My Heart is in Havana
It is a bizarre task - attempting to distill a city, its culture, its cuisine, sights and sounds into a couple hundred words that somehow capture its zeitgeist. As a decade long resident of New York City I'm not certain I could do it for my hometown, never mind a city where I have spent a handful of days. And yet somehow looking back through photographs from our time in Cuba I feel motivated to attempt to do just that. To put its warm embrace, delicious foods, and historic streets into a jumble of letters and words that adequately articulate why this not so distant but oh so foreign city that speaks a language I barely understand is without a doubt one of my favorite cities in the world.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the roots of this trip. Cuba had long been on our list of destinations but it wasn't until an afternoon headline about Trump's new travel restrictions that visiting Cuba took on true urgency. Those restrictions, in their infinite logic, went into effect at midnight the same day I saw them. But booking one element of the trip (airfare, lodging, etc) before midnight would grandfather us in. With that in mind we immediately threw our existing Thanksgiving plans out the window and by 11:00PM we were booked on a flight to Havana. Three short weeks later with some rushed planning complete, we arrived into the warm Cuban air in search of a cab to deliver us to our AirBNB in Old Havana just off Plaza Vieja.
From that moment on we were immersed in one of the more memorable urban cultures we have experienced anywhere in the world. Certainly the tourist perspective is prone to seeing foreign destinations through rose colored lenses. And there is no hiding poverty and quality of life concerns that are front and center in the crumbling buildings and aged vehicle stock of old Havana. But at the same time the warmth of the people we encountered over the following few days was immeasurable. We felt it that first night as we wandered the dark streets, following the sound of music coming from corner bars and restaurants, finding live performances the permeated into the warm Cuban air.
That sense of excitement and warmth carried through the following days as we packed in as many Cuban sites and sounds as possible in the short handful of days we had in our abbreviated trip. In retrospect it all blurs together slightly as it was truly non-stop and at times overwhelming - in the most positive way. Looking back upon it what memories stand out most strongly? The food was certainly a highlight. Yes there was traditional and delicious slow roasted pork but there was also highly refined seafood and memorable tapas that a new generation of Habaneros are serving up in equally memorable settings.
But time and time again we come back to the Cuban people as the driving force behind our incredible experience. Our AirBNB host and tour guides were alive with the spirit and energy of the city, as you would expect. But more than that, once we left some of the tourist traps behind the streets were alive with humanity in a way that felt entirely distinct even from NYC densely packed streets. From the Malecon to the FAC (more on both of those below) the simplicity of experiencing Havana by walking the streets with the locals was refreshing. In fact it was reinvigorating enough that I happily set my camera aside for long portions of our trip, reveling instead in the moment.
All of which is to say - my words and images hardly do Havana justice. It was and shall remain one of the most memorable trips we have ever undertaken. In many ways I measure our destinations by how readily I would return for a repeat visit. And of all of the places in the world that I have been fortunate enough to visit - from Asia to Europe to South America - there is no place I would rather return to than Cuba.
Where We Ate, Slept and Drank
With limited internet access on the ground in Cuba we put more effort than normal into planning our excursions ahead of time even if our entire trip was planned at the last minute. We pulled in plenty of the usual internet resources though "36 Hours in Havana" from the New York Times was actually surprisingly helpful as well.
Per usual protocol, we entrusted Airbnb to find our lodging for Havana, which both worked well on short notice and served as a large database for apartment options of various price ranges as well as guided experiences. Airbnb translates really well in Cuba since the Casa Particular concept was opened up in the late 90s to allow Cubans to open their homes to foreigners as a way of making income. So the idea of opening up one's home, providing food and a community of fellow Cubans to offer travel related services to visitors is no foreign concept and falls right in line with the mentality of sites like Airbnb. We opted for an apartment right in the heart of Old havana near one of the town squares - though the buildings in this part of town are much older and many sit in various states of disrepair as compared to the newer and more modern Vedado neighborhood, most of the sites we would want to visit were within the old town and being in close walking proximity made the trip most enjoyable. Our hosts were a wonderful family who would come in each morning and cook up incredible feasts for breakfast to more than well fuel us for our day's adventures. Aside from that they were indespensible in providing us transportation, a guide to Vinales, insight into Cuban culture and restaurant recommendations and reservation assistance - since we barely speak Spanish. We can't recommend enough staying at a Casa Particular whether booked through a site or direct through network as the friendliness and openness of the Cuban people really went above and beyond anything we could have expected.
Restaurants and Refreshments
As always our list of restaurants we want to visit well exceeds our quota of meals. But for what we were able to fit in:
- Paladar Dona Eutimia - while small in stature the cuisine was simple yet delicious Cuban fare in a cozy setting. It may not have been anything particularly flashy but everything that came out of the kitchen was done right, particularly anything slow roasted, just like the recipes were passed down through the generations. The food was so tasty that though our trip was quite short, we decided to dine here once for lunch and back again for our final dinner. Our favorites were the ropa vieja, fried pork, and avocado stuffed with shredded pork.
- Rio Mar - A find credited to the NYT 36 hours article, Rio Mar sits in an idyllic setting on an alcove of the caribbean oceanfront overlooking the old cooking oil factory and some fortress ruins. The drive there took us past some fairly dilapidated buildings and a government related building giving hail to Castro. Upon pulling up to the entrance there wasn't much evidence of a restaurant but through the door was a great scene along the water, friendly staff and some delicious seafood including a huge pounded out caribbean lobster, grilled octopus and Italian style carpaccio which went great with some Cuban cervesas (Cristal).
- El Cocinero - The restaurant portion of the old cooking oil factory consisted of several levels, including a roof terrace, an outdoor lounge and a bar inside the factory smoke stack with a catwalk overlooking the terrace. We started with drinks at the upper bar and when a sudden tropical storm rolled in and we tried to hide inside the bar area came to the sudden realization there was no roof to the smoke stack. Each dining area has slightly different menu selections and with the rain we ended up in the more upscale indoor dining area, where the food was hearty and more elegant but quite tasty. Overall the variety of dining options and proximity to the FAC which provided great post dinner entertainment made it a great evening selection.
- O'Reilly 304 - Booked on a recommendation from our Airbnb hosts, this was a trendy and casual small tapas style dinner spot in the middle of old havana with tasty bocadillos, paella, and strong cocktails. It's sister restaurant across the street also scored high marks with the younger crowd.
- Heladeria Cappellio - the national ice cream spot of Havana, the heladeria serves up inexpensive ice cream to the locals in the local CUP currency in one flavor each day, no options - our bike tour guide lent us some CUP (as tourists exchange for and pay in CUC, pegged to the dollar) and explained how to order an ensalada, or 5 scoops of the ice cream flavor of the day served up like a banana split. Unfortunately we arrived on the anniversary of Castro's death and while normally open late the heladeria was closed for observance and ensuing festivities. Luckily the small tourist offshoot was still open and while not quite as authentic, still made for a good evening treat before walking the malecon.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory)
As discussed above the Cuban Art Factory is one of the absolute must visit destinations in Havana. We wandered into the space after dinner on a rainy evening and discovered a most incredible mixture of art, music and performance, all set against the backdrop of a roaring social scene. For several hours we moved back and forth from the classical music performance taking place in the front of the factory to a reggaeton dance party in the back. Separating the two were multiple floors of art filling the cavernous old cooking oil factory the FAC now occupies. With nearly endless gallery and outdoor spaces you can easily spend an entire evening exploring everything FAC has to offer - which during our visit included a portrait sitting session in one of the galleries. Without a doubt one of our favorite travel experiences anywhere in the world.
HAVANA Bike Tours
From Europe to South America we have always believed that exploring a city on two wheels provides important perspective unrealizable from behind a car dashboard. Havana certainly reinforced this philosophy as we squeezed in two bike tours that allowed us to see most of the historic landmarks of Havana while on two wheels. On the first we covered most of the ground West of Old Havana including some off-road stretches in Bosque de La Habana and a stop at Colon Cemetery. For the second we stayed closer to Old Havana and visited the National Capital Building and explored Chinatown and other small stretches of the city. As you would expect for Cuba the tour bikes were well used but both of our guides - booked through Airbnb experiences - were terrific and we highly recommend the experience.
Like the FAC the Malecón is another must visit while in Havana. At its most basic level the Malecón is an oceanfront thoroughfare stretching from Old Havana to Vedado. But in reality it is so much more as the seawall has become the 'city's sofa' as Cubanos make their way to the Malecón at all hours of the day and night. In the morning and afternoon it is populated by fishermen and residents in search of one of the city's various wi-fi hotspots. As sunset approaches the crowds grow with a mixture of locals and touristas who venture North to take in the views and cool ocean breezes, often with a beverage in hand.
At night the Malecón grows ever more vibrant. On our final evening in Havana after enjoying some delicious Heladeria Coppelia we wandered through crowded streets to the oceanfront near Avenida 23 where the Malecón was swarmed with hundreds upon hundreds of people of all ages. Some were dressed to the nines, many were enjoying beverages and music was in the air as vendors made their way through the crowd selling snacks and trinkets. There was excitement and commotion to the crowd that felt completely foreign to even a bustling city like New York. Seemingly the entire populace of Havana - young, old, with family, on dates - found their way to the Malecón under the watchful eye of local police. As we strolled along the ocean back toward Old Havana we passed through less well lit sections of the Malecón where couples took advantage of the lack of illumination to spend a romantic evening on the waterfront, then back into crowded well lit sections with music blasting. In the end it wound up being the perfect conclusion to our altogether too brief trip to Havana.
Viñales is a small town roughly three hours west of Havana famous for the stunning Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Given we only had three full days (and two half days) in Cuba our initial ambition to overnight in Viñales was perhaps regrettably reduced to a day trip. While the journey (in a 1950's Buick) and experience in Viñales was memorable, in hindsight there is a bit of a tug of war between Viñales and what could have been another day in Havana where we also felt short on time. The moral of the story is probably that doing Havana properly is at least a four day experience and then tacking on a trip to Viñales or other Cuban destination needs to be added on top of that duration. But at the end of the day it is hard to argue with these views:
As for the actual experience in Viñales we had a great guide and driver arranged by our AirBNB host - along with a crack of dawn 7AM departure from Old Havana. On the long drive to Viñales we got a first hand look at the vast, sparsely populated Cuban countryside, as well as the country's transportation infrastructure with privately run buses and trucks picking up riders all along the highway. A few hours later our first stop in Viñales was an overlook to take in the views captured above while enjoying a cold beverage. From there we rolled through the busy streets of Viñales, where every other home had been adapted into a Casas Particular for housing tourists, and headed to a local tobacco farm to try some Cuban cigars that were as good, if not better, than expected. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur as we made our way through the famous Indian Caves, had lunch at a guest house, and wandered the surroundings of Viñales Valley.
By the time our adventures in Viñales were done we were utterly exhausted and the sun was low in the November sky. At various points on the long drive back to Havana we all snuck in a nap as our 1950's Buick cruised into the night, the sun setting in the rear view mirror behind us.