There’s two ways to do Cuba. You could take the vacation route and consider this country your ultimate summer holiday destination: reserve one nice hotel in Havana, like the principle pride Nacional in Vedado or Hotel Saratoga in the old town, stay for a few nights and wander the streets, visiting monuments and museums, taking pictures of the pastel colored facades, and get a general feel of this colorful capital, like a dapper tourist. You could then make your move to the beaches of Varadero, just two hours East on the North coast of the island, and settle in one of the all-inclusive resorts to soak up the Caribbean sun and sip mojitos for the rest of your stay. That would be the relaxing, safe way to see the country.
Or… you could do it the way Zani Gugelmann, Charlotte Kidd and I did, and “plan” a road trip. We traveled by rental car from Havana, via Cienfuegos, to Trinidad in the South, then onwards North to the beaches of Cayo Santa Maria via Santa Clara, and stopped for lunch in Varadero on our way back to Havana. We stayed in seven different places in ten days, got hit by a storm that flooded our room, dealt with a flat tire, crashed at a retired couple’s home because our booking didn’t go through, hiked to waterfalls, danced in a cave, fought off a cockroach in the bed, slept on spring mattresses and tiny cots, and ate guava and lobster for days.
I can’t tell you which is the better way to go because whatever you decide, Cuba will transport you. And it will stay with you. Probably for the rest of your life. Because it’s beautiful, impressive, hospitable, warm, vast, different and above all inspiring. Though the buildings in Havana are crumbling, they attest to a time when the city was magnificent and spoiled by riches. It’s like a Miami in ruins, but with a relentless, incessant buzz. The traffic never stops; the people never halt. Barely any cars were imported after the 1959 revolution and you wonder how they’re still running. There is salsa music on every corner, food carts and merchants where ever you turn. We never felt unsafe and saw no visible signs of crime. We just saw happy faces and big smiles.
We spent our first two nights in Havana on the top floor of an apartment building in Vedado, in a Casa Particular. These Casas are private homes that have been converted into guest rooms for visitors. Ours was especially nice because it had a pool with a view of the entire city and the ocean! (They’re not all like that though! Some are as cheap as $10 per night.) We were served breakfast with the other guests and had our own key. Wifi and internet are as good as non-existent in Havana so for one hour a day, we’d stop at one of the big hotels to check our business. (There is something utterly amazing about not having a phone!) The government has been more lenient towards private entrepreneurs opening new restaurants – they call them paladeres – so we were able to sample some great food at places like Le Chansonnier, and Cafe Laurent where we spent our New Year’s Eve. In line with Cuban tradition buckets of water are dumped out the front windows at midnight, to get rid of all the bad juju from the past year. When we ran through the streets of Old Havana after dinner we got doused but that didn’t deter us from doing a quick dance at one of the local live music halls. We then took an old jalopy taxi to Santa Fe (half an hour outside of Havana) where we were invited to the private home of a famous Cuban actor. Sadly I don’t remember the man’s name, and we missed to the 4 AM performance of a 92-year old Cuban singer…
When we returned to Havana after our road trip we stayed at Ambos Mundos Hotel on Obispo, the old town’s bustling shopping street. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this place for frills and charm – I’d go with Hotel Florida – but we loved the location and the fact that Hemingway stayed and wrote one of his novels here.
Havana is intense. And it’s big. We rode one of those double decker tourist buses to see the whole city. It’s cheesy, yes, but it’s a great way to get an overview and understand the infrastructure. American credit cards and dollars are useless here, so is the cell phone service. We didn’t have much luck with the weather. It rained both days we toured the city. But that made it all the more gritty, and the people kept smiling.