Day One / 02.08.17
Travel + The Surreal
If you had asked me one, three, even five years ago if this day would ever come, I would have said definitely not. Cuba had never really seemed like a possibility (and for a long time, truly wasn’t), but once I’d read travelers’ positive experiences visiting the country, I was sold.
Our early, direct flight to Havana was buzzing with excited tourists. As the wheels touched down on Cuban ground, an applause erupted and we all stared out the window at the sun we were about to be under, in a country we couldn’t wait to explore.
After exchanging our Euros and Canadian dollars at the airport for the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), we were greeted by our Cuban host, Antonio, who lead us to our ride: An electric blue 1956 Studebaker, driven by Jamil, the driver during our stay. Climbing into the car didn’t seem real, and I waited for us to drive off the movie set, and climb into another, newer vehicle. This was a feeling, I learned, that would stay with me throughout the entire trip.
We drove with windows down in lieu of air conditioning, and talking over a 60 year old roaring engine, bumped along the road until we reached our home in the East Havana village of Cojimar.
Antonio’s house in Cojimar was more than we could have hoped for. The perfect 1950s time capsule was tucked away in a quiet, lush neighborhood.
After settling at the house, Jamil drove us into Havana for the first time, dropping us in Central Parque. I stood in shock as he drove away, as there we were — suddenly in the middle of Havana, alone, an entire day in front of us. The feeling was pure excitement and we stopped to gather ourselves, surrounded by locals and the dome of Capitolio in the distance. I couldn’t believe it and wanted to immediately dive into the buzz of the streets.
We weaved through Habana Vieja for hours, first stopping for drinks at Monserrate Bar, exploring Plaza Vieja to Plaza de la Catedral and continuing to wander. That evening we dined at a paladar in Habana Vieja and listened to live music at the Hemingway-storied El Floridita (great drinks, very touristy).
During our first ride home from Havana to Cojimar, our driver got very lost, despite having detailed directions that our host, Antonio, had written. This would be a regular occurrence — drivers began the route, then pulled to the side of the road to ask locals waiting for buses, walking the streets, or in the case of our first evening, playing cards in the middle of the road. (The record for asking directions in a single ride was seven times!)
Day Two / 02.09.17
Habana Vieja & Vedado
In the morning we were served our first tropical breakfast of eggs, bacon, fresh fruits and juices on the backyard patio. Afterward Jamil picked us up and delivered us to our host Antonio’s gallery, Factoria Habana, in Habana Vieja.
Antonio showed us the current exhibit, and soon we were back wandering the lively streets of Old Havana.
In the afternoon we visited Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the former Presidential palace. The museum provided us a better idea of the revolution events, and the roles that Che, Batista, Fidel and others played in the government over the years.
We ate lunch overlooking the Malecon, with a giant pitcher of sangria, watching the old cars fly by as people strolled along the sea wall. As the day receded, we walked the Malecon to the Hotel Nacional for a mojito on the back patio and, the hotel being tourist flooded, we fled to buy cheap beers and retreated again to the Malecon, where we sat until the sun went down.
Later that evening we visited Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an incredible event space in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. One of our favorite experiences in Havana, the space was a mix of gallery, live music, shops, and classes (we took a tango lesson while we were there — the Cuban instructor was disgusted with our dancing). Additionally, they serve the largest mojitos I’ve seen in my life. Highly recommend.
Day Three / 02.10.17
Beach Birthday, Cigars & Dinner at a Gorgeous Dilapidated Paladar
After a morning at home — and an hourlong wait at a local bank to exchange currency (an event in which David learned the importance of the word “ultimo” when waiting on line) — the day truly began.
We drove to a nearby beach, Santa Maria del Mar, on Playas del Este. The beach was beautiful and at 2 CUCS per chair, we camped out for the day and drank incredibly cheap pina coladas and beer. As the sun receded we combed the beach for corals and came upon a freshly-dead, perfectly puffed puffer fish that washed onto the shore.
After cleaning up for dinner and spending some time at home, Jamil took us to Habana Vieja for a cigar and daiquiri back at Monserrate Bar. We made our way to our dinner spot, one of Havana’s most revered paladars, La Guarida, in Centro Habana. I’d read a lot about La Guarida in advance — and how to snag a reservation, which are an email crap shoot and required some diligence. But on arrival, it was even more than I’d imagined. We entered a rundown yet beautiful, raw and palace-like space in a quiet area of the neighborhood. Ascending a grand staircase, we landed in the dining area with high ceilings and old wood tables; the atmosphere was beautifully unique, time-worn yet preserved.
Day Four / 02.11.17
Plaza de la Revolución, Fusterlandia, Back to Old Havana, Vedado Jazz
There were a few important places that we hadn’t yet visited at this point and, with time running out, we loaded our last full day with them.
Jamil first drove us to the market in Vedado, to pick up some local wares.
We drove through Vedado, passing the magnificent homes— very different than the buildings we’d seen in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. We stopped at the famous Plaza de la Revolución, where we wandered and observed the square and the José Martí Memorial .
Afterward we were determined to find the neighborhood called Fusterlandia we’d read about in guide books, but every mention to locals left them perplexed. Jamil quickly gathered where to drive — west of Havana, through Miramar, down the famed Fifth Avenue lined with homes of diplomats.
We soon arrived at Fusterlandia, a continually sprawling mosaic work that coats the surroundings of artist José Rodríguez Fuster’s studio in Jaimanitas. Our arrival was early and the gates to Fuster’s main studio — I likened the area to Pee Wee’s playhouse meets folk art — were not yet open. The sun hot overheard, we stopped at a nearby home selling beers for $1.50 CUC and wandered the area.
Fuster’s work was impressive, imaginative and gorgeously detailed — one can’t begin to imagine the hours poured into the ongoing tile art, ever in progress.
Back in Habana Vieja, we needed to buy the essentials. Jamil dropped us at a tobacco shop to purchase Cuban cigars and rum, and we weaved through the streets to dig through the little shops.
Then went home and watched the sun go down from the rooftop, followed by the most peaceful, quiet nap on the front porch.
That night we watched jazz at Jazz Club La Zorra y el Cuervo, where the music was good and the bartender cranked out mojitos all night.
Day Five / 02.12.17
Last Breakfast + Coming Home
Not a day we were looking forward to, but after a final breakfast on the patio, I spent a while under the trellis staring around the yard at all the greenery and flowers. Hummingbirds flew in and out.
Soon Jamil pulled up and we said goodbye to everyone at the house — Freddie, Jorge. In saying goodbye, Freddie translated Jamil’s Spanish goodbye: “It is clients like you we miss every day.”
I can’t say enough about Cuba. The landscape, the architecture, the culture and people whom we experienced warmth and welcoming. From the days flying around in an old car, navigating the neighborhoods, the food, the language. Wandering streets — and the unexpected relief of not having cell service during it all. The fast and slow, the color, the seemingly simple and precious days of children playing games in the street, of a man carrying a palette of eggs, of selling fruit and meat on the corners.
At a restaurant in Habana Vieja, a waiter in a John Lennon t-shirt asked where we were from. When we told him New York, he asked if we’d ever been to Strawberry Fields. That was his dream, he said. And realizing that we’d go home to New York and this man would not be seeing Strawberry Fields in the foreseeable future, it made me wish we could bring him with us.
Big love for you — amor —Cuba.