Ernest Hemingway: author, hunter, explorer, tippler. His life was rife with women—wives and inamoratas, those he loved, and those who loved him. But he was most loyal to one thing: rapture. He was exhilarated by that which was charismatic and dynamic, unbridled and intoxicating. That which could not be tamed or conquered.
That which was voluptuous.
She would be his one true mistress.
Her name was Cuba.
Hemingway loved Cuba so much that he considered himself a “Cubano Sato,” or “half-breed Cuban.”
And who can blame him? I wasn’t there long, but it was long enough to be seduced by her energy, her emotions, and her beauty.
However, I must admonish you: traveling to Cuba is not for the faint of heart—she is gritty and unfettered, and her poverty abounds. But Cuba’s people are beautiful, proud, and gracious, their culture rich and restless. Her rhythms will pulse through your soul and intoxicate your very being. Cuba’s vibrant culture overshadows any lustre she may lack.
THINGS TO DO
- Soak in Cuba’s architectural beauty: it is a 600 year old marriage of Baroque, Moorish, and Art Deco, all garnished with a patina of resolve. I found the Neoclassical and Baroque Catedral de San Cristobal and the color drenched Art Nouveau buildings along the Avenida de Maceo exceptionally beautiful.
- Visit the Cristo de La Habana. This beautiful marble statue faces the city and offers a panoramic viewpoint.
- Watch the sunset from El Malecón. El Malecón is seven kilometer long seafront walkway speckled with hand-holding lovers and pole-toting fishermen.
- Visit Plaza de la Revolución (the Memorial to José Martí Memorial, the apostle of Cuban independence). On the northern side of the plaza, you cannot help but look into the face of Che Guevara. Of course, the mural is accompanied by the motto Hasta la Victoria Siempre (Always Toward Victory).
- Tour the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, originally built as a citadel against pirate attacks.
- Journey over to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, which was used as a military prison during the Batista regime. It later became the headquarters for Che Guevara following the Revolution.
- Stroll through the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, Havana’s 57 hectare cemetery. (Anyone who knows me knows I am absolutely mesmerized by cemeteries.) You can pick up a map at the entrance to guide you through this maze of history. Make sure you “knock the rings” and walk backward when you visit the burial vault of La Milagrosa (the miraculous one), who died while giving birth in 1901; the grave of Hermano José (where you might find rum, cigars, and sacrificed chickens; and the Bomberos (firefighters) Monument, replete with symbols and iconography.
- Hire a classic car driver to tour you around the city in his convertible. If you are a car enthusiast, this is your mecca.
- Buy cigars, drink mojitos, and dance, dance, dance the night away!
Which brings me to my muy favorito thing about Havana–her dance halls!
My Spanish is utilitarian, at best—limited to fundamental gestures and pleasantries, things that will keep me from being the Ugly American—so we opted to tour the city with a guide during the day.
At night, however, we felt a little cheeky and ventured out on our own. We showed a Buena Vista Social Club flyer to a cab driver, he nodded, and we were on our way. He then escorted us up a well-worn yet beautiful marble staircase to the third floor where he communicated what we were after. The first club was already full, but we got lucky at our next stop. Whereas the front tables are usually reserved for diners, our gracious hostess squeezed us in about 15 feet from the band. The revelers at our table were a mix of nationalities. A handsome man from Playa del Carmen shared his bottle of Havana Club rum.
Typical dinner is ropa vieja (literal translation: old clothes). This food of the people consists of tender shredded beef stewed with peppers, tomatoes and spices and is traditionally accompanied by rice, black beans and fried plantains.(My Playa del Carmen rum buddy allowed me to photograph his food.)
Admission price for dinner is 50 cuc, which includes three Havana Club mojitos, or 30 cuc without dinner. There is bottle service if you tip your waiter well.
The dinner show was a three-hour progression of singers backed by the Afro-Cuban beat of a 22 piece band. A dozen lead singers in turn canvased the entire balcony, showcasing their vibrant voices. There were flashes of dancing throughout the night, and we made sure to join in. Afro-Cuban percussive rhythms are alive and dynamic, so why not?
At the end of the glorious night, the performers gathered outside to mingle with the patrons. We thanked and hugged our talented musicians and singers, so grateful to get this close to real Havana.
Taxis were poised to take revelers home. We opted for a bicitaxi so we could savor our last moments in this magical place.
You can stay on your ship, in a hotel, at a resort, or at a casa particular. If you want the true Cuban experience, opt for the casa particular where you sleep in their homes of locals. (Think Bed & Breakfast.) You will be completely immersed in the culture of this country. The average Cuban salary is the equivalent of about $20 per month, so you will also be helping the locals.
I really like this blog about the casa particular experience.
And as much as I love guides that tell me what TO DO when abroad, I also love the guides that tell me what NOT TO DO (such as blowing your nose in public or using the word papaya. Who knew?).
If your stay is extended, you should
- Venture over to Cienfuegos on the southern coast of Cuba (about 160 miles from Havana). It is a UNESCO world heritage site brimming with amazing architecture, such as the eclectic and elegant Teatro Tomàs Terry with its 23 allegorical figures and the opulent mansion Palacio de Valle. Have a cocktail on the rooftop terrace and soak in the views.
- Seek out Fusterlandia, a kaleidoscope of art by Cuban artist José Fuster, including his own home. (Think Gaudi in Barcelona’s Park Güell.)
- Journey to the unspoiled town of Matanzas on the northern shore. It is an artists’ oasis. Lonely Planet describes it as “a sunken galleon left at the bottom of the ocean.” Make sure to visit Hector Correa’s farm, Finca La Coincidencia. It is a must-see, teeming with an apiary, cashew trees, medicinal plants, pottery, and a delicious lunch. You can’t ask for much more.
And of course, the beaches…
- At Playa Larga you can visit Criadero de Crocodrilos to see the crocodile breeding program, an integral protection effort since the crocodile almost went extinct prior to its inception in 1962. You even get to hold the baby crocs.
- Playa Paraiso, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. If it is tranquility you seek, this is the beach for you.
- On Playa Pilar, 12,000 flamingos gather here to feed. A sight to behold.
- If it is a marina you seek, go to Cayo Las Brujas. This key also touts a dolphinarium
- Playa Perla Blanca on a northern cay is quite a distance away from the city proper, but its almost virgin beaches are certainly worth it.
- On Playa Los Pinos you’ll find wild horses and deer roaming the surrounding woodlands.
- Clothing is optional on Cayo Largo del Sur. (wink, wink)
- You can hand-feed the sharks at Playa Santa Lucia.
- If it is snorkeling you favor, it is the 300 species of fish that you seek at Playa Coral.
- Cayo Levisa is renowned for its black coral habitation, under the radar because it is only accessible via boats.
- If your idea of heaven is striking sandy beaches, deep blue sea waters, and a vibrant sunset, you are probably imagining the chain of golden isles, Playa del Este.
During our short visit we only scratched the surface of all that is Cuba. Next time, I will stay much longer, go much deeper. I will take more than a sip. I will voraciously lap up all that is Cuba.