As the small plane climbed to the sky out of the Miami airport, it dawned on me that we were headed to a place where just a couple of years ago, Americans were mostly forbidden to go. When we touched down, a completely different world emerged. We left the skyscrapers and bright lights of a vibrant and prosperous Miami and arrived into an expansive city that once boasted a similar skyline, now seen crumbling before our eyes.
As we drove through the streets, we were surprised at the amount of people out and about (it was nearly 11:00 pm on a Sunday night). Men, women and children were seen lounging on the benches, perched up on the side of the Malecon, playfully kicking a soccer ball between groups of friends, chatting to one another, truly engulfed in conversation, unaware of the curious eyes peering through the air-conditioned coach. The one thing noticeably missing? That common site of a face lit up by the glow of a cell phone.
On arrival to our paladar, we were escorted upstairs to the roof top terrace overlooking the city where we enjoyed some small canapes & cocktails. This paladar had a funky new age vibe, like something you would see in New York City, with lofty white beds that you could rest on while sipping a mojito. We perused a local jewelry makers designs (which just weeks ago were offered to the Rolling Stones) before making our way to a dinner of lobster and other local favorites and retiring to the Hotel Saratoga for the evening.
The hotel Saratoga is the quintessential 5 star Havana hotel. Notorious since the 1930’s as a favorite haunt of artists and socialites from all over the world, for its superb cuisine, the open air entertainments held in its pavement arcade, and the concerts given there by such renowned musicians as the Anacaona Orchestra. The hotel also features a Moorish-themed Anacaona restaurant, where you can experience the taste of a Cuban cigar and have a cocktail in the neon-lit mezzanine bar.
The next four days were spent discovering the lively streets of Havana. We toured a functioning cigar factory to watch how locals carefully and meticulously hand rolled the iconic Cuban delicacies. We visited Hamal Alley to watch a traditional Santeria dance while school children collected small pieces of candy and treats from travelers. We rode through the streets in classic convertibles on the way to dinner at one of the city’s most renowned eateries – HM7, where just weeks ago American baseball player, Derek Jeter visited for a bite to eat during his tour of Havana.
We even made it out to the countryside to visit a working farm and get a broader understanding of how Cubans got their food. It was fascinating to see old world techniques being used. Instead of tractors and engine powered tools, you saw oxen utilized for power to seed the fields. We had a sampling of some of the locally cultivated treats before heading back to the city to enjoy the fruits of the farmers’ labors (in a literal sense) with a carefully prepared lunch at Mediterraneo Havana. That evening, we enjoyed a spectacular show at the Tropicana as we wrapped up our final night in Havana.
The next day, our group headed for the coast to the island of Cayo Santa Maria. On the way, we made a stop at the Bellamar caves where we descended into the enormous tavern glowing with all forms of stalactites and stalagmites.
In Cayo Santa Maria, the pace slowed as we were able to enjoy a couple days lounging by the sparkling turquoise waters of the Caribbean. For our final evening, we enjoyed a magnificent dinner of locally caught seafood while seated at our table in the sand to celebrate the end of a spectacular departure.
The people were overwhelmingly warm and friendly, the cityscape was fascinating and the food was surprisingly good, especially for a country that has subsisted predominantly off of rice and beans for centuries. It is a place I won’t forget and I urge you to go before it all changes!