A lot had changed since 1999. We were able to fly directly to Havana, without a stop over in Mexico. We asked to have our passports stamped at Cuban Immigration instead of asking them not to do that. The old city had been refurbished, with construction indicating more improvements to come. Hotels were being built. The restaurant scene was as thriving as those in Brooklyn and Downtown Los Angeles. The music was as wonderful as before, with bands playing in neighborhood bars and radios on window sills serenading passerby.
There was much to enjoy. But also Havana's decay was more evident than in 1999. The old city and prosperous suburbs were bustling. Walk a dozen blocks away from the tourist areas and the streets and buildings in the heart of the city were more crumbling than sixteen years before. Only the colorful street art that took advantage of worn brick walls brightened the otherwise sad scene.
That was last year.
This year, Cuba continues to be a popular destination. So popular at some times of the year, hotel occupancy has reached 100%. Visitors have to stay an hour or more outside of the city in their search for a place to stay. Given the demand, B&Bs are doing a good business and Airbnb has set up shop.
The ease of travel to Cuba was the direct result of the Obama Administration's decision to remove many of the restrictions limiting American contacts with Cuba because of the Castro Administration's policies. The incoming administration has been unclear about its intentions. With Fidel Castro's death this week, many things have changed yet again. For those who were brutalized by his regime, there is cause for celebration. For those who saw him as a savior, there is cause for mourning.
A Castro is still in power. His brother continues many of Fidel's policies. And yet, it was Raul Castro who worked with President Obama to loosen restrictions and encourage commerce and personal travel between the two countries.
The challenge for both governments is how to move forward in a constructive way. There is pent up demand in both countries to re-connect Cuba and the United States even with their sometimes difficult, sometimes happy relationship.
In the meantime, as governments contemplate their next steps, this is a great time to visit Havana and all of Cuba. Travel agents now have packages that visit Havana and reach out across the island to explore the beach towns and countryside. Direct flights by American carriers from many U.S. cities have expanded during the year. So don't wait. Visit, explore and enjoy Cuba. And here are a great many reasons why and some tips when you plan your trip.
12 Reasons to Travel to Havana and 10 Tips When You Get There
The flight from Miami to Havana took less than an hour. After we checked in to the Hotel Nacional we wasted no time and left the hotel so we could start experiencing Havana. We walked to the Malecón, the iconic seawall that protects the city from the ocean. Two fishermen talked as they held fishing lines in the water.
A group of middle school students in uniforms crossed the street to watch the surf hit the concrete and stone wall and spray into the air.
We had a friendly conversation with the barmen. The flags hanging from the ceiling were from just about every country on the planet, except for the United States.
There, the streets are potholed and the buildings continue to suffer the ravages of nature and the lack of building materials to make much-needed repairs.
The narrow street has closet sized curio shops selling refrigerator magnets celebrating Havana’s cigars, cars and women, small mass-produced art works, stuffed dolls, marionettes, t-shirts with a photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and much much more.
Dressed in Mardi Gras-styled multi-colored outfits, they would have been at home in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. Some of the men and women played instruments, the others smiled and shimmied, reaching out to children on their parents’ shoulders or to couples standing, arms around each other, enjoying the impromptu celebration of all things Cuban.
Take a leisurely stroll on the walkway through the lawn facing the Malecón and the beautiful water beyond. The historical markers detail the time when America and Cuba faced one another canons blazing and soldiers dying under a hot sun. On a blue sky day, when the water sparkles and delicate white clouds float overhead, it is difficult to imagine such violent events happening, but they did happen and it is important to remember that history as the two countries look to reconnect in a more constructive way.
If you are a romantic, you will want to ride around Havana in one of those cars that evoke sex and glamour. But they are not cheap.
Held together by bailing wire, duct tape and Cuban ingenuity, those cars with dulled paint and thread-bare seats are the workhorses of the city, transporting people and goods for a few pesos a trip.
By design the art has political undertones. Some of the paintings, sculptures and photographs are overtly political like Fernando Rodríguez’s 2012 “Suprematismo (Rojo sobre Negro)” with two hundred toy-sized red bulls mounting black cows next to a video loop of a speech by Fidel Castro.
Many are the work of talented artists who make the city their gallery. Your feet will be your guide as you wander the main boulevards and off-the-beaten-path streets.
Some of the best art I saw was on the wooden walls surrounding construction sites, like the murals outside the under renovation Museo Nacional de la Música (on Aguiar and Avenida Belgica).
The images are Afro-Cuban, with a heavy dose of Santería images. Everyday objects—bathtubs, tires, pots, pans, stones, bathroom sinks and wrought iron fences—are incorporated into wildly painted collages, sculptures and the walls of buildings.
Children have art classes under the shaded patio and musicians gather to play and ask for donations. A paladar serves food and drinks. Artists sell their paintings in small galleries, some reached by descending twisting staircases into basement showrooms.
Ivan Chef Justo is cluttered in a cozy, fun way and the food is delicious. You will especially enjoy the roast pork and the sauce served with the lobster. Both Ivan and Justo had been Fidel Castro’s chefs at moments in their careers.
You politely refuse because right now you are more hungry than thirsty. You and your friends happily share plates of octopus salad, grilled shrimp and clams and a large, charred lobster tail, split on top with the thick meat easily available.
Cats with thick, clean coats watched people walking to restaurants and in and out of curio shops. Their unhurried manner suggesting they had owners who love them.
During the day, fishermen stand on the wall, casting their lines into the surf, hoping to bring back the evening’s meal. At night hundreds of young Cubans gather along the seawall to play music, talk, flirt, gossip and go online at the WiFi hotspots called telepuntos.
When I bought a painting from the Almost Famous Gallery (Cuarteles #3 between Cuba and Aguiar, Habana Vieja), besides the authorization, the artist Dennys Santos Diaz stamped the back of the canvas with his seal. At the airport, there is a special desk where you must show the documentation before you can board your plane. When you enter the United States, you may be asked to show the authorization and a bill of sale.