I’m not sure my recent trip to Cuba has any significance for anyone else since we didn’t go on the cheap or for the beach, but I’m sharing anyway. I went with my sister for a week, split between Havana and Trinidad with a stop in Cinfuegos on the drive. The whole thing was arranged by our guide, Jorge, whose name and email address I got from this site (firstname.lastname@example.org). The entire trip went flawlessly and was fascinating and fun from beginning to end.
In Havana, we stayed at the Santa Isabel in the heart of the old city. It’s billed as a five star hotel, but by American standards it’s more like 3.5 to 4. But it is charming and authentically colonial. Also, the location on the Plaza de Armas is ideal. We were able to walk everywhere, except to dinners at the paladares which Jorge had recommended and to which he drove us. Sadly, La Guardita, the most famous, is closed and no one seems sure when it will open again. But we enjoyed La Fontana and had the best lobster of my life at Vista del Mar. After dinner, we were able to troll for local musicians in Old Havana and had no trouble following our ears and finding excellent bands to enjoy in the various bars and restaurants near our hotel. It’s important to note while Cubans have a reputation for partying all night, it’s not done in Old Havana which is clearly geared more to afternoon tourists and tends to close down well before midnight. While a guide is not essential in Havana, we didn’t have a moment of regret for having signed on with Jorge. Aside from being knowledgeable and informative, he was truly warm, and we ended up spending time just talking with him and meeting his friends and family. For anyone who truly wants to know what life is like for the Cuban people, being escorted by him is a real bonus.
In Trinidad, we stayed at the Iberostar, which really is a luxury hotel by any standards. Another restored colonial, it’s beautifully appointed with fine service. The maids’ daily display of towels shaped into decorative swans on the bed added a note of charm. The historic sites of Trinidad were easily done in a day, but the true fun of the town came out at night. Dinner was incidental and not particularly good in either the one paladar we tried (recommended by our guide but with only two tables and no visible sign or address) or in the state restaurants. But after dinner, it seems like half the town shows up at Casa de la Musica which is an outdoor venue on the steps beside the main church. On a landing half way up the hundred or so steps, there’s a makeshift stage, space for a small dance floor and a café. While a variety of salsa bands play, hundreds of spectators sit elbow to elbow on the steps above or at the tables of the café. The music is fabulous and the dancing, mostly between handsome young native men and equally skilled (though not necessarily equally good-looking) foreign women, is astounding to watch. They all looked professional to me, although I couldn’t quite figure out if these were teachers and advanced students or just random tourists who knew this was the place to come and dance salsa. (If anyone knows how that dynamic works, I’d love to hear!) After the regular salsa bands, we were treated to a performance of Afro-Cuban music with dancers inspired by Santaria rituals. Again, the level of dancing was awesome, the music transporting, and the entire spectacle utterly fun. And all for the price of a 1 peso bottle of beer! There’s also a pretty nice beach in Trinidad, so if you’re into sunning and salsa, this seems like an ideal place.
All in all, I loved Cuba and would go back in a heartbeat. Of course, it was made a lot easier by the fact that I hold dual American/Canadian citizenship and was able to fly directly from Toronto. For Americans who don’t mind flouting the law, it’s possible to get there through Cancun and other Caribbean ports. The Cubans know enough not to stamp your passport and use paper visas that they remove when you leave the country. Or maybe the current administration will re-think the embargo – and then everyone can go.