiko. For the most part, the three of us—Sandra, Tammy, and Lizzie—are nice gals, but in Cuba, there is a possibility that we might be seen as what they would call in the south “A Handful.” We quickly realized that Kiko was catching about every tenth word we were saying, so we made an effort to talk slower without as many words. However, once you add the southern accents and the rum, I’m certain it was an uphill climb for Kiko.
One of the best parts of the trip involved the three-block morning stroll to the Hotel Presidente for coffee and tasty toast on the veranda or the 13-peso buffet experience in the restaurant. The hotel veranda was a perfect spot to start the day, the flashy 1950s Chevys waiting curbside.
This morning ritual was a never-fail start to the day, and in the end, we agreed that the hotel would be a good lodging possibility for a future visit. Not only could you grab coffee, breakfast, lunch, and tickets to the Tropicana or any other tourist event, it was an incredibly viable way to change money and ask questions of the friendly concierge staff.
The Malecón was just a few blocks further down toward the Straits of Florida, the gorgeous waves crashing dramatically against the walls. The Malecón is the main drag, the major hangout for the people of Havana and where it all happens for the young and old with no money who can’t afford a visit to the hot spots around town on Saturday night. During our stay, we caught glimpses of the Malecón’s nightlife, the road lined with people dancing, drinking, eating, standing on the ocean wall, and making music.
Sandra had booked a Thai Yoga Massage and lunch through the same Air Bnb site for our first full day, and this turned out to be the highlight of the whole trip for me. After a bit of confusion finding the house (Havana is made up of so many neighborhoods that even Kiko had to stop and ask directions), we were met by Michel and his team of young, beautiful, charming, health-conscious Cubans with a vision for bringing an enlightened approach to life in Havana.
They offer Cuban country Yoga retreats, vegetarian meals, lodging, and a Thai massage that will unkink your travel knots. It was the best meal we had in Havana as far as I'm concerned—fresh, wholesome, and delicious. Viva Cuban Millennials!
Do you remember those giant Ziploc bags full of travel-sized toiletry products, school supplies, and sundry items, such as individual packs of Advil? As part of our Support for the Cuban People humanitarian entry into Cuba, we had been advised to take such items with us to give to an appropriate beneficiary such as a school, church, or humanitarian organization, but our luncheon hosts on that first day turned out to be the first of these recipients.
From our trunk full of supplies, they chose what they needed and gave us directions to a nearby Catholic Church, the Caritas Habana, that would take the rest of the donations.
After Kiko made his selection from our pharmacy in the trunk, we dropped the rest of the supplies at the church, satisfied that we had found a place where our donation would do the most good.
Our first afternoon was spent in the heart of Havana in the cobblestone streets of Habana Viejo ("Old Havana"). Among crumbling buildings, obvious renovation is in progress in this section of town. It is the big tourist draw and exactly what you think of when you envision a romantic Havana.
Kiko suggested that it was a potentially dangerous place to be at night, but our afternoon passed with no incident other than a mysterious Cuban beauty who dropped a small business card onto our table and quickly made her way down the cobblestone street. The clandestine nature of the moment and the cryptic invitation on the card prompted Kiko to caution us from attending the late night party called the Hemingway's Secret. One can only imagine.
School children, singing at the top of their lungs, marched down the street that day, a banner with the faces of their country's leaders stretched across their impromptu parade as they sang praises to the president, much to the entertainment of the many tourists with their phones at the ready to record the event. Dreamlike in its procession, their charm-tinged propaganda marched hand-in-hand down the narrow street and passed us by. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like it.
It was an afternoon of looking at old hotels, beauty salons, souvenir shops, and classic colonial cathedrals.
A Hemingway bar haunt, a piazza concert, and my favorite moment: when sultry, live music snuck around the corner and grabbed us on our way back to the car.
A spry woman in her seventies salsa-ed to the rhythm in the tiny-but-loaded-with- character La Taverna Del Son, its walls graffiti-ed with handwritten names and phrases. The musicians, led by a chanteuse of formidable talent, played late into the golden afternoon as we sipped Caipirinhas and at one point, were brought to tears by her incredible voice.
Side note—not so romantic—you should always bring a small packet of tissue wherever you go. Most of the public bathrooms we went to either had no toilet paper or you paid for it to the bathroom attendant. In this café, we used bar napkins, and they worked a treat.
I’ve been known to smoke a cigar or two in my time, and when one is in Cuba, one does not pass up the opportunity to purchase a good Cuban. This turned out to be a sticky situation that, once again, fell into the "lost in translation" category. Kiko had a connection with a cigar house and consequently assumed that we would be buying the Cohibas that he had in his trunk. They were fine cigars, for sure, but Sandra’s husband wanted nothing but a Monte Cristo #2 from a recommended Cigar house. Fair enough.
It’s a long, stressful story that is not worth retelling, but let’s just say that between the panic in Kiko’s eyes and my love of a good Cohiba, his boxes of cigars were purchased at a good price ($100 for 50 cigars) and disaster was averted once we made it to the beautiful Casa del Habano for the requested Monte Cristos.
The true highlight of the visit was the music. It was everywhere, and it was glorious. I recognized many of the songs from the BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB soundtrack almost every time we heard live music—which was a lot—especially the song, "Chan Chan."
Music immediately pulls you into the dream of Havana. Small combos play in the streets; there was an orchestral concert of Gershwin in the Parque Central; musicians performed in
cafés and bars, such as the all-female, powerfully talented Salsa Son Band at Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y el Tabaco. A crowded stage at the jazz club La Zorra y el Cuervo (recommended to me by my good friend, the legendary bluesman Jim Byrnes) burst at the seams with Cuban jazz. To our surprise, we heard opera singers perform Madame Butterfly for someone's dinner down the hallway at the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The classic floor show at the Tropicana spills over with music, and the gift store near Ernest Hemingway’s house provided a live combo. You couldn’t escape the music, nor would you want to.
It is a hip-swaying, head-bobbing lure that gets you every time. The music is celebratory, joyful, and in only the most touristy destinations did it feel forced. That would be stretching the dynamic, because, in the end, music is music. Even if you’re playing for the money in the basket, it doesn’t matter. It is still beautiful—and it was.
Ernest Hemingway is everywhere.
His image is on billboards, t-shirts, mugs, and painted on the walls outside his old drinking haunts. There is a marina named after him as well as an annual billfish tournament . . . and of course, there is his home, the Finca Vigía.
On our second full day of sweltering and sticky heat, Kiko’s chariot carried us an hour out of the city through small towns, past the busy Cuban lives who traveled by foot or on bikes or waited at bus stops or traveled by public transport. Only the tourists traveled in the classic cars—something we never got around to. By the time we made it to the Finca Vigía—the Museo Ernest Hemingway—we were choked with exhaust from those beautiful 50’s cars. I mean, choked. It was well over 100 degrees that day and pretty miserable, but it was definitely worth the trip.
The house/museum is roped off, so tourists are in a peek-a-boo mode, peeping toms into the past. There has been much written about this estate and the state it was left in once the revolution kicked in and Hemingway had to flee. His wife, Mary Welsh , was eventually allowed to return to Finca Vigía for his papers, but everything else had to remain. The house has been preserved in those last moments as archival home decor with a past. Books in virtually every room. Hemingway's weight calculations scribbled on his bathroom wall. Animals heads—huge animal heads—in most every room above artwork and vintage typewriters. Outside, his sportfishing boat, the Pilar, is displayed in what was once the estate's tennis court. A sign pointing toward the cock-fighting ring lead to an overgrown circle of weeds. In front of the house is a pleasant veranda, and in the garden, a view of Havana in the distance. It is a perfect tourist destination and one of the most visited in the world—a strange and beautiful place—a living scrapbook.
I'm not sure that the beach experience truly qualifies as a "highlight," but I've included it here as a reminder to do your research. On the afternoon of Hemingway's museum, we drove to what Kiko had decided would be the perfect beach for us. I can't remember the name of it because I've blocked it from my mind! According to our trusty Moon Cuba guide, a number of public beaches were recommended along the Playas de Este coastline, about 30 minutes outside of Havana. When I couldn't find Kiko's suggestion on the list, my spidey senses tingled in warning. After all, the guide had yet to steer us wrong.
When we finally arrived and trudged to the sand, we were met with loud music, lounge chairs, and umbrellas crowded together, and way too many people—it was a slice of fresh hell by the water. Since one of my biggest mottos is "life is short, and I don't have time for this," I convinced the gals that we should make our way up the beach as far away as possible. To Kiko's astonishment, that's exactly what we did, directing him to get the car and to meet us at the furthest umbrellas on the horizon line, about a quarter of a mile away. We had passed a sign for Playa Megano—one of the Moon Guide's recommendations—on our road to beach hell, so I had a feeling that the oasis in the distance might be Megano.
I wish I could say that Playa Megano was as fabulous as it looked from a distance—it wasn't—but it really didn't matter. We had respite from the heat, lounge chairs at the water's edge, rum drinks served in coconuts, and cheap and cheerful massages from a friendly, reputable-looking Cuban fella under an umbrella. The water was warm and inviting and aside from the array of stray chicken bones from someone else's lunch all over the beach . . . the experience was better than a stick in the eye. Side note: The couple of times I've described this beach adventure to friends now that I'm back home, my thirteen-year-old daughter likes to roll her eyes and call me "bougie." She may be right, but I still don't like chicken bones in the sand.
When our last full day in Havana rolled around, we had to seriously consider what funds we had left to eat, drink, and taxi back to the airport the next day. I'll write more about this later, but when you travel to Cuba, your credit cards are basically of no use. You travel with a "cash only" frame of mind, so it is necessary to keep watch of your Cuban pesos. If they run out, you'll be stuck with no money.
By the time Kiko dropped us off at the Almancenes de San José artisan's flea market in the Port of Havana, our funds were depleted enough that we were in a frugal mood, cognizant of the fact that we couldn't go crazy buying up Cuban arts and crafts. What a shame!
The market, crowded with original artwork, instruments, textiles, and jewelry, was overwhelming. The narrow aisles, packed with artisan booths and sellers tempting you at every step, created what amounted to a shopping gauntlet. Only on the edges of the market, where the vibrant colors of original oil paintings and silk screen art hung like curtains, did the claustrophobic market breathe.
Counting our pesos, we picked up inexpensive t-shirts, Cuban instruments, and mysterious little boxes called Cuban Magic boxes that were virtually impossible to open once we got home. Even though I had my heart set on an oil painting of a woman smoking a cigar (I promise, it wasn't cheesy), I decided on two amazing hand-silkscreened Cuban movie posters of The Shining created by an artist from the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos.
Food & Entertainment
On our first night out, Kiko had decided that we would enjoy an incredibly trouristy restaurant that turned out to be a pretty awful way to start out the culinary part of the trip. Beans and rice, fish, steak—all sub par and not worth the price of the meal. The food and ambiance reminded us of a Casa Bonita franchise with the eye-candy addition of incredibly beautiful young waitresses dressed to resemble sexy flight attendants from the past.
Somewhere during the meal, Kiko informed us about the sex trade in Havana and how tourists come to the country to have sex with under-aged girls. It was a sad bit of information that didn’t help the meal go down any easier. Needless to say, we gently let Kiko know that for the rest of our visit, we’d prefer something more authentic and less geared to tourists. This conversation was in that "lost in transition" area that I told you about, but thankfully we had our trusty Moon Cuba travel guide with a list of top-notch dining experiences we were eager to try in the coming days.
Over the next four days we drank and dined in a variety cafés, bars, hotels, and privately owned restaurants called paladares:
The beautifully appointed Le Chansonnier was lovely enough, but once we sat down and looked at the elegant, daily menu, we were informed by the waiter that there was no fish available that evening. With another look at the menu, we did the math and realized that we had two choices for entrées without the fish, so we decided to leave.
We picked El Atelier from the Moon Cuba travel guide as our next choice. Once we were seated on the rooftop terrace, the waiter told us the same "fish story" we had heard earlier. Kiko informed us that this was not unusual for a typical paladares. The larger, government-owned establishments were always top of the list for food delivery. If the fishermen had a bad day, only the finer restaurants and hotels would receive the daily catch. Luckily, the El Atelier menu was vast, with many choices.
The modern beer tavern Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y el Tabaco proved a perfect, inexpensive stop after the flea market. Even though the food was unspectacular, the beer was amazing and the all-girl Salsas Sol band was entertaining to listen to on a breezy and cool Sunday afternoon by the Havana Harbor.
For our last dinner in Havana, we chose El Cocinero, an old cooking-oil factory converted into a paladare and lounge club next to the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, which unfortunately we were unable to visit due to time constraints.
The meal was good, yet, like most of the meals we had in Havana, unspectacular. However, our al fresco dining experience on the balcony below an enormous redbrick chimney and the precarious spiral staircase ascension for after-dinner drinks on the rooftop proved lively and entertaining before our last stop at the legendary cabaret Tropicana.
Anyone who has been to Vegas or Paris is familiar with a classic floorshow extravaganza, but the Tropicana exaggerates this experience to the edge of pure camp with its enormous scale of production, cast size, costume changes, novelty acts, and clouds of cigar smoke provided by a rummed-up audience elbows away from chorus girls adorned in little else than sequins and enormous chandelier headdresses.
We arrived late to the event, and even though we did not pay for front row seats, the audience was thin that evening, and we were escorted to the front, our half bottles of rum and complimentary peanut snacks waiting for us. Overall, the evening was entertaining and not to be missed. However, even though the dancers were obviously skilled ballerinas and the singers and performers absolutely delightful to watch, the production had an air of cheesiness that smacked of tourist-destination entertainment. We enjoyed it nonetheless and loved the evening's finale when a handful of dancers invited the audience onstage to dance to an hour's worth of club music. Needless to say, we danced the night away.
Obviously, one of the most important considerations when planning any trip to another country is budget. However, when you travel to Cuba, there is one vital point to always consider. Even though some websites and books state that credit card use is becoming more of an option in Havana, my experience was that this is yet to be a realization. There was one art gallery in old Havana that allowed credit cards (with an extra, hefty fee), but otherwise, the Cuban peso is king. You should plan on traveling on a cash-only basis.
Bottom line—if you run out of moola, you are stuck, so plan wisely. I had read to plan for $100 a day, but if you want to eat in good restaurants, visit jazz clubs and hotels for cocktails, and have enough money to buy souvenirs, cigars, rum . . . and tip virtually everyone you come in contact with, you need to budget a bit more for those extras.
When to travel
I've been known to be a bit of a "hot house" flower, prone to wilt in extreme heat. Such was the case on this trip. The first two days were blistering hot with a dirty-air breeze. In our last 24 hours, the heatwave lifted, the tradewinds blew in, and the skies clouded over, the air cool and easy. My advice would be to avoid a trip like this in the summer unless you plan to stay on the beach and have a car and bedroom with good air conditioning. That opinion may only apply to the hot house flowers out there in the world, but I'm just truth tellin' for my peeps.
Yes, it was a blast to travel on the fly, trusting the travel goddess to lead the way, but if you can manage it, do your research on lodging options, transportation, dining choices, what you might want to spend on cigars, art, etc. Remember that Cuba is cash only—prepare accordingly!
Will we return to Cuba? Who's to say? There is a rumor floating around about the Hemingway fishing tournament that Sandra's husband is interested in, so you never know. In the end, the trip may not have turned out to be exactly what I expected it would be, and maybe it didn’t quite meet up to my unrealistic romantic notions; but in our four-day wild ride through Havana’s crumbling glory, we captured unique, fleeting moments that I will not soon forget—especially when I put on this damned music and light up a Cuban.