Travel Talk: Cuba
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
A country at once utterly foreign and pleasantly familiar.
Some places just keep calling you back. For me, that place is Cuba. Ever since I was 16 years old, I've been captivated by the country and vowed that I would figure out a way to travel or study or work in Cuba at some point in my life. After many years, a few failed attempts to obtain a research visa, and too many movie nights featuring Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, I finally made it to Cuba for Christmas in December 2016. It was an eye-opening trip and I left with more questions than answers. So much of what I saw was so foreign - horse-drawn carriages trotting along the highway, immense social cohesion and a shared cultural vision, a country not yet addicted to screens and social media - and yet, the questions that Cubans ask about their lives and their futures are so very familiar. How do we move forward as a country? What economic model do we want? How do I be a good parent to my child? What should I study in university?
Some places just keep calling you back. For me, that place is Cuba.
When I was given an opportunity to return to Cuba in January of this year with a group of students and professors from my graduate school, I couldn't say no. I have far too many thoughts about my experience to fit into a single blog post, so stay tuned for some additional reflections in the coming days. For now, I've shared some of the highlights from my two trips to Cuba below.
What To Do
In no particular order, here are a few of my top recommendations for how to pass the time in Havana: take a dance class; spend the afternoon wandering the streets of Old Havana with no destination in mind; walk the breezy Malecón; get a tour of the vibrant, inspiring Alamar Organopónico; learn about the country's endlessly complex history at the Museo de La Revolución; take in all the arts at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (it was closed during my visit, but I've heard nothing but great things and am eager to see it on my next visit); be mesmerized by the dancers on the back patio at Bar 1830 on Sunday evenings.
Where To Eat
El Gato Tuerto (Havana): Downstairs is a popular bar and music venue (unfortunately, we didn't stay for a show), but upstairs is a pleasantly elegant restaurant. The staff were friendly, the service was professional and prompt, and the food was tasty.
Habana Fusion (Havana): If you're looking for a modern, lounge vibe, this is your place. Bright white furniture, a glittering bar, and young, well-dressed clientele. I opted for a glass of wine with a my delectable, savory pork dish, but the cocktails looked phenomenal.
Ajiaco Cafe (Cojimar): This place knows how to go above and beyond. Start with their special mojito that features dark rum and Cuban honey and finish with a creamy flan and their classic Cuban coffee prepared table-side. The staff were warm, attentive, and helpful and even shared their prized homemade hot sauce with our table. A stellar spot!
Compay Gallo Restaurant (Santiago de Cuba): A cozy space nestled above a narrow residential street, this restaurant would be easy to miss unless you set out to find it. And if you're in the mood for five-star chicken soup, you'll want to find this place.
Rumba Cafe (Santiago de Cuba): Spend the afternoon walking the frenetic, sweltering streets of Santiago and you'll crave the shade and quiet of Rumba Cafe. Grab a table in the back courtyard and take a breather from the hustle and bustle. The fruit smoothies and cappuccinos are top-notch.
Where To Stay
"At the Copa, Copacabana; The hottest spot north of Havana." Recognize those lyrics? I stayed at the Copacabana Hotel in Havana and had that song stuck in my head for three days straight. The rooms are simple and clean, the breakfast buffet is extensive, the bar and lobby charming and comfortable. For dramatic sunsets and a glimpse of sea level rise in action, spend an afternoon lounging by the waterfront pool.
If you're a snorkeler, diver, or simply an adventurer, add Hotel María La Gorda to your itinerary. Perched on the western-most tip of the island and nestled in Guanahacabibes National Park, María La Gorda is remote and all the better for it. The beach is sandy-soft, the water a brilliant turquoise, the rooms clean and spacious. Be prepared for a very long drive, but after a few days snorkeling, hiking, and sipping mojitos on the beach it will all be worth it. If you can, visit the park headquarters to learn about some of the important conservation work happening in the area.