THE COUNTRY IS KNOWN FOR ITS JUXTAPOSITION OF OLD AND NEW
The best way to approach Cuba is to resist understanding it and just enjoy it. The most apparent contradiction is the juxtaposition of old and new. While most of the country has not changed in 60 years, half the buildings are in disrepair and seem uninhabitable. Yet, the grandeur of pre-Revolution Cuba is visible on the exteriors. Most of Havana’s buildings date from the 1800s, and their ornate facades recall 18th century Europe. Each building was once a vibrant color and featured grand marble staircases, intricate ironwork, high ceilings and plantation shutters. When driving through town in a mint condition crimson 1951 Buick convertible, it is easy to imagine Havana in its heyday.
The best way to approach Cuba is to resist understanding it and just enjoy it.
An ideal first day in Havana begins at the seaside Fort Morro Castle and continues walking through the cobblestone streets and charming plazas of Old Havana. Stop to enjoy coffee at Café El Escorial or a mojito at 304 O’Reilly and pop into the various galleries and shops. Explore the country’s rich history at the Museum of the City of Havana, the Museum of the Revolution and Museum of Fine Arts.
It’s not uncommon to approach a dilapidated building and discover the treasure within. Such is the case of La Guarida, one of Havana’s best paladars, or private restaurants, run independently of the government. Ascending the staircase through what feels like a construction zone leads to the top floor establishment restored to its original splendor. A treat of octopus carpaccio showcases the innovation happening in Cuba, beginning with the rise of more paladars, which are infusing creativity, culinary diversity and sophistication into Cuban culture.
The city is also teeming with a booming art and music scene. Nightlife consists of lively music venues, some of which are similar to clubs. Tropicana or Buena Vista Social Club are often mentioned, but more authentic places like El Cocinero are preferable.
A day trip to the country is certainly worthwhile. During wet season, La Terraza offers a rainforest experience including zip-lining, waterfalls, caves, hiking and horseback riding. Continue west to the tobacco region, where the working farms supply crops to the Cohiba cigar brand. A travel advisor can arrange private tours/demonstrations of these facilities. Farther west in Vinales, there are breathtaking views of the valley and the much-lauded Finca Organica, an incredible organic farm restaurant.
A complete trip to Cuba includes Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Trinidad was founded in 1514 and is frozen in Spanish Colonial times. Eateries and shops adorn the 500-year-old cobblestone streets, and locals meet nightly in Plaza Musica for concerts. Nearby, Cienfuegos is a vibrant, French-influenced coastal city built in the late 1800s buzzing with activity, boutiques and cafes.
Cuba’s beaches are stunning, with fine white sand and crystal blue waters. While there are currently no luxury beachfront hotels, the resort area of Varadero is easily accessed as a day trip from Havana. Las Reinas is one of the world’s best snorkeling reefs and is protected by limiting visitors, but areas like Maria La Gorda and The Bay of Pigs also offer great diving. Visiting Cuba’s beaches is challenging for American travelers due to government regulations, so prospective visitors can consult their travel advisor for more information.
Though Americans may visit Cuba, there are still regulations and restrictions. Visas are necessary, and a travel advisor who has personally visited is recommended for guidance. Cuba is not yet a children’s destination, as there are few children’s activities and food options. US credit/debit cards are not accepted, so bringing ample cash is essential. Most non-Cuban owned restaurants and stores accept Euros and Canadian dollars, which have a better exchange rate. A venerable travel advisor can arrange hotel prepayment and cash available upon arrival to limit how much cash travelers must carry.
Having a knowledgeable and professional tour guide is a must. Though Cuba is quite safe, some street peddlers abound swindling tickets to a nonexistent salsa show or selling counterfeit cigars. A good tour guide knows most of these characters and wards them off. These “vendors” are mostly harmless, and locals are generally friendly, but be wary. Always buy cigars from a state-run shop to ensure authenticity; anyone off the street offering a co-op discount is fraudulent.
Right now, Cuba has a simmering energy about to burst with change. Commercial opportunities are visible everywhere, and the race is on for development. However, visitors still have the chance to glimpse a land where time seems to have stopped and experience what remains from Cuba’s last moment of glamour and glory.