Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Viva Cuba Libre
I’ve been charmed by Cuba ever since I heard the stories about Spanish conquistadores, African slaves, revolutionary spirit, all mixed with exotic Caribbean accents. Most recently I got intrigued analyzing the Cuban missile crisis as a case study in business school. Now with the borders opening up, I vouched that I need to visit before the first McDonald’s opens its doors. We made efforts to learn as much about Cuba prior to our arrival, watching a Netflix documentary and also ordering books online about Cuban history.
Ease into the Havana spirit
We landed in Havana on a 80F evening in May. The small airport was full of American and European tourists, but unlike any other airport, only a few routes were posted. We took one of the yellow state-owned cabs and 25min later arrived in Vedado, a residential neighborhood in west Havana. Our Airbnb hosts welcomed us into their colonial home with high ceilings, beautifully decorated art and dark furniture in the ‘50s style. We adventured almost right away to walk the Malecon – a promenade that’s very popular among locals around sunset. One of our first stops was the legendary Hotel Nacional, famous for its mojitos and politicians, artists, actors who stayed there. The views from their garden are beautiful and although the hotel needs renovations, it still attracts the local Cuban elite, as well as crowds of tourists.
The next day we headed to Havana Vieja (Old Havana) to track the steps of Ernst Hemingway, widely celebrated everywhere, but mostly at El Floridita, Bodeguita del Medio and Hotel Ambos Mundos – all of them favorite spots of Hemingway during his Cuba stay.
We also got to smell the Cuban cigars in the old Partagas Factory and realized that the authentic cigars are quite expensive averaging $200 for a box of ~20 cigars. Back to our home away from home in the evening, we purchased some Havana Club rum and Partagas cigars from a local supermarket for a fraction of the price and decided to spend a couple of hours on the patio chatting to our hosts. We learned a lot about their daily life, the transition from Fidel to Raul Castro, how things are rapidly changing as the country opens its doors to America, and how the locals benefit only partially from the influx of foreign money. There are still many restrictions that the locals have to abide by, starting with the lack of Internet, to the use of a parallel currency.
What to do on a very hot day in Havana
Given the high temperatures and humidity, we decided to spend our second day at one of the nearby beaches – Santa Maria del Mar with clear blue waters, lots of sun and coconut mojitos. We ended up really burned, although we used 50 SPF and stayed in the sun for max 20min. On our way back, we stopped at Coppelia icecream.
Live like a Cuban
By our third day in the city, we decided to take things slower and started with a late and delicious breakfast that our hosts prepared each morning for us. We then took a siesta and went out when the sun was down. We stopped at a state-run restaurant for cheap coktails and food, and then headed to the El Canonazo for the nightly canon fire ceremony, a custom that continues from back in the day. And on our last evening in Havana we had a fusion seafood dinner at La Guarida.